The Friday before last, I received the sad, but not unexpected news, of my grandmother’s death. I loved her so much, farther than the whole universe, I once told her when I was a little boy. She had been extremely healthy into her old age until very recently. In her last weeks, she became less responsive, and she died in her sleep, at the age of 96.
The first thing I did when I heard the news was look at Ben. I had known she was probably going to die soon, but now it was confirmed that Ben wouldn’t have the same opportunity to get to know her. She held him a few times, but he won’t remember, but I was glad she got to meet him. Near the end she spoke a lot about him and how cute he is, and she asked a lot about him.
My grandmother was born more than 94 years before our son Ben, in 1914. I think back a lot about being in the hospital room and watching Ben emerging into this strange world, that must have seemed too bright in its first moments, and the contrast with the world my grandma and grandpa, who was born in 1910, came into.
And the day my grandma died (though not truly a believer in the afterlife, I couldn’t say for sure), I could see her watching me. I thought about the possibility that she could see everything. I was giving Ben a bath and he wanted to play with his toothbrush. I gave it to him, but then took it back, since I’m concerned about plastics–I’ll have to write about that in another blog. So then I gave him a rubber implement that fits on an adult’s finger to brush a baby’s teeth. The only problem is that it fits so easily into a baby’s mouth that if they are unsupervised, they can choke.
“Take that away from him!” I could hear her saying to me.
“Grandma, I just want to give him something to keep him from getting upset,” I said to her, in my mind.
“Who’s the adult here, him or you? You’re going to let a little baby be the boss? You’re here to protect him, and you can’t let him get his way with something like that. He’ll choke!”
“Ok,” I said in my mind, and I grabbed it away from Ben. I managed to give him something else and assured him things would be ok.
My grandma was quite an assertive lady–that and her sense of humor are probably what helped her live so long. When Ben was just a few months old we took him to Ohio, where the rest of my immediate family lives. My grandma and the rest of my family were all leaving a restaurant. It was starting to get dark and cold out. She looked at me while I was pushing the stroller and yelled “put his hat on!”
“But I don’t have him,” I asserted.
My wife was carrying Ben back to the car in her arms, while I pushed the stroller that had some of our things, like our diaper bag, in the chair. Finally, I could show I hadn’t done anything wrong, and we all had a good laugh about this, including, I believe, my Grandma.
But my grandma, as it turned out, had been right about a lot of things.
When I was in my twenties, she used to always tell me to cut my hair. Now when I look at old photographs of me, with my longer and wild hair (since my hair never grows straight down, but instead grows out like a lion’s mane), I can’t help from saying out loud “what was I thinking?!”
Also, she used to tell me to hold the door open for the ladies. I thought I knew better at the time. I thought holding open the door for the opposite gender was an old-fashioned attitude. Women wanted to be treated the same way as men. Holding the door open for them meant I was treating them differently, so that holding the door open for women is sexist, so I had thought. Well, I probably lost a few chances from first dates when I tried not to be sexist. I had to learn years later that there are some gender differences short-term trends or notions can never erase.
Still, some things from past generations fade. I do understand how hard it could be to forget all the past attitudes that surrounded her when she was young. Maybe one of the benefits of successive generations is that some memories, such as ethnic conflicts fade. After all, at this point, we don’t hear about any conflict between the Normands and the Saxons, in the land the used to be known as “Angle Land.”
But I appreciate how much sharper the divisions among ethnic groups were from her generation. Read Ernest Hemmingway– in The Sun Also Rises, there is a mention of a “N_____” playing in the band. Presumably, Hemmingway wanted to evoke the atmosphere in a smokey tavern at that time, rather than his own attitude. Another thing: the novel’s heroine dates a Jew, a strong irritant to the other characters.
The Great Gatsby also clearly shows one of its characters concerns:
“’Civilization’s going to pieces,’ broke out Tom violently. ‘I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard?’”
“The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
Do these novels reflect the attitudes of their time? The Sun Also Rises was published when my grandma was 12 (1926) and The Great Gatsby when she was 11 (1925).
Most of us are familiar with ‘that generation,’ the generation that didn’t have the same sensitivities as ours. Many viewers could easily recognize these attitudes with the father in the movie Monster’s Ball.
My grandma heard about anti-semitism in Europe from her parents who emigrated to the United States. Later, she would hear about the worse events in Europe. So it was no surprise when she warned me about anti-semitism. However, while acknowledging that this does exist, I see successive generations and modernity wearing away at much of this, bringing us to our son Ben, product of a union from an American of Eastern-European Jewish descent–that’s me–and my smart, beautiful, sensitive and loving wife, from Poland.
It isn’t exactly that my grandma had anything against my wife, whom she welcomed into our family and treated affectionately. Instead, it seemed to be a general wariness of much of Europe or European society.
I remember telling her, before I met my wife, about getting friendly with a few au pairs, one from Germany, one from Austria and one from Poland, three countries on the bad list, at least historically. Of course, part of the retirement that my grandparents enjoyed included many trips to many European countries, including Austria.
While I still have my differences with her whole generation, I do feel her presence, especially when I’m with my son. After all, having kids at an older age doesn’t take away the feeling I am still a kid myself, a kid with a kid. Somehow, having a son at forty didn’t made me feel more like an adult who was ready to be a parent. Rather, my childhood had been extended.
But like a great Jungian voice in some part of my conscious, I hear grandma in my thoughts. I have a sense of what her advice would be. There seems to be an evolutionary purpose, first in having grandparents around–I remember the New York Times’ science section had a big article about this a few years ago. But now I hear her advice very strongly when I am lacking resolve. I might hesitate to keep Ben from something that isn’t exactly good for him, but then I ask myself “What would Grandma say?”
She’s there in some way when I’m still not sure I can get up, ‘footsteps in the sand’ one might say, or like the father’s hand in Smoke Signals.
I still have trouble believing and accepting that she’s no longer around. I knew my grandmother for over 42 years, my whole life, of course. But I think she would tell me to cherish her memory close to my heart. And while I might not have always agreed with every opinion she held, I do appreciate what her many years taught her. She and my grandfather raised my mother and uncle, watched seven grandchildren grow up and four great-grandchildren mature into teenagers. For most of her life, except close to the very end, she had a strong mind, often with strong, but evolving, opinions, about family life and about politics. She probably deserves some credibility where it comes to child raising.
I know she would have gotten a kick out of this article.