I’m reading an article from last year’s Smithsonian Magazine entitled “New Evidence That Grandmothers Were Crucial for Human Evolution” and thinking about my own grandmothers. The article discusses why women who are no longer able to bear children are important to our development and is activating both sides of my brain.
I had four grandmothers, if you include the great-grandmother that I was lucky enough to know, and of course, I do. It’s strange the things that you remember about them, but even stranger, is, perhaps, the things you never knew.
One of my grandmothers spoke French to me, which I didn’t really understand, but loved that she did. She hated to cook but was really good at it. She had Dr. Pepper beneath her sink, and anytime that I drink one, I always think of her. After so many years (she died when I was eleven), I still miss her–her dirty rice, her insistence that I learn to speak French (I learned a little), and her giant personality.
Another grandmother made bread and butter pickles, so I can’t eat them without thinking of her. I saw her rarely as I grew older, but between our visits, she would send me two dollars tucked inside of a birthday card, written with her handwriting made difficult to read by arthritis. Once, when I was a teenager, she let me put makeup on her, a favorite pass-time of teenage girls, and I was amazed by how the eyeshadow stuck in her wrinkles. Now I’m amazed by how it sticks in mine. She died a few years later, and though I no longer get cards from her in the mail on my birthday, I still imagine receiving them.
My great-grandmother let me sift flour and run around the house (behavior forbidden to most children at the time). She would get up in the middle of the night with me to use the bathroom–I was scared to go alone because she told me that she had seen a mouse–months before. Her hair was long, all the way down her back, and I felt that I was privileged to be able to see it, because normally, it was braided and in a tight bun at the nape of her neck.
After she died, and I had but one grandmother left–the one who lived with us, her daughter. Tiny in stature (I was thrilled in the fifth grade to surpass her in height), she was strong as an ox. She loved hummingbirds, playing golf and solitaire, and was a voracious reader. Late at night, she would fall asleep in her chair, her head bowed, her chin on her chest, her book on her lap. We would delight in teasing her about it the next morning. As an adult, I would call her, and we would talk for hours. I could always make her laugh. We would talk about things that we never would have talked about when I lived there, things in which I never before imagined that she would have any interest: history, religion, politics. She died when I was in my late twenties, and it was tough to go home and her not be there. She taught me so much about life, about how to be a good person and how to admit it to myself when I was being less than that.
After she died, we were standing around looking at some old photos of her and found some of her when she was young. (Yes, even grandmothers were young at some point.) There she sat, her hair long and in tight curls, wearing an A-line skirt and a crisp white blouse, with my grandfather across from her, giving her that look that husbands give, the one that says I love you. It suddenly hit me that she was more than just our grandmother. She was an actual person with hopes and dreams and entire life before I ever knew her. They all were.
Without my grandmothers, even the ones who lived far away, I would not have grown into the person that I am today. But it is not only for us that they lived, but to have those hopes and dreams and those wonderful lives that we can’t even imagine, the ones we often forget to ask about. What I would I give for one of them to tell me a story about herself right now. What I would give to tell them that I want to know.