I truly think that anger can kill. It sits in our bellies and ferments and decomposes the better bits of our nature and before we know it we are left with an angry, pale, canker sore of who we once were. I’m sad to say I watched this happen to my maternal Grandmother, whom I called Nanny.
She was a tall, slenderish, handsome woman with dark hair, dark eyes, and olive skin. She was, I’ve heard, happy once. Though, by the time I was born, she was already trying to swallow the bitter taste in her mouth. Life had only one flavor for her. And for all of life’s sweetness, (children, grandchildren, family gatherings, finally a house to call her own,…) there was an unremitting acerbic aftertaste.
She always kept score, and by her count, she was always losing because someone else was breaking the rules. She could hark back to every iniquitous deed ever committed against her.
She grew up in the cotton fields of rural Arkansas, the seventh of ten children. She never had new dresses or well fitting shoes. And she was not her mother’s favorite. She was afforded a short childhood before expected to quit school and go to work as a cotton picker. It was in those fields, I think, that she was bent toward harboring anger.
When she was eight, one of her brothers threw a dirt clod at her as they picked cotton beneath the merciless summer sun. The clod smashed against her head and blood trickled down her neck. The wound was still fresh fifty years later when she recounted the story to me.
In her thirties, for undisclosed reasons, she and my grandfather separated and divorced. She began dating someone new and was quite serious about him, until her four children began blatantly putting her and my grandfather into situations where they were forced to reconcile with one another. And they did. And, as far as I know, she was happily remarried to him for another 20 years. She however, never forgave the intrusive behavior of her children.
Later, her father became ill and she and her siblings took care of him in turn. Disagreements abounded, standoffs ensued, paternal tug-of-war matches followed, concessions were made, bitterness was cultivated, and grudges were harbored in the belly of my Nanny. She let silent years pass between her sister and herself, just to drive home the truly wicked nature of the abuse she had suffered during the disagreements.
The “Misdeeds Charts” of her children began filling up in childhood. Every dirty dish, every piece of laundry, every injury, every illness, every social blemish, even when my uncle was shipped off to war, all of these things were cause for her to fret over them, and according to her records put them farther and farther in debt to her.
She took it personally when someone disagreed with her. She ended her friendship with her closest friend when that friend continued dating someone that Nanny did not find suitable. She disowned five of her ten grandchildren when three of the granddaughters admitted to being sexually assaulted by my grandfather. (Which is another post entirely.)
Months after the initial bomb was dropped and many, many more subsequent fires ignited, I hadn’t seen or spoken to Nanny and all of my granddaughter-ish letters had gone unanswered. I walked down the stairs from my bedroom into the entry way and there she was, standing half way in the door. My gut burst into flames and all of the blood in my extremities drained and pooled around my toenails. “Nanny!” was all I managed to get out before she grunted and turned around and left. She had driven the 45 miles to our house to return the things that we had given her over the years; trinkets and what not that reminded her of us, of me. Among them, the sickeningly spoiled poodle that was, on most days, the reason she got out of bed. She was pouring on the vinegar, to be sure.
The next time I saw her, she had three months to live. She didn’t yet know that she harbored cancer in her colon nor that it had metastasized to her liver and was spreading from there like an airline route map. She was rotting from the inside out…a walking, bitter cesspool for which forgiveness was a rare detergent.
Her life is a heart wrenching, cautionary tale. She was never able to let any of it go…to roll with the punches. She was immovable. She equated worrying over all of the details with loving people completely. Her fingers were clenched so tightly around the love she gave away, it bruised her knuckles just to nurture her relationships.
In some very faint and terrifying ways, I see my mother adopting Nanny’s philosophies. Perhaps it’s old age. (My mother is 54 and old before it is entirely necessary.) And in some very faint and terrifying ways, I see myself turning into my mother. (I am 29 and middle aged. I plan on running in backward circles on my birthdays from here on out to combat the gratuitous aging, females experience in my family. I’ll keep you updated as to how this works out.)
If at the end of the day, I can let go of my neighbor's thoughtlessness, my sister's heartache, my daughters' selfishness, my husband's cluelessnes, my own ineptitude,... perhaps I will be able to stop the alarming circuit and scrub clean the generational canker. My first and best defense is gratitude.