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Her own mother, I heard not from her, but from an aunt, was regularly inebriated and possibly mentally unstable and would make a habit of showing up at school about midday and with a ruckus insist that Florence, my grandmother, come home at once to take care of things. It must have been embarrassing to be called out by a drunk parent, one who when well-oiled wore a cabbage leaf on her head in public. Yet, if you asked my grandmother to talk about her mother and she would recount details, names, dates, facts, events, but offer no analysis, no condemnation.
Perhaps that is why she was so safe to talk to and to bear our souls to. No condemnation.
My grandmother chose goodness for no reason she would explain. She wanted no prize and no recognition for choosing goodness. She expected no future and eternal home in a gold-paved city for doing so. It was how she made things right in the world, by refraining from adding anything more to it that was not good. She would say, “Oh, for goodness’ sake,” at times when most people might say something like God dammit! I don’t recall her every cussing, other than once during a moment of extreme pain when arthritis in her knees, hands and feet made it impossible to stand. In a moment of intense frustration, tears held back by force of will, she clenched her lips and muttered ‘dammit.’ I’d not heard her say anything like it before. I looked up carefully from what I was doing to see out the corner of my eyes if lightening would indeed descend from whatever merciless God had set her up with such pain and suffering. She had endured so much, and through it all had been so very, very good. If my grandmother couldn’t make the grade to appease the spiteful gods, I thought, there was (as my mother would say) not a snowball’s hope in hell for me.
When I caught my grandmother’s eye and she mine, she brushed my gaze aside with her gnarly fingers and looked away but not in time to hide the tears. I knew better than to embarrass her by acknowledging them or looking at her while she wiped dry her cheek. I had learned from her that the very best thing to do in a moment like this was to offer to make tea.
“How about a lovely cup of tea?”
She had made tea for me and so many others in the moments of our breakdowns, unwanted pregnancies, weaknesses, tragedies, coming-outs and temper tantrums. She loved a good, strong cup of tea and trusted it to do what nothing else can do: to reestablish the goodness of things ‘once and for all’ as she would say firmly when passing sentence on trouble and banishing a worry that one of us had explained to her in sobbing detail.
I learned later that my grandmother had a broader range of more risqué expletives which she reserved for moments when her grandchildren weren’t around. When she watched over us in the afternoons, however, her language was care-filled, clean and kind. We’d test her. We’d try to distract while she read one of the mysteries or romance novels that she got lost in. I knew we were close to her limit when she would mutter “Why you little...” and then stifle whatever word was intended to complete the phrase. She would put on an act of being angry that she had almost said the swallowed word, and would fuss and sputter and purse her lips and wrinkle them back into a smile.
My grandmother was good. She loved us unwaveringly, even when we were not good, like she loved her husband even when he didn’t love her. Even when he hated being trapped in the large catholic family. Even when he was violent, and blatantly unfaithful. Even through his extended periods of blind-drunkenness and demeaning words said to her in public. She neither said a spiteful word about him nor did she encourage anyone around her to do so. She sat by his side through his slow decline from cirrhosis of the liver, tending to him with grace much in the same way she tended to all who came to her in moments of distress; without a word of criticism, and with very little advice, but with careful attention and comfort and with tea. Her love came through her listening, her tea and her natural born goodness. For this, friends and family came to her to sit, like in the presence of a wise teacher, and pour out the contents of our troubled hearts.
Other than a supply of tea, novels, her rocking chair and her grandchildren, she didn’t need anything. She expressed no longing to accomplish great things or to see interesting places. She was quiet and took up little space in the world. She was enthusiastically grateful for the smallest of kindnesses extended her way. If you gave her something she didn’t want or like, you would never know because the fact that you gave her something would be delightful to her.
She never talked of God. She didn’t go to church. She was married in church, and would return only out of respect for a deceased relative, a wedding or baptism. She had no comment about church or God, just as she had no comment about other people, her husband or her pain. Goodness, to her was something clear cut, a decision. She believed in goodness and in the rightness of things working out in the end which was incredible to me, considering the rotten eggs life had thrown her way.
My grandmother was my hero.
She was always available to listen. I didn’t need to ask her if I could talk. Even if she was engrossed in a paperback novel, I could just start speaking. She would fold the book down into her lap on the apron that seemed a permanent part of her daily ensemble. She would listen attentively and would never, not ever, criticize me. She was incapable of accepting that there could possibly be anything wrong with me, and God knows I tried to persuade her. I told her about every transgression and crime of indulgence I was guilty of or planned. She would listen to me intently, but wouldn’t agree with my conclusions. When I came apart one day at fifteen years of age in a howling mess at her tea table, confessing that I had become sexually active at a too early age, that I had been slinking around pretending to be older than my age, drinking and smoking and broken-heartedly in love with a man twice my age, she couldn’t be moved into shock or condemnation. She set out at once to make the tea I didn’t want, saying, “This isn’t something we should tell your mother just yet” as she hobbled with painful steps to the kitchen and back with the assistance of counter-tops, chair backs and other furniture to ease her way.
She said firmly, as she’d always say “It’ll all work out in the end.” In severe cases she’d follow up with annoying confidence “There, there.” And if met with doubt, she’d say “Mark my words, it will all work out in the end,” bringing the conversation to a full stop. It was both maddeningly simplistic and heart-warmingly satisfying to witness her conviction which felt like medicine to whatever wound was brought to her.
She was right about so many things. About the simple power of choosing kindness. About the inclination of things to work themselves out. About the futility of complaining, gossiping or being mean-spirited. About the pointlessness of contributing anything other than our natural born goodness.
I didn’t know it then, but I do now: my grandmother’s choices were shaping my character and albeit that I fail every day to be as resolute as she, I owe my love of kindness to her.