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.


  1. Beautiful!!!A woman of much wisdom.

  2. What an observation, Glimmer. Families are such strange conglomerations. I too did not 'share my children with my mother much, for reasons that were perhaps different from your own. I dd not encourage too much of a link with their grandparents on my husband's side either for other complicated reasons.

    I worry now that when I am in my nineties - assuming I get there - I will find that what I have reaped I too might sow.

    I did not know any of my paternal grandparents apart from the stories I had heard, the photos I'd seen.

    I now recognise grandparents are important and I'm pleased that your son will remember his grandmother in this way. It's generous of you to allow it.

  3. I just love this. Being a grandmother myself, I look to others to be role models. I only have the one grandchild so far but I know there will be more and I will have to learn how to share myself between all of them. Mr. Moon was just discussing this morning the setting-aside of a car for Owen, our grandson. I told him that he couldn't do that unless he could do it for all of the ones to come. We laughed about that.
    And then I read this and I think how wise your mother-in-law was. I think your son is lucky to have her car, yes, but mostly her genes.

  4. Yes, Von. Wise and multi-layered, that one. I'll have more to say about her later.

    Elisabeth: My MIL had five of her own and eight grandchildren, so maybe the thrill was gone. And his birth, to my shock, led to a rapprochement with my own Mother, who poured attention, affection and time into a relationship with him. He rarely walks by my mother without giving her a hug, an "I love you Nanny!" etc.

    I do see so many grandparents here with hands-off attitudes ("I have a life"). Then the kids become interesting and the grandparents need companionship and help. But there is no relationship and they are polite, but strangers. Maybe you can create something, as I said. A magic moment, a child at the right age, a boy and his first car. However, Elisabeth, you are young, it's not too late!

    Ms. Moon: You, of all people, have no worries. The evidence is everywhere. Owen and those who follow are going to see chickens and flowers and pots of stew and a man in hunting gear, so many things and feel warmth flooding over them and the two of you will pop up in the mind's eye and heart. That happens to me when I cut up a watermelon, see a Dr. Pepper and wrap pearls around my neck (my Aunt Re).

    And I am thrilled my boy has those Midwestern genes. But he won't appreciate them for a while. The car? His son's friends are SO JEALOUS! Mr. Moon has plenty of time. I bet he figures it out. A bicycle would work, too, you know. A slingshot carved out of wood. Anything to remind them of all the time and love freely given.

    Thanks so much for commenting, everyone. I've been worn down by winter. I never thought 50 degrees would be a relief but this year it is!

  5. When our Ryan came into our lives the grandparents were old in every way...except Papa. He loved Ryan so! He loved to watch him play and joined in with true joy. Sadly Papa died when Ryan was just 3.

    My mother is well...not interested...except to say he is a good boy. Give him money...I put that in the bank for him.

    My Love's parents just didn't really try..worn out? I don't know...but Ryan did miss the boat with Grandparents. Thankfully he has wonderful Aunts and Uncles, cousins and sisters...still I feel like I wish he knew what a Grandparent could have been. Like his sisters who got to have the sleep overs, cookie baking, the laughter and hugs...

    So what your mother-in-law did was unusual indeed...and your son will always remember that...if it had been a new car it wouldn't have been the same...but to be HER car...well..that is different.

    One day when Ryan is older and can look back on these years I want to ask him what he remembers of his family.....

  6. What a great post!! It made me miss my grandmother(s) and be grateful for what I had with them. And your logic is right-on, that's exactly why she gave him the car. I would think it must be so funny to have your child share genes with someone else who isn't related to you at all. You know? I've always thought that must the oddest thing.

    Then again, leave it to me to overthink it :)

  7. This is a great piece of writing. My dad died at 86 on Feb, 23. He and my mother were better grandparents to my son than parents to me. I have thought a lot recently about "you reap what you sow." But sometimes even if you sowed poorly, you reap more than you sowed. And maybe the seed is better off for this.

  8. What a sweet lady. I'm glad your son got the car.

    I love you much.


  9. So do you think that she knew she was going to die? I wonder whether she was getting all her affairs in order. I believe that people do "travel" before they die. I think that it is a great thing that she did for her grandson.

  10. Hi Glimmer - I popped over from WORDSONWAKING.
    Great piece! I like your writing style. I'm now officially a fan.

  11. What a great story.

    Thanks for your condolences and your comments. I really appreciate that you took the time. It means a lot.

  12. Condolences Glimmer... it is interesting the 'gifts' our grandparents leave us... my own grandfather was a man I can't say I knew well, was a hard man to know well. He's been gone about twenty years now - and it is only now that I see how much we had in common. He loved to write and paint as do I. I know I inherited these traits from him. And so, while he was distant when he was alive, I now understand him more and look back at him with affection.

  13. Such a sweet story. Thank you for sharing :) xo

  14. Ellen: I know! I didn't know my grandfathers, both gone, same for my husband. One grandmother died when I was little and I wasn't close to the other one. I had one aunt who filled the void. I feel it just takes one!

    Also, my siblings and I have very close friendships with people we have known since we were quite small. Maybe these are a subtitute for the extended family relationships other people have. Just a thought. You know, if the family is not there, we make one.

    SJ: Not overthinking at all! It is an odd thing. Sometimes people will say "strong genes" about the picture we have by the door of my son and his Iowa grandmother. He's a baby and she's holding him and their blue eyes are glowing. And I'm saying yes and thinking, "Most of my family has those blue eyes too!" Like it's a competition. Silly.

    Sandra: I watch my mother with my son and I am so very grateful for this time. She was exhausted and stressed when we were growing up and now is happier than I've ever seen her. And it shows in her relationship with him. It's like a do-over. Thank goodness.

    SB: Thank you honey! I love you too. I've been knocked out by the winter blues but think I am finally shaking myself out of it. Too cold, too long!

    Syd: I kept thinking about my neighbor when I was visiting the MIL at T-giving. He kept popping into my head. A few weeks before he died, he spent a very nice, quiet T-giving at home with his family and told me about it. He was very quiet and serious and said it was excellent and he did not want it to end. Then he died.

    And in Iowa at T-giving, it was just my husband, son, my MIL and me. The gathering was supposed to have been bigger, but the weather got bad and the others couldn't come. It's a "big loud family," as they all say, and you can't hear yourself think. So we had a lovely, nice, quiet visit, the first one for us with her. And I couldn't help but think it was the last one, especially because my neighbor was popping into my head and I kept trying to push him out.

    And I do think MIL was getting her affairs in order. She told my husband "I am just existing." She told her daughter "I don't know why I'm still here." This was not like her AT ALL. She was an elderly woman who never complained, felt sorry for herself, etc. She was moving from a cottage into assisted living and giving things away. But she loved her things and honestly, it would have been like her to rent a storage facility to "think about it." I agree, sometimes people just know.

    Syd, this is something that fascinates and gives me the willies at the same time.

    DD -- Thank you so much and welcome!

    Therapydoc -- You know I am a huge fan of yours. And I have been there re the dad, it took a long time to feel normal. I'm not sure I do, now, even.

    Domestic: Do you have access to his writings, your grandfather's? Now that is something I wish I had. My mother grabbed away a letter my father had written her when they were courting. I would love to see that. Unfortunately these folks did not have blogs for us to see. And time helps, doesn't it? And another thing that has given me some understanding is just the writing here. It has helped me look at things in another way. I didn't expect that. And I'm so glad.

    And I thank you, Shannon!