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)?

21 comments for “Grandmothers

  1. March 23, 2011 at 11:52 am

    Lovely piece, Sarah. My sympathies on your loss.

    My grandmothers are long gone, but were formidable presences in my life. I have lived such a different life than they did, and so the one thing I would ask is to continue to receive their blessing, their love, their wisdom. Since my faith tells me that it’s worth asking for that from the dead, I do.

  2. Mo
    March 23, 2011 at 11:55 am

    My maternal grandma died when I was 4 or 5 years old. I would give so much to ask her what happened to the older sister I found on a census in the family who never appeared or was spoken of again by only 6 years later.

  3. March 23, 2011 at 11:58 am

    I’m very sorry, Sarah. All the best to your family.

    I didn’t know one of my grandmothers, because my father was estranged from his entire family. I would ask her why that was. I would ask her why she left her home to marry a man she barely knew. I don’t think she had a choice, but I want to be sure.

    I knew my other grandmother, but she didn’t like me, because she didn’t like my father. I would ask her why that was. I would ask her why she gave up her dreams to live in a place that obviously crushed her soul. I don’t think she had a choice, but I want to be sure.

    So many questions.

  4. Wednesday
    March 23, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    My paternal grandmother died when I was still in middle school, and now that I’m older I really regret that I never got to know her when I could appreciate her. She had a masters in Child Education at a time when I don’t think most women went to college (the 1930’s) and I really wish I could talk to her about what it was like and my own desires to go to graduate school.

    I’m sorry about your grandma.

  5. March 23, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    So sorry, Sarah!

    My maternal grandmother died when my mother was only a teenager. I know that she and my mother were very close and had a good relationship. I would ask her what my mother was like when she was just a child, what it was like to birth and raise so many kids, what is was like to lose the ones she lost, whether or not she liked to dance, and if there was any art form she preferred.

    My paternal grandmother died when I was young, maybe 11 or 12? None of us liked her very much for reasons I won’t get into here. Most of those seem trivial, of course, the older I get. I would ask her what it was like to raise children that were not her own, how she really felt about her husband having another family so late in their lives (and presumably earlier as well), and whether or not she expected her sons to cheat on their wives and hurt their families.

  6. Bogdan
    March 23, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Beautiful piece. My grandmothers were very important to my early life. I have been raised by my father’s mother when my parents were too busy. I remember that I loved to be in her space: she was a seamstress and had a lot of women coming and undressing in her studio. I was surrounded by smells, clothes, talk and gossip and was a little boy hanging out in a paradise-like space. My grandmother protected me when I got into fights with my parents and was so important for my emotional development. She was very brave: she helped my mother to get an abortion in Romania under Ceausescu, when abortion was illegal and very dangerous. She protected my mother when my grandfather got drunk and was aggressive to my mother. She died of cancer. She was an extraordinary good woman.

    Thank you for your post.

  7. Alicia
    March 23, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    I can sympathize with this so much. Both of my grandmothers passed away this year my paternal Grandma Evie on January 3rd and my maternal Grandma Dotty on March 9th. We knew it was their times, but still it does hurt.

    My Grandma Dotty kept a suitcase of love letters from my Grandpa. We came upon one while collecting pictures and things for her wake. One letter was signed “Butch” from my Grandpa (whose name was Stanley.) No one in my family had ever called him Butch. I would have loved to ask my Grandma about this! Was this a nickname?

    As for my Grandma Evie, I know she struggled with depression and anxiety. As I go through my own waves of sadness, I would have liked to ask her about what it was like for her.

    My Grandmothers were, a lot of the time, what kept our family together. Now the torch has been passed to my mother and aunts and eventually to me. I hope to be able to honor their lives adequately.

