This isn’t the post I was going to write today.
I was going to write about the right to fuck up in feminist/progressive/social justice communities. Maybe you’ll get that one later in the week.
But this morning I woke up late and the first thing Twitter told me was that Elizabeth Taylor had died. I posted a brief comment on my Tumblr.
And then my phone rang. And my father told me that my grandmother had died last night.
She had been sick; I knew it was coming. Still, it hurts.
When you lose someone the immediate response is to think about all the things you didn’t know about them or the things you didn’t tell them. The time you didn’t have.
My grandmother was in her nineties–she had outlived her husband, the grandfather I never met, by over 30 years. Most of that time she lived alone, first in the house where she raised her kids, then an apartment and finally in a nursing home. She sewed me doll clothes when I was little and peppered her speech with French expressions and the occasional dirty joke. The last time I saw her we drove past a classic car and she made a joke about dating when she was young and kissing in the backseat. I wish I remembered her exact phrasing. I know it made me giggle.
On that same trip my mother and I got drunk and talked about boys and she told me about the guy who broke her heart before she got married.
We too often don’t share personal stories with the members of our family–our adult lives, our politics drive wedges and we spend less time together. Our infinitely busy lives get in the way.
So it becomes easier in a way to mourn celebrities whose lives were lived in public. We know more about Liz Taylor than we do our own families.
This week is the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Women led a general strike in 1909–mainly Jewish and Italian immigrant women. I’ve been thinking about those women a lot in the past couple of weeks, since I watched the documentary on PBS.
I watched it, and I didn’t really write about it other than to encourage people to watch it. Because it’s our history. It’s MY history, as a third-generation immigrant on either side, a Jewish woman, a worker, a rabble-rouser, a very-occasional organizer.
We are so often separated from our history. From our grandmothers. They are old and dead and gone by the time we are old enough to talk, and people our own age are more interesting. Books and dating are more interesting. We remember that history on anniversaries or birthdays, when grandma comes to visit and we cover our tattoos and button that extra button on our shirts, when we read a book that reminds us, when we watch a movie that our grandparents grew up on.
My first tattoo was a maple leaf, for my French Canadian heritage, gotten with a girlfriend who has a matching one and matching Quebecois family. My second was words from Les Miserables, in my maternal grandmother’s French but from the book my paternal grandmother gave me when I was nine and dared me to read. My most recent one is words from Emma Goldman, my favorite (Russian-American Jewish) revolutionary. My kitchen walls have framed photos of Liz Taylor, Jane Russell, Gene Tierney, and Rita Hayworth.
Even as I carry them with me, I am often too wrapped up in my own life to stop and think.
Elizabeth Taylor. grandmother. Emma Goldman. grandmother. Clara Lemlich. grandmother.
My grandmother loved to play Scrabble and warmly accepted my gay cousin’s boyfriend and my tattooed, Muslim-convert ex. She ate chocolate after every meal and drank beer with her pizza. But still there is so much I don’t know about her. So much I only thought to ask as she was older, sicker, not able to share those stories so well.
So much, today, I wish I could ask her. So much history she saw.
What do you wish you could ask your grandmothers (whether they’re blood grandmothers or otherwise)?