My parents came over for dinner a few weeks ago, much as they do every Saturday, but this week my dad brought something for me. It was an old, manila envelope addressed to me (at my parents house), postmarked sometime in 1990. It was from my maternal grandmother and it brought back a slew of memories.
In the emotional days of fall, 2001, my grandmother passed away. She was the last of my grandparents to go, out living my father’s mother by ten years, and her own husband by almost thirty-five. Even though she never learned to drive she was fiercely independent, and lived the better part of thirty of those years alone.
We did visit. Before my grandfather died they were regular visitors at our house in Billerica. Afterward, we went to her at least once a week while we lived in Massachusetts, then only once every few years after we moved to Florida. My mother hated to travel, even to visit her mother. My visits increased to once a year in college, after I started dating Cheryl. Her grandparents lived 45 minutes away in New Hampshire, so it was a two for one trip. When we met in high school, we learned we were born and grew up less than a 30 minute drive apart.
Thinking back on her long life, when you add it all up, I spent more time with her than any of my other grandparents, despite some of the gaps.
I think I knew her the least.
If you were to picture in your mind a small, wiry, old, bitter, reserved to the point of stoic, long ago widowed, small town woman from Nowhere, Vermont – you’d have a pretty good image of my grandmother. (Though she lived not far from Boston, near Salem. Yes, THAT Salem: seven gables, witches, and a lot of history.) She kept her emotions close to the vest. When I’d go to visit on our annual trips to New England I’d get a regular outpouring of emotion: her frown would temporarily disappear and she would and say, “hello John, it’s nice to see you.”
Then silence, and the return of the frown.
My phone calls went much the same way. They were one sided monologues, sprinkled with questions met with the shortest possible answer.
Imagine me trying to carry a conversation.
I’ve learned more about my grandmother since her death. It’s funny how people feel freer to talk about others after they die. That’s when I learned we (her grandkids) were all she talked about – and apparently she did talk.
It makes me wonder. Why didn’t she talk to me? She wouldn’t tell me things unless I knew enough to ask her directly about it. Otherwise, my questions were answered in general, non-specific terms whenever possible.
When I thought about her, I pictured her sitting alone in her apartment. I imagined thirty years of dinner at a table with one chair. Whenever I thought of her, I always felt guilty, like I wasn’t doing enough. I felt like I had her seemingly cold demeanor coming. I only visited once a year. I’m ashamed to admit phone calls were so painful I only called once a month. Sometimes I think it took me that long to recover from the last one. I never really doubted she loved us, in her way, but I couldn’t think of how to return it in a way I thought would make some difference in her lonely life.
She showed affection long distance, if not in person. Although she was quiet, she was always paying attention. On those visits to Danvers while we were still living in Massachusetts, I’d always make my way to her latest issue of National Geographic. A subscription of my own followed me when my parents moved us to Florida. She gave me the gift of the world every year until I graduated from college, and an apartment was replaced by a nursing home.
My grandmother listened to most Red Sox games on the radio, and followed the Celtics, Bruins and Patriots in the paper, so one topic we could discuss was sports. One of the things I missed in Florida was coverage of Boston sports. However, I’d get large envelopes addressed to me from Danvers. There’d be no note or letter inside… just clippings from the Boston newspapers about the Celtics, Sox, Bruins, and Patriots.
Then there was the money. My grandfather was college educated but not exactly wealthy (though his father did well for himself). Yet birthdays and holidays always meant big paydays for me and my sisters. Each time two separate windfalls came, requiring an obscene number of digits for a child. One came in our name, and another to my mother to enlarge the piles under the tree, or sweeten the birthday haul. Most of the checks written out to me went in the bank – and ultimately became the down-payment on our house – after wasting chunks of it here and there on motorcycles, racing road bikes (bicycles), a slowly growing tool box with standard and specialized tools for both, stereo components, or the latest pair of Oakleys.
Have I ever mentioned I may have been a wee bit spoiled growing up?
So what was in that envelope my dad had for me a few weeks ago? There was no letter. There was no note. The only thing her handwriting graced was that envelope. Inside was a front page article cut from the Boston Globe about Red Auerbach stepping down as General Manager of the Celtics, and a special pull-out section on the Bruins’ Stanley Cup run (they lost to the Edmonton in the finals… though at least they didn’t lose to the Habs in the playoffs). Reading about the efforts of Cam Neely, Ray Bourque, and Andy Moog (one of my favorite player names of all time), I suddenly felt a little tickle in my throat, a little sting in my eyes – a little choked up.
I imagined a woman who in some ways lived 35 years longer than she wanted to, following the death of my grandfather. In most of those pictures she smiled. After he died she didn’t. I imagined a tough old woman living 35 years fueled by nothing but plain stubbornness.
I also thought about all the gifts, large and small; and the things we learned from her church friends just after she died. I thought about all those envelopes over the years in the mail.
Though sometimes it may seem a little thing to others – even a little odd – some of us show our love the only way we can.