  8. libdevil
    March 23, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    I’d ask her to teach me. How to make those beautiful Ukrainian Easter eggs (even though I’m not Christian any longer). How to make pierogi and pastry. How to crochet and cross-stitch the beautiful afghans and well-loved baby blankets I still have. Those things that, when I was younger and she was vital enough to teach, I wasn’t interested in learning. They weren’t relevant enough, or masculine enough, for me to pursue. I know better now, but it mattered then. Baking and sewing were for girls, not for me. I hate that.

  9. Lindsay Beyerstein
    March 23, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    I’m so sorry to hear about your grandmother, Sarah.

  10. March 23, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    I am so sorry for your loss and I truly appreciate this beautiful piece.

    I come from poor relationships with both of my parents, but especially my dad. Despite this, I was extremely close with his mother growing up and I also have a tattoo dedicated to and about her. She was the adult I looked up to growing up.

    She died when I was 17. I had just barely reached a stage where I was emerging from the selfishness of my teen years and I was able to ask her about a few things before she passed for a long battle with cancer…living during the depression, working during the war, and continuing to work when she was told to go back home. However, I frequently mourn the loss of being able to know her as two adults. I think she had much left to share, if we had been given a few more years together. Regardless, I’m eternally thankful for the time we did share.

  11. ~s~
    March 23, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    My grandmother grew up in Fascist Italy. She was twelve when the Second World War broke out in 1939. Over the course of those years, she had to watch her brothers, cousins, and friends, leave to fight. Her village was occupied by Nazi forces after the Allies took Rome, and the train station right next to her house was bombed nightly. After the war, when the village was basically destroyed, my grandmother left and spent a few years in England working at a convent orphanage, even though she barely knew the language. She came to Canada in the 50s, traveling alone with her baby, following her husband who was already here.

    My grandmother died when I was ten and all my memories are of her caring for her prize-winning garden, singing opera songs at the top of her lungs, or eating maple fudge for breakfast. I guess if I could ask her anything it would be where she found the courage and strength to go on and love life so much after all that she experienced when she was so young.

  12. Mimi
    March 23, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    My maternal grandmother (who I think had the best grandma name ever: GranMary) died when my mom was only 23, and she’d had a hard life. Her mother, however, I’m named after, and lived until I was two. My mom’s favorite amusing story about her is how she always remembered my big sister’s name, but never mine – she always called me “What’s the baby’s name again?” To which my mom would exasperatedly reply “I named her AFTER YOU, Gran!” And then she would laugh. Gran used to crochet and made me a totally 70s colored blanket, and I ended up learning myself out of a book because of her.

    My paternal grandmother is still kicking at 90. One of my cousins (I have 25) is working with her putting together scrapbooks and photo albums, which is wonderful. I was over at their farm with some friends over the summer so that we could paddle around the lake a little bit, and when we stopped by the house to say goodbye I mentioned that that was where Nanoo’s house (Bunny’s mom) used to be, and she was surprised to find I remembered her mother! I was seven when Nanoo died, and I think that most of the older cousins remember her. Of course, when you have eight kids and 25 grandkids and four great-grands, I’m sure things get confusing.

    But, another of my favorite stories, is how my paternal grandparents met. In the Navy in WW2 – Bunny joined the WAVES after her fiancé was killed in the war.

    My condolences on your loss, and much love to all of the wonderful grandmothers out there.

  13. Mechelle
    March 23, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    To my great grandmother, I would have liked to ask her what it was like being a mix of Native American (both her parents were half Native American), African American (her father), and White (her mother), but looking completely like a White person (some of her brothers and sisters even had blue eyes) with a Black looking parent and a White looking parent. I wonder the stigma they had to face then.

    I’d like to ask my grandmother what it was like being an educated black woman, in an all White world, and with a husband who beat her. She died of breast cancer before I was born. I cannot imagine the amount of discrimination and racism she faced, only to come home to domestic violence.

  14. Nathaniel
    March 23, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    My paternal grandmother died about 5 years ago, after progressively declining from Alzheimer’s for several years. I wish I had asked her more about her past.

  15. March 24, 2011 at 8:47 am

    I’m so sorry for your loss. This post is beautiful.

