2007-09-16 - 4:04 p.m.
..the only known history of my grandmother...
I'm lying on the sofa on the first fall day of Vancouver - it's grey, overcast, and rainy. Perhaps it was the wonderful smell of soup wafting through the window, but all of a sudden I craved corned beef and cabbage. Well, we don't have corned beef or cabbage in house. Heck, I don't even know where to FIND corned beef in this city...
But as I lay here, I remembered, HEY! We have a stash of homemade lentil soup, frozen in the freezer. Not cabbage, but comforting nonetheless. And it was like finding a 20-dollar-bill buried between the sofa cushions - except it was a bowl of lentil soup. I'm not going to try to bring the idea of finding lentil soup any closer to my sofa cushions...eew.
Anyway, also sitting in front of me is a picture of my paternal grandmother, who died in childbirth on the same date as my birthday, back in 1945.
I've recently put a few strands of thought together into a coherent picture. My father's mother died when he was almost five years old. She died in a hospital in Bellingham, not far from here. The details I have are rather sketchy, and I'm not certain what is fact and what is family legend. But what I know is that she hemorrhaged just following childbirth, and that the baby died during labor.
I spoke to my mother about this today. She said that all through her own pregnancies, my father was terribly anxious that she was going to die. This, added to my father's other many anxieties, must have made for a rather difficult 9 months.
My mother also said that she learned more of the details of the incident from one of my father's cousins when my mother and father visited the family farm in Washington shortly after they were married. The cousin told her that my grandmother never should have died. There was a complication during the labor, and the doctor was drunk during the delivery, and completely botched it. Following the birth, my grandmother was left alone in the delivery room, with no one to stop the hemorrhaging. She died - right there in the hospital - shortly afterwards.
Nothing was ever done. No investigation was ever made - my family was a member of a poor, Mennonite community in Washington State, and I am certain that it was considered "God's will." As was common in some traditional religious communities, my grandfather immediately drove to California and married my grandmother's sister. She's the woman I always knew as my grandmother. They gave birth to a son the following year.
I am told that all life and happiness went out of my grandfather after my grandmother's death. My mother said that my father remembers laughter and humor in the family before she died. My father's recollection of reality, even as an adult, was always somewhat questionable. But it is certainly true that my grandfather was a humorless and cold authoritarian in the time that I knew him. And, even though it is the recollection of a five-year-old, when I look at the sparkle in the eye of my grandmother in the one photo that I have - it's the same sparkle I saw in childhood photos of my father - I can believe that she brought vitality to that family, and that my father had it once, too.
I feel sadness and tragedy when I think of my father's family. My mother disliked all of them. My father was what he was; my uncle shared his hypochondria; my other uncle was a drug-addicted vietnam vet; the last uncle was a minister and genius mathematician who would forget to put his pants on if he weren't told. They were a weird bunch, and difficult for anyone to relate to.
But apart from the sadness of this story, I've realized in the past few weeks that it may be worthwhile for me to know more about this history. One of the possible complications that comes with fibroids is excessive hemorrhaging during childbirth. And I begin to wonder what really happened during my grandmother's childbirth. Some part of me has thought about these consequences, and the situation drawn me back to this family history. I spoke to my mother about this today - she has encouraged me to get in touch with my Uncle Bud (my father's older brother), to see if he knows more of the history.
My mother is probably right, that I should give my uncle a call. And now that I live so close to my father's family, I sometimes wrestle with an obligation to get in touch with them, and to spend time with them. But this brings up a lot of issues.
The last time I saw my uncles (the ones who would come) was at my father's funeral. My uncle bud and I were cordial, but we did not get along. He knew facts about my father's death but refused to share them with me and my brother. This infuriated me. I was also frustrated by my uncle's entire perspective, as it was so different from mine. He grew up as the protective older brother. I was the child who lived and dealt with the alcoholic father for my whole life. He made my brother and I feel as if we were ungrateful children. It was as if he could not grasp that we were telling him the truth about his baby brother.
Obviously, there are many levels on which I could think about that painful time - it was a funeral, after all; in bringing the whole family together we unmasked an entire suite of individual realities that my father had created for each one of us. It must have been terribly difficult for my uncle to bear. It was difficult for ME to bear, because my father and uncle are near clones. Still, it was so clear that we had no connection, and it continues to this day. In fact, if my father's family wants to get in touch with my brother and me, they contact my brother. I do not exist. I chalk this up to two things: (1) my father's chauvinist family would always contact the MAN as the new head of the family; and (2) as the single woman roaming about the world, I have never been traditional enough for them to understand. Nevertheless, the irony still stands, in that unlike my brother (who remains even more bitter than I) I might actually send them a response.
So now the decision sits before me once again. It will be interesting to get a response from my family, especially now I've settled into the married-with-children life that they can understand. I think I will need to contact my uncle. It may be good to try to get the full story from him. And, who knows, maybe 9 years is a long enough time to try to reopen a door. Given how much my uncle is like my father, I don't imagine our ever being close. I forged a relationship with my father because I felt that I HAD to. I worked very hard to find topics on which we could relate. It's a little daunting to imagine trying this again. But I probably do need to know about my grandmother. If things go poorly, I've lost nothing. If things go well, I've regained some west coast family.
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...they are just words, Suzi... - 2011-08-29