My step-grandmother died a couple days ago.
But, wait, just a little framing & backstory before I get into this…
Backstory part 1:
My mom’s parents got divorced and both remarried other people when she was in high school. Her father married who I had mostly always thought was a nice enough lady, and since they’d been married *my* whole life, I just always thought of her as another grandmother. She was affectionate with me and really gave me little reason to think of her as anything but “grandma”.
However, she and my mother had had a very contemptuous relationship for a long time, which my mom told me about once when I was in my teens, after sort of realizing I didn’t think that my ‘grandma’ could do much wrong. They didn’t get along for a long time, like REALLY didn’t get along, to the point where my mother felt that her father’s home was not a welcome place for her. Long story short, they eventually made amends (must have been before my mom got married at 25, because they had their wedding reception at my grandpa’s house), and as far as I knew got along pretty well from then on.
Backstory Part 2: My mom died when I was 22. She was 47. My grandpa and grandma (really my step-grandma) both outlived her, really a tragic sort of situation.
My grandparents lived in the Adirondacks, and it was always nice to visit them. My aunt, their daughter (so, my mom’s half-sister) also lived up there with her family and I have always adored my aunt… she’s only seven years older than me so our relationship was always more sisterly than aunt/niece, even if we were never super duper close because I grew up in the Buffalo area and she was up there. As I got older, the Adirondacks felt like more and more of a home (especially after my mom died), to the point where my husband and I chose to get married up there, and a year or so after getting married, semi-seriously considered moving up there.
My grandfather died of cancer in 2004. About, oh, a year before he died, (and before he knew he was sick), he and my grandma decided they wanted to give a hunk of money to each of their kids. Since my mom had passed away, they gave me and my brother her share. (This wasn’t life-changing money, but it was enough to ‘pay off a car loan we had’ kind of money.) My grandpa let me know ahead of time, and I was effusively grateful before he’d sent the check. At about the same time, he’d sent me a check for $10 to cover an internet football pool a friend of mine ran that my grandma was involved in every year (she was a pretty cool lady, there were some very solid reasons I liked her!). I was working full-time, well, really, more than full time, and I’d just found out I was pregnant but wasn’t telling anyone yet (thus my brain was pretty unreliable), and the $10 check had wallowed in my wallet for a while. Well, my grandpa calls and says, “Hey, did you get that check I sent?” and all I can think of is this $10 check that’s been getting cobwebby in my wallet. “Oh yeah,” I said, nonchalantly, “I have it. I just haven’t been to the bank. I’ll cash it soon, sorry.” He seemed…. odd… about my response, but dropped it. Then, going through about two weeks of mail that had piled up the next day, I found a slip for something certified mail that had arrived sometime in that time frame, which I didn’t actually think anything of because we’d gotten a couple weird pieces of what were basically junk mail via certified mail over the last few months. Went to the post office a couple days later, and discovered it was the check – the generous, much more than $10 check – from my grandparents. Oh.
Needless to say, I was mortified and called my grandparents and apologized profusely and vehemently expressed my gratitude for the gift. Then after I deposited the check and paid off the earlier-mentioned car loan a few days later, I wrote them a thank-you letter, telling them about how we’d paid off that loan with their gift.
Backstory Part 3:
About a year later I had a baby (the first pregnancy ended as a miscarriage and I got pregnant again pretty quickly afterwards), and a week after the birth, my grandfather died of cancer. There wasn’t a wake or funeral per se, but they had a memorial service for my grandfather about a month after he died. It was 7 hours away from where we lived on an uneventful drive, but our daughter did NOT handle car rides well. Lots of screaming and crying and not a lot of sleeping, and at that point she was still nursing every hour for 15 minutes. Flying wasn’t an alternative because the service was in the middle of the Adirondacks, where commercial flights are few and far between and wicked expensive. With much regret I explained to my grandmother that we just weren’t going to be able to make it. She tried to sound understanding but in retrospect I think she was pretty offended.
A couple months later, once car trips with the baby weren’t a total nightmare, we did make it up to visit for a few days. And overall, it was a really nice visit. But on the day before we left, at a moment when my grandmother had me alone, she decided to tell me how offended my grandfather was at how ungrateful I was for the gift they’d given me. Not only had he been taken aback at my behavior, but surely my mother raised me better than that. She would have been mortified to know how poorly I’d behaved. “OK,” she concluded, “I just had to get that off my chest. Let’s not let it bother us anymore.”
I don’t doubt for a second that my grandfather probably said something to that effect in the days between his call about the check, and me realizing the extent of the misunderstanding and apologizing profusely for it. I knew he probably had a few days of thinking I was horrid. But was she unaware of my apology, or did she forget about it? I was truly so shocked at her scolding of me that I barely defended myself. Instead I was left to wonder – did my grandpa somehow not really understand the root of the misunderstanding? Did they never receive my thank-you note? (I specifically asked that, and my grandma had no recollection of it.) Did my grandfather die thinking I was some awful person, or had she been so angry in her grief after he died that she just ruminated on every wrong she felt was committed against him, remembering vividly the harsh words but forgetting the amends? Regardless, that moment she felt she had to be ‘honest’ with me has permanently and unalterably made me question how my grandfather, and maybe even how my mother felt about me. 99% of me knows she was just way off-base, and grief had made her behave out-of-line. But in a more meta way, I was just really pissed she would say something that accomplishes nothing but to help her soothe the pain she was feeling by trying to right the wrongs she felt had been committed against my grandfather.
I later came to learn she’d similarly laid into my brother when he was up there for different, but similarly somewhat petty reasons that had happened years earlier… which means she verbally disciplined him on behalf of my dead grandfather for stuff he did when he was a teenager. A teenager whose mother had died when he was 15. As cross as I was about the gall she had with what she said to me, I was doubly angry that she could do the same to him. My brother had also missed the memorial, but through no fault of his own. My grandma had told my dad, who for whatever reason couldn’t make it, and he never told my brother about it. I was sleep-deprived with a new baby and never thought to tell him, I only happened to mention it a few days later to ask why he and Dad didn’t go… and that was the first time he’d heard about it. He was really, really upset that he missed it. He adored our grandpa. Of course grandma also got really mad at him for it, and probably mad at me also that I didn’t make sure he knew. I’m sure a lot of that fueled her need to ‘get things off her chest.’
Had she told off anyone else? I never heard about it, if she did. But it made me wonder if we were targeted because we weren’t really “hers”… and had she always felt that way, disconnected from us because we weren’t her biological grandchildren? I remembered what my mom had told me about how poorly my grandmother had treated her when she and my grandpa first got married. It made me question everything I thought I knew about my relationship with her.
I think we only visited twice after that. Both visits were fine… but her brutal ‘honesty’ that one visit had me constantly on edge that she might decide she needed to tell me something else that would further chip away at truths I took for granted. So the visits stopped, and we rarely spoke on the phone.
I can own that I was probably being petty, and perhaps I should have leveled with her about how what she said made me feel. Maybe our relationship could have been salvaged.
I’m sad she died, for sure, but I know she’s been pretty sick for awhile so I’d sort of already mourned her over the last couple months. If there’s anything though, her death has made me realize how angry I still am with her. I hate that I feel this way. I’m just not quite sure what to do with it.