This past month, I have been thinking a great deal about my maternal grandmother. Perhaps wondering, rather than thinking, would be a better choice of words, as I never got to know her well. Although she and my grandfather lived only a couple of miles from us, in a small ranch house on the edge of town, she worked as a secretary in the city thirty miles away and had little time or energy for small children. She was always edged out by my paternal grandmother, who lived on the same hillside we did, out in the country, and was able to offer my brother and me endless hours of her own time along with books, card games, art supplies, and a creek.
She was perhaps also edged out, I now think, by the solitude imposed by the grief in which she dwelt, a grief that her natural reticience and the dictates of the culture would have prevented her from sharing with the small children who might have benefitted most from her companionship in loss.
Summer, 1960. Her son, in his mid-20s, was home from the Navy, not yet married, seldom in evidence. Her daughter, my blonde and vivacious mother of three, was the joy of her life. My mother didn't sing in the church choir anymore ~ it was too much on top of managing the children on Sunday mornings ~ but she often stopped by on the week-ends and sang snippets of songs as she helped around the house for a few minutes, until our rambunctiousness propelled us all back into the car. It was a delight to go out to our house as well. Our family had spent the winter and spring in Florida, and my grandmother must have been lonely. But by late summer the gardens that had lain dormant during my mother's pregnancy the previous summer were in full bloom, and my mother was always ready to sit outside and talk, lemonade on the wooden picnic table and the baby sitting happily on a blanket on the grass while the seven (that was me) and four (my brother) year olds ran around in the grass.
I wonder how, or whether, my grandmother even got out of bed on Christmas morning a few months later. I don't remember anything about that first Christmas without my mother and baby brother, which probably means that the adults united in a massive effort to carry it off as usual. My own physical injuries from the October car accident had healed by then; my brother's shattered arm was no doubt still in a cast, but that was part of the new normal for us and did not keep him off his tricycle or away from games. I suppose we plowed through Christmas Day as we did all the others.
But my mother's mother? I imagine her standing in her kitchen that morning, sipping a cup of coffee and staring vacantly out the window overlooking the backyard. I imagine her sitting down at the table and sighing, knowing that she needed to wake my grandfather, wondering whether she had the energy to get dressed. I imagine her dread as she considered her imminent arrival at our house, peopled by two small children bubbling over with Santa excitement, but no daughter to greet her, no baby to hold. I imagine her standing in our kitchen an hour later, reaching out to touch my father's shoulder, wanting to collapse into his arms and sob, but leery of shattering his own carefully constructed facade of well-being and turning the entire morning into a disaster.
My grandmother lived another twenty years, and she lived them all without her daughter and youngest grandchild. I wish so much that I had had the slightest inkling of what that might have been like for her. I wish I had sat down with her at every opportunity and asked her to tell me about my mother and about what it was like to have lost a 28-year-old daughter. I wish I had asked her about their mutual dreams for my baby brother. I wish that I had given some time to that every Christmas, each of which must have been a fresh trauma for her as she watched other families gather and other daughters come by with pies and ornaments and time for visits.
I wish that she had lived long enough to enjoy my own family before tragedy came our way again. Maybe it would have been some solace for her, to have heard my daughter's beautiful singing voice at Christmas.