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My Grandmother, Virginia

by Christine Stark

Virginia was seventy-seven years old then, and I was thirty. She was and always will be my grandmother, my fatherís mother. When I think about her now, three years after her death, itís tempting to eclipse the pain with numbness, the grief with rage, the sorrow with a certain kind of stupidity. But most of all the temptation lies in silence. That long, slow death drug I could wrap myself in until I die, suffocate in self-pity; allow the hurt to metastasize from organ to organ, flourish into an all-enveloping tumor of pain, a burning infection from when I was a girl and forced to be silent. When I was a girl, I cut my gums between my back teeth, slit them down the middle with my nails until they bled. There was no one to tell, no one who would listen, no one who would see what happened to me. I had to put the pain somewhere.

Virginia was an angular, physically strong woman who grew up during the Depression, working her motherís farm in southwestern Minnesota. Her nose was Roman, her hands were long and lean with sharp knuckles and veins like rope laid over bone. She was Austrian and Indian, not Roman, and had little contact with close or distant relatives. My grandmother never spoke to me about her family until the end. She did not know her fatherís family and her motherís family was killed during World War II. According to my grandmother, Hitler destroyed the small Austrian village where her motherís family lived. Hitler had heard that the village was harboring people who had acted against the Nazi regime and demanded that the village turn them over. When no one in the village came forward, he ordered it destroyed along with all the inhabitants. Two gold-trimmed ornamental plates were the only connection my grandmother had to any of her relatives other than her mother, who died when I was young. She kept the plates in a glass cabinet and then later above her kitchen cupboards.

Virginia, along with my grandfather, spent the summers in rural Minnesota, gardening and golfing under the scorching Midwestern sun and driving her daughter and grandchildren to 4H meetings, church picnics, and horse shows. They spent the winters in a small, discolored stucco house on the eastern coast of Florida, with a tiny fenced-in backyard that boasted one blooming grapefruit tree. My grandmotherís skin was the color of toasted acorn, ostensibly because she alternated between Minnesota summers and Florida winters, but she was also American Indian her fatherís side. When I asked her about being Indian she said, Germans donít like that sort of thing.

Her husband was German.

My grandmotherís hair went white when she was in her mid-thirties. It was simple, yet flamboyant-thick and white as snow swept over a frozen lake. She kept it cut in a shoulder-length pageboy even in old age. Since I was born a decade after her hair turned white and since she hid pictures of her younger self, I never knew what she looked like before her hair turned white. The month before she died, when she and I were tucked away by ourselves in her house in Minnesota, I found boxes of old pictures, some of her as a young woman, a robust, pretty, black-haired student standing on the steps of a building at the University of Minnesota. I showed them to her one by one, peeling the sticky black and whites apart. I was pretty once, she said and put her head down on her pillow.

Some of the snapshots were of young women whom I had not seen before. Who is this, I asked about the first picture I ran across of a woman obviously not my grandmother. Oh, she said, one of the women he had an affair with. I didnít ask about the rest of the unknown women; instead I collected them in a pile and put them in a different box in the guest bedroom.

I miss my grandmotherís face, her beautiful aquiline nose and the way her skin laid out over her body, dark and wrinkled and leathery. But most of all I miss her voice. Sharp and high, not unfriendly, not old it had a young childís ring to it, the way it ended. No matter what she said, even if she were scolding or complaining, there was always something in her voice that made her sound as if she wanted to play, like a child under the trees again, rejoicing in the mismatched patches of sun breaking through the leaves.

I miss her voice, my grandmotherís voice, playing the role of an adult but wanting to be something else. I can still hear her calling me by my childhood name, Chrissy, ending high on the y, almost pleading with me from the dark bathroom where she kneeled on the floor, running water for my bath. Chrissy, she called out through branches of the tall elms at the edge of her property in rural Minnesota, Time to eat. Her voice echoes through my head, lonely, sad, wanting more.

My grandmother had a survivorís voice, the voice of someone who had never completely succumbed to the dreary roles of adulthood, who kept a space for herself despite the beatings and the subsequent submission to a life she could not escape.

