As a child, my mother and I lived with my grandparents. I never thought of that arrangement as foreign or unusual. It was just as if I had three parents; the older ones and the one who worked all the time. Of course I didn't understand why my mother worked all the time; that she had to. But, no matter. I had my Grandma. I knew Grandma would always take care of me. Even if she was slightly nuts.
My grandmother was a billowy woman. Theresa Rose was her name. She was sort of fat and flat, like a grilled-cheese sandwich, but with lots of air around her. When she moved from room-to-room she seemed to float, as if she wasn't really there at all. For a heavy woman she was remarkably light. She kept her brownish hair in a short, tight perm and wore big, round rose-colored glasses. No, they weren't metaphorical, the rims were actually pink. Like a rose. Like her name.
My grandmother was a very loving woman. A very nice woman. But she was old from the time I can remember. When I was in Kindergarten she was only 52. But she was the kind of 52 you become in Upstate New York. A cigarette smoking, over-eating, white cotton panties visibly bunching around your wide, dimpled ass covered in pleated, polyester pants kind of 52-year-old. But she was mine. My Grandma. And I loved her.
It was Grandma's job to be sick. That's kind of what she did - if not for a living, for a life. My mother and my aunt often accused her of being a hypochondriac, but I don't know. I was too small to understand any of it. I didn't know until recently that she was born into a family of alcoholics and survived a head injury as a child. I didn't know that she spent much of my mother's coming-of-age popping pills and "going away." I just knew she was my Grandma, and she was very soft.
Soft in every way: soft skin, soft head, soft body, soft heart. My grandmother was a very weak woman, despite her size. She had been defeated before I even met her. And I often lament that now. What happened to her when she was young? Did my grandfather beat her down? He used to call her "Trese" all the time. He'd grumble, "Jesus Christ, Trese, why'd you have to go and ruin the pork chops again?" He was a stern man, but he wasn't awful. He just liked things the way he liked them. But what did my grandmother like? What did my grandmother want?
I have vivid memories of asking my grandmother, on a reoccurring basis, if she wanted to play with me, only to be told, "I can't now, honey. I'm nervous." Then I'd watch as she would lean back in her overstuffed, light-brown armchair, shut her eyes, clutch her rosary and begin to pray. I didn't know she was having an anxiety attack. Not until much later when I started to have them myself. That was after she died. After she and my grandfather took their lives into their own hands. I can still remember the way my hands felt when I found out. All of my attention went straight to the burn I got from curling her hair just a few weeks before. After all, it's hard for a woman with Parkinson's to sit still. But I would curl her hair nonetheless, and put her earrings in, too. She was 66 years old. I was away at college. And I'd never see my Grandma again.
It's funny - I realize now that I've spent a lot of time honoring my grandfather's memory since his death, probably because it was easier. He was the gruff one, but he was the fun one. The one I have memories of saying things like, "Off'll go your head and on'll go a wooden one." I still have no idea what that means. Or putting me "in jail" as a kid after chasing me around shouting, "Fee, Fie, Fo, Fum, I smell the blood of a Car-o-lun!" I remember being tackled and squealing with delight. I remember him giving me rides to school. And giving me advice. Always giving me advice...
But I don't remember those things about my grandmother. I remember her being silent and sad. Dazed and confused. On drugs and hallucinating. I think that's the hardest part of all. Because I remember just loving her so much.
My 18-month old daughter recently discovered my Grandma's white ceramic statue of Mary (which I kept when she died). I love watching my daughter's face light up as she delicately explores it with her tiny fingers, somehow knowing a woman is out there attached to this idol, this woman that was my grandmother. I sit in awe as she presses the Mary to her cheek, nuzzles it in the curve of her neck. She breathes in and lets out a sigh. Suddenly she's connected to all the mothers that ever were. My little baby girl.
And so, I leave this public prayer for my grandmother. And my mother. And my daughter. And me. That we may all know each other - know each other's suffering so that each of us, as the generations go by, can spend less time in the dark and more time in the light. Less time waiting and more time celebrating. Less time in anxiety and more time like Mary: beautiful, serene, happy and full of love.