There Are No Innocent Questions

This is just a gentle reminder that no query is universally benign. Some questions shouldn’t be asked of a particular person, others shouldn’t be posed at a certain time. Under more circumstances than you might think, innocently intended inquiries can … Continue reading

Think Before You Ask

In this era of “reality” television and social media sharing (and over sharing), the line between public and private is often unclear and unfixed. What one person considers a casual topic, another might find personal or sensitive. I’ve noticed that birth announcements are changing. All I really want to know is the new name and if mother and child are healthy. I also expect to learn the weight and size of the baby—though I’m not particularly interested in those statistics. However, sometimes birth announcements get even more detailed, and I’m told things such as whether it was a vaginal or C-section delivery. That is information I’m surprised to see “the masses” become privy to (and it’s a gory detail I don’t want to know), but it’s something some of my female friends are excited about and shout from their Facebook rooftops. Who am I to say it’s too much information just because it makes me uncomfortable? Clearly, people have different definitions of what qualifies as personal versus general information.

Given the spectrum of how much people are willing to share, it’s difficult to know where to draw the line with our questions. We have so much access online, even superficial relationships produce a vast depth of information. It can be hard to discern how close we really are—and what we should (or should not) ask in person.

Some questions sound like judgments or assumptions. Married women are routinely asked when they plan to have children. Some women, like me, aren’t trying or hoping to be parents. Asking us “when” is like asking a vegetarian if he wants beef or chicken. You’re presenting only two options (now or later), and leaving very little room to accommodate the response, “I’m childless by choice.

Some inquiries, though innocently asked, are experienced like attacks. Sometimes small talk can press against a big wound. I have a number of friends who have struggled with infertility. Asking a woman when she’s going to have children presumes it’s fully (or at all) within her control. It happens in other areas of life. Single men and women are asked when they’re going to settle down and get married. Sometimes parents are asked this question on behalf of their children. They’re asked “when” as if it’s just a matter of visiting the spouse aisle at the supermarket or ordering a significant other online.

It’s good to think before you ask, but don’t worry about it too much. At some point, everyone gets it wrong. We will all unwittingly overstep. Even the most innocently intended questions have the potential to hurt or offend. However, if we’re always too afraid to ask, we’ll loose opportunities for confiding in, supporting, comforting, and learning from each other. Perhaps the best we can do is to be thoughtful, forgiving, and gracious.

Don’t be offended when someone declines to answer your question. Trust that he or she has a reason. If you feel pressured to share information you’d prefer to keep private, remember that you have the right to defend your boundaries.

Ask, but don’t assume your innocent or simple question will have a clean or easy answer. It might make a mess. Things might get emotional. Your inquiry might stir up sadness or fear or anger. So ask your questions with a modicum of caution, and if the answers do get messy, stick around and help clean up. Don’t ask if you’re not ready to listen. Don’t hit and run.

I Think Therefore I Rant: Pet Peeves

Every year pet food looks more and more like human food. The packaging is becoming more similar and so are the contents. There’s a variety of cat food with broth that (at least in the commercial I saw) looks a lot like a bowl of soup a human being might consume. I can buy canned cat food with a lid that removes itself, even though I enjoy no such luxury when I buy canned tuna for myself.

I understand the impulse to make pet food look less disgusting. This way the people feeding the animals aren’t nauseated by the task. But there are a few products I take issue with. They don’t just make snacks for dogs and cats; they make appetizers too. Appetizers! I’m just waiting for the day when I’ll be expected to cook for my pets or offer them a beverage other than water. I suspect energy drinks for dogs are just around the corner.

Didn’t we all finally agree that the cat with a bowl of milk cliché has lived all of its nine lives? Isn’t it now widely known and accepted that cats are lactose intolerant? Then why is one brand of cat food making a cheddar cheese variety? Whose cat goes crazy for cheese? My husband once had a cat that loved cantaloupe, so I suppose anything is possible, but I’m skeptical of the notion that cats are clamoring for cheese.

What I think is happening here is that pet food companies are trying to appeal to human tastes. They know that we have so anthropomorphized our animals that we’ll readily assume they want what we want or need what we need. Never mind that cats are lactose intolerant. People love cheese, so let’s put it in cat food! Some humans are trying to be healthy. Let’s get them feeling guilty about not feeding their dogs enough vegetables (even though their wild and ancestral counterparts aren’t rooting around for carrots and peas). Fluffy and Fido should also have organic options. And let’s have low calorie offerings, because if the people are dieting, then their animals must be.

If our pets are fat, we’re to blame. Why are perfectly healthy dogs riding around in strollers? Who decided these dogs needed or wanted to be pushed around? Just because the thought of walking down the block is enough to leave some people feeling pre-exhausted, doesn’t mean their canine companions can’t handle it. I’m confident that even the smallest of dogs can out-walk the average human on any ordinary outing. If a three-legged dog can run and fetch and keep up with her four-legged friends, then Lord Furrybottom can make it to the grocery store on his own steam.

So please remove your healthy dog from the stroller, baby carrier, or whatever other contraption we used to reserve for human infants and let your dog be a dog like a dog is supposed to be—paws on the ground, nose sniffing some other dog’s butt, marking territory, and loving you unconditionally.

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.

Unasked Questions

My paternal grandfather used to say, “You see me? I’m an original. I am not a copy.” He was a man who always presented his true self to the world—and without apology. He was not a follower. He was not an imitator. He thought and spoke for himself—and boldly. He gave his sons names (and nicknames) like Caesar, Augustus, and Kingsley. He named his home “Triumph.” He was not inclined towards humility.

