Grandma was 70 years old when I was born. I don’t know if she and Grandpa made the 500-mile trip from their house to ours on such an auspicious occasion. I do know that they did make that drive occasionally. More often, however, and too often it seemed to me, Mom and Dad would pile my younger brother and me (so I must have been at least 4) into the car and we would have to make that trip.
It was a long haul for a couple of little kids. “Are we there yet?” And the answer would always be a simple, “No.” The Interstate Highway System was not yet built, at least not in that part of the country, so our trips were always on narrow two-lane highways. In the summer it was always hot (I think we got the first air conditioned car in 1959 and it didn’t cool much other than the front seat where we did not sit). And Thanksgivings – oh, how I dreaded Thanksgivings! – we could almost always count on a blizzard going one way or the other. Dad never wanted to spend the money for a motel so we were on the road more than we should have been.
But it must have been a long haul for Grandma and Grandpa too. I loved when they visited because that would mean Grandma would make homemade bread and cinnamon rolls. From scratch. Kneading and pounding that dough and then setting the molded loaves and rolls covered with a dish towel to rise on one of the dining room radiators. She would roll over in her grave if she knew I could whip up a batch of bread in my KitchenAid mixer. It just wouldn’t be right. Grandpa died when I was 10 so he must have been about 80. After that it seemed that the trips north became more frequent. At 500 miles a shot.
I distinctly remember the respect with which my dad treated his mother-in-law. I’m not sure what it was, but he was different somehow or I wouldn’t have noticed it. His own mother had died in her 50s or 60s, I think, and I had never met either of his parents. Maybe it was knowing what they had gone through in their lives that made him more conscious of Grandma. He treated her like a very elegant lady.
In many ways, Grandma was elegant. She had once had red hair, I was told, but the years I knew her it was more of a light brown bordering on gray to full gray. It was long but she was short. People around town admired her for her spunk, her independence, and her bright memory. As she progressed into her 90s, she would invite guests in her home to “guess how old I am.” No one ever guessed right, even though they lowballed their estimates. In her speech, her mind, and demeanor, Grandma always seemed to be 15 years younger than she actually was.
She died at age 96. I figure there’s no reason to go into the whys and wherefores of anyone’s death at that age. But she was lucid to the end.
Now, I need to retreat. Grandma was 70 years old when I was born. 70 years difference in our ages. That’s three-and-a-half generations for most folks, but in our family, it was just two. At 70, most grandmas have also achieved the state of great-grandma rather than new grandma.
I began to notice a distance between us when I was in the seventh grade or so. Grandma had come to visit and had decided to accommodate herself in my bedroom, perusing my bookshelves and asking me this question and that. As I think about it now from my much older perspective, I think she was looking for a way to have a meaningful conversation with a newly-minted adolescent. Anyone at any age would find this to be perilous territory to negotiate.
As a voracious reader, I had acquired not only library books but a host of personal volumes as well. Lots of mysteries. Some biographies. And many coming-of-age novels (she would have died if she knew I read Gone With the Wind when I was in seventh grade (that scene where Rhett sweeps Scarlett off her feet and carries her up the grand staircase to the bedroom…well, you get my drift). Mom had allowed me to subscribe to something called Scholastic Book Service and I could pick out various paperbacks that were then mailed to me. They were all there on the shelves.
Now wouldn’t you know it, but Grandma picked up the one book out of all of those that I had read but I really didn’t like. I remember the title was Going Steady. I can’t tell you anything about it, except that it was a novel and I thought it was boring. So when Grandma asked me about it, that’s what I told her.
“Are you going steady?” she asked as she perched on the edge of the bed.
“Then why do you have a book about going steady?”
“It’s not a book about going steady. It’s a story about a girl who is going steady.”
“So are you going steady?”
“Then why do you have a book about going steady?”
You can see where this conversation was going. As studious as I was, I had not acquired the patience or the expertise to explain to my grandmother in eloquent terms the difference between fiction and non-fiction (which, of course, she should have known). My mother must have heard a change in tone in our conversation because it wasn’t long before she came into my room and gently ushered her then 85-year-old mother to another part of the house.
And that was the beginning of what I felt was an ever-widening gap in not only our ages, but our ability to communicate with one another.
It might have been different if we had lived in the same town. I’m sure it would have been. I’ve watched other families and the joy with which young people interact with their grandparents and greats. But by the time it came for us to have meaningful conversations, our visits with one another had become limited to once or maybe twice a year and neither one of us had any idea how to talk with someone so old or so young.
I spent one summer while I was in college living at my grandma’s house. It was a disaster. I had been given a Singer sewing machine for my high school graduation and I really made the most of it by sewing my own clothes and college bedroom sets. But Grandma didn’t like the way I sewed. “Why do you pin everything before you sew it?”
“That’s the way they taught us to do it in home ec class.”
“It’s a waste of time.” “You’re doing it wrong.” “Why can’t you do it right?”
And it went downhill from there. The irony is that my mother never learned to sew in her entire life so whatever Grandma was teaching her, it wasn’t sewing.
Over the years I’ve developed a theory that we can’t live forever because we would not be able to bear the changes in the world. I don’t mean the technological ones. For heavens’ sake, Grandma lived through two world wars and the invention of the radio, the airplane, and the television (among other advances). But there are human changes as well; relationships change; methods of communication change. If my grandmother were alive today and observed great-great-grandchildren with their faces buried in smartphones or computers, what would she do?
There are biblical reasons, of course, for why we die or, at least, why we do not live forever. And science is always driven to find that fountain of youth so that future generations will be able to live well into their 100s.
I wonder if they’ll want to. Life is a blessing. And our relationships are a blessing. We should always be respectful of our elders whether they are 50 or 90. But the more years we put between the eldest and the youngest presents a challenge to every generation to be mindful of our communication with one another. Otherwise, it will become easier and easier to just write one another off.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven; a time to be born and a time to die….” – Ecclesiastes 3:1 (NRSV)Share here: