It has only just recently dawned on me that I have been in the presence of an extraordinary woman my entire life. Not only have I had the pleasure of sitting in the same room, even speaking to her personally, but I have been made aware that she frequently brings me up in conversation, acknowledging that there is a particular place in her heart that I have been comfortably spending time in since my birth, despite major competition from dozens of others. Even beyond all this, past the realization of my importance to her, without even thinking of what she has meant to me or understanding my own role in her life - that of her fifth granddaughter - is the heavy, no... debilitating weight now on my shoulders that I have never spent any time, not even for a moment, thinking of her as anything but the one thing she has always been to me - my Grandmother. For now I realize, perhaps at almost the exact point in life that it could be too late, that she has spent a lifetime, 84 years, living as so many other roles. And that in each of these roles she has created memories and affected others around her and loved and lost and dreamt and played and perhaps, even wasted time in regret or deceit, spent hours crying behind closed curtains where she has spent the last 18 years alone, with nothing but these memories. My Grandmother has lived a lifetime, hides a wealth of knowledge and wisdom deep within her, and has only recently let me in the slightest bit to see the person she was long before my father existed, decades prior to my own arrival; a young woman, a girl even, falling in love for the first and only time, with a man I barely ever knew.
My memories of my Grandfather are few and far between, as they say. I remember an average man, in terms of his build and stature. I don't remember him towering over me, or having any struggle picking me up. In fact, I don't really remember what it was like to be held by him at all but then again I would have been a baby, a toddler, during those times and none of us really remember that, do we? For I'm absolutely positive that he held me and if his reaction is anything like my own father holding his grandchildren, well, it must have been a very wonderful feeling indeed. I remember a lot of plain white T-shirts and light-colored slacks. I remember glasses and thin hair. I even remember his scent when I was near him, but there aren't quite words for that. Perhaps an aftershave or a particular bar of soap. I'd have to admit, if there was an exact setting that I see my Grandfather in, in my thoughts, it's in his favorite chair in front of the television in the sitting room at his home. This chair is a lazy-boy, blue, or gray perhaps and the TV is on some old black and white film, or a gameshow. These particular details don't necessarily matter but this is where he is in my mind and I truly have a very hard time seeing him anywhere else. This might make my Grandmother sad, or my father wonder how I couldn't remember all the other things we did together with him, but this is my only memory. My Grandfather died when I was 10 years old. I remember that day clearly, at least the morning right after my father burst through the door not long after leaving for work, calling up the stairs to my mother that he didn't have long and was running to their house right away. I knew but didn't really know at that age, what all that meant. But my Grandfather was dying and I guess my father was hoping to make it there in time, to say goodbye, to watch the final breath leave those cancerous lungs, to maybe catch a glimpse of a soul departing, to hold the hand of his grieving mother. My school bus stop was at the end of the street where my Grandparents lived and I have this incredibly pristine memory, a moment forever stamped in the passport of my mind- a 10 year old me, sitting on a cold sidewalk, waiting for a bus, with my back towards that house, wondering if Grandpa had died yet and wondering what that really meant and if my Dad was crying. Then the bus came, and I don't remember anything after that.
For my Grandmother, a day that I barely remember is most likely one of the worst days of her entire life. She wrote to me and admitted that when she was younger, she never thought about growing old or dying, and that she lived in the moment (ah, youth, we aren't aware of its power and meaning and opportunity until it's gone) but that her whole world fell apart when my Grandpa died. Forty-seven years they spent together, bringing nine completely unique children into the world (although their physical similarities are astounding now as they all continue to age). Can you imagine the amount of food one has to prepare for a family of eleven? The thousands of loads of laundry? The countless baths and bedtimes, the quarrels and apologies? My Grandmother gave birth nine times, chose nine names & watched nine children grow up and leave her home, only then to watch her husband slowly disappear into a very sick and emaciated man. At his funeral, she watched one of them unbutton the top button of the suit he was being burried in, something she says he always did the moment he got home from work. She watched these nine adults resort back to their childhood selves, as they said goodbye, as they cried and regretted not having one more conversation or one more hug or one more opportunity to say "I love you". She watched all this and even though it was her Jack laying still as dust on an old shelf in that casket, she stayed resolute for those nine children. She didn't allow the fear and loneliness and torment that she knew would consume her the moment she was back in their home alone, to show to any of them. And oh, how that solitude sank deep into her bones, like the freezing fog of an early winter's night, it seeped into her and stayed and somehow managed to fill the incredibly large space where her husband had been. Despite her absolute sanity, her complete acknowledgement that he was dead and gone and that was that, she still sat waiting for him to come in or out, she still listened for the sound of his footsteps in the kitchen or his voice humming as he shaved in the bathroom. She'd peek through the curtains if lights passed by, just in case it was him driving up the driveway. Maybe she even said his name sometimes, just to move the air in a stale and empty room. How many nights she spent laying awake, desperately desiring to hear him call out to her and there was nothing but the hum of life gone on around her. I'll never know how many nights, but I know for sure, if she loved him like I love my husband, she's waited to hear that voice again every single second since he last spoke. I cannot comprehend such an agonizing desire, I don't understand such torment of an unfulfilled wish. I hope I don't have to for decades to come, or perhaps ever, if I'll be lucky enough to be laid to rest before my husband.
