What Grannies Don’t Tell

In many of the books we read, and the movies we watch, grannies tend to be these amazing characters: witty, funny, endearing. Far from smelling of naphtaline, they smell of cookies, of potpourri and of the perfume they once wore, getting ready to walk down the avenue — bright, young, hopeful.

In these books and movies, they also tend to be excellent counselors and confidants. If the main character is a woman, she will undoubtedly get a better grasp of her life under the wise and crypto-feministic influence of her grannie.

These books and movies make me feel terrible, because that’s not what my grandmothers were for me — nor, as far as I know, for any of their grandchildren. My grannies didn’t counsel. They didn’t confide nor receive confidences.

Both my grandmothers, especially on my mother’s side, came from a poor family and received minimal education. They both married early to my grandfathers, both of which were a bit of the macho type. Not — as far as I know — the abusive macho type, but rather the “old-fashioned” macho type: conscious of their maleness, not as educated as they seemed to think, and exhibiting, to paraphrase Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, the emotional range of a teaspoon.

My mother’s mother died more than ten years ago and I rarely see my other grandmother. We never had an intimate discussion. They both didn’t know anything about me, my doubts, dreams, lusts, turmoils, inner life. They knew nothing except what was “public matter” within the family circle. It’s the same the other way around: they never told me — or any of their grandchildren — anything private about themselves.

It’s as if they had made a choice (did they feel compelled to make that choice?) to be, well, grandmothers. A social status consisting in cooking, engaging in small talk, keeping their grandchildren when it is convenient for their children.

Now that I am an adult, this is not what bothers me. What bothers me is the obliterated woman. The crypted “she.” The silent female with all her doubts, dreams, lusts, turmoils, inner life. The one who turned into a grandmother, the spouse of my grandfather, the small-talker, the official provider of cookies in the inconvenient working hours that lie every day between school and dinner.

I’ve missed the occasion to get to know my mother’s mother. This should encourage me to get to know my father’s mother before it is too late. But in our society, there is a social taboo on exploring the lives of (living) family members. Many people of my acquaintance consider family members not as men or women, but as, well, family members. Have you noticed how this taboo seems to worsen when it comes to the elderly — especially women? Elderly women prior to their marriage, elderly women outside of their marriage, elderly women as separate entities from the man they (hopefully) fell in love with and married.

Therefore, anything — question, inquiry, blog post — that might remind all of us how my living grandmother is also a Woman (doubts; dreams; lusts; turmoils; inner life) would be embarrassing. It would be something inappropriate, something that would need to be “dealt with”, something that would make family members uncomfortable during their Sunday visit.

What would be “exposed humanity” for me, would be like exposed genitalia for them.

My grandmother was ill recently. My grandfather was helpless. “But, what about lunch?” he wondered childishly, tearfully when she was brought to the hospital. He was lost and sad and distressed, so my father took over and dealt with everything. My grandmother is better now. But she is definitely getting old, and she might die at some point that is closer to now than ever before.

And despite this urgency, I’m finding myself unable to ask. To reach out for the woman inside.

I’m watching the closeted inner life of this sister female soul slipping through my fingers. (It can’t be completely obliterated, can it?)

I could throw a desperate look at other family members. I could call them for help — in fact, for her dear life. But there they all are, visiting on Sundays. Nobody seems to care, or worse, wonder about the woman she once were. By some mysterious, tacit, social decree, she is a Grandmother. The woman inside, with her doubts, dreams, lusts, turmoils, is gone. I’m looking at her and wonder how she feels about this. Were the doubts and turmoils appeased? Were the dreams and lusts satisfied?

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