Forgiving the Dead

My paternal grandmother died in 2009, and I struggled less with the fact of her death than I did with the way her death was treated in my family. I loved my grandma, had a good relationship with her, and was certainly sad over her passing. However, she had been hospitalized for six months before her death, so it had been rather a long time since I’d really had my grandma anyway. For me, her death provided relief. I was relieved to be free of the emotionally difficult and physically tiresome nights of hospital duty we all shared (though, admittedly, I’d been doing it for only one month of the last six because, before that, I had lived in Oklahoma, five hours away from the entire situation). But, more than that, I was relieved that she could no longer feel the pain she had been plagued by for the last half a year. One of the more difficult things I’ve ever done in my life is stand helpless in a hospital room while my grandmother cries out for someone to stop the pain, or for more meds, or for the nurse to be called for the fifteenth time in an hour; and then to watch her become completely crestfallen as the nurse tells her for the thirteenth time in an hour that, legally, she is not allowed to administer any more medication just yet. So yes. Her death, her release from her pain and suffering, was a relief to us all.

I knew – I think we all knew, in fact – that my grandmother was not a perfect, flawless angel. But her death elevated her to a level of sainthood in my family that no one else has ever attained. I wanted to remember my grandmother fondly, and I wanted to miss her, but the way some others in my family spoke about her as if she had been the most unerring, completely sinless human being they’d ever known was a difficult untruth for me to swallow.

I know reverence for and special pedestal placement of the dead is not uncommon. I know it’s the norm, in fact. Long has it been tradition not to “speak ill of the dead,” a precept likely based on the idea that people who cannot defend themselves should not be badmouthed. But my grandma is the closest person to me whose death I’ve experienced, and rather than mourn her with happy memories the way the rest of my family seemed to be doing, I chose to focus on her flaws, the things she got wrong in life, the ways she failed. I think this was a psychological attempt on my behalf to bring balance to what I viewed as sentimental, inauthentic blathering from my family members about what a wonderful person my grandma had been. I have never thought my grandma was not a good person, but it bothered me endlessly that many flaws we all knew about were suddenly brushed under the rug upon her death. I was angry and irritated by actions I perceived to be dishonest and fake. “DEATH DOES NOT A PERFECT PERSON MAKE,” I would write angrily in my journal, or shout to my empty house.

I did not understand why we couldn’t mourn her as she was – a loving wife who often kept her husband’s erratic behavior in sharp check; a meticulous keeper of house whose home was always clean but sometimes felt like a museum for all the breakables you weren’t supposed to touch; a fun grandmother who loved to laugh but also a stern disciplinarian of any of her grandchildren who behaved in ways she didn’t deem decorous; a devoted member of a pastor’s family who never gave up on her loved ones but sometimes did lose her temper with them; a woman who could appreciate a good practical joke but not an irreverent one; someone who loved to play games but stuck to a rigid and legalistic understanding of what the “sin of gambling” was (no playing cards allowed, but all dice games were, for some reason, allowed).

My intent here is not to paint an unbecoming picture of my grandmother. My intent is to depict a human being who was complex and flawed. Basically good? Yes, I believe so. But imperfect? Yes, certainly, if only by default of her species label.

But, after her death, my family appeared to have a tacit agreement that her shortcomings and flaws not be discussed. We must all pretend they didn’t exist, and that was not something that came easily to me. Yes, I loved my grandmother. Yes, I missed her. Yes, I would have her back on this earth and alive and healthy today were such a thing possible. But she had faults, and in the wake of nobody else acknowledging this truth anymore, I began to over-acknowledge it whenever I thought of my grandmother. Any time someone spoke of her in an overly sentimental way, I felt the need to combat the inauthentic-feeling emotion by remembering (to myself, not out loud) one of her mistakes. Over time, this unhealthy practice began to have the unsurprising effect of building resentment and bitterness in my heart toward my dead grandmother, mostly over tensions that lay between us while she lived but that I either never addressed with her or never forgave her for.

One such incident occurred when I was only nine years old. At that time I was the youngest of three grandchildren in the family, and the only girl. My family often joked that I was “the favorite granddaughter,” and even though I knew this was only by technicality of me being the only granddaughter (age-old joke that it is), I still took pride in being the favorite something, even if we all knew it was a jest.

The year that I turned ten, though, a new grandchild was born. Nobody knew the sex of this grandchild until the delivery day, on which my family received a phone call to let us know the news. My grandma was the one calling, and she asked whoever answered the phone (one of my parents, I presume), if she could speak to me. I, excited at the prospect of a new baby in the family, eagerly took the phone and said, “What is it?!”