A paragraph can do no justice to the time lived in between meeting for the first time and burrying your husband, and all those lonely years to come after. But that's the thing, I have so little knowledge of all that came between. I know that the moment she saw him, her heart leapt in her chest (her words). But she wasn't actually his first choice of date after returning from World War II, even though she knew that it would all be over for the other girls if he gave her a chance. And after a burger out with friends, a walk home, a long talk well into the night on the swing on her front porch, they kissed. And that was that. He was the one, no doubt about it. My own heart warms at this memory of my Grandmother's, since my own story of finding true love went along a similar route. You always read about seeing someone and just knowing, for me that was the case. Apparently, it was the same for my Grandmother. My marriage proposal happened on the top of a mountain on the West coast of Ireland. Hers wasn't as romantic but it came eventually (after saying that she enjoyed the company of his cousin Helen, he asked "Would you like her to be your cousin too?"...apparently, romance wasn't his strength). They married young, something her mother didn't approve of (she wanted her daughter to continue her education and to travel and see the world; I wonder if my Grandmother wishes she had those experiences now too?). But there's no regret once you start having children and I'm sure the moment my Grandmother looked in the eyes of her firstborn, Mark, there was no going back. My father was the fourth child and there was a bit of a gap between him and the fifth (apparently, my Grandpa's favorite joke about those years was that that was when they finally got a television!). And I'm sure in what felt like a blink of an eye, their home was full of children and toys and messes and dirty dishes and stained clothes and every other thing that comes with a large family. Even now, when she is looking back, 84 years must feel like the blink of an eye, or at least a breath taken, despite what must be millions of breaths that came between.
Now, you're thinking, of course I must have known that my Grandmother was a mother too and a wife, and sister and daughter and all those things and you'd be right. I knew all this. But I never thought of what it must have been like for her as a child, as a teenager finishing high school, as a young woman dreaming about what it would be like to kiss someone, as a scared twenty-something going into labour for the first time. I never thought about her struggles or fears, her desires for the lives she wanted her children to live. I never considered that she, as her own self, as Betty, felt and dreamt and lived her own life. I just always thought - well, that's my Grandma. And now, now - perhaps when there isn't enough time left, or I'm too far away and her penmanship isn't that legible anymore, it's just too late to hear all the thousands of stories she has and the millions of memories of each day gone by, when I know - I know for a fact - she has the words I so desperately want to hear. I want to know that you can survive love and lost, that those 18 years weren't all torment but perhaps comfort found her in the snippets in her memory she saved of his touch. I want to hear that seeing the world isn't nearly as incredible as watching your babies fall asleep on the chest of their father, your husband. I want to know that the distance between family is nothing compared to those moments you do get to spend with them, despite all the moments spent apart. I want her to say that regrets make you stronger, that she isn't scared to be nearer to the end than she is to the beginning (or maybe that it's just another beginning?). And more than anything, more than all of this, every word before this, I want her to know that I love her and I love the parts of me that came from her and how proud I am that my blood came from her blood, that I am her descendent, the first daughter of her third son. I want her to know that her branch of our family tree is one of the strongest and that it will continue to grow through her nine children, and their children and their children's children and beyond; that she'll always live in each of us, that we'll never be without her because we are only here because of her.
We seem to always find a thousand words we wish we'd said to those we love, after it's too late. And I vowed to myself, when I left my birthplace a week ago, that I would find a way to tell you all these things. The way you hugged me, the way you told me you wished you had gotten to know my husband better, and that look in your eyes, like you were trying to memorize my face, when you said, "You've always been my special girl." This felt like a dress reheasal, an amateur goodbye, a practice for when that time comes. So before it does, before it's too late, I've got my lines memorized and I know exactly what to say. I love you. And I know what love is, what life is, because you first loved and there's never enough words in all the world to thank someone for that.