Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Tale of Two Grandmas

When I was a little girl, I loved both of my grandmas, but I only liked one. I called them my nice grandma and my mean grandma, and I still refer to them that way today, though I now know it's not really that simple.

My grandmas got married about the time that the depression began. They had their babies, my parents, a month apart. Both families were poor, but that is where the similarities ended. My grandmas' reactions to raising children during the depression were vastly different. My nice grandma lived in the world with an open heart and an open hand. To her, the world was brimming with possibility as long as she was with the family she loved so much and could worship God whom she loved dearly. She went to church every Sunday. My mean grandma, on the other hand, closed her heart and her hand. Her world shrank to her husband, her son, and herself with only a smidgen of room for her mother, her sister, and her brother. If she had faith in God, it died or became irrelevant.

When I was a little girl, my nice grandma sewed us cute outfits, played with us, read to us, told us stories about her childhood, drank a glass of milk with us when Engineer Bill did his "red light, green light" milk drinking on his program, and hugged and kissed us hello, good-bye, and for no reason at all, just because she loved us. In contrast, my mean grandma gave my sister and me lots of lovely gifts. We had dolls and clothes from Saks Fifth Avenue. She would give us a dollar every time she visited. But we were sent to our room for the duration of the visit, except for dinner, and were never played with or talked to, and were told how good a grandma we had to give us so many nice things. We got a formal kiss good-bye.

As you might imagine, I did not like the clothes from Saks Fifth Avenue, but I wore the outfits my nice grandma made me until I outgrew them or they were rags.

When I was four years old, my parents went on a trip. They left my sister with my nice grandma, and me with my mean grandma. My grandma sat me alone in front of the black and white TV to watch Peter Pan with Mary Martin. She didn't watch it with me, nor did she want to hear what I thought about it when it was over.  Even as a young child, I was a sharer, like I am today, so it was agony to watch the show and not have anyone to talk about it with. She didn't read to me, and my only happy moments were when my grandpa was home. He was loving and fun. Faced with another night alone with grandma because my grandpa worked nights, I rebelled. With all my four year old might, I demanded to be taken to my nice grandma's house. After a lengthy phone call, they agreed. Of course, my nice grandma punished me for being a naughty girl, but punishment from my nice grandma was MUCH nicer than spending any more time with my mean grandma.

The next year, when I was five years old and halfway through kindergarten, I developed pneumonia and was sick for months. My mom had to work, so my nice grandma came to stay with me during the week. My maternal grandpa, also a true sweetheart of a human, dropped his wife off on Monday and picked her up on Friday. Grandma was so fun. She would get into my mist tent with me and read me stories, so I wouldn't be scared. She played stuffed animals with me. She watched TV with me. She made me laugh. She made me goodies to eat, and she hugged and kissed me. I felt very loved.

As time went by, and I grew older, I realized that while my nice grandma was, indeed, nice, my mean grandma wasn't really mean, she was just cold and distant. She didn't like my mom, hadn't wanted her son to marry my mom, and wasn't thrilled about us kids. She loved us in her way, but her way wasn't very child friendly. What I didn't realize yet was that she was harming herself with her coldness even more than she was harming her grandchildren.

In my mean grandma's desperate attempt to make her world safe and comfortable, a behavior that stemmed, I've come to believe, from her reaction to being poor for so many years in the depression, she kept her world immaculately clean, ordered, and small. Bars were on her heart. Self-protection was paramount. She kept her mom, my great-grandma Nani, in a tiny room an hour away. I was heartbroken when I saw my beloved Nani's room, which was only big enough for a bed and a dresser, because I knew my grandma had plenty of room for her mom to stay with her, but she only let her mom visit once a year. My Nani never complained, but I complained on her behalf, making my grandma frequently angry with me because I wouldn't mind my own business. No matter how often I asked, my grandma never let escape one hint or whisper as to why she was so mean and stingy to her mom.

My mean grandma also kept a ledger, which she showed to me one day in my early twenties. It was filled with what she gave people as gifts and what they gave her as gifts. She listed loans and when they were paid back. She put notes beside the names, and these were not flattering. My mean grandma had a balance sheet life, and she always felt she was on the wrong side of the balance.

My nice grandma, on the other hand, gave and gave and gave with never a thought about what she got back. I have truly never known a nicer human being. She had a joie de vivre that was inspirational. She would take the bus across the country to visit her sister in Florida and come home with a list of new friends. When I was getting married in 1975, she went with me to the bookstore, and when we couldn't find The Joy of Sex, she walked right up to the cashier and asked where it was, explaining that her granddaughter was getting married and was a virgin, so she needed the book. I almost died of humiliation, but I also loved her for it. Nothing daunted my nice grandma.

When it came time for my grandmas to die, they died as they lived. My mean grandma slipped into a coma, shut off from us who loved her, while my nice grandma beamed with joy when she learned that she would be seeing her beloved husband and her beloved Jesus soon.

However, before my mean grandma slipped into a coma, she did something that made me very proud of her, and gave me a glimpse into the woman she might have been if she had been willing to risk uncertainty. She was feeling poorly on Christmas. She had cancer and knew this was probably her last holiday with us. She was so weak that she could barely sit up, but she somehow got up, wrapped her dressing gown around herself, and made her way into the living room to spend the evening with us. It was the only unselfish, loving act I can remember her making, and in that moment, I saw what a strong woman she was, and I respected her and loved her very much.

Who knows why we respond to life the way we do? Do we have a choice about how we respond? I've always puzzled about why one grandma came out of the depression with an open heart and hand, and the other with a closed heart and hand. Perhaps that's how they were before the depression. I shall never know. What I find fascinating, though, is how children are so perceptive about the people around them. From my earliest memories, I knew who was the nice grandma and who wasn't, and the distinction became clearer and clearer as I grew up. The big difference from childhood to adulthood was that I developed sympathy for the one who wasn't because her life, while safe, was so very small.

And my nice grandma? Well, if she were alive, she would by 99 years old today. I wish she were still alive. I miss her everyday, and I honor her memory by trying to have an open heart and hand like she did, but she's an impossible act to follow.

Take care,


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  1. I had a warm grandma and a cold grandma, too. Both had very hard early lives. Warm grandma worked at many jobs: cook, practical nurse, store clerk in a mining town, as my grandpa moved from place to place in search of jobs during the Depression. Then she lost her only son to WWII. She had a comfy lap and indulged us in adventures. Cold grandma labored alongside grandpa on a small marginal family dairy farm. Her sons survived the war but wouldn't return to the farm. I don't remember a single hug from her. However, she once did something that I remember fondly. I hated getting water in my face when my mom washed my hair under the kitchen sink. When I stayed with cold grandma once, she let me lie on my back on the kitchen counter with my head over the sink when she rinsed my hair. No water in the eyes. The living of hard lives was not the difference between these women. I don't know what was.

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