I was over forty when my grandmother said, “You didn’t have an easy childhood.”
It could be that, at her age, she was facing her the guilt of her own complicity. It could be that, at my age, she figured I would have experienced enough complexity in life, and could understand that love almost always entails a choice between two kinds of pain.
Maybe she said it because it was finally safe to do so; finally safe to believe I wouldn’t use her compassion to prop up my self-esteem, label myself a victim, and cultivate my own warm, little martyrdom.
Maybe her coldness, and her trivialising all those years were based on a kind of hard wisdom. A shove towards something better. I can’t know.
It still makes me happy that she said that. She acknowledged what we had in common, a childhood that “wasn’t easy”, and a necessary strength.
“You sound like you’re just next door. I wish you where here,” she’d say often, and then she’d always follow up with, “No. I don’t really. You’re better off where you are.”
A few years later, she no longer recognised my voice on the phone. I lost her before the rest of her family lost her. I learned of her death via Facebook.
I didn’t go to her funeral. She wouldn’t have liked that: “You’re better off where you are.” Pain is unavoidable, but there is no reason to court it. My grandmother was a practical woman.
“Honey, you know I love you, but, most of the time, I have no idea what you are talking about.”
We had little, and everything, in common.
I miss her. Though I will never be certain of how well I knew her. There were stories in those later years: told in fragments, like a surreal soap opera, an episode a week, two hours each Sunday. She told me about her husbands, about being a single mother of four in the 40s, about her complex relationship with her sister, and how she never forgave her mother.
She had stories about my mother and my father. About what came before what was never spoken, the big, black swath in my life that matched the big, black swath in hers. She never picked at wounds, but seemed to have found a way to walk away from them. Something I’m not always willing to do, to leave parts of myself behind like that. Lies of omission.
There were barriers. I don’t recall her ever hugging me when I was in pain. Our most intimate moments were over the phone once I was an adult and living overseas. Once I was a mother, myself. But what made it through the barriers was real. That’s what matters: taking what you get, and being grateful.
I have yet to write her eulogy. My story is too entwined with hers still: reflections through generations, like repeating images in facing mirrors. But now there’s empty space. It’s a good thing. A painfully good thing, like love always is.