November 4, 2013

Grandmothers and Kids

My parents have this book about Henrietta Lacks. She died in the 1950's and scientists (without her permission) took her cancer cells and created the first immortal human cells. With HeLa cells as research, the polio vaccine was created. Heperin (cancer drug) was developed. And lots of other tests and research has been done using her cells that are still alive and multiplying, lo these 60 years after her death. Absolutely fascinating stuff. Ethics, medical research, etc. Scientists know pretty much everything they can know, about her on a cellular level. And yet, her daughter, who was an infant when Henrietta died, says she knows nothing about her mother. How did she smell? What did her voice sound like?

I have this irrational fear of dying when my kids are little.  I know. I am a healthy, fit, never-had-a-serious-illness person, so I shouldn't think too much about this. But I do. Very likely, I will live to be 99 and annoy the stuffing out of everyone (my kids included) by being sure I am about to die approximately 5 times a month for all those.....828 months. And if you have read my blog much, you probably already know this. You might even be rolling your eyes right now. Which I totally understand. I roll my eyes at myself quite frequently. But that question--What did my mother smell like?..... It gets me. In today's world, with photography, video, blogs, email accounts, digital storage--kids bereft of parents would know a lot of things about their parents. My kids could read my blog and know that I was a neurotic and dippy mother who thought they were the epitome of perfection. But still, this isn't me. This is just a part of me. I started thinking about Elsie. How she has spent more time with me than any other human being. Yet if I died today, she would have no recollection of me at all. Yes, this makes me terribly weepy.

But motherless children has been part of my consciousness all my life. My grandmother died when my mother was 14. My grandfather had already died when Mum was 11. It wasn't something Mum or my uncle dwell on much.  Still, I was always worried about my parents dying. I remember turning 12 and thinking I had escaped somehow because my father was still alive. 15 and no parental funerals--I had somehow cheated fate.

I had a happy childhood. I have a huge, noisy, loving family. We had super close friends and even some cousins close by for most of my childhood. But grandparents were something I yearned for. I love tradition. I love the sense of timelessness-- doing things my family has done for years before me. We didn't have that. And of course, it was very freeing, in a way.  I think that is part of the reason we are such a close knit family. All we had was each other.

Sometimes I go for ages without giving my grandparents a thought. Then something makes me think about grandmothers and I ache for the grandmothers I didn't know. Both sets of grandparents married late in life. My grandmothers would have both turned 100 this year--my dad's dad would be 110. Dad's dad died when I was three. My Dad's mom was alive until I was nine. People called me Gammy's girl. I loved her. But I have only vague recollections of her. A few weeks before she died, a few of us kids went down to Pennsylvania for convention with her. And I have a clear memory of sitting next to her on the bench, close to the front in the middle section, singing hymn 108, It Pays to Serve Jesus, to close the convention.  Later that week (or the next) she suffered a stroke. While in the hospital, she developed pneumonia and died within days. My memory is spotty, but I remember coming in from outside and seeing my father sitting in a chair with tears on his cheeks. I remember thinking "This is the worst day of my life." And I remember my nine year old self, feeling slightly important and interesting because I had suffered this tragedy. The day after Gammy died (or was it the day after we got back from the funeral?) we had to shoot one of our dairy cows, due to age, broken bones, milk fever....something. With my new found depth of wisdom, I stood with my seven year old cousin watching Dad lift the cow with the bucket of the tractor and told her,  "Life has to go on." Oh so wise.

Years later, in Alaska, we sang hymn 108 at convention and suddenly the loss seemed as close as yesterday. And a few weeks ago, I made a pumpkin spice cake. (Yummy!)  I was spreading the cream cheese frosting on late at night, and I reached for an icing spreader I had bought at a flea market this summer. It is just a flat spreader with a painted red handle, but Mum picked it up and said her mother had the same spreader when she was a kid. So I wanted it. It might not be my grandmothers, but it was the same as hers. Late at night, months after buying it, I started to get teary about all the things I don't know about my grandmothers. I know their handwriting, thanks to slightly stained recipe cards. I know random, casually mentioned factoids--"My mother always loved the blue Christmas lights when we would drive around looking at them."  I know their basic life history. I know what kind of kid they raised. I know what was most important to them. But what did they smell like? They must have stood in their kitchens while their kids were in bed, just like I was. One in Pennsylvania, one in Quebec. They had worries, fears, things they found hilarious, something they really wanted, secrets. And they would have thought of all of those things while finishing the dishes (or icing last minute cakes) and looking out at the quiet darkness outside.

I can't know my grandmothers. Even so, part of them is in me. They passed down a lot to me. Faith, love, interests. I keep my grandmother's china. My other grandmother's goldenrod bowl. A quilt from the one, a dining room set from the other. And I know without a doubt, that they would have loved me. No one who  produced such loving, loyal, kind people as my parents could have failed to love a grandchild. Even one as goofy as me. I enjoy keeping things of my family's past around me. But the best parts of my grandmothers are still alive in my parents. And there is an assurance of love. Love from women who never knew me as a woman. But gave enough love to their kids to make me feel loved all these years later. I like thinking of that love. An immortal kind of love. Just like HeLa's cells. Love that strong doesn't just die and evaporate. Hopefully it is still being passed down to my kids, through me. Throughout life, (even if I live to 99) I can't always be with my kids. But I hope I love them enough now that my love will always tag along with them wherever they go.


Evan and Clover and Co. said...

Thanks for making me cry into my lunchtime taco salad. I think about grandparents often, and how extremely lucky my children are, having four exceedingly wonderful specimens of them.

The McCoys said...

Got me all teary eyed here really are an amazing writer! I'm lucky to have two remaining grandparents, but I still miss the others like crazy. Esp my Grandpa Pik cause he was such a part of our daily life... time does go on though. Smells are a funny thing - I can picture exactly how my grandparents smell...sometimes I'll smell something as crazy as mouthwash and it brings me right to my grandmas bathroom... anyways - thanks for the peak into your fascinating mind!! Good night...

Fiona said...

And I thought I was weird for having that same sigh of relief when I turned 15 (Mom's mom died when Mom was 14).

Virginia said...

Bet, you write so beautifully. I never knew any of my grandparents, really, but I remember Mom saying after her mother died, she and her sister had to sort through their mother's things and the smell of Grammy in her closet made Mom lose it and bawl into Grammy's clothes. Now I feel like bawling. I never want to lose my mom and I dread it frequently.