My grandmother died yesterday.
I've never said those words before. I have two grandmothers, had... have. And they were both alive before yesterday morning. Bereavement is a new concept for me. I've been very fortunate to have most of my immediate family alive well into adulthood. When my grandfathers died, I was in my early twenties. I was struggling to find my own footing and didn't absorb the impact of their absence. It wasn't that I didn't miss them or wasn't sad at their passing, but the crevice of loss was a bit more shallow when the chaos in my own life overwhelmed my grief. I think I've mourned them over a longer span of time as their absence in my life has been felt in different ways over the years. One of my grandpas was, for the most part, a voice on the other end of a telephone and a birthday card in the mailbox every March. And the other was a much revered patriarch who wasn't much for hugs or heart to heart's. Of course I loved both, but there was little personal relationship with either, (although I must say, I greatly miss the presence of a man as great as Harry W. Mellen and will likely spend a lifetime attempting to live up to the standards he set for the care and security of his family.) As I get older, death has had a more profound effect on me, I think. Now that I value friends and family more fully and truly appreciate how our lives are enriched by our relationships, it's a bit more of a punch in the gut to feel their absence. But what about people that have hurt you? What about those that, while biologically close, have represented or caused you emotional pain? Do you mourn them? Or do you experience freedom or release? I can answer those questions now: Yes.
The word 'Grandma' conjures images of silver haired ladies crocheting quilts, sipping tea and gossiping... or some shit like that. That was not my grandmother. My grandmother could spot a Chanel knockoff from 20 ft away, and did so with a few disapproving clicks of her tongue, staring out over her well-iced Pinot Grigio, while she was well into her 80s and attending my cousin's wedding. My grandmother's exasperated sigh when someone set the table wrong, or loaded the dishwasher incorrectly, or laughed or spoke too loudly, was the most feared sound in the house during our bi-annual family reunions at the lake house in Northern Michigan. Even my uncle's terrifying tales of Black Widow spiders that would descend on us from the ceiling of the A-framed house while we slept, or the "Pus Monster", or "Wacko Willy," (you had to be there) paled in comparison to a disapproving look from MB.
As a child, I both feared her and desperately sought her approval. She had a strict East Coast-bred and Grosse Pointe-enforced code of conduct that no child could hope to adhere to acceptably. She wore Oscar de la Renta and killed at Trivial Pursuit. She was always impeccable, even if her hair was up in curlers. She was fabulous, she was fearsome. When I was less than 4 years old, she accused me of stealing candles out of a locked wooden cabinet. My mother had to come to my defense because I couldn't even understand the crime of which I was already convicted. She yelled at me for bringing a hairbrush into the kitchen. (Not setting it down on anything, just holding it.) And she basically told me I was fat in front of my entire family when I was 12.
We were having dinner one summer, the whole family seated around the table in the kitchen. The sunset spilled into the room from the giant window wall that faced Lake Michigan and we were all pink with fresh sunburns from another amazing day spent playing on the beach and climbing sand dunes. My cousin (female, 1 year older) got up for seconds on dinner - we were eating Chicken Divan. She took her seat again, next to me, as we were two peas in the pod of those summer weeks, and my grandmother offered up one of her audibly unsolicited opinions, forever changing the course of my life and my relationship with her.
"Stephanie (name changed) eats so well, and she's so thin! Sarah eats well, but she's not all that skinny."
Now, as a 37 year old woman who has learned when and when not to take the opinion of others to heart, this seems like a harmless, if insensitive, thing to say. "Who cares what she thinks," right? At 12 I still had some baby fat, but I wasn't obese and I wasn't unhealthy. So 'brush it off,' 'dust it off,' stand up, 'get on with your life...' all of those responses would occur to me now. But then? I was devastated. My insecurities were confirmed. My cousin was prettier and thinner and more athletic and thus a better and more deserving person than I. Her life had promise whereas I would just plod along. And these insecurities were confirmed in front of my entire family. My cousin shot me a look of horror as I stared at my plate, not daring to make eye contact with anyone. I left the table that night and cried for hours upstairs. My cousin was the only one who even perceived how upset the comment had made me and she came up to let me know that Grandma was a b*tch and I was fine. (Thank goodness for same-aged girl cousins.) But I was not fine. It brought out things I was already starting to feel self conscious about as a pre-teenager in a world that didn't give everyone a trophy, before "body positive" was a movement, and cultural sensitivity was still pretty insensitive. It was the comment that would stay locked in my brain for years while those insecurities would morph into dieting, and then restricting, and then full-blown disordered eating through the end of my teen years and most of my twenties. That was the thing I told the therapist about. That was the memory that stung the most and made me cry while my head was bent over a toilet 5-6 times a day.
I'm fairly certain she never knew how much it affected me. I hope, now, that she didn't. Because I learned that the comment was insensitive but I was the one who took it to heart. I was the one who had the insecurities to begin with, the comment just set them off. I learned that I was the only one who was going to be able to tell that voice to shut up, and I did. I got better. I worked at my confidence and my sense of self. I achieved things that made me understand my strengths and not get hung up on my weaknesses. And it was a sweet victory to show that I could achieve my own successes, despite being 'physically inferior.'
Over the years I forgave my grandmother for the comment. I learned more about her life and her past and it helped me shape the story of the person she was, to understand her better. There are so many wonderful things about her to celebrate and I feel better with her passing knowing that I was able to appreciate that while she was alive. I received the news last Thursday night that she was being rushed to the hospital and wasn't expected to last the next 24 hours. She did, but Hospice was called in on Friday. I spent the weekend thinking a text message would come through at any moment from my dad. It didn't. She fought for almost a week longer than they thought she had a chance for. She was one of the strongest women I think I'll ever know. I don't think she knew how strong she was. I don't think she grasped the legacy effect she's had on her children, her grandchildren, and in some part, her great-grandchildren. I may not have agreed with her on the specifics, but she is a model I'm glad to have and I treasure having known her.
I wasn't sure if I would cry when she passed, but I cried all day. I looked at photos and read the words of my dad's and my aunt's friends who commented on their facebook posts. It brought me a lot of comfort to hear others remembering her fondly. I thought back on all the beautiful memories she's given me of Northern Michigan. I relived trips we took to visit her and my grandfather in South Carolina and Florida and the time they came to our house after a cruise trip and showed us all their photos. (What an event sharing a vacation used to be!) I remembered the time she gave me all her classic old books for Christmas. All the other grandkids got brand new toys and I was disappointed, until my mom told me that she entrusted them to me because she thought I would appreciate and enjoy them more than the other kids. That was the first time I felt that she saw me, and I decided I wanted to live up to it. I thought back to when she insisted I would never amount to anything if I didn't go to a 4 year university, and was grateful that she got to see me engaged and happily pursuing my own business. I hoped that we had helped each other grow.
I couldn't bring myself to make a facebook post. I didn't want to field the response. Sometimes you need the comfort of others and sharing your grief is cathartic and helpful. And sometimes the grief is so personal, that you just need to keep it for yourself until you understand it. I think I just needed to feel the sadness. I needed a day to dissolve any residual hurt, cry, and love her.
Thank you to the few that offered condolences when I attempted a post late last night. It didn't feel right and I wanted to have a better grasp of my feelings before I shared anything, but I do appreciate it.