Accepting my grandmother's flaws helped me love my mother more fully
My mother and I have always been unusually close. Growing up, I confided in her in the way that is usually only seen on TV. Still, there was conflict between us, and most of it stemmed from one thing — that my mother was not my grandmother.
Gram, as I called her, and I were cut of the same cloth. I always said that if we hadn’t been alive at the same time, I would have believed that I was Gram, reincarnated. Things we loved: The New Yorker, old movies, champagne, “dressing to the nines,” curating a taste level to make other people envious. My grandmother was responsible for so many of my opinions. Even when we disagreed, she helped to shape my opinions.
Given that each generation swings like a pendulum in the opposite direction of their parents, my mother had swung away from Gram, only to find that she had birthed a daughter who was virtually identical to her mother.
(Identical in personality — physically, I am a carbon copy of my mother).
I loved my mother, but I sometimes found it difficult to tolerate her “otherness.” Why couldn’t she be Gram?
Last fall, Gram moved in with my mother.
They practically had to drag her, kicking and screaming out of her studio apartment overlooking the Chicago River (even then, I look at her with awe, my kind of girl). Her health had been failing for a while, and it was high time she admit that she could no longer leave the apartment she loved, so she shouldn’t be living there anymore.
In what turned out to be the last nine months of Gram’s life, I was finally able to understand the necessities of the differences between Gram, my mother, and me.
Gram mellowed from idol to human, while my mother’s trajectory traveled in the opposite direction. Seeing Gram in a more regular way than I’d ever seen her allowed me to recognize fissures in the way I had perceived her. Gram’s love of “having a good time” could sometimes be selfish. Her opinions could be, at times, unrelenting. I could see that when my mother was growing up, it was possible that Gram hadn’t always been the adult she needed to be. Gram was fun — she stayed up all night making an ice rink in the backyard during the winter. She launched water balloons at her sunbathing daughters from the second story window in the summer.
But maybe Gram didn’t handle the tough stuff as much as my mother would have liked or needed.
My mother’s lack of “chill,” I realized, came from a very real place.
Seeing Gram in such a close light — this woman whom I had held on a pedestal for so long — weirdly made me more grateful for my own mother.
Of course, that is not to say that Gram was awful — she was great! — but I began to see her in a different way, a way that allowed me to understand both Gram and my mother for who they were. Not for who I thought them to be.
It pains me to admit Gram’s failings, even now, but to hide them would do her a greater disservice. It would rob her of her humanity. After 84 years of life on this Earth, I think she deserves to have that, at least.
We said goodbye to Gram last Spring. The loss was devastating— though the day she died, we poured the champagne and “did something fun,” just as she would have wanted.
I always knew that Gram’s passing would be difficult for me. I have found more difficulty in it because I lack the usual shorthand. “My grandmother died,” does not cut it. This woman was my own personal tastemaker. Everything that I loved, she loved, unless she hated it. Either way, it is impossible for me to move through the world without bumping into her opinions. Every memory causes me pain. When I sit in those memories for a prolonged amount of time, like when I wrote her eulogy, I hit what I like to call Horcrux-level grief. These moments are important to me. I needed to write her eulogy, and yet, the pain was so intense that I felt a splitting of my soul.
My mother could not grieve more differently. She loves to talk about my grandmother. She has kept the rooms in which my grandmother lived pristine, as if Gram sauntered out for a walk and will be home any minute. I agree with the preservation — it would be too soon to remove a single item —but I never want to go in that room or look at it. My mother believes that Gram is haunting her. (My mother would disagree with my choice of words. “She’s saying hello,” my mother answers every time I use the word “haunting.”) My mother came to this conclusion because every now and again, the lights will turn on in Gram’s room, illuminating her possessions in a dim, yellow glow. “It’s her. There could be no other explanation,” my mother explains to anyone who will listen. “So many,” I answer. “There are so many.” The switch is shorting.
A few years ago, this would have driven me nuts. I would have seen my mother’s mistaking faulty electricity for the paranormal as an affront to my grief. Now, I can understand that she insists on this fantasy because it is important to her. As much as I grieve Gram like a third parent, I respect that my mother has lost her mother, a mother who also became her child in the final years. If the pain I feel is insurmountable, my mother’s grief must be more.
Through learning how to understand my mother, it helped me to understand her grief. Likewise, because of the close way we worked together at the end — I manned the night shift while Gram was in hospice — my mother is better able to tolerate our differences, as well.
In the past, I know it would have started a WWIII for me to say, “Gram is not haunting you.” Now, we laugh. We are able to celebrate and to love each other more fully than we were ever able to do before.
For Christmas, I made my mother a Horcrux. It was a frame, spray-painted blue (Gram’s and my signature color), with a print that read, “How to Have Fun Anywhere: Kay Roeser’s Guide to Living Well.” It was full of things Gram used to say and the tenants by which she lived her life: talk to strangers; read everyday; be amazed by everything; be outraged by everything else; drink Taittinger; always Taittinger.
My mother said it was the best gift I’ve ever given her.