Saturday, December 4, 2010

On my Grandmother's birthday

Today is December 4th and will always be my grandmother's birthday. Let me tell you about her. She was born on this day is 1903 and she died on May 24, 1983. She missed the greatest hits of me going off the rail and being the most rebellious teenager ever, she saw the beginning of the highlights. It has always bothered me that I never knew her as an adult, that I never got to fully appreciate her off color humor and the rich, fullness of her personality that she shared with the other adults.
Lucky for me, there were plenty of people to talk with about her.
I have fond and fuzzy memories of her as well as some that are not so fuzzy but for the most part, I adored her fiercely. She was not a hugely indulgent woman who spoiled me rotten and she was not an overly affectionate or touchy person in general. I had an arrival hug and a goodbye hug, but I never had any doubt of her affection for me and her fondness of me.
My mother once told me that she has no memory of her mother telling her that she loved her but there was never a shred or molecule of doubt that she was loved completely and utterly.
She was born Ella May Hill in Forsyth, Georgia but I don't think she was ever known as Ella, she always went by May and I'm not sure at what point but she changed the spelling to Mae. When my oldest brother was born, she has to decide on a grandmother name. She called herself "Mammy" so that was what we called her. She was the third child and the first daughter, eleven pounds at birth, her face was compressed in the birth canal and her nose was always a little flat on her face.
Recently, I was in her house in Georgia looking through pictures of her when she was a little girl and a young woman. This is an extraordinary thing to have seen these pictures finally. I'm the only grandchild named for her- my middle name is May and knowing that I think I always felt a special connection. It's an odd responsibility to be chosen as the one to carry her name, though my mother kept the original spelling since I was also born in May. My grandmother lost most of her hearing in one ear in a diving accident when she was about 17, so we had to speak very loudly to be heard by her. I never heard her be impatient or complain about her loss of hearing. She would simply ask you to repeat yourself and you would. It was the complete opposite of my father, who also suffered profound hearing loss and was nasty tempered and completely impatient.
It's pretty easy to martyr someone when they die. It would be easy to tell stories of all the wonderful things that she did in her life but in an odd way, it was her mistakes that comforted me. It was her triumphs and her tenacity that inspired me. It was often made great sport of that my grandmother could hold a legendary grudge. In fact, you were lucky if she ever got over it.
This was always spoken of with a kind of awe or praise, which I never understood. It made me a little afraid for her to be mad at me, in case I would end up on the grudge list.
Oddly, it was her ability to do something terrible, to make a lapse of judgment fairly heinous and hurtful to another person and then realize it and correct it that gave me the most hope. It is her humanity that endears her to me now. It was her fierce determination of spirit that made her unlike anyone else I will ever know. Her fierce stubbornness in the face of whatever obstacle there was.
Mae Hill's college diploma hangs on the wall of the house in Georgia. She went to New York to be an artist after college, lived there for a while and then met and married an Irishman. By all accounts, it was a fiery marriage. This is the part where I wish I knew more because no one can tell me what she could have and she never spoke of her ex husband. She was divorced from my grandfather and he returned to Ireland and died before I was born.
This is what I know. She divorced my grandfather after my mother finished college, as much as she fought with him, she fought not to get that divorce. And she was heavily embittered by it when it happened. She told my mother that she had to choose between her and her father and that if she ever saw her father again, she could no longer be a part of her life. My mother adored her mother and so agreed to the heinous terms, but because she is tender hearted and loved her father, she went to see him one more time. My grandmother found out and stopped speaking to her.
The year I was born, my grandmother and my mother weren't talking. She had no idea my mother was pregnant, had her only daughter and had named me for her mother. The whole year we lived in California, they didn't speak. I cannot imagine how difficult this estrangement must have been on them both, they were so close. My mother describes the reconciliation as her begging on her hands and knees to be taken back into her life.
As awful as this was, it's not a sad story- what a triumph of will and spirit that must have taken my grandmother to abandon her grudge, someone who hung on to things in legendary fashion. How much she must have loved my mother to let go of her anger and bitterness and move back to a loving relationship. I never saw anything between them but fond affection.
How close I came to missing out on her. I watched her carry a life long grudge against her cousin and next door neighbor. They shared a driveway and one day, my grandmother was unloading her groceries and Cousin Cora pulled up behind her and honked her horn so she could get past to pull into her inside driveway.
The story goes that my grandmother emerged from the house and a yelling match ensued, where Mae was reported saying "Don't you honk at me in my own driveway." Now I am sure that there was plenty of other history behind that but they never spoke again. I used to go next door and visit my Cousin Cora often when I was down there. Cora always had kittens. And my grandmother never told me not to go and she never really disparaged Cora in front of me. This story I learned in bits and pieces as many stories about her come to life like that. I'm sure she had her reasons and I don't know all of them.
This is the grandmother I knew. She was loyal and smart and kind, but she was not afraid to let you know when you deserved a punishment. She patiently taught me so many things artsy and craftsy but my favorite memories were in the kitchen with her snapping beans that she grew in her garden and rolling out pie dough and mixing up everything home made. It took hours and hours in the kitchen to prepare these lavish and wonderful meals when we down there. When I was sitting around the kitchen table, if I could manage to be quiet, the women would tell these wonderful stories about their lives and they spared little about what they thought about other people. This is why I am so fond of making home made goods. I feel her through me. She rarely followed a recipe but she had plenty. She cooked by heart and by feeling.
My grandmother went with us to museums and castles and looked at great works of art with us. She walked across Stonehenge with me and when a horse stepped on my hand, she brought me a potted African Violet plant. It was the only plant I have ever made grow and do well. Everything before and after has died, but I haven't really tried- it broke my heart when I had to leave that plant in England. I think, to this day, this is why I won't even try to grow a garden or take care of a house plant. I am like her and not like her.
I have not inherited her ability to hold a grudge but I am fierce and stubborn in determination and spirit. I am not an excellent oil painting artist like she was but I can write a story and I have an artist's eye in my films. I can bake a cherry pie and make delightful chocolate cakes. I wish she had gone to the doctor when she had chest pains instead of going to bed but I am lucky to have known her. She never knew my children or who I grew up to be but when I was a teen and beginning to give my mother a special hell- my grandmother reassured her that I was going to be okay with a sureness and a confidence that my mother was able to hold on to through the dark days.
Sometimes she used to talk to me in my dreams. If I dream of you tonight, I hope I remember to tell you happy birthday.

1 comment:

Julie W said...

Ah! I used to snap green beans with my grandma, too, and she also married an Irishman (but stayed married til death parted them), and she also could hold a grudge like no other. She refused to speak to my Uncle Patrick for a year or so when he was getting a divorce; she refused to go to the family Christmas celebration to avoid him. (If ANYONE got divorced she froze them out for a good long time, come to think of it....she was a converted Catholic, Vatican I, old-school style, and that was THAT.)I loved her very much as she took care of me regularly as my parents struggled to make it from blue-collar to white-collar living. She was very creative and funny, and crazy (mentally ill....and unbalanced emotionally). But much like your grandmother, I never once doubted her love.
I think that's a grandmother thing. Or maybe just that generation of women.