Lessons Learned from a Flighty Flower Child
I didn’t expect it, but when my grandmother passed away, 9 months ago, a piece of who I am seemingly left with her. After years of Alzheimer’s ravaging her clever and mercurial mind and months of hoping for her sake that some sort of reprieve was in sight, she slipped away on a Wednesday morning. No one was there at her side. No one had been warned that it was coming. All of that time waiting and she was just suddenly gone. And it broke me.
Since then, I haven’t really been able to talk about her. I can’t control my tears and despite all of her reminders my entire life that “love means being vulnerable”, I can’t do it. I don’t know how to talk about grief. And I’m learning that it’s hard to find people that do.
So, I just avoid talking about her.
I can talk about her tangentially. I can make passing comments like “oh my Grandma used to say this”, but they have to be one-offs. Little breaths at the surface that I can take before I re-submerge. I can’t explain how much I miss her; that she was more than just a lovely woman I saw a few times a year. And I can’t tell stories about her. Which has always been one of my favorite things. But today I want to change that.
Being the fraidy-cat nerd that I was (am) meant I didn’t have a lot of interesting stories to tell of my own. So, instead I told the stories I loved the most in the world. The yarns that I begged out of her sitting next to her at her easel. The tales she’d tell me as we rode on a bus to some new adventure. I told them whenever I got the chance and the people who liked them (or at least pretended to) were my next friendship targets.
I have always loved stories. I lived in a household with 4 adults and I harassed each and every one of them every chance I got to read me mountains of books. My grandmother, a natural performer, was always the ultimate prize. If I could get her to read me 10 books and let me rub her earlobe while I sucked my thumb, then my 3-year-old night was made. She would read to me about different places and times and answer my tidal waves of questions and I’d get to be calm and at ease in a way I almost never was.
I was a high-intensity kid. I had a lot of energy that wasn’t easily harnessed in traditional ways. I believe the hopeful, au courant term is “strong-willed”. I was not offered such flattery.
I was too big for my own good. I was fiercely stubborn and spent my every waking moment seriously jonesing for breakfast cereal.
I did not want to cuddle, but I did require undivided attention when I wanted it. I wanted to know everything.
My natural instincts were to throw a ball too hard indoors or flip around the room gracelessly until I inevitably hit my head on something.
In short, I was too much. For pretty much everyone. But not my Grandma.
My grandmother was not a saint by any means, but she never made me feel like my instincts were wrong. She never asked me to make myself smaller or less. She was the person that seemingly enjoyed my many quirks, indulged my attempts to create and encouraged my curiosity almost endlessly.
And I had so many questions. I knew that everyone had stories that weren’t in books and I wanted all of them. So, I asked and asked and asked. I asked everyone everything I could think of. Such crowd-pleasers as:
Why did you get divorced?
Did you vote for Bill Clinton or Bob Dole?
Why don’t you ever come home for Christmas?
Did Grandpa and Grandma ever talk?
I got back a lot of “I don’t want to talk about that, Hannah” and “That’s inappropriate”. But never from my Grandma. She told me everything.
My grandma told me about wanting to be famous, but realizing her work was “derivative at best”.
About making it to New York and crying herself to sleep wrapped in all of her coats on Winter nights in an apartment without heat and with rats crawling at her feet.
About hating her first husband as his ship sailed away to Paris without her.
About not having many friends in high school and saying witty, but mean things about her classmates to make herself feel better.
About parties on the Haight and sleeping with the singer of “Jungle Love”.
About Communist meetings and mind-clearing LSD trips.
About how she still had my mom’s baby teeth so the Tooth Fairy couldn’t possibly exist.
About quitting instead of taking a promotion to head secretary because she didn’t want working at the Ritz factory to be her life.
She was an open book.
She talked to me seriously about my “theories” about the world. She recorded Masterpiece Theaters and watched them with me too many weekends in a row, so I could memorize lines.
When I said I wanted to be an architect, she bought fiber board and built floorplans with me for hours.
When I wanted to be a doctor, she helped me paint all of the tissues for my see-through human physiology model.
When I wanted to be an archeologist, she found books of hieroglyphics at the library and we painted scroll after scroll.
She took me to galleries and powwows and plays and protests and film screenings and concerts and asked for my thoughts so genuinely that I was pretty sure I was an expert.
My grandmother offered me respite and wisdom, but she didn’t have an instinct to take care of people. She failed my mother and aunt in many ways because of that lack, but she knew exactly how to foster exploration.
She couldn’t comfort me when I had my first heartbreak or when my father left, but she always made me feel like my thoughts mattered.
There was no plate of my favorite cookies when I came over, but she did teach me how to house a pint of Ben & Jerry’s in single sitting.
She was a great cook, but hated making the same recipes too often, so she’d let me try out a cookie I’d invented as long as I ate the seaweed soup concoction she’d boiled for 5 hours.
She treated me like the adult I was always so certain that I was. And I loved her endlessly for it.
Elaine Louise was brilliant and deeply flawed and complex and she never tried to be anything else for me. She told me that she’d been a coward too many times in her life, but she never hid her scars from me. She just offered every lesson she’d managed to wring out of them. And in turn, she gave me these moments where I felt like maybe I could be those things too and people would still love me. That perhaps I wasn’t fundamentally unlovable.
My grandmother never seemed to really understand her value and I think that was part of why I was so tireless about telling people her stories. To see their interest and awe let me know her stories were meaningful to more than just me. That she was as remarkable as I always knew.
So, today on her birthday, I want to honor her and the incredible gift she was for me. Hopefully by sharing her stories others can learn from her too.
Above all, I hope you have someone in your life that helps you know that you matter, the way she did for me. And I hope you can be that person for someone else as well.
Lastly, I’d like to share some advice she gave me in junior high. She was right about it all:
- Don’t have friends that you only talk shit about other people/things to because those aren’t real friendships, no matter how fun they can be.
- It cannot be overstated how important it is that someone is a good kisser.
- There is a difference between love and lust. Learn it as soon as you can.
- Stay away from men that do things just to get a rise out of you. They don’t truly respect you, so they don’t deserve you.
- No one is truly evil, even if it seems they are. We are all just human beings that can be hurt in so many ways, but some cultivate hatred in place of learning how to heal.
- Never give up fighting for love and justice, even if you are certain the end is nigh.
- Never be stingy. Especially with love. Always love with your entire heart.
- Let go of the plans. Let go of the “shoulds”. Just find the joy in what is.
Happy Birthday, Granmutta.
I would give up butter, if it meant I could have one more late night chat with you. But I know that’s not how this works. And you would cluck your tongue at me moping around. So, I’m gonna go try to find the joy. I promise.