Mothers and Me
I rifled through old papers in yet another fit of obsessive cleaning. Mixed in a folder of stickers, old poems, and magazine clippings I found a couple letters from my Grandma. Her dementia barely spilled out onto the page, maybe if I had nothing to compare it to I wouldn’t notice it at all. The last letter I remember writing to my grandma was when I was about twenty; I can see the stationary of my childhood against the bright green carpet of my apartment. “Dear Grandma,” I lied and said I was doing well in school, told her about my work on a social justice conference, and that I didn’t have a boyfriend, but I didn’t mind. That was my last letter. Within a year I came out as trans, I but I didn’t come out to her… I didn’t know if she would understand, I didn’t know if she would accept me, I didn’t know if she would remember it the next day…
My grandma and I had a special bond. When I was growing up, Grandma and I were closer than my mom and I were. My mom and I were always at odds, always fighting, but Grandma and I were peas in a pod, I was her special girl. She lived with us for several years. I would climb the stairs to the third floor everyday to tell her about my day, and I would always bring my friends and boyfriend by to see her, just to say “hi”. She paid more attention to my life than my mom ever seemed to do. I would sit on her bed and listen stories about her childhood in Australia; cane toads invading the yard, climbing the fence at her all-girls school to wave handkerchiefs at the boys, singing on tables in bars for the soldiers during the war… At night when I couldn’t sleep she would sit on my bed and sing fragments of her favorite 1940s songs, skipping the words she couldn’t remember. She would sit in her room all day, sipping boxed wine. Her voice would echo down the rickety brown, back stairs as she sang along to old Dean Martin tapes. Songs from another time, memories from an absent life. I remember when I was very young I liked to sit in her lap and play with her gold “G” pendant necklace. “Grandma, what’s your name?” She spoke playfully, “Georgia.” Her eyes were big and brown just like mine. I could see myself in her, maybe more easily than in my mother. All three of us have the same eyes, the same look, the same shape; like the same body passed down, each destined for a different life.
I turned over her letters in my hand, reading the familiar handwriting. I thought of breaking my silence, finally writing back to tell her what I was doing, who I had become. I used to be afraid; afraid to say that her perfect little protegee was now a boy, was queer… It was easier for her to never know. But now I wasn’t so sure. I was a butch little girl and she never argued against it… maybe she would accept me same as she did then. Maybe I could reconnect with her just like some TV movie.
My mom called me at the office today. “Your grandmother died.” Silence. “You still there?”
I always knew today would come, but for so long it didn’t… so I guess I started to believe it never would. It has been over five years since I made any attempt to contact my grandma… I wonder if she felt like I abandoned her. My mom said that mentally she had been gone for years… that is how I had been thinking of it too. It was easier for me to not write if I told myself Grandma wasn’t really Grandma anymore. Yeah, she was technically still around but her mind was gone… disintegrated in a sea of alcoholism and big band music… How sickeningly strange for someone who was once so close to now feel so far… so far from me. The last stone hanging over my head has fallen… Its like I can feel the pain, but I am numb.
Grandma had this catchphrase for my sister and I. She would say “Who loves ya, baby?” then we would shout “Grandma!” She showered my sister and I in gifts and attention, very much like a grandma. But my grandma’s relationship with my mom was very different. I never lived under the illusion that Grandma was perfect. Even as a child, I knew my mom and my grandma weren’t close. I also knew my mom was a good daughter to my grandma because she let Grandma live with us, even though they didn’t seem to like each other much. My mom was a good daughter because she did all the things my grandma should have done. She raised her brother, ran the house, put herself through school, and provided (and continues to provide) her family. My mom was very loyal to her mother, she loved her mother, but I don’t know if she every really knew her mother. I remember as a kid I would imagine what my mom and I would be like when I was grown up. Based off of my experience at the time, it looked like my relationship with my mother was bound to end up the same as my mom and grandma’s.
When my mom called to tell me the news, we talked for about forty-five minutes. Only five minutes was about Grandma. The rest was spent talking about gardening, my dad’s most recent foibles, and a new chocolate cake recipe that was “to die for.” Throughout my life, there have been several times when I wondered how much my mom would be in it. Now as an adult, I can safely that my childhood expectations were wrong. My Mom may not have always said or done the right things, but she has always tried her best to provide for my sister and I. She worked jobs she didn’t have to work, cooked dinner from scratch every night, and made our Halloween costumes and birthday cakes every year without ever being asked. Even when I came out as trans and she told me not to come around, or threatened to kick me out of the house because I was starting T, she never abandoned me. She worked through it in order to stay in my life. My Grandma wrote long letters to me, which was great, but she never wrote to my mom. She never made the effort to stay in my mom’s life. Long after discussing grandma, cakes, and my future in the job market, I told my mom, “I have always known that you are a good mom, even when you didn’t know I knew.” I could tell it meant a lot to her to hear it.
My grandma, my mom, and I have the same have eyes, the same look, the same shape; We do not have the same life. My mom said (about my grandma’s death), “And so closes another chapter of my life…” For me, my mother will never be closed to me like to a chapter in my life. She is my life and will be my life even when she is no longer with me. That is the break in the cycle of my family. My mom and I will not end up like my mom and my grandma. Hmm, I guess even without the letters, this still ended like a TV movie.
“Who loves ya, baby…?”
In Memory of my Grandma, Georgia Lemaster
Enter: 1924, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Exit: 2010, Bayside, Humboldt, California, USA
Thanks for everything, Grandma. I love you.