My paternal grandmother was not like the drawings of the plump, smiling grandmothers I found in storybooks.
She smelled of Estée Lauder and cigarettes, not freshly baked cookies. Her graying hair was stylishly coiffed, with no buns in sight. She was tall, almost angular – her lap definitely did not invite cuddling. Instead, she held me at arm’s length.
She believed in rigid rules and structured routines.
At my grandmother’s house, a breakfast of eggs and juice was served each morning, no substitutions or exceptions allowed. Because I preferred Frosted Flakes to runny eggs, I often went hungry. And I was bored. There wasn’t a lot to do in a retirement complex for an eight-year-old girl.
So, I wandered around the house, looking at the photographs framed in every room.
A picture of my dad at three years old, blue-eyed and smiling, hung in the guestroom. One of my grandfather’s proudest photos, him holding a massive Sailfish he caught, held court in the living room. But my favorite picture hung in its gilded frame in my grandparent’s bedroom – my grandmother, blushing and contemplative, on her wedding day in 1936.
I’d perch carefully on the edge of her bed and marvel at the bridal portrait. I’d stare at that young bride, memorizing the details and trying to match them with the stern elderly woman in the next room.
I didn’t understand her at all. And I was afraid to ask.
The grandmother I knew was reserved, almost distant. I knew she loved me, but I didn’t feel especially close to her. I’m not sure that anyone did. She didn’t share stories of her childhood or of her life as a young adult. Instead, I invented a fairytale life for her. She was a princess in her bridal finery, preparing to meet her prince at the end of the aisle and begin their happily ever after. A bit of fiction to bridge the gap I felt between us. Or maybe it was the gap between the girl in that picture and the woman she became.
Because my father told me what really happened after she said, “I do.”
In 1939, she gave birth to her first son – my dad. In 1940, she had her second baby boy. He lived for three days, dying from a fatal blood disorder. Crushed by grief, and a society that didn’t acknowledge such losses, she never spoke of him again. Two years later, she delivered a healthy girl.
It was 1942. That same year, my grandfather entered the Army to fight in World War II, leaving behind a bereaved wife and the two surviving children. My dad, who was a toddler at the time, doesn’t remember much, except that she was often sad.
Just a year after my grandfather returned home from the war in 1945, my grandmother contracted tuberculosis. Because doctors didn’t know how to effectively treat the disease then, they quarantined patients in sanatoriums. My grandmother lived in isolation for three years, punctuated by brief visits with her family. My father was ten years old when she finally came home.
So much for the fairy tale.
It’s been more than 64 years since that time. My grandparents were married for almost five decades before they were parted by death. As far as I know, they never talked about the incredible hardships they faced – the losses, the heartache, and the separations.
I regret that I never asked.
Life has been no fairy tale for me either.
I’ve had more “for worse” than “for better” in my life – more “in sickness” than “in health.” I lost an infant son to spinal muscular atrophy just five months after his birth. I mask my grief. I am guarded with most people. I cling to a strict schedule and practice routines to make it through the day.
I am like my grandmother. I know her broken heart from the inside.
Today, my grandmother’s bridal portrait hangs in my bedroom, catty-cornered to my wedding picture. I look at it now, and I finally understand her. She was uncompromising because she needed control. She held back because she was terrified of being hurt. She was incredibly misunderstood. She was amazingly resilient.
The difference between the two of us is that I’m telling my story.