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.
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.