Friday, September 22, 2006

Breakfast with Grandmomma

I had breakfast with my Grandmomma today. I was cleaning the kitchen from a particularly slack evening last night, then I made pancakes and orange juice for the kids. We talked the whole time I was doing that, me using the headphones attachment on the phone.

We didn't really discuss anything of great importance, but I was enjoying hearing her voice as I went about my motherly duties. There is a connection I have with my Grandmother that I have with no one else. My mother was not nurturing, and her mother, once a super Granny as well, was broken into bitterness by life's long, cruel circumstances. My Grandmomma, however, was only able to bring forth one child. She miscarried another, then never conceived again. She adopted a second son, and the two boys of the same age completed her family. They both married early and quickly produced their first children just three months apart, my cousin and I, both girls. Three more grandchildren later, my Grandmomma found herself surrounded at last with the bounty of children she'd always wanted, and she reveled in it.

My grandmother was the blessing-and-curse MIL we all both fear and wish for. Unbelievably attached to her sons, she truly demanded to be informed when they so much as went out to dinner, lest she call and not get an answer at their home. She cried like a baby and held a family intervention when both sons chose not to continue attending her church, and worse, any church at all. Her intrusive entitlements extended to the grandchildren. If she didn't like the answer she got from a DIL about a health concern, Grandmomma would take the child to her own choice of pedatrician for a second opinion. She'd nag the parents incessantly because their smoking stank up the children's hair and clothing. She'd give the children soap and shampoo along with their other birthday gifts, if she believed the children were looking particularly disheveled that year.

But as with few others on the planet, I can see her motivations were always well-intentioned and pure: she cared for the child first, come what may. She may have been misguided at times, she may have been wrong at times, but even her daughters-in-law never questioned her heart. As one of those children, I was protected, loved and nurtured with a ferocious intensity.

She was also the MIL who would babysit on a moment's notice, even overnight. She never turned anyone away from her table, certainly not her grandchildren, no matter how young the infant. She'd buy clothes and groceries when it just wasn't going to happen otherwise. She took the grandchildren to church, to restaurants, to plays and on vacations. She'd spend weeks-- literally weeks-- with the kids at her house, folding us into her life and rhythms.

All I can compare it to is old-world family life, Southern American style. I grew up in a truly multi-generational family of origin, knowing my great-grandmother well (she died when I was a young adult), being known by her mother (who died when I was a toddler), and having personal relationships with each of my Grandmomma's siblings. We ate together every week, we planned picnics so large they were suited only to parks, we vacationed together, celebrated together, grieved together. My children will not grow up knowing that kind of family community, and it is a loss I fear: the loss of the awareness of belonging to a great web of people, of the safety inherent in such a belonging.

As one of the grandchildren absorbed into their life like that, I remember my grandparents' kitchen. Grandaddy was the cook, but Grandmomma was the manager. We'd have tea every morning, and the aroma from the steaming cups mingled with the smells coming from grits, oatmeal or pancakes, forming the base of an indelible scent-memory that lasts to this day. Unlike the cold cereal or instant grits my mother served me, I could count on my grandparents providing a hot breakfast, punctuated with milk or orange juice, eggs and sausage, bacon or ham, over which we'd linger for more than an hour sometimes, just chatting and enjoying each other. I was loved, and the fact that it took two hours to complete breakfast proved it to me. As much as I don't eat it regularly, breakfast remains my favorite meal.

The 70s happened. The children borne to my Grandmomma's generation became liberated from the ideas and belief systems cherished by their parents.Cousins drifted apart. Love remained, but the sense of remaining physically close with one's family went by the wayside, quite literally. Children had grown up, bearing children of their own. Within that decade, my parents' entire marriage began and ended, climaxing in bitterness and a first for the entire family: children chose divorce. Children chose to come out. Children chose to move away. Children married outside their faith, their nationality, their race. The family began to fragment. Still vital and active in their 50s and 60s, my Grandmomma and her sibs kept their Sunday dinners together, and the holiday traditions they began remained strong while my generation enjoyed it's childhood.

The 80s happened. Unthinkably, three of our nuclear families moved to Virginia. Holiday traditions in Charleston remained, but they were more difficult now that travel was involved. Birthdays became a card and a call. My own mother kept me and my baby sister away from my Grandparents because she didn't like their opinions about her life, or their perceived influence on me, and I didn't have birthdays or holidays with them for 7 years. Alone in a neglectful, dysfunctional household, my memories of safety and belonging to something else drove me to freedom. On my 18th birthday, I bicycled the scant three miles in the punishing June heat from one grandmother's house to the other's, and reclaimed my place in the web. My sister denies ever having a place there. Another fracture, another strand undone.

The 90s happened. All the grandchildren are now grown; going to college, making choices of our own. Making families. My great-grandmother lived to meet and approve my future husband. My Grandaddy loved P-daddy, and lived to give us his blessing. Yet by the time we married in 1999, my large, great family was unrecognizable and my Grandaddy was dead. Some of my Grandmomma's sibs did attend the wedding, but a hurricane kept the Virginians away. When my first daughter was born, no one from the larger family came to visit. In 2004, three weeks after we moved to WA and a week before I delivered my younger son, the last family Christmas Eve Party was celebrated in my father's house, marking the end of a tradition established by my Grandparents in 1956. Clearly unable to attend, we called from the living room of our rental house, thousands of miles away.

We have developed our own family traditions, P-daddy and I, from even before we were officially a family. We mindfully set about doing so because we believe in growing this family, our own family, into something larger than it is; something enduring, that will enrich all our lives for much longer than the period during which our children live with us. Those traditions served us well when we unexpectedly moved across country in the dark of winter, far from any family. The children we are privileged to raise know what to expect with the coming of each season, the celebration of each holiday. They inherently know that this is way their world works, and they count on it. Moving oceans meant little to them because the fundamentals of their lives did not change. One Grandma they loved had always lived far away. Now, all Grandmas do. That's life for them; good life. They know they are loved, and their web stretches far.

For my part, I am not so easily mollified. I miss my Grandmomma. I miss her daily, weekly, on holidays, on birthdays...she shares her May birthday, sometimes with mother's day, sometimes with our second child. I sorrow that she will never see this home, this life, that P-daddy and I have carved for ourselves. Her leukemia and neuropathy guarantee that. While I acknowledge the reality that in my new role as a mother of some of those children she adores, I came under criticism and scrutiny from her that I resented, distance softens those feelings just as it attenuates our interaction. I don't just miss my grandparents, I lament that they are not a part of our daily lives. Although we lived on the coast, my Grandaddy loved the mountains, and to this day, I cannot drive through the mountain forests here without exclaiming aloud how much he would love it here.

So this morning, with the scent of pancakes and coffee interwoven with my Grandmomma's voice, I felt at home. I felt the grounding love for my own children and the tug of the loved child I once was, both informing the adult I now choose to be. And I know my Grandmomma approves. I still have her voice, and she tells me so.


  1. Oh Wow! That was amazing. Thanks for sharing your heart!

  2. What she said. Very nice. :)

  3. *toast* to a lady that can consume more Chocolate than I.

    (damn ~L~, you made me cry.)