    My paternal grandma, who taught me to read and to love reading, died when I was eleven. A few years later I found a box of her old novels that I spent the next several months reading. I still go back to them occasionally; they bring her back for me.

  16. Roxie
    March 24, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    I’m sorry for your loss, really.

    My grandmother & I were never close. In fact, most of the time I didn’t like being around her, especially if I was alone. My first memory of her is her yelling over my protestations, forcing me to drink some V8 b/c she didn’t want to see it go waste.

    See, my parents are peaceful people who NEVER yelled at me out of anger–not to themselves, not me. Yelling was the one of the surest ways to make me burst into tears.

    When my grandmother’s cancer returned in 2008 (She’d been w/o cancer for 40+ years. It disappeared when my mom was a child) she moved in with us. Which was fine, the house is big enough for everyone. This meant more interaction. I was always nervous about, but she would say things like, “You have to be strong. The world hates fat, black women” or she would ask why I didn’t have a boyfriend and then brag about all the times she had been asked for her hand.

    She was demanding, “always right”, and could talk for 15 minutes non-stop. We were not close. Although, she’d ask for “sugar” she wasn’t affectionate. I never went to her with a problem, ever.

    Having to help take care of her was really, very hard for me. Not only because of our relationship, but b/c it took GREAT patience which I hadn’t cultivated having never had to care for anyone but myself. And she was having an extremely hard time adjusting to a life of increased dependence (the end of which was certain death) on other people and would try to take it out on us to the point where my sister had to threaten to have her put in a nursing home in order in an effort to make her cooperate. It wasn’t coercion, she was fighting against us and the paramedics we’d been forced to call.

    One day, before the days she lost her ability to talk, she asked me, “Have I been horrible to you?” I was so shocked! I just yelled “no!” and hurried up whatever I was doing and got out of there. If I could tell her, I would say that she wasn’t horrible. But our relationship had not been easy at all for me, but that I loved her and admired her so very much. That she had given me the gift the priceless gift incredibly, nurturing, supportive loving mother who always sought to comfort & understand me, but never shied away from discipline!

    With out you, I don’t know where I would be, but with you, I have an amazing family I wouldn’t trade for the world. I know that was possible because of her. Even if it was because my mother decided NOT to be like her own mother.

    I would also ask if she liked her funeral. If she liked the video I made for her. I would ask what she thinks of me thinking about getting a tattoo in her honor that says “The fat lady is doing just fine”, like she used to say.

  17. Sylvia
    March 24, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    Very beautiful piece and it made me think of my grandmothers. One died when I was in jr. high and at that point I was too young to really appreciate her past and history of that side of the family. My other grandmother I was fortunate to have in my life until I was 30. She was an amazing woman. I never met my grandfather (he died before I was born), but I know she worked her ass off when he was in WWII raising two children, working, and holding the family together in general. She was stubborn, opinionated, strong, yet caring. One of the funniest things I love about her was her deep dislike for President Bush, man if you got her going on his policies…anyway… I was glad she made it long enough to see Obama elected after the history she witnessed that had to have been a monumental event in her life. We found the local paper with the Inauguration pictures next to her recliner after she died. She was nearly 90 when she died and I miss her, but I have wonderful memories and I know she lived a long life on her terms and died peacefully in her sleep. I’m not sure I could ask for much more than that.

    Thanks you for this beautiful post, it makes me really appreciate my family and a good reminder that no matter how long a person lives, it always seems too short so make the most of it!

  18. FW
    March 25, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    I’m reading this on my mother’s birthday, she died 8 years ago, right now it still feels like last week. I’m not sure what I’d ask her, probably to stay. But I always was kind of selfish that way.
    ♥ Condolences

  19. Jo
    March 27, 2011 at 3:18 am

    So sorry for your loss.

    I am fortunate enough to still have a full set of grandparents (though some are sicker than others), thank you for reminding me to reach out to them more.

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