Once a year (when I was a child) he packed a suitcase, boarded a plane, and left his wife (my grandmother) behind to spend a month in England with his mistress and the son they shared. He would pack a dark brown leather suitcase, the old-fashioned kind with four small and ineffective wheels that were just as useless as the leash attached to the bag’s side. He would pack that large brown suitcase and go to England for no less than a month at a time. Before I knew what those trips were really for, I’d beg him to take me along on his “vacation.” His answer was always, “Maybe next year.” And then one year it occurred to me that he’d stopped going.

My grandfather was stubborn and resolute. He would drive my grandmother and me to our favorite beach and sit in the car while we swam. He didn’t even step onto the sand of that beach because he had vowed never to swim in its waters again. He was the only one who could change his mind, and even that was an exceptional event. He did as he pleased, and he was not to be manipulated, even when it was in his own interest. He died with one loose tooth in his head because he was too stubborn to follow doctor’s orders—let alone those of a dentist.

He was not timid or deferential. He may even have been a bully. His presence was powerful and massive. His personality and voice demanded attention. I never felt anything other than safe and protected with him, but my biggest fear was making him angry. It wasn’t that I feared punishment, I simply had too much love and respect for him to find letting him down anything other than unacceptable. I wanted him to love me. And he did—always making sure that the fridge was stocked with my favorite sodas whenever I came to visit, helping me make a checker set with a piece of cardboard and bottle caps—and then playing checker games with me and, knowing that I hate shallow victories, never letting me win.

My grandfather liked what he liked, wanted what he wanted, and did as he pleased. Every evening after dinner he took his “medicine” from a shot glass. He loved his country—his island—Grenada. In fact, I think some of his pride was internalized patriotism. But be that as it may, there were certain things he preferred from America. Whenever my family visited him, we brought two things: Juicy Fruit gum and Kentucky Fried Chicken. If I was old enough back then to know what a stereotype was, I might have resented my grandfather for making us board a plane with an Igloo cooler packed full of fried chicken. But in my youth, I simply took pride in being able to provide my grandfather with something he couldn’t get on his own. Plus, I looked forward to eating that chicken with him.

My grandfather was protective and loving like a lion. However, he was not given to marital fidelity. He had two sons by two different women who weren’t my grandmother—both affairs taking place after they were married. And while I know nothing about his mistresses other than that they existed, I know their offspring. I met the one from England once. And the other son I knew well and loved. He’s my uncle. My grandmother raised him. Because before my grandparents had any children of their own, my grandfather brought his infant son by another woman home with him. The audacity of that act still fills me with disbelief, indignation, and queries—knots my brain with questions I can’t imagine asking.

How did my grandfather convince his young bride to raise another woman’s child as their son? How did he bring a living, breathing, crying, pamper sullying product of his infidelity into his marriage—a marriage too new to have produced its own progeny? And how did my grandmother bear it all—the wounds of betrayal, the sting of jealousy, mothering a baby she hadn’t borne?

And what escapes my understanding to an even greater degree is how the love between my grandparents survived such systematic and chronic infidelity—cheating that (as far as I could tell) wasn’t discussed or denied, but the result of which my grandmother had to raise as her own child—feeding, cleaning, and clothing the product of her husband’s adultery.

Knowing what I know now but didn’t know then, I search my memories for clues that my grandmother was bitter. I find none. As a child I saw nothing both love between them. It was palpable—oozed out of them like melted sugar.

It makes me wonder who my grandmother was. I know her as a sweet but firm, generous but shrewd, and funny woman. But what was her inner life like? Was she really that forgiving and long-suffering? How deeply did my grandfather’s wandering eye hurt her? Did she forgive him or just get phenomenal at faking? But most of all, I want to know this: with what in mind does she say she hopes my husband and I will be as happy in our relationship as they were in theirs? How does she perceive her marriage? It looks different to me—full of love, yes, but also hard and trying in ways that aren’t necessary. Has she moved on? Has she detached the hurtful parts from her memory? Has she managed to literally forgive and forget?

This is what I know. My grandmother is a woman who will suffer in secret to save her son from worrying when he’s too far away to really do anything. She has been left bed-ridden by a stroke and is impatient for death, but still she laughs with ease—and deeply. In her weakened and fully dependent state, she has been neglected and abused, but does not complain. She apologizes instead—sorry that her need for ceaseless care will lessen the inheritance she’ll be able to leave. What kind of woman is capable of all that? I suppose the same woman who could begin her family with the son of her husband’s mistress, bearing any feelings of betrayal and jealousy without loosing her joy. It makes me think that there is only one answer to all of my unasked questions, and it’s quite simple, really—simple not to be confused with easy.

My grandmother is patient. My grandmother is kind. I have never known her to be envious, boastful, or full of pride. She is selfless and slow to anger. And if her relationship with her husband is any example, she does not catalog wrongs or acts of indiscretion—never plays the martyr. She is an honest and God-fearing woman. Whenever she verbalizes a hope or plan she always adds the words, “God willing.” She is a consummate nurturer and protector. She is trusting and hopeful—always expecting the best from all people and situations, but able to persevere when things become very bad or worse. She joyfully gives more than she receives without counting the cost. She is as lovable as she is loving. She is lovable because she is loving. She is the essence and epitome of love—love in spirit, love in action, love personified. It is with love that she has lived her life, and so it is with love that I will answer all of my unasked questions.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. . . . And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:4–8, 13).