The month before my grandfather died, I came home from college for some family function. I don’t remember what it was. It may well have been his birthday. I remember it was a special occasion, and a happy one. It was held at a farm, I don’t know whose.
I remember a sunny, beautiful day, an old and unfamiliar farmhouse, a crowd of people, many relatives, many others who were strangers to me.
My grandfather, as usual, was apart from all the others, more emotionally than physically. I always see him this way in my mind: Silent, sitting quietly, apart, gazing on the activity around him, but not of it. Somewhat interested, but not especially so. (He’d suffered a stroke many years before.)
If you sat by him long enough, he would gasp a sudden remark, gruffly, but with polite interest. How was school? What was my major? After hearing a response, he would settle back into himself until moved by convention to make another comment.
It wasn’t until many years later, after he died, that I finally learned the real reason for this sadness and apart-ness I always felt in him. I always thought he was an especially wise and profound man, lost in his deep thoughts, until overwhelmed by the chatter and chirping of the rest of us, he would rouse himself to be a good sport, and join in. Until more weighty matters pulled him back into his rich inner world.
I always thought that if I could say the right words, ask the right questions, he would suddenly open up and include me into that head world of….what?
Now I know he was an ill man, not just physically, but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. He was diagnosed as manic-depressive, and the source of much pain and anguish in his family.
Time, and distance, old age, had softened many rough and bitter edges, but the sadness and solitude I sensed was a bitter one, not bitter-sweet. (Years later, my mother said she believed she was his “favorite”, and was always good to her. Not so much with my grandmother or the other four aunts and uncles.)
That day, though, he was simply my grandfather. I was feeling grown-up and socially “apt”. I remember chatting with him often, trying for and getting little smiles and a chuckle or two from him.
I remember a beautiful day, a cake, a crowd of people (some familiar and some strange.) I remember feeling part of a celebration, and part of a family.
Less than a month later, he was dead.
The call came from my mother, with the news. She told me the date of the funeral, and expected me home again.
I was a sophomore or junior at the University of Michigan, almost 3 hours away. (After they raised the speed limit, it became 2.5 hours.) I didn’t have a car. I usually snagged a ride from friends at college to travel home for holidays and break. No public transportation, of course. So getting home on my own was hard.
It was also my very first funeral, and I dreaded it.
I wasn’t very grown-up, emotionally. I think I was so self-centered that my thought was for my loss of my grandfather, rather than thinking of my mother’s loss of her father. I wasn’t grown-up enough to realize how much it would mean to my mother and to my beloved grandmother to be at the funeral.
I just wanted to remember him as I had seen him just a few weeks before: Sad, apart, yet more bouyant than usual. It seemed important to remember him that way, to remember happier times. I was afraid to see him dead, to realize I would never know what noble ideas he had, what secret thoughts he pondered. I was afraid to see my grandmother cry.
Somehow, I made it home. I remember very little except my mother’s anger.
For years, I could not remember what I did to bring this on me, I only remember I had done something thoughtless, something terribly wrong.
I remember how still my grandpa was in the coffin, like clay or soft stone.
My mother was angry, so angry she didn’t speak to me the rest of my time home. She yelled about what I’d done that had angered her, then her silence was like a stone.
Both of them seemed as far away from me as a star, cold remote, silent.
After the service, we went back to my grandma’s house. My Aunt Lou, my mother’s youngest sister, sat down on the sofa next to me. I loved my Aunt Lou. She was always kind to me. To everyone, in fact.
We talked about little things, nothing important. As we talked, she sat with her arm around my shoulder. She began to stroke my hair gently, pushing it back behind my ears, over and over. It felt wonderful. I was so miserable I thought my heart would break.
She asked if I liked my hair being stroked, and I whispered, “Yes.” “None of my girls do,” she murmured. “They tell me it bugs them. Grandma Paxton used to hold us when we were little girls and stroke our hair behind our ears. We loved it so much. I always thought I would do it for my girls, but they don’t like it.”
I remembered that when I was little, my mother stroked my hair like that. But not for years now. I wished she would do it then.
My grandfather had been dead for over 25 years when I got a phone call from my mom. (And now it’s 22 years that!) As usual, we chatted, keeping it light. Suddenly, she mentioned my grandfather’s funeral.
We had never talked about what happened. (We never did, about anything.)
She had been talking with a good friend about the funeral, and mentioned that she had been furious with me because I hadn’t worn a dress to the funeral.
I was stunned.
I didn’t even own a dress when I was in college.
“Did I wear jeans?” I asked cautiously, trying to remember what major faux pas I may have made.
“Oh, no!” she said brightly. “You wore a very nice pair of dress slacks.)
I couldn’t think of anything to say. (I did make a mental note that I should always wear a dress to any future funerals.)
I didn’t want to make the silence uncomfortable for my mother, so I said apologetically, “I guess that was kinda rude of me.”
“Oh, no!” she said again, brightly. “My friend said I should have been thrilled that you came at all, because so many kids your age wouldn’t have.”
When my fierce daughter flares up at me, I’m overwhelmed by my anger. Hers flames mine. I think harsh words which frighten me. I force my jaw closed, to hold back the bitter words which bite forever.
My anger is a chasm. We stand on opposite sides, and gaze at each other, remote, apart.
My hands yearn to stroke her hair, and touch her sweet face.
N.B. I wrote this when my daugher was nine. I was lucky. I began to realize my anger came from taking my daughter’s preadolescence angst personally. Once I set that aside, I always tried to meet her where she was. We made peace with each other. Forever, I hope. I’ve learned so much from her, in so many ways.
I am in awe of her.
And yes, that was as close to an apology as I ever got from my mom. She died early in 2018, after living with coginitive decline for about a decade, and my father died six months later.
And another N.B. Thank you (Susan D!) to those who pointed out all my typos! As I was writing this, a few family members were bugging me to let them use my computer, and I went too fast!! :^)
9 thoughts on “A DEATH IN THE FAMILY”
Wow Luann, such beautifully written words. Thanks for your insight. It is only as we age that we understand.
Thank you, Walt, much appreciated!
Luann, as usual, I was captivated by your writing about your grandfather. I never knew my own grandfathers on either side of my family, and my relationship with my grandmothers ranged from being terrified of one, and completely disconnected to the other. And, as I’ve felt before reading your posts, it got me thinking about my own family and creating the urge to write about how my life was forever changed when my father came to live with me after my mother died. Once again you have dropped pebbles in the water and the ripples are spreading across the pond, touching my life in a special way. Thank you.
OMG, Linda, thank you for letting me know! And I’m delighted it’s encouraged you to write, too, that’s amazing. It doesn’t always “fix” everything, but it sure is great for healing. Let me know how it goes, okay?
Thank you for sharing these powerful events. I grew up in a family that never expressed instead repressed rage. Depression was the norm also never discussed. Rage eventually began to appear as I grew older, shocking and frightening me that I couldn’t stop the angry words I sometimes flung at my husband. I have come to accept that relationships are as much about learning how to live with ourselves as well as with others. Your honesty speaks well of you.
You wrote this so beautifully and were so vulnerable. You expressed many things that a lot of us would recognize as we have gotten older.
Hi Luann, though not unexpected , it still shocked me to read that Don and Mary passed away last year. I still think of them often and have shared my fond memories of them with my own family (like how Don put me to work to clean up the house in preparation for your wedding :-)). They were very kind and sweet people and by allowing me to spend a year with them they conintue to influence my life in a very positive way.
They were so happy with your stay! And traveling to see YOUR family grew that experience even more.