Tearful Goodbyes

So often sadness is simply the opposite side of joy. It is our feelings of affection that make for tearful goodbyes. We feel loss because we loved. We shed tears for what we’ve treasured. The hardest part about visiting my … Continue reading

When We Laugh

Family trips are a rarity in my family. When I was a young child, my parents would send me to Grenada for a month. Sometimes one or both of them would join me for a week or so. After my … Continue reading

Family Tree Uncertainty

Last month one more link in my family line was laid to rest. I saw my maternal grandmother buried. In writing her eulogy I couldn’t help but be keenly aware of how many boughs of my family tree produce uncertainties—so many phantom, questionable, and half-related branches—so many spaces for names I have to leave empty.

Questions abound on the maternal side of my family. I know that I have a number of half-uncles and half-aunts, but I don’t know how many. (I only know one personally.) I don’t know my maternal grandfather’s first name. I’ve probably heard it, and I could find out, but that detail has never taken up permanent residence in my brain. He died when I was three, and was not often talked about—at least not around me.

I have tenuous memories of his funeral—the hole in the ground (and my fear of falling in), the soft brown dress suit with silver buttons my mother wore (one of my favorite things to see her in). Yet most of my mental picture from that day is empty. Did I toss a red rose on his coffin? Or was that a dream? Was my grandmother—or any of the other woman he fathered children by—there? Uncertainty.

My grandfather had children with at least three different women. He may have married one of them, but I’m not certain. Grandma C never married at all and had only one child (my mother). I don’t know if she thought she was in love with and would marry my grandfather, or if he was already married. I don’t know if he filled her ears with sweet-talk and her mind with empty promises. Was she beguiled by or despite his perfidious nature, or did she, simply wanting a child, know exactly what sort of man he was? What was it like raising a child on her own in that place and at that time—a no-secrets-or-strangers-here-small, highly religious island in the 1950s? Was her situation scandalous or commonplace? Was she accepted or ostracized? Uncertainties abound in my mind.

The paternal side of my family tree is less ambiguous. Its limbs are well defined until I get to my great-grandparents. Grandma F’s mother died when she was a small child. Then her father disowned her because she was cross-eyed. Her aunt tried to raise her, but wanted an independent (i.e., child free) life. So Grandma F spent most of her youth in an orphanage until she was adopted—though her descriptions of “adoption” sound more like servanthood to me.

One day a young officer (my grandfather) expressed an interest in marrying her. She didn’t fall in love with him; she chose to love him because he chose her. She loved him well: a pure, longsuffering, and kind wife. She loved him through years of poverty and bounty, his ego and infidelity, civic unrest, and political instability.

She loved him enough to literally live with the consequences of his adultery. Before their first year of marriage had come to a close, he brought home a baby boy born to him by another woman. He wanted his firstborn son raised under his roof. And so my grandmother’s first child was not her own. Did she cry, protest, or complain? Did she contemplate leaving? Did the baby melt her heart and evoke her love? Or did she simply grit her teeth and play the mother part? Uncertainty.

It makes me wonder how my two grandmothers got along—each affected by infidelity, but playing different roles. Were they conscious of the opposing archetypes they represented (the other woman and the good wife)? Did any of this affect their friendship? Was there jealousy or just understanding? Did they fight, commiserate, or feel conflicting feelings?

Perhaps it wasn’t even thought about, let alone discussed. They lived in a country and culture where instances of infidelity were as easy to find as churches. Perhaps it was just life as they knew it—no scandal, no shame, no stigma. Perhaps I’m inventing all these currents of drama.

I have no point of reference for understanding the lives my grandmothers lived. I cannot imagine loving the way they loved, or being able to forgive betrayals as they did. I want to know how they did it and what it really cost them, but my connection to one primary source (with Grandma C now dead) has been broken. I could ask some things of Grandma F, but it would feel like a cruelty. I’m afraid of the revisited pain my questions could bring to the surface, and I don’t want to add one drop to the pool of her suffering. She was denied and abandoned as a child, betrayed as a wife, and now, widowed, lays half paralyzed—confined to her bed by a stroke, free only in her memory and imagination.

My family tree is full of uncertainty—so many limbs, connections, and classifications I know nothing about. So many questions circulate in my head—questions about my grandmothers and their respective lives. How and why they made the decisions they made. What thoughts ran through their minds on their best and worst days? There’s so much I’d love to know but can’t or won’t ask—answers that can’t be demanded of the dead or that would revisit hurt upon the living. In the case of my grandmothers, I’ve decided I know enough: their love for me and my love for them. And so of everything else I am (and will continue to be) curious, but uncertain.

My Eulogy for Grandma C

Grandma C in her younger years.

Grandma C in her younger years.

Good afternoon. My name is AG—some of you know me as D. I am J’s eldest granddaughter. I speak on behalf of my father, brother, and sister. They wanted to be here as well, but were unable to make the trip.

JHC was born here in Grenada on Tuesday, August 8, 1922, to JC and TC. She was one of six siblings. J had one daughter, SFra (born SFri), who, sadly, predeceased her in September of 2001.

