My Grandmother who Always Chose Control

This morning my mom came over and spoke of how lovely she was feeling with her new life here in California, free from all of “those people” she said with aversion. It reminded me of this piece I wrote over the summer that I’d figure I’d share. I asked her to sit down with me someday and tell me everything she remembered so we could document it. She agreed. So that’s coming… someday.  

As I was taking a lazy evening shower to rinse of the gunk and sweat from the day, I suddenly thought of my grandmother and how she died.

She was in excellent physical health for the vast majority of her life. Dedicated to keeping active, good looking, she had a habit of prioritizing very specific things.

At one point, she actually asked a waiter for fat-free mayonnaise at a regular restaurant. (I still don’t know how that is even a thing that exists, just proteins and binders and vinegar. Better living through chemistry!) 

She went to the gym daily until she was 92 when her doctor told her to lay off because she had begun to have heart issues. Nonetheless, she was very proud of her “health” oriented life. They seemed to make up most of her identity. She was physically healthy, good looking, well dressed, clean. Yes, very clean.

Doctors told her that she had an aneurysm in an artery near her heart, and at some point, it would burst and kill her, but no one could predict when it would happen. 

She lived alone so she arranged for my second cousin and her neighbor to check on her regularly in case that occurred. She prepared her belongings for her death and made my mother the executor of her humble estate. 

When I was growing up, my mom spoke with her on a landline every Sunday for about an hour and they maintained a good relationship through their phone conversations. My mom was the youngest of her three kids, but the only one she seemed to trust with business matters.

On the fateful day that she did collapse, she managed to call emergency services and was taken to the hospital where she died the next day. It was the way she wanted it to happen. She didn’t want to be found dead in her home. She wanted to be in a hospital where they were prepared for that kind of thing. She died on her terms. That’s how she lived her whole life– on her terms. She was a master of being in control. 

As a child, my mom recalls that her parents fought endlessly. When the kids grew up, they talked her into finally going through with a divorce from my grandfather, (who passed away before I was born.) 

When looking through the photos we found in her house after she passed, it seemed the most fun she’d had was when she and my grandfather took a trip across the country on motorcycles. It was the 1970s when they hopped from campground to campground with their duel sporty motos. They were featured in the local newspaper portrayed as a fun-loving and adventurous couple, though I unfortunately never heard a claim like that from any of their children. It looked like a fun trip. It probably wasn’t too bad since it’s hard to argue while on a motorcycle with someone else who is also on a motorcycle. These were the same people who gave my mother luggage for her graduation gift as a passive-aggressive kick in the pants. My mother was the youngest of three, and it seems like they were very done with children. 

After her divorce, she lived alone for the duration of her life, working at the local bank, and then a thrift shop as she aged. She dated a wealthy real estate mogul for all the years I knew her but they never lived together. Although he wanted to marry her, she said that would have turned him down. There were many things she disliked about him, which made him unfit for marriage but not unfit for dinners and dancing at the country club, and of course, rides in his luxury car. She kept him at arm’s length as she did with all of us. 

Sometimes I feel a deep hole in myself and I feel the distinct lack of care and love that a mother would provide. But that’s not my mother’s fault– she did the best she could with all the damage she struggled to heal from. It is likely that the women on that side of my family have been entrenched in controlling thoughts and behaviors for many generations. It’s impossible to see when it began and how it got so bad that it drove my grandmother into social isolation and kept her from developing meaningful relationships with her kin. 

Visiting with my grandmother as a child was an exercise in restraint for most of us, especially me and my father. When I was two years old, my grandmother came to visit us. The way my dad tells it is that she expected me to instantly love her even though we had never met. I was not a trusting child in general, I was shy and standoff-ish until puberty at least. She was never a warm or welcoming woman. She was thin and poised. Think the step-mother in Cinderella, but with up-to-date fashion choices. She wasn’t explicitly evil, but not someone children run to hug. She took personal offense at my hesitancy to accept a strange, cold woman into my heart and failed to treat her with the respect and adoration that she thought she deserved. My father was furious, and she wasn’t invited back into our home until I was in high school. My mother and I flew to her nearly every year during that time. 

Have you ever been to a restaurant with too many signs telling you how to do things? It’s weird and very off-putting. And that was what her house felt like. Some sort of cross between a restaurant with too many signs and a museum where touching things is strictly prohibited. It was beautifully kept and extremely uncomfortable. There were structured cleaning rituals that needed to be followed precisely and at all times. No messes were permitted ever. No carelessness would be tolerated. Her stovetop was spotless. The inside of her microwave had not a splatter. All countertops were uncluttered and free of debris. After using the restroom and washing one’s hands, one would be required to wipe the sink of any stray water droplets that might tarnish the finish.

Even when I returned in my 20s I was afraid to use the washing machine incorrectly, despite my overwhelming familiarity with the machines. Towels had specific purposes– an instructional video would have been helpful in sorting out which one I was supposed to use when I dropped a bit of coffee on the countertop. “Oh I’ll get it,” she would say, as I felt myself shrink into an irresponsible pile of mush as she brushed past me and selected the correct rag to use. 

