Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Astringent

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.

9 comments:

furrow said...

Your grandmother sounds very similar to mine. Seriously. But I don't think mine has ever been happy. Ever. There is no happiness in the stories of her youth. She never expected it. Never thought it was in her control to create it.

I'm sorry you see some of your grandmother in your mother and yourself. I'm amazed at how my own mother has consciously chosen against bitterness and unhappiness, when her 3 siblings have one by one fallen prey to it themselves. When she does something I don't like and I feel like being mean, though, I'll say "what's that, grandmother?" Sometimes when I'm feeling bad about myself, I'll compare my thoughts and reactions to my grandmother's, but I know, upon reflection, that they're just bad days. I have a choice about how I view my world, and you do, too. Our souls are not ruled by genetics.

Sorry for the long comment, it's just that I often feel like the only person who doesn't have warm, fuzzy grandmother stories.

painted maypole said...

Forgiveness is so important for us... not just for the person who we are forgiving. Often, when we harbor anger, the person we hurt the most is ourselves. I just finished a study on forgiveness, and it was amazing. One of the things that really sticks with me from it is that you should name (even if just to yourself) the wrong, and what the consequences SHOULD be. Then, you choose to forgive it, and not play out the consequences. And every time you remember it (which you will, this whole forgive and forget thing is baloney) you remind yourself of your choice to forgive, and move on (and eventually you think about it less and less). It was the NAMING thing that really hit me, because so often I think to myself "well, I guess it wasn't really so bad" or "I kind of understand why they did it" or "I shouldn't be so angry" But to be given the permission to say, if even only to myself, "he did X and I would have every right to Y, but instead I choose to forgive" has been freeing beyond words. Actually, I've been thinking of writing my own post on this. Maybe I will.

Emily said...

Furrow- Our souls are not ruled by our genetics. Amen and Amen!
I was beginning to wonder if you were in the hospital with a new baby. :)
PM-I'd love to read a post written by you on forgiveness. (Anne Lamott calls it "Forgiveishness")
May I ask who the author was of study you just finished?

Julie Pippert said...

Taking out the particulars, you could be writing about my Granny, who disowned me. Because...??? I'm not sure. I think maybe because I didn't go along with her desire to have a photograph of the family the week before my wedding, that excluded my husband because she wanted to "get a picture of us before we start getting invaded by outsiders." One Christmas she forbade anyone from getting me any gifts---and they didn't---all because I hadn't shown enough gratitude for my birthday gift she gave me, the gift I hadn't received. She could recite every misdeed (from her POV) committed against her, and had a habit of bringing home people to demonstrate to her offspring who they ought to be. It's hard to say who was more embarrassed---us or the guest. She claims losing her first son as a baby ruined her, but she was bitter long before that. As a child her nickname was Pill.

The funny thing is...instead of thinking it would ever kill her, this horrible angry way, I always figured she'd outlive us all. I thought you had to be human to succumb to human frailty. And so far, I am right.

She is the paradox to the usual thinking on forgiveness.

She is thriving.

I won't grow up to be her. And you don't have to follow your parents path, either.

But one more thing I'll say since I'm up to about ten inches of comment here now (LOL) is this: stopping the cycle doesn't mean it is nonexistent. It takes several generations. But you can be the beginning and that's a great thing.

So don't be worried if you see bits of them in you. It doesn't mean that rules you, defines you, or makes any path inevitable.

Great post. :)

Julie
Using My Words

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Gee, this sounds like a certain monster-in-law that I know. :)

You have a lot more control over your life than she did, so you've much less reason to be bitter. Find your center, your heart, and always do what you are supposed to do--not just for others, but for yourself. Always act with "no regrets" driving you. Do what you've always wanted to do and what you will want to do. It's amazing how these things will cause much less conflict with the things you must do than you'd think. (Besides, within conflict lies growth.)

And always remember, you are greater than the sum of your heritage.

Oh, The Joys said...

What a story!

(I am totally stuck in the middle right there with the bomb you dropped.)

I hope you can find a way to let it go. Life is short.

kittenpie said...

Wow. How really, very sad. For everyone in the family, really. And yeah. Letting things go is a skill that is really valuable to learn. Some days I'm better at it than others!

Hannah said...

I had two living grandmothers through my whole childhood, my Nanny and my Grammie. My Nanny was not perfect but she loved her grandchildren, spoiled us just enough, went to our school concerts and taught me how to tend a garden. My Grammie set her grandchildren up to compete with one another, tortured her seven children from the day they were born, browbeat the neighbours, and generally acted like a miserable bitch from sunup to sundown. When I was four months pregnant with Isaac, my Nanny died suddenly, having never met her first great-grandchild. My Grammie is still alive, and miserable, and torturing everyone - except for me. You see, we didn't call her with the news Isaac was born until the morning after, and she hasn't spoken to me since.

Life is unfair. And mean people suck. And this post reminds me all over again how much I miss my Nanny, and how much I feel like the wrong person died.

Got to stop browsing the blogs at work, too many tears at my desk.

And this comment is too long.

You're awesome. And I know you can break the cycle.

painted maypole said...

The STudy was Free to Forgive by Robert Jefress. I did not agree with every last theological point he made, but overall it was quite good - probably aided by the spectacular women I studied it with.