My maternal grandmother would have been 80 today. She was a very pretty lady, petite and fiery. She didn’t leave her house without dressing properly which meant a skirt…and gloves. I stood many a day on her porch yelling “Mamaw! It’s just me. Would you please let me in?!!?” while hearing her putter around yelling back “Just wait a minute! I have to find my lipstick!”. And ladies? They sat up straight and did NOT pass gas in any manner.
She was an avid reader, a trait she passed on to my mother and me. Her house was crammed with books from the overflowing shelves to novels scattered on most of the flat surfaces. I grew up staring in wonder at those shelves, often trying to sneak off with one tome or another before she’d take it away. She did release books to me slowly until I was in jr high when she gave me free reign over her collection. I was in grade school when she went back to college but I remember how excited she was. She loved classes, especially writing classes, and she was terribly proud when one of her articles was published in the school newspaper. (Sadly she was unable to finish due to health issues.) She was also an avid Razorback basketball fan and never missed a televised game. She’d sit with one hand marking her spot in a book and a cigarette waving in the other as she yelled encouragement alternately with tirades of frustration at the t.v.
She was a single mother, raising my mother and uncle alone while working as a secretary. As I entered the working world she would look me in the eye and warn “Don’t you EVER let anyone call you ‘their girl’ do you hear me? You’re more than that.” She was determined that I be strong and self sufficient, that I could support myself financially and emotionally.
She was also a very bitter woman with a hard exterior. She was never able to forgive my grandfather nor accept that he changed and matured into a wonderful man. She hated my father and was forever looking for proof that he was the monster she imagined (and he isn’t). She felt that way about most men, my uncle and ex-husband being the only exceptions, but it resulted in a familial rift that lasted for years. I was the only one who was allowed to cross that battle line, the only one she would entertain, much less speak to. She had virtually nothing to do with either of my sisters. Her tongue was sharp and her words poisonous.
In the end, she gave up on life. I want to cling to the good memories I have of her. I want to pull those out and polish them up and embrace all the wonderful things she taught me. But the truth is there’s nothing to embrace. All my memories are hazy with pain and regret. She fully embraced me only when I chose to mostly estrange myself from my family. And while I am grateful for her sanctuary and support at that time, she only loved and accepted me on her conditions. Misery loves company and we were both miserable.
She died in September of 2003. And she died mad at me. She chose to ignore me. She refused to speak to me, to look at me, to acknowledge my existence. At the end, it was my turn to be on the receiving end of her poison that my family had suffered through for so many years.
She gave me a passion for reading. She taught me to question, to think for myself, to be independent. But her overall lesson was that love is conditional, that I can never be good enough and without being thin and pretty and successful I am ultimately unlovable. I wanted so much to be as pretty as she was, as elegant. I wanted to be as strong as (I thought) she was, as smart as she (absolutely) was. I want to miss her and reminisce fondly. But in the end, I mostly only regret trying to love her.