Making my mom fried eggs on my grandmother’s pristine stovetop after she had passed, felt both liberating and sacrilegious as I allowed the oil to spatter on the cooktop and left an oily spatula right there– just sitting on the counter. I did the dishes and cleaned up eventually, but I left it a little longer just to see what would happen. 

Nothing did and I felt a bit better. I felt waves of healing move through me as I cooked my mom meals as she painstakingly sorted out everything from her financial records to a collection of ancient Ziploc bags that were worthy of display in a museum if such a thing were to ever exist. My mom nor her mom was ever much of a cook. My husband has taught me how. It was lovely to serve her in that way at that time. I felt free to cook a meal with love and spice and fat. My grandmother hated fat of any sort (hence the fat free mayonnaise) but she loved her things. They were kept in peak operating condition, clean, and organized. She had everything just how she wanted it. So when people came to visit, it was stressful and threatened the tightfisted grasp she held on her life. 

All the affection we had for each other felt forced and performative. When she would say that she loved me, it took considerable restraint to not look sideways and ask, “really?” 

At some point during our weeklong visit, there would inevitably be an incident of some sort, usually an argument that resulted in tears by at least some of the participants. It rarely involved me. I played a supporting role, allowing my mom the grace and hugs she was never given as a child. It was a difficult environment to exist in but I was always glad I was there. 

It was utterly unbelievable to her when I didn’t get up by 7 am, though the time change made it 4 am and my normal waking time was past 8. My mom and I would trade off who showered last because whoever was the last one had to painstakingly wipe out every drop of water in the shower and tub and that was a special kind of hell that neither of us were fond of. I would snack on romaine lettuce and something called “Turkey Bacon” which really seemed like neither. I usually stayed in the finished basement, on a very nice pullout couch, and watched TV until I fell asleep so that was nice. 

The last time I saw my grandmother before she died was when she flew out for my wedding 8 years prior. I set her up at a stately, large, and historic hotel that I thought she’d enjoy. She complained to my parents about the stiff bed, and the unusual sink height, and how could anyone possibly think this dusty place is clean? I spent many many hours scouring my own house in preparation for her inevitable visit. She came in, nodded, and left shortly. I felt cheated and relieved at the same time– cheated that I’d spent so much time and effort on something that was never recognized and relieved she didn’t say anything at all. (One time she visited us and my mom had neglected to clean the toaster oven out. We all heard about it. Now I think of her whenever I clean mine. It’s not really in a good way. So at least, I didn’t get a gem like that. Maybe her lack of commentary was even worse. I’ll never know.) The visit otherwise went well. My mom asked what she could do to help, and I told her taking care and entertaining Grandma was the best thing she could do. She did a great job and everyone seemed to have a good time. Though she was a notoriously picky eater, preferring only salads and low-fat sandwiches, she ate a whole plate of food at the wedding, which had been prepared by our closest and most industrious friends. So that was good. It was good to have a nice memory of her. Even if that memory amounted to: she ate a whole plate of food without complaint. 

When my grandmother was turning 90, I figured it was time for a visit. My son was 15 months on her 90th birthday so I figured I would take him to meet her since I didn’t know how much longer they would have living on this earth together. I began to make arrangements when my mother called and told me that it wasn’t a good idea if I came with my son. I asked why, but the answers were shallow and unsatisfying. 

It’d just be too much for her or my favorite– I see photos of my other great-grandchildren so that’s enough for me. The more I thought about it, the angrier I became. I was baffled as to how a great-grandmother wouldn’t want to meet her baby great-grandson. But he was a baby after all. He pooped in diapers and made a mess when he ate, and would probably touch many things that were never meant to be touched. It would be absolutely awful. 

And there was an implicit sting inside of that which whispered to me, I wasn’t a good enough mother to handle him. My mom and grandmother didn’t trust me to handle my own kid. Perhaps that was a stretch, but that was the message that I got. I know my mom’s head was always full of those maxims that stung as they rattled around inside her, but I was still angry at both of them. I felt foolish, rejected, and furious.

I had a lot of rage, sparked by postpartum depression and anxiety, and fueled by this rejection of my matriarchal line. I became angry at the whole world and stayed that way for quite some time. (Maybe you read my last post detailing that time in my life.) My own control issues lodged themselves firmly between my husband and me during this time. Looking back, perhaps what she was really fearing was that she would feel rejected by my toddler son as she was rejected by toddler me. Only now as I write this do I recognize that that could be an alternative explanation for why she would preemptively reject both of us. 

Perhaps if I’d been more wise and insightful at the time, I could have found forgiveness, and searched for some semblance of vulnerability in her or shared some of mine. Instead, I shut the door. I told her I wasn’t interested in maintaining a relationship with her anymore. I was done. I would send a thank you note if she sent me money, but that was all. I was sick of the years of expectations, passive-aggressive disapproval, and frankly, it was hard to see what she did to my mother. Now she had rejected me as she had rejected her, favoring the control she held over her environment over real family connection.

