We all knew the day would come. I blogged about it last year. So I knew the second I heard my mother’s quivering voice. Her own mother, my grandmother had died. The cancer won.
It wasn’t a breathtaking surprise. There was no funeral, no ceremony, no real recognition. She just quietly faded into a mostly obscure history.
I, like so many in our family, felt the gamut of emotions. Most of us mourned her a long time ago. I imagine numbness settled in for them too. That seems pretty normal in loving an addict.
Unfortunately, for those who spent our lives trying to support her in the healthiest ways possible, the end of her life was not a time of closing chapters and making amends. It was a reminder of the questions left unanswered. For me, the biggest of those were, ‘Why?’ Why was she the way she was? Why couldn’t I break through that hard, drug-addled exterior?
A few short weeks after the news of her passing, I received an interesting email. It was from a genealogy website I vaguely remember signing up for. (As many of you know, genealogy is kinda a big deal for us Mormons. But for me, it’s not something I’ve had much time to devote to. I’ve always planned to someday, but figured I would have many more gray hairs and wrinkles.)
The email informed me of new information inputted into their database. Interestingly, it was for one of my grandmother’s cousins, from a side of the family we have little information about. I clicked on the link to the website and was instantly greeted by a stunning picture.
I could have sworn I was looking at my own grandmother. I noticed the woman in the photo was beaming at a little baby. Everything about her face revealed joy and love for that little one and it touched my heart.
And then, I looked more closely. An awning hung on one hinge over the door frame of an old home. Several windows were cracked or completely gone and an old, beat-up studebaker was parked behind them. It seemed to confirm everything I’ve ever heard about my grandmother’s upbringing, brought up in poverty, without many prospects of rising above it.
I noticed something else too. The woman in the photograph died very young.
All of this ignited a need to know more. The page also provided a contact phone number. (Here’s where being on the administrative staff of a new charter school system came in handy. I’m so accustom to cold-calling people, I didn’t even think twice about dialing the number.)
Within a few minutes I was talking to a 90 year-old woman named Mary who was once the baby in the photo. We talked like old friends as she told me the story of the woman in the picture. She was my cousin.
This woman was raised in the Dust Bowl, married young and shortly after, her husband shipped off to war. At this point, Mary paused and added, “He came back with a wonderful gift.”
“Really?!” I asked eagerly, expecting an extraordinary story about a locket or a music box.
“Yep” she replied. “It’s called Syphilis.”
Continuing the story; he left her after being with her only long enough to compromise the quality and quantity of her life. And, according to my new friend, this type of thing was not unusual for the men in the family.
So there my cousin was. Alone, sterile, generally uneducated, and essentially dying a horrendously slow death.
But then, her sister beat her to the grave, succumbing to complications of child birth. For whatever reason, the father of Baby Mary was unable or unwilling to care for her and her three siblings. Their grandmother took the older children and my cousin got the baby.
From before Mary could remember, she was her mother figure. For the rest of her life, this woman had another mouth to feed, another reason to find shelter, another body to clothe. AND, with little to no education as the Great Depression dragged on nor any skills to speak of.
She resorted to what so many other women like her did: Prostitution. Apparently, she was quite proficient because eventually, she employed other women in the brothel she founded.
In spite of this, she found love in her life. He was an undercover detective hot on the trail of a moderately well known gangster (whose name I can’t remember). Mary recalled vague memories of the officer and his kindness. She remembers being up late one night with him as she and her aunt escaped some sort of danger. Shortly after, he was murdered in an ambush during a raid to capture the mobster fugitive.
And so, this woman, my distant cousin, carried on alone and spent the rest of her life providing for her niece in the best way she knew how. That life didn’t end up being very much longer. She died from her illness in her early forties. She was just a little older than I am now. Once again, Mary was left motherless at the age of 8.
It sounds like a Hollywood production; a tragic film noir with dashing men and stunningly beautiful women who were madly in love with each other; who after the camera finished shooting and lights flickered back on, got to leave the sound stage and retreat to their dressing rooms.
But it wasn’t.
There was no reprieve for my cousin in this life. Just loss. She wasn’t Gloria Grahame vamped up and glamorous, acting out make believe tragedies on screen. She was Fantine; robbed of her youth and innocence and left holding the bag. She, like Victor Hugo’s faithful motherly character, faced the consequences of the selfish actions of others. She sacrificed so much of herself because she loved another more.
According to Mary, there were many women in the family who faced similar fates. Yet, they did the best they could with little to no support.
My conversation ended with Mary as we promised to meet somehow. In that afternoon, the brightness of understanding opened my eyes and I finally saw my grandmother more clearly than I ever have before.
Suddenly, instead of being nagged by the ‘Whys?’ of grandma’s life, ‘wasted’ to her addictions, I began to see the miracle of her rising above so many of the things she was weighed down by. She was raised in a time and environment where so many women were taught they were only good for one thing.
She had big dreams and ambitions to do good things but had no resources. Education was rarely available to young women of her social status. She was a daughter, raised in the shadow of a ‘perfect’ brother and taught, either by her parents, society or a little bit of both, that this was the rightful pattern.
No wonder there was hurt. No wonder there was an endless yearning to escape-it provided such brief but sweet relief.
I’ve heard before that it takes three generations to purge a family of the patterns of abuse and neglect. I’ve always assumed my mother and her sweet sisters were the first generation to escape that pattern. I also realize a moment of clarity doesn’t excuse a person of a lifetime of poor choices but I am beginning to see that perhaps I’ve given my grandmother and the women on her side of the family too little credit.
They, like Fantine, were doing the best they could do. Many of them probably realized they, themselves, would never rise from the misery of their situations. But they, also like Fantine, had faith and hope that their Cosettes somehow could.
That left me with a realization rather than a question:
I am as Cosette. Raised in a protective environment, I was taught to only dream big, that love can win, that I can rise above my own personal hurts and struggles and that I am more than the pleasure I give to a man. And it matters what I choose to do with that understanding because my actions can bring honor to women who probably deserve more of it than they ever received in life.
I’ve discovered one of my designated antagonists has a back story. It’s now my responsibility to allow her a greater measure of compassion and forgiveness for her limitations.
And so it goes.
Who could have known in looking for a way to let go of the hurt and disappointments, I finally found forgiveness in such an unlikely place?