On Living My Grandmother's Life
About a week after my grandmother died, I had a dream in which she sat at the edge of my bed, watching me. I wasn’t moving but my stress was palpable, even in my sleep. At the time, I had three boys under the age of four. I was exhausted and my days were not my own, dictated not only by nap and preschool schedules but by the moods and whims of creatures who often acted more like puppies than children. My grandmother, too, had raised three boys and it was absolutely clear to me why she’d come: I needed reassurance.
“How am I going to do this?” I asked. Her answer: a smile and a nod.
We share a number of similarities, my grandmother and I. I inherited her long, slender fingers and I can always tell when I’ve gained too much weight because I get her worry line at the bridge of my nose, the one that looks like my forehead is falling into my cheekbones. We’re both a bit hippy, but were blessed with the height to pull it off. Sitting is most comfortable when I cross my legs and prop my head with my fist, just as she did. But our boys … that’s where the genetics go from obvious to interesting. We each had two musicians and a scientist, each began motherhood with wildly extroverted first-borns and followed up with shyer seconds, each benefitted from our relationships with our youngest sons in ways we hadn’t with our other two.Our firsts were born loaded with our maternal genetics, our seconds loaded with paternal code and our thirds a well-blended mix.
Same song, second verse.
I suppose it should be said that I’m unlike my grandmother in as many ways as we’re alike. My inability to play the piano after years of lessons at her side is proof of that. Also, the grandmother I remember spoke in worry and acted in fussy spurts. The Sunday roast is burning. Your grandfather needs to take a nap. My soup is too hot. Did I order this soup? I don’t remember ordering soup.The grandmother I remember quibbled constantly with her sister but couldn’t function without her, and she followed my grandfather at two paces, needling him about staying calm and resting his heart — her way, I suppose, of wielding a verbal crucifix against future heart attacks, of which he’d already had two.
On second thought, maybe we’re more alike than I’d care to admit.
Anyway, having been packaged with her genes equates to more than curiosity; it has its benefits. Seeing pictures of her at my age feels very familiar, a woman who isn’t fat but who carries the padding from a second piece of pie and an extra scoop of ice cream. I know what she looked like at thirty, at fifty and at eighty and I hope my own evolution continues to track hers. Hers wasn’t perfect, certainly, but also not bad for a life lived well into its nineties. It means I’ll likely spend my last decades slipping away into dementia, eventually forgetting the names of everyone I love but never forgetting to smile and pat them lovingly on the cheek. It means I’ll lose my memories, but never get mean. It means my boys will stay loyal until the very end.
I know, of course, that I can’t bank my future on my grandmother’s past, but at this point, I like the idea of having been handed a map to my time on earth. It’s sort of like looking at a photo album of my life and seeing that lots of the stuff in it hasn’t actually happened yet.
When my husband and I got married, my grandmother had a front row seat at the wedding. During a particularly quiet moment, she leaned over to my cousin and asked, in a loud voice devoid of her former church-lady decorum, “Who’s that up there getting married?” It was just the snap-to moment I needed, a reminder that this marriage thing I was doing, it was for keeps, for better or worse, crazy or not. Later, during pictures, she still couldn’t remember my name but she did pat me on the cheek and tell me how pretty I looked.
Thanks, Grandma. I needed that.