October 24, 2011

A wrinkle in time

Maybe it's that Louise's grandmother is ill and isn't expected to recover, and I've been thinking of her constantly these past few days. Maybe it was reading Darcy's post on missing her dad that did it. Maybe it's the time of year, with Day of the Dead looming. But I've been thinking of my grandparents a lot lately.

My mom's dad died when I was six, and it was the first time I had ever encountered the concept of death. I remember it as being confusing, but I don't think it affected me very deeply, to tell the truth. I just didn't get it. My dad's mom died when I was eleven and that was much, much harder, because I better understood the concepts of gone and forever. My Mammaw, my mom's mom, my best friend, died suddenly when I was 21 and that was crushing to me. I don't think I'll ever really get over it. Later that year, my dad's dad died, and that was a mixed bag, because he had been ill with Parkinson's disease for so long. It was hard to lose him, but there was some relief that he wasn't sick anymore. A hard thing to admit--that relief--and a hard knot to untangle.

I grew up with the ideal grandparent situation, I think. Both sets of my grandparents lived in my town, and I saw both many times a week. I spent heaps of time with them and there are special things I remember about each one. Eating at Art's Kitchen with Grandaddy Larry, sitting on the steps of his house as he worked on his truck. Going to the symphony with Grandaddy Gene, and the ringing of the bell in honor of the submarine veterans of WWII every year. Singing with him while he played the violin. I remember Grandma Lois leaning over me, teaching me to sew neat stitches to make a Raggedy Ann doll, helping her with the crossword, going to lunch at the club, sitting in the cart as she wheeled me around the commisary. Thousands of impromptu sleepovers with Mammaw, laying in her bed, propped up with feather pillows, playing Nintendo, watching Golden Girls, eating candy corn.

When I was pregnant and on bed rest, I passed the hours by sorting through family pictures and while doing this, I came across my grandparents' faces over and over again. There were so many things I wanted to ask them. My Mammaw had four children born prematurely. How did she handle that? Did she have to be on bed rest, too? What was it like, back in the '50s, to be the parent of a premature baby? My Grandma Lois had a twin that died at birth and I remember being obsessed with finding out the twin's name. Nobody remembered what it was, or if she even had one. Grandaddy Gene had always wanted to go to college, to study math or science or engineering, and he could have, with the G.I. Bill, after WWII ended. But instead, when he came home, he got married and started a family. Did he ever regret that choice in the middle of the night as the baby screamed in the next room? Did he wish that things could have been different, that his duties as a parent to provide for his family didn't press so heavily on him?

These are all things I didn't think to ask about when they were alive. And now I'll never know the answers.

There are so many things I want Lulu to know about her great-grandparents. I want her to know about Mammaw's laugh, her love of sweet things. Grandma Lois's whistling--her voice was damaged during surgery and she couldn't sing after that, but she learned to whistle beautifully. The way Grandaddy Gene always wore a flat cap--always. How Grandaddy Larry read a book in his reclining leather chair, an afghan draped over him.

Sometimes it hits me, though: I can tell her these things, but she won't really understand them. I love hearing stories about my great-grandparents. As a kid I used to beg to hear everything about them. What kind of food did they eat? How did she wear her hair? What was his favorite color? What was her favorite flower? My parents always answered me as best they could, but for all that, the great-grandparents never seemed really real to me. They seemed like characters in a book, people I'd read about instead of people that actually walked and talked. I didn't know their voices or the way they smelled or the way their faces looked when they were happy or tired. I didn't know the things that made them who they were.

I hate that these flesh-and-blood people I loved will seem like characters in a book for Lulu. I want them to be real to her. I want her to know them. I hate that she can't.

J.D. and I are obsessed with the idea of time travel. Not in a passionate sci-fi way, but it's something we do talk about at length on long car trips, in late-night chats. We like to discuss the logistics of it, how it would work, the ethical implications of it. J.D. has this theory that people from the future will time-travel back to the past and save our consciousnesses somehow, download us into the future after we die. He likes to expound upon it at great length.

Last month, when researchers discovered that some neutrinos may move faster than light, we talked about it again and joked about gassing up the DeLorean because it was going to happen. We talked about what time we would go back to, if we could. A time we were really interested in, to see what it was like? Or a time that we didn't really care to visit, but would, in order to issue some kind of warning? How much would it cost, to go back in time? Would it be like space travel--tons and tons of money, so that only rich people like that guy from NSYNC could make the trip?

J.D. lost his last two living grandparents about a year or so before I got pregnant with Lulu. It seems like such a raw deal, to have them only just miss meeting each other. J.D. was close to his grandfather--really close. I asked him, "Would you pay a hundred thousand dollars to go back to a time when your grandfather was alive, to have him meet Lu?"

J.D. didn't even have to think. He said yes.

"What about a million dollars?"

He said yes again, quick as before.

Of course it's easy to talk in hypotheticals that will never happen. We don't have a million dollars. There's no such thing as a time-travel machine. But if there were, I feel quite sure I'd gladly rob a bank or orchestrate a massive ponzi scheme to raise the funds to be able to make the trip. Because it's something that I wish for so often and so much--to be able to go back and have Lulu spend one day--one hour--with my grandparents. To see them kiss her chubby cheeks and love on her, if only for one tiny moment in time.


  1. Such lovely things to say about your grandparents. I was very close to my grandpa when I was little, I think I'm lucky in that by the time he died he was ready to go. plus i feel like the things that we take for granted today - the internet, helicopter parenting, i phones would have boggled him (and not necessarily in a good way). but my son is named after my grandpa and it was one of the few non-negotiables in our marriage, i like to think this would make have made my grandpa happy. plus it's nice for storytelling. dan's grandparents are still alive but the kids have only met them once, they're so old now that just watching the kids exhausts them, dan's grandma kept falling asleep in her chair.

  2. My daughter Lulu is named for my grandma. I think she, like your grandfather, would have loved it. I love that names can be a link to the past.

    Thanks for the kind words!

  3. Cath, it's only been now that I've been emotionally ready to read this. Such beautiful thoughts.

    My mom's grandmother died when I was about sixteen, and it was crushing. She was the most wonderful person I've ever known, and it still breaks my heart to think that my girls won't get to know her except through stories. I've had the same struggles ever since Grandma developed Alzheimer's. I HATE that my girls won't know their Great-Grandma Bates.

    My dad's family, though, are kind of famous as story-tellers, and sometimes I forget that my great-grandparents on that side all died before I could remember them, thanks to the rich stories and memories my dad and aunts and uncles all share on all occasions. I think it helps to listen to memories shared between people who remember them, instead of just stories told from one who knew them to another who didn't. Does that make sense?

    Joy's middle name is the same as mine, which came from Mom's gram. I love that she carries that piece of her great-great-grammie, and I hope either she or Grace is sometime able to pass it along to one of their daughters.