Three years ago, when I was thirty, I had not seen or spoken with her in ten years. She did not know if I was dead or alive.

My grandfather beat her and cheated on her, and everyone knew. He did not allow her to have friends and sometimes he made her sleep outside in the car, even in the fall and early spring, because her coughing attacks kept him awake. He was abusive in one form or another to many of the people he interacted with and it got worse when he drank. During his drinking sprees, my grandmother and I tried to stay away from him. We went into another room of the house or stayed outside in the yard for as long as we could. I remember him hitting her and belittling her verbally, like a shadowy movie Ė something I tried to make stop, or get away from, but never could. Sometimes he abused me, too. When he started hitting and yelling, I ran and hid in the guest bedroom; the one my aunt vacated at eighteen when she married.

During the last month of my grandmotherís life, when we were going through more of the old photographs, I ran across a picture taken at the turn-of-the century. This one was of a stout, scowling man with a large mustache standing on the front steps of a house. Thatís his father, my grandmother said. He made Hitler look like a choirboy. I asked her if it was true that my grandfatherís mother and father died of alcoholism in the St. Peter Asylum for the Criminally Insane. She said it was.

He humiliated her in other ways, sometimes making her dig through barrels of garbage in public parks for aluminum cans so he could turn them in for a nickel apiece. When I was seven my grandfather drove me to the beach near their Florida house to pick up Grandma. I never liked being anywhere near him. I kept my body turned away, my hands clutching the navy blue door handle while we drove through the slow Florida slum back streets. We passed towering palm trees, their sheaf-like leaves swaying precariously above the dwarfish fruit trees, dirt lawns, and tiny box houses. When we turned into a parking lot next to the ocean, gravel popped out under the tires like muted gunfire. I tuned out the rapid fire popping and stared at the expanse of the ocean on the other side of the beach. My eyes were wide and unfocused, the way children stare when they want the spirit of a place to enter them. The vastness of the ocean made me forget I was stuck to the vinyl seat, my hands on a grubby door handle, alone in a car with my grandfather. I rolled down the window, tried to ignore his presence, and concentrated on the ocean air as it rolled in, soft and warm, so thick with moisture you could cup it in your hand and hold it.

Children know, instinctively, how to become beauty.

Get out, my grandfather said.

I stopped becoming the colors of the ocean. Through the front window I watched my grandmother, Virginia. She leaned over a green barrel, Property of Boynton Beach stenciled along its side. Her long arms, then her head, covered in a white scarf, disappeared into the mouth of the barrel.

Bag lady, a boy yelled across the peach sand.

Out, my grandfather said.

I got out of the car and stood on the edge of the curb.

Virginia, my grandfather barked from the driverís seat. She reappeared, long spine, white scarf, and greasy arms. When she turned toward the car she saw him, then me. My grandmother stood up straight under the Florida sunshine, covered in grime, and stinking. In her eyes were surprise and shame.

Hey bag lady, the boyís voice taunted, drifting across the beach one more time. I said nothing, my feelings far away, suspended above the ocean. I could have said something. I could have done something, gone to her, helped carry the bag filled with bent and flattened cans Ė cans partially full of orange pop, Hawaiian Punch, spit, Coca Cola, chewing gum, and bees that battered the insides of the cans trapped by a sudden indentation, a sudden sharpness. But I did not. I knew my anguish and shame were somewhere. I felt them off to the side, but I was mesmerized by fear and embarrassment. At the time I was aware I perpetuated these feelings by doing nothing. But still, I did nothing. He made her sit in the back seat. She stunk.

I replay this moment in my mind often. I cannot forget the look in her eyes, or the way I kept her, and my feelings of empathy for her, at bay. I betrayed her. This passivity and sense of detachment is the most dangerous first step that children who witness abuse can take on their way to becoming adults. A child represses her empathy and her natural sense of justice, in part because of the silence of those around her, but also because of the very real danger to herself and others. The injustice is not named, silence is maintained, and she begins to dissociate herself from the person being abused.

