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family ties


As grandparents go, my parents are definitely breaking the mold we grew up with. I don't remember my maternal grandparents as my grandmother died when I was two and my mother had issues with her father so I never met him. Coincidentally, he actually died on my tenth birthday. I remember feeling responsible somehow, even though I never met him. As I recall, my mother was unfazed.

I did know my paternal grandparents; they died within a year of each other when I was 15 then 16. In fact, my first funeral was my grandmother's.

My paternal grandmother was quite a piece of work, as I look back on it now with 39-year-old eyes. She was extremely thin; I believe she was about 5 foot 4 or so, and she weighed around 85 or 90 lbs. By today's standards (really by any standards, I think) she was probably anorexic.

Anyway, her name was Eloise and she lived in Detroit with my grandfather. She had those metal cat-eye glasses that old ladies wore in the 60s but the lenses made her eyes look humongous. I think that meant she had cataracts, but I'm not positive. My grandfather always sat in a black leather recliner located in the corner of the living room when we came to visit. Meanwhile my grandmother sat in a stiff wooden dining room chair, with her back to my grandfather, facing the kitchen. The way the house was set up was sort of like a reverse L shape, with the living room as the base of the L and the dining room and kitchen in a long corridor forming the length of the L.

Somehow it was common knowledge to me and everyone else that my grandmother hated my grandfather. That is why she always sat in that chair, in the entrance to the kitchen, with her back to him. She sat there all day, I think, and smoked cigarettes and drank tea while my grandfather watched television or visited with my parents. At least I know she sat there while we visited because I witnessed it. I don't ever remember seeing her in any other room of the house besides the dining room and the kitchen.

Both of my grandparents smoked like chimneys. There was always a smoldering cigarette in their hands, with tons of used butts crowding the ashtray. I remember plugging my nose and breathing through my mouth when we were there to avoid the smell. My dad's youngest sister lived with both my grandparents until they died and then some time in her 50s ended up marrying her brother-in-law's younger brother. She smoked like a chimney, too. In fact, all of my aunts and uncles (four in total) grew up smoking and continue to smoke to this day. They are all in their 70s now, and surprisingly no one has been diagnosed with cancer yet. They must have strong DNA. My dad said he grew up smoking but quit soon before he and my mom were married. He's the only one in that family who does not smoke.

But back to my grandmother. I remember being seven or eight and feeling empathy for her. I never understood why she hated her life so much, but it was obvious to me even at that age. So I used to sit in a chair next to her, when we visited, and talked to her. My parents would visit with my grandfather in the living room and my older sisters and brother would play in the backyard or the basement.

It's strange, as I think about it now, but I employed the same technique with her that I use now with my own mother. I tried to tell her stories rather than ask her questions. My own mother has Alzheimer's and it's necessary to use that method because she can't remember the answers.

My paternal grandmother did not have Alzheimer's and could answer questions with no problem, but she didn't talk much. After she died we learned that she had been hoarding prescriptions for sleeping pills and she was addicted to them. She was taking tons of pills every day. That would explain why she was pretty unresponsive. I do remember asking her once what she though the greatest invention in her lifetime was. She was born around 1898-ish and it was probably in the mid- to late-70s when I asked her that question.

She said, without a doubt, it would have to be airplanes. I remember thinking that was so wild. I'm sure it was strange to me because it caused me, as a child, to realize that there was a time when no airplanes existed and my grandma must be old if she was around when airplanes did not exist.

I just have to throw in this side note: when my husband and I were first married we had two cats -- our faux children, if you will. Anyway the one cat would consistently sit upright, all prim and proper with her tail wrapped around her front paws, while gazing out the window. Because she didn't lie down and relax but sat erect for hours with her back to us, she made me think of my grandmother. And I would tell my husband that the cat is pulling an Eloise again.

In stark contrast to my grandparents, my own parents are very hands-on grandparents with my children and my nieces and nephews. I remember dreading the visits to my grandparents' house. I felt the pressure of visiting with my grandmother. I don't know why I felt that way. No one told me I had to visit with her, I just felt sorry for her. That seems oddly mature for an 8-year-old child, but hey I guess I'm self-actualized like that (insert false hubris and self-righteous chuckle here). Plus we only visited on holidays, it seems, or if it was more than that, it wasn't often enough for me or my siblings to be comfortable.

My own children love visiting my parents; we see them every Thursday. My mom and dad play with my kids, they visit with them and listen to what my daughters say. My parents know my kids, whereas I always wondered if my grandparents even remembered my name. As the years go by and everyone grows older I wonder what kind of memories my children will have of my parents. I know the older two (7 and 4 and a half) will remember them, but the baby is only two. She is the age I was when my maternal grandmother died.

My own mother recently asked me if I remembered her mother. I told her no but I felt like I knew her based on the stories she has told me.

My mother smiled sadly with regret in her eyes and I felt the lump form in my throat. I'm afraid history will repeat itself and my youngest will have no memory of my mother. I suppose if I am a good enough story teller, my baby will feel she knows my mom as well as I did.


Another thanks: I'm sending an extra 1000 strides on the elliptical trainer to tattoobelly who added me as a favorite recently. Thanks Tattoo!


2007-07-15 at 7:44 a.m.

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