Things I Never Knew I Never Knew by Mama Baer
Childhood Memories contest entry
Sometimes still when the heater kicks on, my aging mind has no trouble backflipping through time. Along for the ride, I am eight years old again, nightie-clad and claiming prime real estate on the floor vent. My crossed legs sprawl enough to create a chimney effect - a pink flannel hot air balloon of sorts, warm air enveloping my chilled wintertime skin. It is heaven until the thermostat reaches temperature, fast-moving air molecules slow, and the heater clicks off. I lament that for the next heavenly heat cycle I will be seated at my school desk studying arithmetic without a vent in sight.|
Lesson: I know home feels comfortable, safe, and warm.
My mother's mother was something of a mystery to me. My earliest memory of her is a strange one. Tucked in bed, my sister asleep in the bunk below, I heard a late-night visitor at the door. From my top bunk perch, I could peer out the curtain to a straight shot view of our front porch. I recognized my grandma, her fur collar glistening in the porch light. She was pretty and dressed-to-the-nines. It was unusual for her to visit, nor did we visit her in those early years which, looking back, is strange since we lived in adjoining cities. It was Christmastime, and I detected presents in her arms. Certain one was for me, I anticipated being called to receive my gift.
"Why isn't Grandma coming in," I wondered.
I heard voices rise and not at all with Christmas cheer. I couldn't hear the full exchange, but as Grandma stomped off, a string of sharp non-grandma-like words escaped her mouth, cut through my windowpane, and made a surprise landing in my ear; words I had never before heard in my house. Grandma slammed her car door and sped off into the cold winter night. I drifted to sleep to the murmur of my parents' hushed but earnest voices. When we opened Grandma's gifts Christmas morning, we were confused. She had given us used books on loan from the city library. Mom whisked them away with a strange look on her face and said Grandma must have been mixed up. We didn't hear any more about it.
Lesson: Once you know, never discuss pain, addiction, nor alcoholism.
I spent more time around Grandma after I married. Mom washed and curled her mother's hair every Saturday afternoon. Some weekends I visited and watched Grandma sit on the blue kitchen chair while Mom wound pink plastic rollers into hair once brunette now platinum. Grandma didn't usually say much. I often felt sadness and longing to know this woman I called my grandmother. I did know this: She, Wanda, had seven children with my Grandpa Mark. Grandpa Mark married Reva before I was born. Grandma's body and mind were frail now, her eyes a vast, sad ocean with hidden secrets trapped beneath. On occasions when she spoke, the words nearly always included her mantra: "You just never know." If nothing else, Grandma's life certainly vouched for that.
Lesson: Some people experience heartache we will just never know.
A few years ago, while down a digital newspaper rabbit-hole search, a shocking article surfaced: "Mother of Seven Files Suit for Alienation." Months before I was born, my grandmother sued my grandfather for desertion and "loss of comfort, society, and aid." He skipped town and married a widow named Reva. According to the article, the divorce was messy and public. Wanda's heart was broken. While she tried to piece her life back together, her former husband moved nearby with Reva and her kids. The juicy details were news to me.
Lesson: There are truths about my family I just never knew.
One summer, when I was five, Mom's little brother came to live with us. Ed was six years older than me and more like my big brother. Too young and aloof to put two and two together, I thought nothing of it. Last year, I casually asked Mom.
"Remember that summer Ed came to live with us? Why was that?"
"Oh, that was the year Grandma had the baby," she said as if we regularly discussed family bombshells. "You knew that, didn't you?" Mom matter-of-factly stated in response to my dropped jaw.
As it happened, Grandma found her feet again and dated a wealthy businessman in town. Their relationship progressed until her businessman friend gave her money for a trip across the border where abortions were legal. Her sister-in-law in tow, she headed south but couldn't go through with it. She drove back, determined in her choice. With her oldest three children married, she farmed out the youngest four (we got Ed) and moved away until the baby came - a little girl she placed for adoption. It hit me then. I felt secrets in Grandma's vast empty ocean surface: traumatic ordeals, one after the next, the baby, the losses. Each snipped away at her lifeline until there was plenty of room for despair and dementia to take up residence.
Lesson: Grandma had eight children, including a daughter she would never know.
Grandpa Mark lived much longer than the mother of his children. Grandma eventually married Bob late in life. They moved to a small town a few hours south of us. My parents made time to visit them every few months. When Bob died, they spent days helping Grandma clear out the house and moved her closer to us so Mom could check her out of the care center and fix up her hair each week. We visited Grandpa Mark and Grandma Reva regularly. The last few years of Grandpa's life, Mom and Dad spent weekends keeping his yard in shipshape and delivering his favorite treats. They were kind to "Dad and Reva," as Mom called them. Two years before he died, Mom organized a large 90th birthday party in his honor.
Lesson: I never really knew the uncomfortable, unstable, and (in many ways) cold nature of Mom's childhood. For better or worse, she chose to shield us from all of it. Instead, the church-going kinfolk on my father's side surrounded and loved us. Mom ensured we were comfortable, safe, and warm. In retrospect, maybe the shield was for herself, too. With time, she found it in her heart to forgive and love her parents, Reva, even Bob, and she cared for the four of them to their dying days.
Who knew the heartbreaking backstory? I sure didn't.
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