Unanswered Questions

June 25, 2017

I’ve been wanting to call my sister and say, “Tell me everything you know about Grandma Hall.” I haven’t because I fear doing so would imply the unspoken part of that sentence. The full sentence would end with “…before you run out of time and all the stories go with you.”

The stories will go with her when she’s gone and her age and medical history give this need of mine to hear them a sense of urgency. She’s it. Her versions would undoubtedly be incomplete and possibly all wrong—time alone would blur them some and she’s never been one to tell the whole truth, so they’d likely be what literary types might describe as a mix of historical fiction and creative nonfiction. Though she might be more honest now than she’s been in the past because just as I feel the heaviness of the ticking clock, she must, too. Still, her take on our family’s history—even if it’s unvarnished—could only be that—hers. Our grandmother would tell her life stories differently, I’m sure. Nonetheless, I feel an odd aching need to hear them, in whatever broken bits and from whatever sources I can.

I wonder too if it would even be fair to her to make such a request because Grandma’s stories would surely overlap the rest of the stories. Ours wasn’t a Saturday Evening Post cover kind of family. My childhood was difficult on a number of levels, but hers was far worse. The 18 years between her birth and mine brought enormous change so while we share the same parents, siblings, and backdrop, our experiences vary dramatically. Some of what’s in my past is probably best left there, so what right do I have to ask her to sift through both pain and promise to satisfy my hunger? I know the answer to that. I have no right.

My memories of my maternal grandmother are happy ones. She was shiny and wise, aged to perfection and full of love. Her life was long and while she lived through some enormously difficult things, it was clear she drew from a very deep well. She laughed easily and heartily and had a fierce streak of sass that shone from her wise, kind eyes. She was so engrossed in loving me, though, that she didn’t dedicate much of our time together to teaching me her history. In truth, she didn’t seem to give it much thought. She lived exactly where she was, never far ahead or behind the existing moment. Maybe that, after her enormous capacity to love, was her greatest gift, and maybe it will have to be enough.

I have a more complete (yet still incomplete because how well can we truly know anyone?) picture of my mother than of my grandmother, mostly because we spent what time we had so closely entwined. She had a happy childhood, with only the normal aches and pains. Good parents, lots of siblings, plenty of love, and solid direction. And I know the stories of what she’d once wanted to become, of course. She wanted to be a reporter and ride a motorbike. I have a picture in my head of her doing just that—of who she might have been had she not married so young and married so wrong. If children had come to her later or not at all. In the picture I hold in my head, she’s wearing a broad smile. Her cheeks are pinked with excitement and the wind has given her hair a look as free as she clearly feels. Her outward self, in this mental image, is a pure reflection of the best of her—she is brilliant and luminous, happy and content. And she’s healthy. She has no idea of the fate that might have been her life had she not gone against what was expected of her in favor of what her heart demanded. If she hadn’t bought the bike and taken the job. No notion that she could alternately be a woman held hostage by her life. That children, deeply loved as they would be, would also be the chains that tethered her to abuse and disharmony. That the cigarette she holds so comfortably, that moves with her hand as she gestures happily while talking to people who love hearing her words and her laughter, will team with the thousands of those that will follow it to constrict her breathing and further constrict her life. She doesn’t need to know those things for they will never be her reality. In that picture, she lives a better life.

In the version that came to be, I came to her once she’d been knocked around a bit, both literally and in the ways that we all are after we’ve lived, loved, succeeded, failed, and breathed the air for over four decades. I know maybe too much about the life she’d led in the years before she became my mother, but I’m glad I do. My questions never went unanswered and her responses came from a place of genuine love. They were tempered with compassion, yet were always true. Anything less wouldn’t have served either of us well. The questions I have remaining are the ones no one other than her could really answer. Ones I was too young to know to ask when we were together. In what ways had she felt lost and when she did, how did she find her way? What were her deepest regrets? What secrets did she bury deep within for fear of what revealing them might cost? What would she call into the wind if she were sure her words would be carried quickly away? What would she wish if she knew it would come true? And if she knew it wouldn’t, but felt it still deserved expression?

I suppose those are the same questions I’d want to ask my grandmother. And they are the ones we might all want to consider ourselves, though stirring pots, even those held only inside, still courts trouble.

Warmly,

Beth

 

 

 

The above photos of my mom are as follows:

1) My oldest saw this when she was really small and thought it was her. Her question: “Where did I get that ugly dress?”

2) This is my absolute favorite photo of my mom. In it, I can truly see her.

3) A little older, a little closer to the precipice.

4) Three kids in. She’d had no idea what she was getting into and by this time, saw no way out.

5) Taken when I was very young, not long before illness became her final tether.

 

My big sister and me, more than 50 years ago.

 

 

 

 

My maternal grandmother. She was kind, gentle, funny, whip-smart, and brimming with love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

16 Comments

  1. Reply

    Jul

    Love this, can only say ask her Beth, would be sad not to even have her account however right or wrong it might be, there would still be a bit of truth in whatever she has to say, something that gives the story it’s foundation, a place to start. My Mom and I use to spend hours talking about different ones that had passed on, now she is gone those stories are all I have, and she was awesome in that she knew a lot about both sides of the family. Ask Beth, don’t let her pass without finding out.

    1. Reply

      Beth

      I won’t be asking her, Jul. She’s spent a lifetime putting her first few decades behind her and I know that revisiting that time would cause her pain. My love for her is stronger than my desire to know the people we both loved before I came to be. I have cousins who would be able to share stories, not all of what I’m looking for, but some.

  2. Reply

    Malcolm R. Campbell

    We really need those answers. In our family, we always hoped that those we asked knew how important the continuity provided by those answers was to all of us.