My grandma’s voice came clearly over the phone, “Audra? Guess what?”

“What!” I could hardly contain my excitement.

“You’re not our favorite granddaughter anymore.”

I don’t remember what happened after that; I only remember the pervading emotion I felt.

What my grandma should’ve said, and what she meant, was, “We can no longer claim that we have a favorite granddaughter anymore because now we have two we love equally.”

But what an emotionally underdeveloped, nine-year-old, favorite-by-default granddaughter heard was, “You’ve been usurped. The new baby is now our favorite granddaughter, and you aren’t.”

Now, as I approach the age of thirty, I know that my grandmother meant no ill by her statement. I know she didn’t mean for me to be hurt, to take it the wrong way, to cry privately about it and build resentment toward both her and my poor, innocent baby cousin over the fact that I had been – as I felt, anyway – replaced. I also know that in her excitement over the birth of a new baby, and her desire to share with me the celebration of gaining another girl in a male-majority family, she did not take adequate time to ponder exactly how to word what she meant to communicate. Or maybe she did, and got too flustered to remember it correctly, who knows.

But I was nine, and I didn’t know any of that (at least, not for sure for sure) back then. And so the hurt festered, and the resentment and bitterness toward both my grandma and my only female cousin grew. My instinct now is to feel ashamed that it happened that way, but again, I was nine. I had no tools by which to process my hurt, or to articulate it. And thus was planted what may have been my first experience of my grandmother as imperfect.

There were other experiences along the way, and I wasn’t the only one to notice them. It’s not like there was a long list, and we certainly didn’t have grandma-bashing sessions; I’m just saying, I’m not the only person in my family who had tension or conflict with her over the course of our lives. My grandmother was a matriarch in every sense of the word. We all at intervals adored, respected, and sometimes feared her.

When I was between the ages of twelve and fourteen I had another experience that later cast my grandmother in a negative light. She was a pastor’s wife for almost the entirety of her life with my grandpa. And she was a very good one for her generation. She kept an immaculate house, she played the piano during services, she stood around greeting parish members after church until the sanctuary had all but emptied out, she was friendly and kind and remembered small details about the lives of the parishioners, her clothes were always pressed and clean, and she regularly entertained guests of all kinds in her home. She was truly the picture of a perfect pastor’s wife, adroitly executing her half of the “Pastor and Mrs. Marvin” career package.

But she didn’t always do it without complaining. Once, during a summer visit I was making to their home, I was following her around like a puppy after a Sunday morning service. I was ready to go back to the parsonage to sit around and do nothing (and get out of Sunday church clothes, of course), and I wanted to be sure I was by Grandma’s side when she decided we could go. I remember she ushered me out of the church building more quickly than usual that particular Sunday, not sticking around until every last person had been greeted, not running around cleaning up abandoned Sunday school rooms or dumping half-full pots of coffee in the kitchen sink, not bustling around and turning off lights as she exited each room.

I don’t remember if I asked for an explanation of her hurried behavior or if she offered it unprompted, but I remember what the whispered explanation was: “Let’s get out of here, quickly. If [church parish member’s name] sees me, she’ll want to talk, and then we’ll never get out of here, and I’ll have to invite her to dinner, and I don’t want to do that today.”

At the time, I remember feeling I had been given a reprieve. For the first (and last) time I could remember, I didn’t have to idle around the church building, waiting for one or both of my grandparents to wrap things up. We were going straight home, like normal people did after church! I had won a small but important victory, for I was on summer vacation as a young teenager. Wandering around church buildings waiting for my elders was not on my summer vacation agenda. Sitting around watching TV or movies at their house, though, was.

But I’ve never forgotten my grandma’s words or attitude from that day. They were distinctly inhospitable, and I’ve thought of that moment often over the years, most usually when internally searching for those negative ways to balance out the excessive sentimentality that followed her death, which I mentioned before. Never, I’m ashamed to say, did I also consider the fact that her behavior that day, inhospitable though it may have been, was also supremely uncharacteristic. Never have I considered why she might not want to get drawn into a conversation with a particular parish member, but as an adult who has been drawn into numerous conversations that I did not wish to be part of with fellow churchgoers, Twitter users, or coworkers, I can certainly understand the involuntary cringe that occurs when a person who is long-winded, or difficult to be patient with, or particularly rude, or socially awkward, initiates a conversation.