My grandmother’s values and identity were founded in a desire to maintain control over her appearances. She chose control over intimacy every time. She never gave me a recipe, fabled advice, or even very many stories. I’d be lucky to get in a rousing game of Kings Corner. 

Otherwise, I read a lot when I was at her house. She was a Sweet Adeline in the 1960s and 70s. She must have loved to sing, but I never heard her do it. I became a Sweet Adeline in 2016. Joining that chorus gave me 20 more grandmothers, each one more warm and welcoming than my own. They showered me with compliments, hot tips, sage advice, and even threw me a surprise baby shower for my second baby. I was deeply moved and my heart was warmed as I unwrapped oodles of handmade blankets and beautiful baby girl dresses and sets. How different things were at that moment gives me pause and forces me to reflect on what this all means, and how these things are all connected, like picking up a string to follow it. 

These women who love to sing like I do, like she did, giving themselves so freely and so beautifully to support a young mother at one of the hardest times in my life. They helped cracked me back open and find myself when I was angry and hurt and hardened. When my grandmother passed away, they sent me cards and gave me warm hugs and condolences and I didn’t know what to say so I stuck with “thank you.” We shared our love for singing, but not in real life. I inherited her sheet music collection when she passed, which is important to me. If only it didn’t remind me of the time that she heard I had joined a chorus and offered me the sheet music but only if I agreed to email her regularly. I passed. I really was done. 

What’s strange about all this is how desperately I want strong family connections. My husband and I are both only children, so there are just not that many of us. Our children will never have true aunts and uncles, but we’ve given them plenty with our friends and cousins on my father’s side. 

She didn’t want that. She didn’t want people. She only wanted to control. Maybe intimacy scared her. Maybe it had only brought disappointment. Maybe she’d never felt the joy of a warm embrace. Maybe she was born warm but her mother never tended to her and her ability to connect with others in a meaningful way diminished as the years wore on. I’ll never know why she was like that, but I do know that she’s inside of me and that part of my task is to unpack whatever is in there and let so much of it go. I’ve struggled for years to separate my idea of self-worth from how clean my space is. I still have two small children, a small house, and a lot of clutter. I have to be very gentle with myself or I’ll start falling into a pit of self-hate, bitterness, and become consumed with the urge to question and control others. I struggle to allow myself to exist as a fairly cluttered and messy person without telling myself rude things. 

I brought home a lot of her things when she passed. Her windchime, sun catchers, and a bell that she never rang are the things I use and see the most. All of these things bring me and my family joy now. The windchime which always hung inside her house from a balcony is now forced to face the elements next to my chair on the porch. I ring it when I feel like it and it tells me when it’s really getting gusty outside. It’s beautiful and simple. I’ve loved it my whole life. It’s getting dirty. I’ll clean it when I’m ready. In my house, cleaning isn’t prioritized over fun or relaxation. I know she’d disapprove, but I’ve chosen that that’s not important to me, I have the luxury of time that allows me to separate myself from that kind of distorted prioritization. 

I hung the sun catchers in the southern-facing dining room window, so it catches the light just right and fills the sunny yellow room with rainbows every day at nearly the same time. My children yell, “rainbow time!” and beg me to spin them, then they chase them, laughing and dancing as children do. They are amazing and delightful little people. They are funny and kind and bring me so much joy and purpose. I hope they have lovely memories of this time, in this house, with those rainbows. I hope they know that I love them, and want their lives to be relentlessly joyful. And also that they can get messy and make mistakes and that there is value in living life fully. 

The bell hung on a nice wood bracket off of her kitchen cabinets. It never had a string and was too high to ring. I always admired what a nice bell it was, but never bothered to ask to ring it for fear of the shocked look on her face that I’d undoubtedly provoke and never forget. I took it with me and the bracket that came with it. I mounted it outside our back door and made a macrame bell rope for it. Now we ring it when dinner is ready or just for fun sometimes because it’s loud and beautiful and unabashed. I clean the spider webs out and give it a few more rings and let the sound echo through the generous meadow we live in. 

My life is beautiful. I love it so much. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her. She gave me so much to have and to work on. She perfected control, and I seek to perfect intimacy. What if I choose to let everything go and just love? I’ve tried so hard so much to do that with amazing results. It’s still difficult sometimes, this year especially. I get scared. I get lazy. I get hurt. Then I demand that others keep up with some unreasonable standard and it’s not fair, but more so, it drives people away. I rarely do that anymore, I’ve been working to break the cycle every day.

My children, my husband, my friends all depend on my ability to surrender to what life has to offer instead of obsessing over processes and details and images and the rage that comes with the failure of meeting my own expectations and of course, then the inevitable and unfathomable distance it creates between two people that should love each other. I don’t want to be like that. That’s not who I am, but it is who I am, so here I am, sorting out the pieces, following the string, and ringing the bell whenever it feels right. 

*Cling Clang* Dinner is ready. Let’s eat.

Published by Bonnie Stewart

Mama, wifey, relationship coach, writer, community builder, OG Flourishing Lady

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