Today would have been my grandmother’s 102nd birthday and I miss her with each breath and I am glad she’s dead.
She was love and laughter. Oh, sure, she was quick with a sharp word when it was called for, but she was the safest person in my childhood. She couldn’t stop people from hurting me, but she tried—and those efforts, those little interventions, are a big part of why I am alive at all today. At a time when it felt like I was unwanted and unseen and unheard and better-not-born, it was my grandmother who looked right at me, who looked right into me, who tried to mitigate the things that were said and done to me by others. By stepping up to try to protect me—even though she mostly failed—she made me feel that there was some worth to me after all. It wasn’t the success or failure of her protection that mattered; it was the fact that she cared enough to try.
My grandmother. There are no words, and at the same time I could write whole books. How I have tried to piece the story together over the years, from what she told me, from what others said, from old pictures, from what her half-brother and his wife told me when I visited them in Denmark, from how she treated me and what she perceived as right or wrong, fair or unfair, fun or dull.
I look at her life and am amazed at some of the parallels with mine. The mean stepmother, the estranged father, the grandmother who saved her. The abuse that people didn’t believe, and how she was punished for disclosure. The way she stood up anyway. How much she missed her dad even though he didn’t protect her, and how hurt she was that he cut her off. How all her life she wanted to learn new things. How the drive to create was always there but pushed underground by the demands of daily life until when she was forty she suddenly burst out of the gate.
How brave she was, how strong, how creative, how beautiful the paintings she was making as a young woman when she met my grandfather. How she survived with a young baby in Nazi-occupied Denmark, how she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with my dad in Copenhagen when the Nazis rounded up the Jews. How she survived her husband’s post-war incarceration (and how nobody in the family but her would ever discuss or even admit that happened). The emigration to Canada with her kids, my grandfather having traveled over in advance. New life, new country, new language, new culture.
It tore me when she died. The last safe person. The person who always, always saw me. I could not even take it in. One reason I moved back to Canada from the Netherlands is that I missed her so much. I got her last few years, and she knew me for some of them. Suddenly she was the child, and I could try to give her back some of that kindness. “My sweet,” I called her, as I helped her with her food. Sometimes I lost patience: One time, wheeling her back into the building, I asked for her sunglasses so I could trade them for her regular glasses. She set her mouth in a stubborn line and shook her head. I tried reasoning, I tried convincing, I tried charming. Finally, I snapped “JUST GIMME THEM!” And she pulled them off slowly, looking up sideways at me, with a grin full of mischief. I could only laugh: “Oh, my sweet!”
She wasn’t an Earth Mother granny. Woe to the child who got between her and the TV when The Edge of Night was on. Some of her activities were non-interruptible, and I learned to respect the fact that she wasn’t Love-On-Tap because she had interests of her own.
There’s so much to write about her. About how she stopped painting when she married my grandfather (also a painter), so people admire his work but don’t know what the world lost in hers. How she became an award-winning weaver and spinner and bobbin lacemaker. How many people she taught and how the gentle clicking of the slender wooden bobbins on quiet afternoons made me want to learn it. How patient she was in the teaching. How much I treasure each bowl and glass I still have from her house, and how I grieve when one breaks, but I keep using them. I want to write more. But I am so sad.
Sad about the dark things. Sad about the pain she had. Sad about how she spent her last years in a nursing home not recognising people most of the time. Sad about how when I helped hold her frail, brittle old body for the nurse to catheterise her at Emerg, we discovered she had been mutilated—female genital mutilation, also used in Europe on white girls back then by doctors who much admired this solution to control girls who were “hysterical” or who masturbated or who “invented” sexual abuse disclosures. Oh, my sweet. I wish I could have been there to believe you like you believed me. When nobody else believed me. When nobody else saw me. You saved my life. When my grandfather was calling me the “little fat one” and my dad was calling me a “stupid kid” and my stepmom was invalidating and gaslighting the life out of me, you always saw me as a real person. A wink across the room was a lifeline. A hug was heaven. I always knew that no matter what anybody else said or did to me, I was always your beloved lille nisse. Nobody could ever touch that little girl you believed in, even when she has sometimes been hidden so deep I’ve forgotten her. Oh, my sweet.
My grandmother died at the end of December 2008. My dad and I (this is shortly before we started becoming estranged from each other) were with her at the moment that she died. She was asleep. Dad and I sat across the narrow bed from each other, each holding one of my grandmother’s hands, for what felt like hours. My stepmother came in and out, making the phone calls, sitting with us. At one point both of them left the room to call my uncle, and I leaned in close to my grandmother’s ear and told her the important things. We love you. It’s okay to go. We’ll be okay. It’s okay to go. We love you. Don’t stay for us. Have a good trip. We love you. It will be okay. I didn’t cry, not then. I stroked her thin fingers and kissed her thin face and brushed back her white fluffy dandelion-head hair and told her “It’s okay, my sweet. You can go.”
At the end, her breathing hitched a bit, then slowed even more, and then she was gone. With her middle son and her eldest grandchild holding her hands. My dad said “Oh, thank god” and started crying. I was so sad I couldn’t even. My brother came. My stepmother took my dad home. My brother and I sat with my grandmother’s body, talking about her life and her death, wishing the kind dark had come for her a few years earlier to spare her the hard end. Eventually the nursing home staff came in with the toe tag, chatting. They were surprised to see us there, and apologised profusely, but we waved them in, come in, come in, this is all part of it. They attached the toe tag and then my grandmother was just a body.
I want to write more but no matter how much I say, you will never see her the way I see her. Life, love, laughter. Her mischief and humour. Her beautiful old hands. Her smile that dimmed the sun.
Happy birthday, my sweet.