A conversation around intergenerational trauma through a reflection on the death of a loved one and the relationship between Grandma and Great-granddaughter, and all the generations in between.
Illustration by Christina McCarvell (Visual Art Director, The Continuist) IG: @persimmon.sun
By: Christina McCarvell (she/they, IG: persimmon.sun)
There is only once I remember crying out of the blue. A silent tear and then my body trembling against the belt tight across my chest.
Soon sniffling in the back seat of the carrot-shaped car and a glance at the rearview mirror alerted my mom, and then with her questioning, the entire family.
“Why are you crying?”
It was as if her asking alerted even me to it. I was stunned to find I was crying even though I had felt it all physically as the tears built up.
“I miss Grandma”
My answer was also something that burst out, but it instantly was the truth. It made no sense, and everyone's straight faces thought so too.
Great-grandma had died a few years earlier, and despite the obvious relation of a grandma and great-granddaughter, the tears didn’t correlate with our connection.
Grandma's garden brings me into my memories of her. She is the dirt trails, tulips, towering trellis and rhubarb box we raided, chewing on the sour stalks each visit as mom chatted on the patio with her, repeating each sentence twice.
The cancer in Grandma’s face froze everything up, and when she got skin grafted from a crescent around her left ear, it lost it’s hearing. I always wondered why this meant she didn’t want to see us anymore. One summer my siblings and I skipped to the swinging metal door around the side of her house. She came to the glass as we knocked, glaced at our glowing faces and then descended back, as if burnt. My twisted hope thought she was looking out for us, she didn’t want us to see her morphing into an even older women.
An odd quiet came from an already silent relationship.
We didn’t see her again until ash.
It turned out that she didn’t die from cancer, that healed, although the red waterline of her eye drooped permanently, that side of her mouth stayed loose, a space big enough to fit a blueberry always open.
My mom once said Grandma chose to die. Her last visit to the old age home felt final. Five months into her stay at the retirement home, with the belief that this was the function of her exile, Grandma's breath left her and permeated the sterile mint walls. She was convinced her daughter sent her to die, and that’s what she did rather than stay trapped.
Grandma's daughter Ann worked at a home for old nuns most of her life, taking care of all the practical parts of living and nothing more. Her mom was no different.
“She’s old, it’s where she belongs”.
Romantically I told myself Grandma died from distance. distance from her flowers, from her family, from existence. Believing this made the unacknowledged fracture between her and I feel better.
My mom said Great-Grandma didn’t like children, and she passed that on to her daughter who didn’t like even her own, and my father who didn’t much like us once we had minds of our own.
I on the other hand wanted grandparents so badly despite the fact that I had five living. I dreamt of having these ‘grandparents’ to do all the simple things with. My assigned ones weren’t grandparents. Alcoholic husbands, strict catholicism, careless stoney fathers, strict catholicism, isolating farm chores, army training, cancer. All of these left my grandparents wavering and then silent, ghostly before their time.
I listened to my schoolmates' presentations about their family origins and weekend memories with envy.
“Do you know any grandparents who would adopt us?” I asked my mom whenever I felt an extra ache. I wanted a history, something that wasn’t as easy to uproot as just me, a single tulip held in place by a vulnerable bulb.
Grandma's house was all pink and yellow, reflecting the flowers that wove around the paths in her garden, the only place we were free around her, likely the only place she felt free herself. I often imagined myself as a tulip in her garden, swaying in the crowd as my Grandma tended to us.
In her house all but the low-pile sitting room carpet was off-limits. Once my siblings and I ventured into her bedroom all draped with glorious pink and she raised her croaking voice in an unbelievable rage with a grimaced face that reminded me of my fathers. The rest was completely still.
I loved her so much despite nothing existing.
During the funeral, my siblings and I felt tense the same way that we felt each dinner at Ann’s where everyone else had memorized grace and the order you touch your shoulders as you cross yourself. The priest swung a smoking thurible as he walked down the aisle. My sister asked as we left if that was the smoke and smell of grandma. We were disconnected in so many ways, we didn’t know better even when we were near adults.
After the ceremony, the ashes sat under a fancy sign that read ‘coffee urn’, likely placed for refreshments at other events that took place between funerals. Some worker used to the signs placement hadn’t noticed. Neither did any of the attendees besides me it seemed. I carefully moved Grandma to the other end of the table.
Each person received a palm sized paper print out of a flower grandma once had in her garden.Mine was Tulipa Gesneriana: a lone pink tulip. Bulb exposed. Eager roots cropped.
At home my hand clutched it, hovering above the fireplace, then slipped it into my journal. I would not create more ash.