As a pastor’s wife, my grandma probably had few to zero outlets for her tiredness or inability to handle certain situations on a given day. Perhaps that Sunday she was extra weary. Perhaps she was thinking of the fact that her teenage granddaughter, whom she only saw a couple times a year, was in town, without parents or brother, and that she wanted to maximize the quality time we could have instead of spending it entertaining someone she knew would probably drive me to another part of the house in boredom. Who knows. As I admitted, I’ve never until recently considered what might have been her motivation. I’ve only taken what was most likely a weak, uncharacteristic moment on her part, and have mentally used it against her in the days and weeks and years following her death.

All of my built-up, unresolved resentment toward and frustration with my grandma reached a climax a few weeks ago when a few of us were cleaning out some of her things one Saturday at the house she shared with my grandpa. (We’ve cleaned her things out slowly over the years, it being both too painful and too much volume to do it all at once.) One of the things we found this time was an article she had written for and gotten published in a now-defunct publication called Nazarene Preacher. None of us in the party (made up of my parents, my grandpa, and myself) even knew she’d had anything printed in that publication. We’d never seen these articles before. My grandma was known by everyone in the family as an excellent writer, but it occurred to me when we found these articles that I’d never really read anything she’d written.

I sat down on the bed my grandparents used to share, opened the publication to the page where my grandma’s name was printed, and began to read. To be perfectly honest with you, the publication being called what it was, and my grandma being featured in a column specifically for pastors’ wives, I did not have high hopes for the article. But I was quickly captured by a voice that felt familiar, intrigued by a personal life story I’d never heard. This article, published in 1970, related the personal struggles of a young pastor’s wife, who worked outside the home to supplement the family income, and was also raising four boys, the eldest two of whom were teenagers in 1970. The article, in a very short space, contained a raw and honest account of my grandma’s assessment of her own shortcomings, her misgivings about her duties as a pastor’s wife, her self-doubt about her ability to meet the expectations of that particular and demanding life role. The farther I read, the more familiar the article felt. Even though I’ve never raised children and have never been a pastor’s wife (or even a regular wife, for that matter), I recognized the genuine reflection and introspection I saw unfolding before my eyes. It was the kind of honesty I usually only see…where?

…In my own writing, I realized.

The article ended on a hopeful note; one of encouragement to herself that also served as encouragement to any other wife or mother who might find herself in the same predicament of doubt on a given day.

When I reached the end, tears having welled up in my eyes, I was struck by the overwhelming realization of how alike my grandma and I are, both as writers and as people. Her familiar, inviting voice was my writer’s voice. Her honest, informal, good-naturedly self-deprecating, lay-everything-bare style was my style. And yet, I’ve not been externally influenced by her as a writer because that was the first time I’d ever read anything of hers. I’ve developed those traits naturally over the years. They’ve always been in me. I didn’t know until that day that they were in her too.

I took that article home with me, and I tear up every time I think about it or look at it. I forgave my grandma that day, for all her shortcomings, flaws, and general stains of character. And I gained a new understanding of why we don’t discuss them anymore. It’s not that we’re ignoring them. Nobody thinks my grandma was perfect. But she was part of us, and pieces of her are in all of us, and maybe the best and most faithful way to honor her memory is to cultivate those best parts of her that we find in ourselves.

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2 Comments

Filed under bloggy, sentimental

2 responses to “Forgiving the Dead

  1. Forgiving the dead, yes, I have had that experience too. I never knew that might be possible, or necessary, until it happened. For me, it was my husband’s dad who died. I was angry at him for things he’d done, and then I was angry at him for dying, because he was no longer around to fix the mess he’d made of things. It took a long time, and many tears, for me to forgive the dead.
    And the part about you discovering that your inner writer came from your Grandma, and that it wasn’t taught, it just WAS. I love that. And it struck me, too, because I also believe writing is a part of me, though I don’t know yet where in my lineage it comes from. Becoming a writer was something I did by accident — sort of like how I accidentally fell into church ministry. Never meant to do it, but now, after 2 years of blogging, I’ve come to understand that writing is a part of who I am.
    Embracing it has opened up some memories. Like when I was in elementary school and absolutely convinced I would grow up to be a writer. Or in middle school when I won a writing contest, and was on the yearbook staff. Then I went on and fell in love with calculus and chemistry, and subsequently forgot all about writing. Unlike you, I don’t know where the writer inside me came from, but I am fairly certain it’s coded in my DNA just the same.

  2. Very nice entry Ms. Marvin. You are a talented writer.

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