[TW: death of family members]
My nuclear family and my father’s side of the family have never been close. Part of it was that my mother’s relatives lived closer, so we spent all the holidays with them. Another part was class divides – my father became an M.D. and a PhD, and my aunt felt that part of the reason he moved away was that he felt superior, to good for them, once he’d moved up the social ladder. My mother, though her family had fallen on hard times, was old New England blue blood, able to trace her descent right back to the Puritan jerks who came over on the Mayflower.
Growing up amongst New England intellectuals, and learning their class prejudices, meant that I thought my Midwest family members were kind of weird. They didn’t talk about books like my mom’s relatives. When I saw my grandma, she wanted to watch TV with me instead of playing scrabble. Grandma and Grandpa’s house was a cookie cutter on a road with lots of similar houses and a teeny backyard – my maternal grandparents lived on a forested lane, and we spent most of our visits taking their dogs for walks in the trees. I loved my grandpa – he was Silly Grandpa, and we used to play cardgames and catch with beanbags, and he would call me butterfingers when I missed and play the accordion. I never had much time for Grandma.
I never spent much time with my aunts or uncles from that side either, nor my father’s two children from his first marriage – not after I turned 6. I mostly forgot about them, except when someone was getting married or someone died.
My paternal grandfather died when I was in Egypt. I had gone to visit before I left, and hadn’t been prepared for the ravages Alzheimers had wreaked on him. One of my aunts was very frank and sweet and dryly humorous, and welcomed me with open arms. My other aunt yelled at me about my father’s distance. When I got the news of his death, I wasn’t really that sad – I think death was probably a kindness, since his mind was already so gone.
My great-grandfather (paternal grandma’s father) died the next summer. I’d seen him about a year before at his 100th birthday, and been shocked that this man, whom I hadn’t seen in at least 10 years, took one look at my face and told me all about the first time he’d seen me, when I was four, swimming in a river. Sharp and strong and sad. He’d been tricked into signing over his power of attorney to his wife’s daughter, and been pushed out of his home into a care facility. I remember feeling a great sense of injustice that he couldn’t come live with us, and guilt and sorrow when he died.
My grandma though…I can’t recall the content of a single conversation I’ve ever had with her. I remember her smiling, and I remember her matter-of-fact way of bringing up all her ailments – not whining, but putting them out there every opportunity that came up. She died just a few hours ago, and I mostly feel a sense of “all things come to an end.” She was my last grandparent, but I don’t really have any feelings about it, other than a vague wish that there could have been some way for us to be closer. I don’t believe all class stereotypes are correct, but they’re definitely one thing that got ( continues to get) in the way of my relationships with my paternal relatives.
So I guess I just wanted to say: Grandma, I’m sorry I wasn’t open-minded enough to love you more, and I’m sorry I didn’t get to visit you more – to break through the awkward “I don’t really know you but I’m related to you” feeling and find out who you really are. Rest in peace.