Memorial Day was founded to remember those who fought in war and gave “the ultimate sacrifice” but today my thoughts are centered on the Grandmothers. Wars have, mostly, been started by men and until the fairly recent past, mostly fought by men as well. The Grandmothers go forgotten although they often bore the burdens of those wars in ways men never once considered, but wars were hardly the only burdens they carried.
The photo here is the Grandmother I, and all of her other grandchildren, never met. She died at age 36 about to be discharged from a state mental hospital, circumstances unknown. Her eldest child, my mother, was thirteen and her fourth and last child, my Aunt Betty, was three. Family members have attempted to uncover records for her hospitalization and death but were told “there was a fire and all records were lost”. Was there anyone of her generation who knew the whole story? If so, none of us ever heard more.
Today I learned from my cousin who has the interest, talent, and persistence for genealogical research, that a journal and graduation record of our shared Grandmother was found. She had attended McGill for a couple of years. As her first child was born in 1922 college would have been an outstanding achievement for a woman of her time. What then is her story? Whatever the tale, it took place in context of her time when women did not have autonomy or agency. I think of her not only as an individual but as a woman bounded by the societal mores of class and gender because even now we must see our lives within these contexts.
Over time I have come to understand that we hear each other’s stories in ways that relate to our own experience. If you choose to stop at the point I’ve told you my direct blood relative died in a mental hospital that is your choice and I will only slightly wince. If however, I think of the line of history of women branded as hysterics or witches, understood in the context of the prevailing times, not as individuals with intelligence, knowledge, longings, and worth but as objects that fit into whatever worked in the world of men in the time that they lived, the possibilities of her story take on very different meanings. In this light, I question my Grandmother’s situation and wonder about the circumstances, the hows and whys she was in that hospital rather than with her family.
This photograph, which needs restorative work, haunts me. The intelligence of those eyes hold mysteries I, and all the progeny which came after her, will never know.
This remains the case for all our kin even those who are a part of our daily lives. We do not know what is carried, what longings or experiences are hidden in their hearts and minds, but the Grandmothers in particular carry their pasts holding or telling their secrets selectively or not at all, like shadows we cannot see.
I am not a Grandmother nor will I ever be, yet I, too, carry these things.