I just had my forty-third birthday. By that time, my grandmother had given birth to her second child, now a year old. Her firstborn, my father, was three. The year was 1949. By the time my father was eleven, my grandmother would be burying her husband and raising her two children alone in California.
I never thought of my grandmother as a young widow. I never thought of my grandmother as young.
When I arrived on the scene, my grandmother was on old lady who would tell you to kiss her on the cheek because she'd been "eating onions."
My aunt and my father stood over six feet tall, but my grandmother was lucky to hit five feet standing on a hill.
Even in her 80s, she still had natural streaks of light brown through her graying hair. She lived on her own until the day she died—fiercely independent, using an electric ringer to do her laundry well into MY childhood, giving her series of overfed Pomeranians the same name (which, for the life of me, I cannot recall right now—something with an "L" I think), and placing little notes on the back of everything ever given to her so that when she died you got back the things you gave her (a great lesson in not giving shitty gifts).
She loved to dance, and talk on the phone—a ship-to-shore operator for more years than I can remember—and would always make you hang up when you called her so she could call you back on her dime, because Ma Bell gave her a deal for all those years of service as a single working mother.
She immigrated to this country without any of her siblings or her parents. I don't know why. She was the oldest. She never spoke a word of Norwegian in my presence. She never had an accent. I never knew her political beliefs, but she'd mail me unaccompanied, unexplained clippings from the National Enquirer throughout my life, and boxes of See's Candy at the holidays.
My mother didn't care for her, or didn't like her, or didn't understand her, and I think that's why we didn't spend much time with her, but honestly, I don't really know why I didn't see my dad's mother much. I just know that I wish I had gotten to know her better. I think we have some parallels in our lives that I didn't see coming—nobody could have seen them coming—that would have been well-served by us spending some more time together.
As I raise my fatherless children, I wish I could sit with her and ask her things. As I encounter difficult times with family members who don't understand, I wish I could ask her things. I wish I could sit with her one more time for one of her manicures.
Instead, I sit in front of the cabinet I inherited when she passed away and remember how I sat in front of it as a little girl in her house. I remember asking her about the items it held, some of them it still holds. I remember her stories. I try to tell them to the little girls in my house when they ask. I try to hear her voice.