I got back from the gym around 9:30am, 9:45. Had a bowl of cereal. Started reading down rabbit trails on my phone. It’s almost 11am, and only now am I leaving the bunnies behind. But hey, it’s also grist for the mill, sparks on the wood-shavings in my brain.
People who are in relationships where they can really count on the other person in times of need–those people’s memories stay sharper longer. –Robert Waldinger, in his TEDxBeacon Street talk of November 2015
The Harvard Study of Adult Development had reached its 75th year when Waldinger presented this summary of their findings. Participants had been in their late teens at the start, which makes them now nonagenarians. And somehow doing that math brought to mind my Ganmommy, my mom’s mom, who died in 2003, the week before her 91st birthday.
Ganmommy was not my favorite grandmother. I stayed with each set of grandparents every summer from when I was perhaps 3 until I started working through the summers at 16, so I had a well-rounded data set to work with. Life in her and my Gandaddy’s Florida condo was pleasant–I swam at least once a day in the condo pool, I got to shop for and eat all my desired foods (including and especially the forbidden Sugar Cereals!), we ate in tasty, well-appointed restaurants most nights. I also had to make my bed every day, keep “my” room spotless, dress well, visit graciously with her friends should they drop by. We did the bulk of my school shopping together, too, which was pleasant without being something I would choose to do if left to my own devices. At my other grandparents’, I was left to my own devices.
I read this description, and I think: surface. Which I think accurately describes the bulk of our time together, a truth that left me regretful when she died. Upon her death, her friends uniformly eulogized her as “the perfect Southern lady.” Wouldn’t she have wanted more than that? More than pleasant?
Pleasant hides, though, the deep river of unpleasant that ran between her and her daughter, my mother. Hides how each Sunday the dutiful phone call would disintegrate into shouting, at least on my mom’s end. Hides how I, and later my sister, would fly to Florida so that my mom wouldn’t have to be in the same room with her mother. As I grew, I lived textbook examples of passive aggression, of triangulation, of the unhealthy behavior of bad boundaries and unspoken desires. Ganmommy was not my favorite grandmother.
She, however, stayed mentally sharp and able until she decided to quit healing from her broken hip. And in the wake of Waldinger’s project’s findings, I wondered: did my Ganmommy have those good, strong relationships that yield healthy longevity?
Yes, she did. Waldinger himself notes that these positive relationships don’t have to be smooth. What they have to be is certain. Trusted. Reliable. And one thing I learned well from my Alexander family (my Ganmommy was an Alexander before she married a West)–we take care of our family. From my youngest days I knew that family love is not a feeling; love is the action you take to care for your own.
My mother cared for her aging mother in the best ways she could figure out. She flew her mom back to Florida from Houston when my Ganmommy’s desire to control her own medication grated against my mother’s desire to follow the doctor’s instructions. (“But Mom, I don’t think the Vitamin K is likely to be giving you those side effects. Have you talked to your doctor about this?” “Oh, he’s such a nice man. I don’t want to bother him. This way is fine.”) It was the best way my mom could find to honor her mother’s autonomy…shouting certainly wasn’t going to do it. My mom would add a day onto her Kennedy Space Center business trips to visit with my Ganmommy, long enough to verify things, and hopefully short enough that she could bite her tongue. And up through the end, my mom would listen to what the healthcare providers said, and consider what she knew of her mom, and advocate for the path with the greatest autonomy. My mom worried and grieved as it became clear that my Ganmommy would not get to live on her own ever again. Even as she researched and planned, she steeled herself for what my mom foresaw would be a pitched battle between them.
Instead, my grandmother started failing. My mom flew to be with her; sat beside her, talking of anything and nothing, as she had on other hospitalization days. And on the last day, at the usual time my mom would go back to her hotel to eat and regroup, my Ganmommy got antsy. My mom told her something like, “Yes, Mom. You’re right. It’s time for me to head to the hotel. I’ll see you later,” and kissed her goodbye. My mom later told me that her mother had attended several deathbeds, and she (my mom) figured that my Ganmommy did not want to go through the indignities of death in front of her only child. My mom was matter-of-fact about this; she knew what was ahead, but her mother’s choice didn’t surprise her. Nor did the phone call she got not long after she reached her hotel.
Somewhere in my girlhood, my mom told me that one of her favorite poems was Robert Frost’s The Death of the Hired Man, because of the line:
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”
This, to me, is the kernel of truth within any trustworthy relationship: no humble asking, no self-sacrificing offering, just matter-of-fact care. Care of course, in its meaning of “what follows next on the track.”
But I like the following line better:
“I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
May I be one who offers such grace when the need is in front of me. May I give, and never fret about what should be deserved.