    1. Reply

      Beth

      I wish I’d had more time to ask the questions. I know so many people who are sending away for their DNA profiles. They seem to get something from knowing their percentages, but I have no interest in that. Now the stories, well, that’s a whole different thing.

  3. Reply

    Jo Heroux

    I feel the pain or sadness you could draw her into is to be avoided. I do not know the pain you speak of, but I know pain in memory. It feels from your words that she might have found happiness and peace in whom she has become. I would leave that right there. Your mind can create stories of your loving Grandmother or as you said, you could ask cousins who would be less affected.
    Don’t ask. Your voice within knows that’s the right answer, doesn’t she?
    Your love is far stronger than your curiosity.

    1. Reply

      Beth

      Oh, I agree. I will not ask her. We talk a lot about a wide variety of things and family is certainly one of those things. I always let her take the lead, though, for I have no desire to have her revisit things she likely would rather not.

  4. Reply

    Taina

    If walls could talk, the stories would be bountiful. We could obtain our wanted information, and not have to consider the hardship of some recollections too painful to revisit for those we love.

    My mom, is 1 of 3 left out of 8 siblings. I know her road in life was a winding gravel road. Full of pot holes & ruts galore, that must have caused many cuts & bruises on her young soul.

    My maternal grandmother (our Maw-Maw), finally walked out in the mid 1940’s. Leaving her children behind, little education, the only job history or training was being a housewife. She left an abusive marriage, and a remote island she had always lived on, her first language was Cajun French, she knew very little English. How did she do it? What was her breaking point? What did she tell the children she left behind (I think there were 7 kids still living at home)? My mom doesn’t dwell on her life history. Very little has ever been said. Just little insights, that float around midair, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, never settling to form a complete picture. I truly understand your curiosity, as well as your respect and love for your sister.

    Such a connected, heartfelt write on this one, Beth. It had me so curious for answers, but so damn proud of your restraint through love. Every year that goes by, I appreciate our friendship more. I find myself often thinking, what would Dawn say (my sister)? Then you somehow, come to mind, I know you would duplicate her actions/answers! You, like her, are wise, kind, gentle, family oriented, spiritual, comfortable in your skin, not judgmental, a wicked sense of humor, extremely intelligent, and want a better world for ALL of us.

    I am a blessed person to have you both in my life. This blog hit me deep…to that tiny voice within that whispered “Yes”.

    1. Reply

      Beth

      I can’t imagine how your grandmother came to her decision, Tai–what it must have taken. What a wrenching story, and the impact it must’ve had on your mom and her siblings, then and I’m sure for the rest of their lives. It’s amazing to me what we can endure and still stay upright.

      And thank you for your enormously generous assessment of me, Not entirely deserved, I’m afraid, but it made me feel wonderful, just the same. And though I know you know this, I’m very grateful to have you, too. ♥

  5. Reply

    Angela Parson Myers

    Touching. And relatable. I have so many questions I wish I’d asked my grandmother but would never even now because I’m afraid they’d infringe on her privacy. And I wish I’d asked my mother more about her early childhood and how her father’s absence–and sometimes presence–affected her. I hope you find a way to ask your sister the questions you need to have answered.

    1. Reply

      Beth

      It’s funny how with all the chatter that goes on in families, so much remains unsaid. I guess one of the lessons we can take from our own experiences is to be forthright with our own children and grandchildren, as much as they want and/or need us to be.

  6. Reply

    Sydney Chandler

    EG this is one of the most beautiful blogs I’ve ever read. I have no words…..my eyes are leaking.

    1. Reply

      Beth

      Aww, Sydney. Thank you. ♥

  7. Reply

    Trish

    I hope you somehow find the answers that you’re seeking, hopefully through another relative. Maybe you can make a project out of it, something you can research/ask around to other family members, and write a little biography that you can pass down through generations.
    I think you’re wonderful for protecting your sisters feelings. I’m sure you’ll find a way that will work best for everyone.
    I lost my maternal grandpa when I was a little over 2yrs old. My family talks about him all the time, and that kept his presence strong in my life. Whenever I felt lost, I would talk to him, and something would always happen to make it all better. Praying to him gave me so much clarity.

    1. Reply

      Beth

      I remember you telling me about your grandpa and the important role he continued to play in your life, long after he was gone. He’ll be with you forever, I’m sure.

      I talked to one of my cousins yesterday. She’s older than me by a decade, so her memories go back before mine. Her memories of our grandmother are much like mine. She remembers a brilliant woman who was kind and loving–and who was a wicked prankster. 😀

  8. Reply

    Deborah

    Late of course, but I’ve been trying to build and create those memories for my grandchildren to remember and help know what made me the person they know. Our road trip this weekend was amazing, they loved it, I indulged them with chocolate and they puked all over the rental car for me, lol.
    As we’ve discussed I’m 19yrs older than my baby sister. She is who we went to visit this weekend. She loves my stories, as as you said, they are just that mine. My perception of the world around me that I either built on or ran away from. I’m glad my sister’s and I have finally come to an understanding and realize we each lived separate lives together. Sharing much, but seeing it with different eyes.
    I hope you get to ask some questions and learn stories, whatever the spin, because 3/4ths of it will be true, lovely or sad. But you will have them to hold on to and spin into yarns for your grands. ♡

    1. Reply

      Beth

      “lived separate lives together” Yes, exactly. We all have our own take on what happens, even if we experience it side-by-side and those who came first have additional views of people and situations because those people are situations were certainly different at different times in their histories, and they got both the early and the later versions. Like you and your sisters, my siblings and I have widely varying views on life in general so our slant on, well, on everything is quite different.

      I love the way you are with your grandkids. Your love for them is so deep and obvious, and they will carry it (and you!) with them forever.

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