by Anniel 11/12/14
An Apology to My Grandmother • I awoke the other morning feeling compelled to write a very personal account of my family, particularly my grandmother. Please, I hope this will not be interpreted as seeking pity, and I sincerely hope the larger intent is clear.
Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?
Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. — Matthew 18:21-22; KJV
From the beginning The Lord has spoken about our need to forgive all men. It seems like such a difficult task. And so my story.
I met my father’s mother only once. I was four months old and my older brother and I were taken to Butte, Montana to meet the wreck of a woman who had deserted her husband, my grandfather, and surviving children when my father was just 13 years old. The only child Grandma said goodbye to and offered to take with her was my dad’s oldest sister, Sadie. Aunt Sadie said she would stay with her father and my grandmother laughed and told Sadie Grandpa wasn’t her “real” father, she was already pregnant when she married him. Sadie was stunned, but chose to stay with Grandpa anyway, and he reared and loved her all his days.
The funny thing about Grandpa was he never stopped loving my grandmother, his “Little Sweetheart.” Other people hated her but he refused that hate. I would never again see my grandmother after traveling to Butte, and my father refused to speak of her. She died of acute alcoholism when I was 7. For many years after that all I knew was that she had divorced Grandpa, remarried and had 3 more children, all girls.
My father felt that his half-sisters had stolen his mother’s love. That they had possessed the best part of her. And so he was jealous and never cared about them. Then one day the oldest girl, Aunt Elsa, came to visit with her husband, my wonderful Uncle Emil. Emil had decided it was time for my dad to learn the unrelieved horror his sisters had endured.
From that visit and the revelations from Emil and Elsa, my father gained three sisters and we children got not just aunts and uncles, all with stories of their own, but what seemed like dozens of new cousins. Actually we only know of an even dozen, but one of the sisters kept having baby after baby (her sisters say she had at least 19, plus the 5 she kept) to sell on the black market through a Finn woman’s brokerage as revealed just a few years ago in People Magazine. I had just assumed she dropped the babies off in a basket on some church’s steps.
I picked up only bits and pieces of the stories surrounding my grandmother, enough to know that my aunts were neglected and horribly abused in ways hard to imagine. I asked Aunt Elsa to tell me about her mother and she mostly refused to answer any questions. I did hear my father tell of Aunt Elsa going to a doctor about her horrible headaches. When the doctor told her they were caused by an earlier skull fracture she was mystified because she had never had a skull fracture. Then her sister said, “Oh, that must have been the time mom hit you over the head with the whiskey bottle and we had to take care of you for nearly two weeks because you couldn’t get up.” Elsa’s injury had been so severe she was unable to remember the incident.
So I learned to hate my grandmother, and I know she sounds terrible. But somehow I wanted to understand her. So I asked questions before some of the people who had known her died. I learned she came from the Karelia Region, on the side which is now Finland, and which at other times had belonged to Sweden or Russia. She grew up to be under 5 feet tall and wore a size 0 shoe. At 14 she was sent across the ocean to the U.S., traveling all by herself, to stay with and work for an uncle in McCall, Idaho. Then she traveled around mining camps in the the west, working as a laundress, dressmaker, or housekeeper. She was also drinking. She was working at a boarding house in a camp when she met and married Grandpa, had a family and then left them all behind.
I think my father was so needy he wanted to be the only person in my mother’s life. So he went on a bender when he found out my mom was pregnant with my older brother. He was sure she would love the baby more than she did him. The were living in a cabin in Island Park, Montana when he came in drunk. Mom had just finished the dishes and turned to have him throw the water out. He grabbed the dishpan from her hands and hurled it straight through the screen door. He told me that he sobered up almost instantly as he watched the water drip down the broken screen. Then he lay on the floor and cried and made the decision that to be a decent father he simply could never drink again. And he didn’t.
I believe that anyone with a drop of grandma’s blood should never drink.
One of the qualities I respected most in my father was his never failing care for the older people around him. Most of the non-relatives we called aunts and uncles were either Finns Dad grew up around, or blind people he met when his own father was blinded in a mine explosion. And care for them he did, helping them whenever and however he could. My youngest brother remembers vividly driving hundreds of miles to a TB Sanatorium in Denver so Daddy could say goodbye to one of those people. My brother today carries that legacy of helping others in his own life and actions.
I visited my “Aunt” Jenny after daddy had died. As I recall she was about 102 years old and I asked her how she, and her sisters he had also cared for, had known my dad. She told me her mother owned the boarding house where Grandpa and Grandma met and were married, and she had tended daddy and his siblings when grandma went out drinking. Dad never forgot her or her family. Aunt Jenny also said if I wanted to hear anything good about my grandma, I had come to the wrong person.
What a sad thing to be mourned by no one.
So why should I apologize to my grandmother now? My new understanding comes because of the illnesses afflicting my youngest daughter, and the pain she has had to endure. My daughter’s doctors now recognize that her illnesses are genetic. My father endured the same thing, as had his mother before him. Imagine your eyes constantly being hurt by any light, of having even quiet noises sounding like heavy artillery in your head, and oh the constant overwhelming headaches. This was before any of these illnesses were ever identified by medical science, before there was any treatment, or any pain relief – except for the self-medication of alcohol.
With my daughter’s permission, I post with this article a photo taken by her older sister when Cate had her head shaved for yet another surgery. I told the girls they should title it “Pain Is My Sister.” Pain is also my grandmother and my father.
There are some judgments that are not the province of mere mortals. Even with today’s medical miracles we know so little of the lives some people must live. One of my sons has said perhaps it was my grandmother’s greatest mercy to walk away when she did. We all have those to whom we should show mercy and try to forgive, for our own sake.
Grandma Aina, I apologize for my blindness. I shall honor you and thank you for a son, my father, who was strong enough to endure his own pain and leave a legacy of love for the next generations. • (1250 views)