Another way my grandfather asserted his control over my grandmother was to make her cut the food on his dinner plate. I remember watching her cut his steak at the dinner table when I was five. I remember the feel of the plastic tablecloth and the dread that overtook me as my grandma sliced his steak into bite-sized squares, because when he humiliated her, he humiliated me. Along with that dread there was a sharp, inside-the-gut terror that his hatred would be turned on me next. I recall the shame I felt for her when my grandfather called her back to his plate, as he always did, because the meat was never cut small enough, and I recall my desperate hope that he would stop. That it would not turn into another evening of screaming and beatings. I managed to finish my steak and milk and chew the stalks of woody asparagus, all the while hoping he would not call her back to his plate, hoping she would not go if he called her back.

As a child, I knew what he was -- a slaver. When I was five, I saw and did not disconnect from her. When I was seven, I saw and made my eyes blank. By the time I was a teenager I had buried nearly all my empathy for her. All I wanted was to get away. All I wanted was to not be her. Later, when I was twenty, I ran.

I donít know exactly when, at what age or stage of life people stop really seeing what is going on around them, but it happens. Sometimes there were adults around when he humiliated her, but none of them ever stood up for her. I donít know if any of them really comprehended what was happening, what he was doing to her.

Maybe the horror wore off. Maybe they just got used to the way he treated her. Or maybe the privileges people receive when they become adults make them sell off what is right for what is easy. It simply becomes easier to blame the victim. What is certain is that people everywhere are rewarded for silence, for the complicity of doing, seeing, saying nothing.

But that is not how I want you to know my grandmother, Virginia. I want you to see her white hair cut against her dark skin as she gardened under a boxy straw hat. I want her to ease into your senses, her cooking, the sweet sweat off her skin, pungent with smells from her garden-carrots dusted with dirt, snap beans fresh and crackling from the earth, the watery red juice from a broken rhubarb stalk brushed against her forearm. I want her to pop into your thoughts the way she does in mine, when I turn a corner and the sun hits a field just so, or in my dreams when she visits me saying Chrissy, itís okay now.

I want you to see her prominent features and her quick eyes and know how those eyes flashed when she learned something, encountered adventure, or met someone new. I want you to see it all, her lean body, her sharp mind, the slanted barn-red house with '60s turquoise countertops, the great arching elm trees, and the Minnesota sky, broad and eternal and milky blue. I want you to taste the country air on the edge of your tongue, crisp and tangy as the juice just under the skin of an apple, before you bite all the way in. I want you to smell the food she cooked while I played in the yard-the baked beans spiked with chunks of hamburger, onions, and extra brown sugar; the pickles, sharp and sweet, canned in glass Ball jars; the homemade angel food cake baked in a battered Bundt pan with pink and blue confetti colorings; and the tart lemonade she made by twisting halved lemons over a glass juicer, the last of the fruit brought up from Florida.

Virginia saved everything, habitually, because of the abject poverty she grew up in and because she and my grandfather were poor. She saved thread, twine, yarn, buttons, and used tinfoil, which she flattened into broad squares and stored at the bottom of a kitchen drawer. In the last month of her life, my grandmother told me things about her childhood that she had not told anyone before. She told me how all her teeth were pulled when she was eighteen because her mother did not have the money to care for them. My grandmother told me how, when she was in her teens, her mother left the entire farm in her care for weeks at a time. Her mother never told her where she went, she just disappeared. My grandmother did not remember her father, and her mother did not say anything about him until my grandmother was sixteen. Then my grandmotherís mother told her that when my grandmother was three her father had raped a twelve-year-old girl and then killed a man with a hatchet. He was put away for life in the St. Peter Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

But there was some mercy. My great grandmother sold a calf during the Depression to send her daughter to the University of Minnesota. My grandmother became a nurse and believed, until the day she died, that education was the most important thing in the world. She quit nursing in her early forties over a disagreement with the doctor she worked for, but she continued to read voraciously, and occasionally took classes at a community college. Even though she went back to the town she grew up in, and lived in poverty with my grandfather, the education she received was important to her. It enabled her to partially transcend the abuse and poverty. At least in her mind.

