january 27, 2018
we say “i get it”. we assume we understand the impact of people’s life experiences. at least i do, probably too often. there’s an arrogance to that.
i’ve been on both sides of the communication fence. i’ve had people tell me they “feel my pain” when i know damn well they haven’t got a clue. they haven’t asked me enough questions about my life and experiences. they don’t know the details. they are mostly unaware of my struggles and they have no real concept of what the dark days can be like. in the face of that, telling me they understand is about as valid praising a book when you’ve only read the title.
i’m guilty of the same. i’ve trotted out the trite “i know how you feel” line when truthfully, i don’t. i have no idea. how could i? i haven’t taken the time to ask a lot of question and i haven’t really listened.
unless we look at the bits of pieces of someone’s life with thoughtfulness and deliberation, unless we listen to the whole of the stories, unless we ask questions, we won’t understand at all and to pretend we do is patronizing at best.
i read a short essay written by woman who was travelling the path towards knowing. she started her journey following her parents’ deaths. she had questions about how they lived their lives and anger regarding the same. she thought it might help her if she tried to understand them better. she investigated. she read their letters and their journals; she talked to friends and family, and she turned their lives inside out. she learned them. she discovered who they were beyond their role as parents. she learned about some of their struggles, their triumphs, and their pain. they became more real; complicated but whole people.
what we know is often incomplete. we only know what people choose to share. we do the same thing; we’re different people depending on our audience. we modify and edit; we minimize the significant events and hide our feelings. we keep large parts of ourselves locked away. this creates problems when making judgements; they’re based on inaccurate and incomplete information.
my relationship with maternal grandmother is complicated, made more so by the fact that she has been dead for twenty-seven years. for a long time, she was just my grandmother and i loved her. i loved to visit, get treats, and play in her semi-creepy basement. i thought she was pretty and elegant and stylish. i loved her tiny house and the old furniture and the knick-knacks she had strewn about. i loved the three-way mirror in her bathroom that let me look at myself in profile.
sometimes she confused me. sometimes she said things that hurt. the sometimes tone of her voice when she spoke to my mother or about my father was troubling. it created conflicts within, love bumping up against other, less positive feelings.
my mother loved her mother, but there were some serious issues from childhood on. we had to visit her; she rarely came to our home. my mother called my grandmother every night but would often retreat to her room after talking to her mother on the phone, angry or sad or both. driving out to grandma’s house on sundays often brought on panic attacks in my mother, probably connected to my grandmother’s passive-aggressive communication style.
after she died, i learned some more things. i learned that she used to hit my mother when she was angry, until my mother got big enough to make her stop. i learned that she verbally abused my mother, targeting and damaging her self-esteem. she was extremely emotionally manipulative. she used the threat of suicide to try and get her way.
these kinds of revelations make love more complicated. i loved my grandmother, but i after she died i hated her too. i was angry at her memory. angry at my mother as well, for not being as enraged on her own behalf as i thought she should be.
it was impossible to reconcile my memories of the grandmother i loved with this woman i was discovering. how could she be so cruel? how could she love my mother but still hurt her? how could she not see that she was causing harm?
i knew some of my grandmother’s life story, in the way you know bits and pieces about your extended family. i knew the big stuff. i didn’t know the details though. i didn’t know about her feelings.
i know she married late. i know she found sex traumatic. she’d had no sexual education at all and was completely unprepared for what the matter entailed.
i knew my grandfather died just after my mother was born. he was flying home on leave following her birth and the plane crashed. what must that have been like for my grandmother, to be left alone with a new baby? she had the first of several nervous breakdowns when she heard and wasn’t able to look after my mother for several years. i imagine that came with a lot of guilt.
she was a single parent, working full-time, trying to make ends meet. they were extremely poor for a long time. she only had a small circle of friends; she was very much alone most of her life.
she made my mother, at times, very unhappy. the consequences of her parenting have been generational. there are other facts though, ones that i ignored for a long time as i nursed my anger. she loved my mother more than anything in this world. she loved her grandchildren with nearly the same intensity.
i tried, after reading the essay, to look at things differently. i tried to look at things not as an angry granddaughter but as someone who wanted to understand. i realized almost right away that i lacked information. what about the things that happened to her before she got married? what were her parents like? what was her life like growing up? who were her supports? did she have any?
what did it mean, that she found sex traumatic? was she physically hurt in addition to being emotionally harmed? did she have anyone to talk to? was there anyone around who could answer her questions after the fact?
was she prepared to be pregnant? what was it like to go through that all alone, with a husband away fighting in the war? she had a breakdown after my mother was born. were the signs there? did she struggle with her mental health throughout the pregnancy? the fact that historically people treated mental health issues quite differently is extremely relevant.
she was sent to a sanitarium after her breakdown following the death of my grandfather. my mom, a new-born, was bounced around between relatives for the first few years. what was that like for my grandmother? i know she got shock treatments; was her family there for her or was she just left alone in that place? did she worry about my mother? what was it like to become a full-time mom to a toddler you haven’t lived with? did her family help with the readjustment to life in the outside world?
i think part of her behaviours with my mother, her efforts to control my mother’s life to an extreme degree and to know what she was doing all the time might have stemmed from fear. she was unable to care for my mother during the infant and toddler years; maybe part of her controlling behaviour was an over-reaction to that.
she was a single parent when there were few single parents. she was a working mother when there were few working mothers. her husband’s pension was held up in court for years, so they were very poor. not enough to eat poor. how does that change how you act? how does that complicate your temper control?
was my grandmother hit as a child? times and parenting styles change. did she hit my mother because her mother hit her and she didn’t know how to discipline any other way?
the more i think about her life and her experiences, the more i turn it over in my head, the easier it becomes to feel compassion. don’t get me wrong, i’m still angry. my mother’s experiences with my grandmother are hurtful. some of the behaviours my mother carried on with us make me angry as well. there’s more than anger there now, though.
learning about grandma’s life and developing context is not a condonation of the things she did wrong. it is recognizing that things and people are complicated and little is black and white.
i’m remembering the good things again. the times she walked to the bakery to get me a special, tiny loaf of bread for my visit. the sweater she knitted for me when i was a young teen that was ugly and unstylish and loved because she made it. her steamed carrots and onions served with a white sauce; it was my favourite so she cooked it for me every time we came to dinner. picking vegetables from her garden for dinner. these are the memories i’m starting to let back in.
if she was still alive, i’d talk to her. i’d tell her that i was angry with her. i’d tell her i hated the things she did to my mother that caused such long-lasting damage. i’d tell her that i loved her but that it was complicated. i’d tell her that i don’t understand, not really, but the more i learn, the closer i get.
i’d ask her to tell me a story about her life and i’d listen with my ears and my heart. i tell her that to know her, i need to understand her pain.