My father's mother, Beeda, grew up in Alabama. She was the fourth of ten living children, all girls except one. Her father was a subsistence farmer, as was her father-in-law, who had a larger brood of children. Basically, both of my paternal grandparents grew up dirt poor. As far as I know, all of my grandmother's siblings remained in Alabama except her.
She and my grandfather brought their two young children north to Michigan on the heels of the Great Depression, seeking a better life. He went to work in a factory, but hated it, and later found work in a lumber yard. They built a house, living in the dirt basement through the winter while my grandfather built the house over their heads. My grandmother took cleaning jobs, and eventually got work selling clothing in a small department store, from where she retired in her mid-seventies. Unlike their parents, they never had more than two children. They worked hard. They improved their circumstances.
In my home, while my youngest siblings were still babies and toddlers, there was confusion and chaos and violence. But at my grandmother's house, there was peace and quiet. She would bake big sugar cookies which she would cut out with a water glass dipped in sugar. She made me "Lone Ranger" toast in the oven, which she buttered with real butter and sprinkled with sugar. She would let me sleep in late, and she told me how smart I was. Once when I was sick with a high fever, she kept me at her house, and got up in the middle of the night to check my temperature and wash my body with cool cloths. Although she never finished high school, my grandmother made sure I got a college education. She sent me "spending money" every month to augment my scholarship and job earnings. I loved my grandmother with all my heart. And I knew she loved me.
When I would ask Grandma to please tell me stories about her childhood, she would say, "That was the past. I look to the future." I was always sorely disappointed by this response. I was hoping for happy tales about my family that I could enjoy, and be proud of, and perhaps laugh at.
A few days ago I heard a story that made sense of my grandmother's refusal to talk about the past. Her mother, Mollie, was married at 14 to a man who was ten years older. The family story is that Mollie's husband would say that he married her young so he could "raise her up" the way he wanted to. When I tell this story to my friends, they get very quiet. They understand the implications of a young girl, not yet fully grown, marrying a fully grown man, unprepared in body and spirit to be a sex partner or a mother, being "raised up" exclusively to care for this man and bear many babies. I imagine Beeda as a young girl, watching her mother's life, and wanting something different for herself.
Beeda became a determined woman, and I believe that her intention was to create a different life for her offspring than the life she knew in Alabama. Her "up north" life included all sorts of things like nice clothes, a clean house, adequate money, and education and good jobs for her children and grandchildren. But it also included certain qualities like charity, generosity, and safety for the children. At some point my grandparents moved into a converted garage, a small house with heavy curtains for bedroom doors. When I was a girl and would spend the night there, Grandma would set me up in the spare bedroom and she would always sleep on the couch just outside the room, even though she preferred a different couch for sleeping. Once in the night I heard her talking firmly to my grandfather, "What are you doing, Frank?" Pause. "Go back to your own bed. This isn't Alabama." I can't say that I know for certain what she was referring to. But I had seen my curtain flutter, and I think I know where my grandfather was heading.
As an adult I became estranged from my parents. When my grandmother asked me to call my father and "make it up" with him, I told her that I couldn't do that until he had made an apology to me; that he needed to acknowledge that he had hurt me before I could open my heart to him again. She became very, very quiet. She seemed to know immediately what I was talking about. Then she said, in a broken voice, "I don't know about all that." I heard in her statement both the recognition that she hadn't known, her conflict about knowing now, and her hope that it wasn't true. At the end of her life, when she was dependent on her sons, my grandmother resolved the conflict by withdrawing into silence from me, and eventually into dementia. She may have gotten dementia anyway. But I believe that my determined grandmother, who had wanted something better for her offspring, had heard in my words that her life had been a failure. That while she had been able to get more things, more financial security, and education for her children and her grandchildren, she hadn't been able to stop the family pattern of using girls and women.
Beeda, I want you to know: you were no failure. I am alive and well and strong-spirited. I know my own heart and my own mind, and I don't easily put up with being used or being minimalized. I grow more strongly every day into the true stature of my soul. The pattern, as it played itself out in my life, stopped with me. I see my tender son with his strong-spirited girl children, I see the strong woman he married, and I know that I am enjoying the fruits of my grandmother's determination. Thank you, Beeda. For the sugar cookies, for standing guard, for the college education, for your determination that I would have a better life. I do, and so do my granddaughters. You did it.