There are other things you need to know about my grandmother, Virginia, things that affected our ability to be close with each other. You need to know my grandmotherís husband abused her, but you also need to know her son, my father, despised and ridiculed her. And my father abused my mother and me. And you must know it matters that no one did or saw a thing for almost six decades, and so the rage of two generations of men, a father and a son, was taken out on the wives and daughters and granddaughters. No one did or saw a thing ever, all those years, except for me. I did something. I left. When I was twenty I cut off all contact with everyone from my past.

I almost did not return in time to say goodbye.

At thirty, I wound down long hallways stretching out like paths through a field, rough and dry, the kind of paths you could roll your ankle on if you were not careful. Only I was not in a field. I was in a hospital, shiny and slick with round mirrors at every turn, propped up high, reflecting the elderly and the sick, slow as ducks on dry land, or the swift carts, wheels unlocked, let loose from flashing lights and dials and IV lines.

I walked down a maze of wide hospital hallways in the heart of Minneapolis determined to be brave. Courage matters to me. I donít want to be an adult who looks away. My grandma was in room 24C. I took a left at the double door and walked down the hall past the round mirrors. I was terrified. Behind a circular desk sat a man dressed in blue hospital garb. My grandma canít be here, flashed through my head. This isnít really happening. I stopped and nodded at the man, who looked at me briefly, then went back to his paperwork. Four rooms marked A, B, C, D, spread out like a fan from the desk. I found A. Then B. Then C. My grandma was inside.

Bravado rises out of desperation and I was desperate when I walked into Abbott Northwestern Hospital. A few months earlier I heard that my grandfather had just died of Alzheimerís. I waited a few weeks and was just about to call my grandmother when my mother told me my grandmother had been diagnosed with a late-stage cancer. I had not planned on her dying. I had planned on having years together, without my grandfather around. But thatís not what happened. My attitude worked like ice on bare skin. Numbness accompanied by bravado covering up an arterial network of desperation. I had survived years of humiliation, disappointment, and abuse by emotionally disconnecting from people and events. When I entered my grandmotherís hospital room, after not having any contact with her for ten years, I needed bravado more than ever. Without it, I feared I would have crumpled like the skin of a balloon spitting air.

I pushed the door open. My grandmotherís feet poked out under the thin hospital blanket. A tray with an untouched Jello cup lay next to her feet. Early afternoon sun dove through the window. Steep black and gray roofs from the houses along Chicago Avenue, once grand buildings, now run-down multi-unit rentals, dominated the view through the window.

Grandma, I said loudly, trying to cover my fear and grief. I stepped in, stood next to her bed.

Chrissy, she turned her head away from the window toward me.

Grandma, I touched her hand. Her fingers curled gently over the sheets.

My grandmotherís skin was no longer the color of toasted acorn. She was yellow, the color of squash, those irregular gourds thin on one end and lumpy on the other, that grow close to the ground under palm-shaped prickly leaves.

The last time I had seen her was at my parentís cabin in the north woods. I was twenty. My cousin and I water skied behind my fatherís boat while my grandmother worked, as she always did-cooking, cleaning fish, pounding nails into the new siding on the garage.

Goodbye, Grandma, I said when I left that hot August morning for the long drive back to the University of Wisconsin. After I left she told my cousin that something was wrong. I hugged her too long, too tightly, looked into her eyes as if I would not see her again. That summer had been difficult. I had experienced freedom at college and did not want to live at home. My father was threatening to divorce my mother. I could no longer cope with the way he treated us. I was unraveling emotionally. My grandmother saw something in me that I was not aware of yet.

Goodbye, Grandma.

The sight of her, after ten long years, melted my bravado, relieved my desperation. I touched her knotty yellow fingers, now resting on her chest. There was not much to say. We had not spoken in so long. There was too much to say. The cancer was huge, a living organism lying in wait, twisted around her liver and pancreas. It choked her internal organs, turning her skin a dry orangish-yellow. The bile could not drain, and it had backed up and spread throughout her body.

