Sometime in the 1940s, my grandmother took her first child, an infant girl, out in a stroller around their neighborhood in Brooklyn, either to meet friends or simply to get out of the house. My grandma was still in her twenties, but was much older than most first time mothers. I imagine her taking that walk, her red hair glittering in the sun beneath a no-nonsense hat, her sensible shoes crunching gravel and dirt clumps as they rolled along.
My grandma continued on her outing, for who knows how long, unaware the center of her universe had stopped breathing. There was no dramatic trauma, no catastrophic incident. My grandma would later check on the baby and discover the truth. Her greatest joy had slipped away in one tiny breath. SIDs had claimed her firstborn child.
The last time she spoke to me about baby Mary, she sobbed quietly into the phone. It was one of only two occasions I can remember her crying. There was nothing I could say. I held back my own tears, not really knowing if it was right or wrong to cry or withhold.
My grandmother was a mythical figure of contrasts. A stern, intelligent woman who came alive with energetic delight around young children. A bookish world traveler who remained both devoutly religious and scientifically curious. A fabulous story teller who rarely tolerated nonsense. A lady who wore only white, black or beige shoes but habitually dyed her grayed ginger hair a bright, unnatural red. An independent woman who had married a friend of her parents, a widow over 13 years older than her, primarily to be mother to his orphaned son.
Some version of the woman I knew as "grandma" appears in all of my stories - Finas is more closely related to her than I am. I've written pieces of her into dozens of characters, a woman both distant and admirable. She couldn't have been born that way, of course. Her godfather, a cousin who sent her lace handkerchiefs while stationed in France, was killed in the Somme. She lived through the Great Depression and lost her father at 21. Still, she told me the dreams she had back then. They were full of traveling and painting and learning. I imagine she retained those hopes when she left for that walk with her baby. The young woman she was never came back. She would go on to lose another child - her son was drafted and swiftly killed in the Vietnam War.
I'm not sure if she loved me, but I adored her. Some of my happiest moments in my childhood were with her. Outings to the aquarium in Coney Island, daytrips to the Natural History Museum and Central Park, shopping in the grocery store and cooking at home.
She was often cruel, perhaps unintentionally so. She regularly criticized my cousins to me; successful, happy people with advanced degrees who still failed to meet her standards. During our last phone call before she died, in a matter-of-fact tone, she insulted me in detail. My withdrawal from Catholicism, my choice of boyfriend, my inability to afford and complete college, and my lack of children. She said she had always expected me, of all her grandchildren, to succeed in life. She called me a disappointment. In anger, I told her I was hanging up, and did. I didn’t know that I would never speak to her again.
Grandma was often cold, often unhappy with her surviving children and grandchildren. I used to think anyone as hardworking and intelligent as her was never going to be pleased by the average human, related or no. I don’t think that explains her attitude. It was fear, I think, to love unconditionally.