She seems like a mystery to me still; memory is a poor substitute for reality. Where grandmothers are concerned, you want the real thing. Mine was a religious woman. She kept a color portrait of Jesus on the wall in her bedroom between her two meticulously made single beds. I remember her bending. She would bend to make the bed. She was the woman who bends to do a day's work. She was my grandmother. She is the woman who bends. (I do not usually feel so strongly about the loss. But it is all there. I lost her early. I have only hidden the loss. But the loss remains like a long decorous vine, growing and somehow flourishing throughout the years. connecting me to my youth, and to her.)
My grandmother was a hard worker, this was very plain. She had little money. But she taught my mom what it was to be the eldest. I, too, am the eldest. My grandmother provided values that will persist be passed down. And she reassures my measure: she bought me five new baby dresses with her wages as a nurse. She loves me.
She loves me.
I could never understand why or how a grandmother leaves. As I grew up I could only picture her at my doorstep. (She lived with us for awhile during her last days with cancer. I did not know then why she died. I was only a few years old.) As a child I pictured her lifted straight up from the front porch to heaven. She was gone. And she never came back again. I looked for her. But she never came back.
(I cannot stress enough how literal a child's mind is. I used to ride my swing in the backyard so high. I used to park a chair in the hallway at night, only haif-dressed, and I would stare up at the white ceiling. Still, no one would call. Even in my dreams she would rise to heaven. This was the mystery, how she was here today but instantly gone, never to return. The hard nature of life got me early. I don't know if I ever cried. I know my mom cried. We lost grandmother near Mother's Day. I know this because when I became a genealogist I searched for her obituary in the local paper. I found it surrounded by ads placed by the local downtown restaurants -- Posey's, and several other places for Mother's Day dinner. Mom lost her mother. I lost my grandmother, the grandmother of the five dresses.)
I knew her. I used to go up into the attic for quiet. I used to explore there for the true depth of the family archive. Oh it was in this box and stacked there, but that made it all the better, for I could piece it together myself. I could ask myself the questions you ask when you find a piece randomly. I had often looked at my grandmother's nursing manual. It was a strange book. It was the only one I had ever seen whose pages were tied together with string. The manual was entitled, "Chicago School of Nursing." The pages must have been acquired in pamphlet-sized groupings which the owner -- my own grandmother -- would then tie into the hard black binding throughout the progress of the course. There was also a book called "Being Born," one of hers I would imagine, a book which I was sure my parents would not want me to read. Still, I looked at its images of the embryo growing in the mother's womb. The baby made progress. This was how it all worked.
ULtimately, my mother established a sort of occupational link to my grandmother. Mom took a physiology course at Sacramento High, where she graduated a year before I was born. She wrote pages and pages of notes using a blue fountain pen. In those days you used fountain pens. She drew pages and pages of freehand anatomical drawings. She hand-tinted the organs. She once told me she enjoyed the course. She also told me (when I was an adult) that when she was that age she wanted to be a doctor. So this had been her goal, I thought to myself. When I was growing up I did not know this. She divulged her occupational intent only after I had moved out and along in life and was myself a mother. She made renderings. She drew, in fact, very well. She enjoyed art as well as physiology. For her, these two things went hand in hand. I think my mother was embarrassed, however, about the quality of the poodle skirt that she wore. You know what I mean. In those days, the example of style and class displayed by debutante society was a more important consideration than it is today. My mom's youthful penury was the way she really chose to define herself. She wore her dffidence for her whole adult life. She let it get in the way of her attending my college graduation. But she had come from a woman who bent to help others. Who worked harder than anybody just to make it a little bit good. Who engaged in the practice of nursing. She had genealogy, this mother of mine. So many days I looked upon their books, grandmother's old nursing manual, and my mother's old blue binder with the free-hand anatomical drawings. I saw both there. These were the women whom I thought I knew, but only to some extent, it turns out. I grew up alongside mom. But like my long-ago grandmother she was still a mystery. Mom held back her heart and her talent. She could have been who she really was. She thought that mothering meant you had to be someone else.
This is how it all works. Someone who remembers a grandmother -- like me -- misses her and writes about her. The truth comes out. It makes its way to the page because I am the recorder and I will write about such things. I believe my family to be important. It will make it to print. Grandmother is missed.
It is a matter of record, how far back I go. Someone bought me dresses. And then she left. I didn't get to say goodbye. I still can't. I won't do it here. She's still with me. (Signed G. E. Claire. Copyright 2011 by G. E. Claire. All Rights Reserved by the Author.)