That much we knew.

If the doctors at Abbott Northwestern successfully slipped a shunt into the constricted neck of her pancreas the bile would drain. If not, she would die in a few days.

I sat next to her in a wide, stiff chair, my back to the roofs across from her room. Her hair was messy and thick. A pale blue, opaque hospital band with her name typed in small gray letters hung from her wrist. She smiled at me, then looked away. We watched a Twinsí game, the sound of the announcers and the boniness of her hands brought me back to my childhood, to her house in rural Minnesota where there was always a Twinsí game on the television or radio. Harmen Killebrew. Rod Carew. Familiar names. Familiar sounds. I had returned home.

I held her hand. We said very little. We wanted too much. I wanted greasy baked beans that melted in my mouth like sugar blown into feathery pink candy. I wanted to dart barefoot over grass then rough concrete then cold dark earth. And I wanted dirt stains on my knees and elbows. And feet black as tar on the bottoms. And water running late at night for a bath because bad things happened at home and at Grandmaís; and even though grandpa was there, somewhere, in the crooked shadows by the shed or under the car on blocks in the drive, it was still good to be with grandma. I wanted the past, to be a girl again, but this time without the men. Just my grandma and me and a late night Twinsí game. Powder blue uniforms and dill pickle smells and screen doors sifting the insects out of the summer night breeze, allowing the cool air to brush my scrubbed knees and face, reminding me that despite the violence and brutal indignities, we still lived.

I wanted back those dark nights, lights down low, spent indoors with my grandmother in those in-between spaces when we were not being berated, taunted, or hit. Those in-between spaces where we could breathe.

My grandma, she just wanted to live.

It had been ten years since we had seen one another. The events of those years were overgrown, gnarled, matted into my person. I was not the young woman who said goodbye, grandma one early morning in the north woods. I left to find a new way, a better way. I came back scarred from poverty, years of flashbacks, depression, rage, internecine feminist wars, and living on the run from the first twenty years of my life. My innocence and much of my hope were gone. The person I became was inaccessible to my grandmother. I could not explain who I was, or what had transpired in those missing years. I was a stranger in many ways, but not all. We did, after all, share a past. And blood.

Perhaps I could have explained if we had more time, if the doctor had given her more than a few months, if her body had not melted away so fast. Perhaps I could have explained myself, the renegade granddaughter who ran off to become a feminist, save the world, escape the past, leave behind a brutal father and grandfather. The granddaughter who left because if she had stayed, she feared she would have become one of them. The granddaughter who left because she did not believe anyone, including her grandmother, would miss her.

Perhaps I could never have explained to my grandmother that if I had not left I would have become her, trapped in a life of servitude, battery, and second-class citizenship. But what I learned from her-what she gave to me-when I returned as an adult was much about having the courage to live with dignity while protecting a childís spirit of innocence and inquiry under a blanket of humiliations.

My grandmother, Virginia, died in her home as she wished, with my cousin and me at her side the last weeks of her life. I gave her massages to ease the pain. We read stories to her, adventure novels my cousin checked out at the library, and played Ď40s swing music on one of those old-fashioned metal tape players meant to record conversations, not play music. When she was coherent, she hummed along. When she was not as coherent, she asked for water, cool water, in her high-pitched childís voice and we gave her ice cubes and sips from the glass next to her bed. At the very end she talked about water, the ocean, mostly. We gave her more ice cubes, put cool wash cloths on her forehead and sunken cheeks. When she talked about the ocean, her voice rose and fell with wonder and anticipation, like a child experiencing the simple beauty of everyday life.

The last few days of her life, my grandmother said we all return to the ocean in the end. I hope she is right. It sounds like a good way to end this life and begin another. What I know is that I need to find my way back to that place where the vastness of the ocean could sustain me for days. In that way I want to live my life like my grandmotherís, with the strength to experience the world Ė in its beauty and injustice Ė as a child again.

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