My friend’s grandmother just died. She was well into her nineties. My friend is in her fifties. I admit to a tinge of jealousy. I never really had grandparents. To me, it seems a great luxury to have a grandparent well into one’s middle age.
By the time I was born, only two of my grandparents were still alive. My mother’s parents were in their forties when she was born. Her father died when she was fourteen, ten years before I was born. I suspect I would have liked him very much.
Mother has many stories about him. For example, she told me, usually my grandmother took the family car to go shopping while my grandfather took the bus to work and back. The bus driver knew my grandfather fairly well. One day, though, my grandmother took the bus. When she got on, the us driver asked her, “Why do you let your husband go around with a snake in his pocket?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” she said. “He does no such thing.”
When she got home, she mentioned the encounter. “George, you don’t go around with a snake in your pocket, do you?”
He pulled his pet garter snake out of his pocket and said, “Do you mean this one?”
He was said to have been a very funny man. I would have loved to have known him.
My father’s mother passed before I was born, too. Her daughter-in-law, my mother, certainly loved her. She considered her a saint for everything she had done for her and for her young family. In some ways, my grandmother might have done too much for my father. He was more than a bit on the spoiled side. But I can see why she would have spoiled him.
My grandfather was a difficult person, and his mother was much more difficult still. My grandmother was a schoolteacher during the Depression, when my grandfather wasn’t working. Knowing that her first birth might be difficult, owing to her family history, she put money aside to have her baby in the hospital in the nearest city.
But when the time came, her mother-in-law — my great-grandmother — declared it a waste of money to go to the hospital, and insisted my grandmother have the baby at home. The birth was problematic: The doctor had to use forceps, and wound up piercing the baby’s brain. The child died three days later. So in her second pregnancy, my grandmother got her way and had her baby in a hospital. She could have no more children after that. My father was her only child.
When he was eight, he had polio. He made it through thanks to an iron lung and her iron will to ensure he would walk again, despite what the doctors said. Dad went on to join the army, and later had a career as a police officer, both requiring considerable physical ability. So if she spoiled her only child, who lived to adulthood, who could blame her? She was a loving mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother. She died a little more than a year before I was born. That left me with only two living grandparents at birth.
My paternal grandfather, as I mentioned, could be difficult. When my mother had a medical emergency and my father asked his father to watch us while he took her to the hospital, my grandfather’s reply was, “I raised my children.”
But he could be charming and entertaining when he wanted to be. After he retired early, for health reasons, he grew a beard, and entertained us by parting his beard in the middle and putting it into amusing configurations. I remember visiting them when I was three. They had a picture of my grandfather at the same age, one of those big oval photographs, maybe a foot by a foot-and-a-half. They all thought I looked just like him, and hoped my nose would be smaller when I grew up. That may have been the day I tried hiding under the kitchen table so I could stay behind and keep having fun there, but he pulled me out and gave me a good spanking.
I also remember visiting and having to be quiet because he was resting. He had had his first heart attack at thirty-seven; by the time he was nearing sixty, he was under orders to get lots of rest and not stress himself. I remember walking with him down the driveway to his garage. His whole yard was covered in roses and other flowers. The vegetable garden was in back of the garage. He died when I was six. Those are all the memories I have of him. He was only sixty years old.
I grew up in Illinois. My mother grew up in Georgia. I never really knew my maternal grandmother. We visited a few times. All I remember is a wheezy old woman who spoke in a deep Southern dialect. She was already in her forties when my mother was born. She had never enjoyed robust health, and as she got older, it was worse. Emphysema was one of her biggest complaints. Yet she was the grandparent who lived the longest into my life.
She too was a difficult person. But whenever my family could afford it, my mother would pack us up and we would go down to Georgia for vacation. My mother wanted to keep in touch with her family no matter how difficult they were. Still, seeing someone for only a few days every few years isn’t enough time really to get to know that person. So I envy my cousins who lived in the same city in Georgia and were able to see her more often.
She died just before I turned fourteen.
My brother is over fifty. He recently married a woman in her thirties, and they had a daughter last February. I suspect that she will know her grandmother on her father’s side. My mother is in good health and may be around for decades to come. But she probably won’t get to know her paternal grandfather. He’s over eighty and ailing; he has post-polio syndrome, and he’s smoked for more than sixty years. He may yet live longer than his grandfather, who made it to the age of 88, but barring some wild scientific breakthrough, I don’t expect him to see that child graduate from high school.
Still, medical knowledge is increasing and technology marches on. Some believe that the first person who will live to a thousand years has already been born. What will it be like for that person’s grandchildren, and their great-great-great-grandchildren, to have such a remote ancestor still living and in good health? I would have loved to have known some of my great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents. What will it be like for those we would consider to be nearly immortal? How many generations might they know?
So, for my friend whose grandmother died, yes, condolences on your loss. But look at what you had. You had a grandparent you loved and who loved you in return, and you had her for more than fifty years. Keep those memories. Hold them close to you always. They are something that many of us, maybe most of us, will never have. Even with your loss, you are wealthier in memories than some of us can ever be.