Some of you here knew JHC as Tante Mammitz, but to me she was Grandma C, or just Grandma. For most of my childhood, she lived next door to us in Brooklyn, New York. In addition to my parents, she helped lay the foundation for my faith in God. She is the first person I remember bringing me to church. Every Saturday morning we would put on our best clothes and attend service at Hanson Place Seventh-day Adventist Church, where she was a devoted member and deaconess.

I have many fond memories of sleeping over in her apartment on weekends; staying up late with her to watch television; and eating the Rice Krispies treats she was always willing to make for me. Every night before we went to bed she’d read a Bible story to me, we’d sing a song together like “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” say a prayer, and then go to sleep. In the morning, she’d open her great, big Bible and read a passage with me.

A number of years later, she moved in to live with us. Our bedrooms were next door to each other, and so we shared a lot of quality time together. Every weeknight other than Friday we’d watch Jeopardy. It was one of her favorite shows. We’d also play a lot of Scrabble. She could play that game for hours, and she was very good at it. Of all the things Grandma and I did together, it was playing Scrabble with her that I enjoyed most.

While my mother (her daughter), S, was alive, she and Grandma C were very close. They were more than mother and daughter; they were best friends—giving each other deep emotional and spiritual support. Two women who loved God above all else. Two women whose great faith I admired and respected.

Grandma C was a loving and tender grandmother. It was her pleasure to lavish love upon C, A, and me. She was always there for us, taking an active interest in our lives and attending school functions and dance recitals. She was always ready to listen, gave sage advice, and was full of affection for us—always offering up warm kisses and hugs.

Grandma C was a humble woman of faith. Even though she’d travelled to the farthest corners of the world, she was content to live a very simple and modest life. She could make her home anywhere comfortably. She was a woman of great intelligence and integrity, kind, and completely devoid of vanity. She also loved animals, and spoiled our pets as much as (if not more than) she spoiled us.

In her later years, Grandma C returned to Grenada and her little blue house in Springs. She had originally planned to stay for three months, but once here, she couldn’t bring herself to leave again. Unfortunately, her health began to decline. She had to depend on the kindness and generosity of others for her well-being. Some of those who selflessly cared for her are here today, and I would like to thank each of them for their compassionate actions towards my grandmother.

On the morning of Monday, September 23, 2013, JHC died in the country of her birth. It is the very same date on which her daughter passed away exactly twelve years earlier—and remarkably close to the same time of day. It comforts me to know that they are reunited for eternity, basking in the presence of the Lord.

In her death, J leaves behind her three grandchildren, her son-in-law, her nieces and nephews, extended family, and good friends. She was greatly loved, and she will be greatly missed as well.

Grandma C at my high school graduation

Grandma C at my high school graduation

The little blue house in Springs. (It's about the size of a small studio apartment in New York City.)

The little blue house in Springs. (It’s about the size of a small studio apartment in New York City.)

Aging

When my paternal grandfather got sick and everyone was expecting him to die, I made a commitment to visit him and my grandmother once a year for as long as they lived. It was a promise I enjoyed keeping, even though it was financially difficult at times. My grandparents live in the Caribbean, on a beautiful island called Grenada. It is a place I grew up visiting every summer, and so in addition to visiting my beloved grandparents, travelling there means touching parts of my past to my present. It is a scenic treasure trove of memories for me.

My grandfather passed away more than ten years ago. It was a death we were all expecting. In two years I made two trips to see him “for the last time” before I made the trip for his funeral. There’s nothing quite like telling someone you have to go to the Caribbean for a funeral. You can see their inner confusion as they try to express sympathy while keeping their jealousy from leaking out. It is hard to pity someone on their way to a tropical paradise, even if they’re going there to mourn.

At present, both of my grandmothers live in Grenada. My maternal grandmother, who never married, moved there inadvertently. She left Grenada without looking back or going back for more than forty years. Then she accompanied me on one of my yearly visits. I can’t remember if she had planned to stay for three weeks or three months, but six years have passed and she’s still living there now.

With two aging grandmothers in Grenada, I continue to visit every year. I no longer travel alone; my husband accompanies me now. Much more has changed—mostly due to the fact that my grandmothers have aged. My paternal grandmother had a stroke five years ago and hasn’t stood, let alone walked, since. It took months of physical therapy for her to relearn how to sit up and feed herself. Her entire existence is limited to the confines of her bed. My maternal grandmother is similarly limited. She can stand with assistance, but walking is an excruciating endeavor for her now. Unless someone is there to help her, she is effectively bed-ridden as well.

Every year that I visit my grandmothers I have to face aging and mortality. When I was young, they looked ageless to me—frozen in time in my mind as simply being old to a grandparental degree. Now I can measure their decline by sight. Strokes and age have greatly altered them. Their hair and their bodies have thinned. Their limbs and their eyes have grown weaker. I can see parts of who they used to be disappearing.

Visiting my grandmothers is always bittersweet. It is good to see them. It is good to reminisce and laugh. It brings me joy to bring them joy just by visiting. But it is also hard to see them—to see them so changed from how I remember them being. Their bodies have betrayed them. Old age has abused them. Life is leaving them like an ice cube in a glass of warm water that can’t help but keep on melting. Each year I visit them I know it might be the last time I see them alive. This knowledge adds an extra weight of emotion to each “I love you” and hug goodbye.