This weekend, I went through my box of stuff. That box of letters, random medals I got in high school band, newspaper clippings about me or someone in my family – the stuff you keep because it seems important. I came across seven letters from my great-grandmother. I was never actually very close to her. She lived in Illinois, while the rest of my family lived in Wisconsin. We saw her once a year at Christmas, or at big events, like my confirmation, and it was always awkward because no one was close to her. She drove my grandma nuts, and she always made pointed statements that someone would take offense at.
When I was in my mid-twenties, though, I started writing to her. It began because I was planning my first international trip, to Thailand, and my great-grandmother had traveled extensively in Southeastern Asia, which was odd for anyone in my family, but doubly odd given her generation. She traveled before travel was so easy as it is today, and at a time when it was common to hire guides in foreign countries. She was the only person I knew who had traveled internationally, though, and I was curious about her experiences. She was 82 at the time I started this little communication stint, and her mind had already begun to decline some, so all I got from her was this:
“Our guide in Thailand was not one of our favorites. All he knew was about the film made there of The King & I. He also had his girlfriend along which I’m sure he wasn’t supposed to have done. Our guide in Hong Kong told us his name was Charlie Chang, but of course, it wasn’t.”
That was it. I would have loved to learn more, but she was a woman of few words. I’ve been meaning to talk to some relatives so I can capture some examples of the statements she used to make that offended people. I look back at these stories as amusing, but if I ever write about her, I want to be able to include some specifics. I will still have those conversations with family members that knew her better than I, but I found some gems in the letters she sent me. Below are a few.
“Don’t ever say anything, but [My uncle's wife] always sends me a birthday card and says they will be up to take me to lunch, but never come here. [A different grandson and his wife] are the only grand-kids that come to see me. they usually go home with a few treasures.”
She loved her “treasures,” random antiques and knick knacks she often bragged about, and dangled like bait for those who did come to visit. Then even when my uncle referred to above did visit, she said…
“[My aunt and uncle] stopped by for a day while they were with their golf group. Haven’t seen the kids since a year ago X-mas and they sure have grown. [My cousin] isn’t quite the cry baby he used to be.”
That was her way of making a compliment. She probably didn’t say that directly to my uncle, but even her compliments were thinly veiled judgments of one sort or another. Another excerpt…
“Your grandmother ([Grandma's name inserted here, as though I don't know who she is]), is unhappy with me as I called [Grandma's husband] early in June and told him I had a bladder infection, so she told me she wasn’t going to call me unless I call her. [My name], she never calls me anyway. I could lie here dead for a month and she wouldn’t know the difference. (Don’t say anything to her.)”
The underline in her letter was a bit squiggly, but it was there. She loved to speak her mind, but always commanded me not to tell anyone what she said. I’m positive she made random negative comments about me to others as well. None of us was immune, which was probably the primary reason no one was every very close to her. She was certainly a character, though.
“Went to a pig roast yesterday with my friend Ruth. Farmers in her area have that each year. I haven’t used salt for about 30 years, but they sure had enough on the meal yesterday. Love, Grandma V.”
She spent her last ten years or so in a nursing home as her dementia escalated to the point where she didn’t really recognize anyone except possibly her own kids. Her son had been working on getting her to move back to Wisconsin so she was near family as she aged, but she didn’t want to.
“He thinks I should probably move back to Wisc., but I have friends here and I like my Mobile Home. Don’t want to live with a bunch of old ladies who want to know all your business.”
I love it that she always capitalized “Mobile Home.” In the nursing home, she quickly developed a reputation as someone who spouted out insults to those around her. Despite her biting remarks, I have respect for how she lived. She got divorced after 40 years of marriage because she’d had enough of her husband’s drinking. That takes a different kind of strength for someone that grew up in the 1920s than it does for people of more recent generations. She was probably around 60, and she lived on her own after that, supporting herself, and doing things she enjoyed. Her travels fascinated me, given how uncommon it is for people from my neck of the woods, and even more so for that travel to have occurred when it did. I don’t know the exact dates, but it was definitely before 1970. She passed away last December at the age of 95, and although we were never close, I’m glad to have known her.