My mother's mother was more a force of nature than a person. Chablis in hand, stockings bagging a little over her solid, practical navy pumps, she delivered her opinions without the slightest sugar-coating. She used words like "simply" and "absolutely" a lot. "He is quite simply the worst mayor we've ever had." "She had absolutely no business having four children." My cousins and I all listened and quaked, hoping the wrath would not be turned on us. Even after my mother's death, when you might imagine she would soften toward me a little, I still felt the need to stand up straighter whenever she looked at me. Behind her back, I called her "The Graminator."
The Graminator had been retired for almost as long as I could remember and she had three major interests: wine, the stock ticker on CNN, and the politics of the Catholic Church, upon which she delivered opinions at every party.
I thought of her almost like Scrooge, hoarding and counting her certainties while all the people she had alienated went out to eat together in a messy, shabby, second-rate fellowship of true happiness. I felt caught in the middle: I cared little about the stock ticker and felt her opinions were harsh, but I couldn't quite abandon myself to not caring what she thought of me.
For much of my adult life I have been haunted by a story she told me in my early childhood about heaven. Everyone would be questioned, she told me, as to what gifts they had been given, and how they had used them. "You have a lot of gifts," she told me sternly, looking over her glasses at my five-year-old self. "So it's even more important that you find a way to use each and every one. Wisely. To help other people."
Many times, as I slogged through medical school and residency and wondered where the fun part was, I remembered this conversation, and thought wistfully about my friends who were contentedly taking over the family business--running a restaurant or doing carpentry or plumbing. Did they wake up at night wondering whether they were using all their special gifts the right way?
Although I barely remember her working, the Graminator was a career woman; she went back to grad school in the sixties, when her children were grown, and got her doctoral degree, writing her dissertation on the mainstreaming of mentally retarded children into the general classroom in elementary school. She then became a professor of psychology at a local college. I wonder, often, just how many students she terrorized the way she terrorized me.
Recently, having transitioned to a research career, I read her dissertation for the first time and was blown away by its concise and timely hypothesis and the rigorous nature of the research. I sat with the yellowed pages in my hands and wondered, forty-five years too late, what journal she should have sent it to.
When my husband and I became engaged, we walked across the street to the Graminator's house so that she would be the first to know. (I thought she'd like that--the whole first-to-know business.) She sat perfectly still when we told her the news, then heaved a gusty sigh.
"Well, I wish you all the luck in the world," she said. "You know half of all marriages end in divorce these days." Chastened, we crunched back down the gravel driveway to my house.
"Should we call your mom next?" I asked my husband gingerly. By the time the wedding rolled around, dementia had seized the Graminator in its diminishing grip.
"You have a husband?" she would ask me incredulously after that, as though an alien spaceship had landed in my backyard and I had invited one of them in to live with me. "Are you happy?"
When my husband and I decided to adopt, I didn't make the same mistake twice. A few days before I flew to South America for our daughter, I visited the Graminator at her nursing home ("It's not a nursing home. It's an assisted living facility," she would hiss) and told her I would be traveling a lot for work this fall, and not to worry if she didn't hear from me. I could only imagine what her pronouncements on adoption would be, particularly the adoption of a child whose skin might be darker than mine.
When I returned, however, many exhausting months later, Grammy was lit up with joy. "All these years," she told me, "I've been wondering why I am still alive--why hasn't God taken me yet? And now," she said, cradling my daughter's little head, "now I know why."
For months afterward, whenever we would visit the nursing home, Grammy would see us from the hallway as she participated in yoga, sing-along, bingo.
"Oh!" she would say, interrupting whoever she was talking to. "I have to go. That's my great-granddaughter."
One weekend this September, I got the call from my aunt that I had been expecting for years: the Graminator appeared to be in a coma, possibly from a stroke. Hospice was involved.
I visited her three times over four days, sat with her, talked to her, and read while she stared at the ceiling and her breath rattled in and out.
On the fourth day I returned to Boston, to work. There was nothing I could do for her, and she appeared not to know I was there, yet I was racked with guilt and indecision. I needed to work, I needed my daughter's schedule to be as normal as possible and for her to be safe and content, but I also wanted to be with my grandmother.
I realize on the second day of guilt that Grammy had been a working mother too. If anyone could understand how I felt that day, it would be her.
When the Graminator died two days later, the obituary that I wrote appeared in the local papers. It stressed her career accomplishments, her research and education in the field of elementary education for children with intellectual disabilities, and her mentorship of so many other teachers and advocates for the disabled.
It doesn't mention that, as it happens, my new research position involves funding from NIH to study cancer screening in adults with intellectual disabilities. I don't think Grammy realized this, nor did I when I started that job, but I wound up in the family business after all.
About the author:
Joanne Wilkinson is an assistant professor of family medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine. Her short stories and essays have been published in the Journal of Family Practice, Family Medicine, Medicine & Health Rhode Island, Medical Economics and Pulse. She has won several awards for creative writing and in 2008 was awarded the Mid-Career Faculty Achievement Award by the Family Medicine Education Consortium. She lives in the Boston area with her family.