Questions I Don’t Get To Ask My Grandmother

My life doesn’t look the way that she thought women’s lives should look—no husband, no children, an unkempt house, and a penchant for oversharing on the Internet—but is she proud of me?

For a while now, I’ve been writing a eulogy for my grandmother. I don’t know when, or even if, I’ll ever give it. She turned 86 this week, though when we asked her how old she was before she blew out the candles on the tiny lemon cake, she pursed her lips and guessed that maybe she was somewhere in the neighborhood of 50.

Is it morbid to write a eulogy for a person who’s still alive?

Maybe. Probably. I don’t know the rules where memory is concerned.

It feels like it’s been years since my grandmother was my grandmother in any way that mattered. We never had that much in common, but even the narrow areas of overlap are beyond reach. She taught me to play Scrabble and now we painstakingly do children’s puzzles featuring snowmen and red robins over and over.

Once, after visiting an exhibit about the fashions of Princess Diana, she reworked old formalwear to make replicas of my favorites for my dress-up box. I want to show her that I’ve taken up cross-stitching, somehow an homage to her dexterity with textiles, but if I showed her my work I’d have to explain why I stitched a portrait of Beyonce, and who Beyonce is, and that conversation is too much on so many levels.

And each time I walk into her room at the nursing home—admittedly not often enough—I wait for her to comment on my hair, or correct the way my mother makes or unmakes the bed, or refer to a black friend as “the ethnic girl,” but she doesn’t. It’s not just the triple-word scores and resourceful crafting that are gone; so is the sharp-tongued, ornery, judgmental woman whose visits left my mother at her wits’ end and us only too ready to be out from under her constant scrutiny.

Sometimes I wonder if she’d have been kinder and more patient if she’d had the opportunity to flex her brain in directions other than parenting and homemaking. That’s not to say she didn’t love those things and wasn’t good at those things, because she did and she was. But unlike stay-at-home parents today who make conscious—albeit socially and economically influenced—decisions to be homemakers, she grew up in an era and a community that didn’t encourage aspirations beyond the home. She was fantastic with details and liked crisp procedures and clear rules. I think she might have made an excellent newspaper editor, or maybe an accountant or small business owner. It seems possible, even likely, that had she pointed her opinions in productive and creative directions, she might have been a little softer with us.

My grandmother never went to college. After graduation, she married her high school sweetheart and worked briefly at Bell Telephone as an operator. When customers got upset at jammed lines and started swearing in frustration, male managers took over to protect the delicate ears of the young ladies. She left when she started to show, as was the custom, and never went back to work. I wonder if she might have entered the workforce when her two oldest children left the nest, but a late-in-life baby kept her in parent mode into her 50s.

We look for traces of ourselves in our ancestors, a turned-up nose, deep crows feet, perhaps a streak of anti-authoritarianism. My grandmother never made the honor roll, and not because she wasn’t qualified. Her teacher spotted her at lunch one afternoon walking the track holding hands with her beau, later to be my grandfather. The teacher felt the display of affection was sufficiently unladylike to decline to write her a recommendation letter. I don’t know if my gram was caught by surprise or if, just maybe, she did it on purpose. Could her handholding have been a subconscious “fuck you” to the narrow conventions of respectability? I’m probably projecting, but a granddaughter can dream. In fact, if a granddaughter can’t ask the questions, as I can’t, and didn’t think to when they could have been answered, dreaming is all that’s left.

I don’t know what she would make of my life, whether she would be proud or disapproving. Probably a bit of both. It certainly doesn’t look the way that she thought women’s lives should look—no husband, no children, an unkempt house, and a penchant for oversharing on the Internet—but she always liked that I was smart. Even as education took my mother, and now me, along different paths than the ones with which she was intimately familiar, I knew she was proud of that.

And I know she’d be thrilled that her daughters and granddaughters visit her, even if she doesn’t recognize us, and even though it’s unlikely that any warm feelings we generate linger past the doors of the memory ward.

It’s fitting, too, that it’s the women, especially my aunt and my cousins, who make the thankless treks and keep her company even when the impact of their visits evaporate moments after they leave. It’s the women who celebrate birthdays, who hold her hand, who call to check in, who communicate with the nursing home staff about her needs. And although I may find it infuriating that the men on the family tree have opted out of participating in this phase of her life, my grandmother would probably think it’s appropriate, even preferable this way.

While my generation works overtime to prove that caregiving and homemaking can and should be shared more fairly between the sexes, hers was a generation that took pride in owning the domestic sphere. Whether because she truly liked it, or because it was all she was permitted to own, caretaking and homemaking was what she did.

Three children. Ten grandchildren. Nine great-grand children and counting. That was her resume, and she was, is, enormously proud of it.

Role Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for JezebelThe FriskyThe Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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