Several years ago I often visited a friend’s grandmother while he and his parents were away sailing for several months. I called her Grandma.
Grandma lived in a nursing home and often greeted me with a mischievous grin, telling me that Dick had given her a cup of tea in bed, or that he had proposed to her again.
And then she would laugh, “I can’t marry him. I can’t understand his Australian accent.” Grandma was English.
Grandma often talked about her childhood. It all came up when I told her about how much trouble it caused me when my aunt bought me a pair of red shoes when I was fifteen. Grandma said she had wanted a pair of red shoes, too, but her grandmother refused point blank. And then I heard why.
Grandma’s father had run off to Africa with another woman and her mother followed them there, and died. She never saw her father again and grew up feeling unloved and ashamed of her parents’ actions. Grandma’s upbringing was very strict because her grandmother feared she would grow up like her mother and make an unwise choice in a man.
Seeing the anguish in Grandma’s eyes as she told her story disturbed me. She was obviously still bitter and unhappy about what happened to her as a child – and she was 87.
I did not understand at the time that the absence of her family had triggered the unresolved feelings of abandonment she experienced as a child. Grandma fretted about the absence of letters from her son, and she was sometimes very angry about this when I visited her and relayed news I had received from her grandson.
And then she had a stroke which affected her throat and right side. Frustration over her inability to communicate made her eyes fierce with anger when I visited her in hospital, filling me with a deep sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and fright.
When a nurse came in with Grandma’s dinner of baby food from jars, I offered to feed her. Grandma could hardly swallow and more food seemed to come out of her mouth than went in. She began to look frustrated again and soon became exhausted with the effort of trying to eat.
When I arrived home that evening I was still in shock over seeing an old woman, whom I had grown to love, in such a helpless state. Now there was the added frustration of not being able to do what she had done before.
Her eyes spoke to me of rage screaming inside; the rage of an abandoned child never having been able, or allowed, to express her angry feelings and hurt.
It is now obvious to me that Grandma’s anger over her son’s infrequent correspondence, combined with the repressed childhood feelings of abandonment, had probably brought on the stroke which was to leave her unable to walk or talk for the remainder of her extra year of life.
Grandma’s plight gave me a powerful message: that I needed to resolve my own unhappy childhood memories so that they would not turn up to greet me in my old age and leave me wrestling with pain and anger and bitterness.
As each year goes by I feel lighter and freer and I thank Grandma for showing me what could happen if I refused to turn my life around and look to my past to learn what it had to teach me.
First published in the Ballarat News, June 28, 1995