Friday, March 5, 2010

The Present He Doesn't Even See

My husband's mother died this week, at 91. This was unexpected. But still, circle of life. She had been declining, for several years. She had moved recently from a retirement cottage into a room in the assisted living facility next door. She had been, as she told my husband recently, "just existing."

We last saw her at Thanksgiving, when we went to Iowa to spend the holiday with her. Which is a good thing because another daughter had intended to come, but couldn't at the last minute because she got sick. But it was okay because we were there. And she did an interesting thing that wasn't like her.

So unlike her that we puzzled over it for a while. And the only thing I could come up with was this, I remember specifically thinking it, "She is saying her goodbyes."

My husband is the youngest of five, the caboose baby. Seven years younger than the sibling closest in age. All the siblings adored their mother. She was a nurse in a hospital for a short time, then resigned and threw herself into motherhood and civic duty, volunteering in smalltown Iowa.

But she also marched in pro-choice rallies, supported the local Planned Parenthood. She strongly believed in that. She was very outspoken.

I came to the family late. As did my son. Her other daughter-in-law called her "mom," but that did not feel right to me and when someone brought it up she agreed that was not appropriate for us. She did not mince words. At first I thought the issue was that she was very Midwestern and I was too Southern and we were not sympatico because of that. But I am crazy for Midwesterners. I finally came to terms with it, we were simply different. We did not "get" each other, but we were polite about it.

Her other grandchildren are a good deal older than my son. They spent lots of time with their grandmother. Some of them spent weeks at a time with her in Iowa. Some, even more time during various upheavals at home. Divorces and the like. My son never spent time with her alone. He saw her once a year, very briefly, with many other people around, most of the time.

But this is the thing. At Thanksgiving, my son's grandmother gave him her car. He was 15 then. My husband drove it back to Virginia. This was not like her. She was careful to not show favoritism. One grandchild asked for a couple of her many teacups a couple of years ago and she said no.

The car is a good one. A grandmother's car, certainly, a Chrysler. But with low mileage. My husband wondered aloud why she didn't sell it and divide the money between her five children. That was generally the kind of thing she would do. But she wanted my son to have it. She had decided.

But I knew why she didn't. She didn't elaborate, but it came to me eventually.

She was close to her other grandchildren, as I said. Several of them doted on her, visited her frequently, called, did things for her. She knew them and they knew her. She didn't really know my son, never had. But with each year, he looks and acts like her youngest child, my husband. Tall and lanky. And that child, my husband, looks just like his mother. So the three of them are a poster picture for the way strong genes are passed down through the generations despite being "diluted" by other parties.

Their blue eyes, for instance, glow from photos.

But that's not really why, their common looks.

I think she realized that she hadn't made that much of an impression on this last grandchild of hers. That he was unfailingly polite to her. She appreciated the chatty letters he wrote thanking her for the gifts. Telling her about his sports, his academic accomplishments. But she recognized a lack there.

What's the term? You reap what you sow. She may have noticed a lack of real warmth there.

So what did she do? She gave this boy a car. Think about it. It was brilliant. He was 15 then, poised on the edge of 16, getting ready to start driving, approaching the time when he would be able to get a license and walk out and climb into a vehicle that he could call his own. That he did not have to pay for, or wheedle or beg his parents for, sign over his first-born child.

Especially since we had always told him he would have to save up for a car. And he had been doing that. And his grandmother knew about that.

The woman was brilliant.

So now, this boy will grow older and smarter and more sentimental. And he will do it driving a burgundy Chrysler that once belonged to the Midwestern grandmother he didn't really know. And then he'll grow older and he'll remember his early years in his first car. And his Iowa grandmother, who thought enough of him to give him her car. To give him freedom.

Think about it. About what that really means in that context.

A boy and his car.

I'm laughing when I think about it: A boy and his car.

He doesn't even know it yet, but he is going to love this grandmother forever.