CW: Really big emotions, reference to abuse and generational trauma
It’s not just the amount of Stuff.
It’s not just about missing someone, realizing anew that I won’t be able to see them or pick up the phone to share a funny thing the kids did today.
It’s the decisions.
What to keep? It would be easy if it were just for myself, but what about The Family? Who might be interested in these photos, these documents, this history?
Emotions are complicated.
And that’s the hardest part of all. I’m finding photos and cartoons and notes and I can feel the pain. Generations of anger and resentment, denial and accusation. I can feel the disappointment and resignation, smothered by Shoulds, masked by Social Niceties. Be sure to smile. Don’t let it show. What would the neighbors think?
And there is just. so. MUCH of it.
I’m not just grieving for myself.
I’m grieving for my mother-in-law, raised with domestic violence.
I’m grieving for my father-in-law, whose story I barely know but can sense was filled with pain as well.
I’m grieving for my father’s father’s mother, whose bitterness and weaponized dissatisfaction was the only way she knew how to cope with her trauma. She was sent to America (maybe 18 years old?) and married the son of the man who’d sponsored her. He became an alcoholic and was both the recipient and perpetrator of emotional abuse. I was told that Grandma Esther was the 11th of 12 children and the only one who survived the Holocaust.
I’m grieving for Grandpa, my father’s father, who grew up in that house.
I’m grieving for Grandma, my father’s mother, the one who recently passed. She told me of walking to school as a child and having kids throw rocks at her and call her “Christ-killer.” Her father essentially abandoned her mother, who had been a teenager when she gave birth to Grandma. One time, her father was supposed to pick up Grandma and her older sister. They packed their suitcases and sat outside to wait for him. They waited. All day, they waited.
He never came.
I grieve for her miscarriages, child after child stolen from her womb.
I grieve for her belief that she was ugly, that she was stupid, that she couldn’t understand why we all loved her so.
I grieve for her older sister, stubborn and determined and practical, yet in so many of the old photos, her eyes were so sad. My mother explained tactfully to me, “Uncle Alan was not kind to her.”
I grieve for my mother’s mother. When my mom was a year old, her father was in a horrific motorcycle accident. In addition to being left with a permanent limp, he had brain damage that affected his ability to empathize. (If you’re interested in a similar case study, Google “Eadweard Muybridge” for the type of damage done.) Formerly vibrant and social as a couple, they stopped going out. At first, it was because Grandmother was nursing him single-handedly through his injuries. After he recovered, it was because she did not want to burden friends with his unwittingly offensive eccentricities. She later told my mother, “He was no longer the man I married.” But she stayed. She never learned how to drive, but she would dress “properly” each day: dress and hose and pumps, jewelry and makeup. When she developed dementia, he couldn’t care for her. My mother did what she could, traveling to the Bay Area every other week for months (years?). Grandmother died in ‘93; Grandfather followed six months later.
I grieve for my mother, even as I am so very grateful for her continued presence in my life. I grieve that her father’s accident robbed her of her parents’ love and attention at the most crucial time of her young life. I love how she’s blossomed and come into her own, yet I still see that shy, anxious little girl, and I want to hold her and reassure her that she is loved.
I grieve for family members I’ve never met: the sister of a grandparent who was obsessed with money and status and whose demanding sense of entitlement resulted in being cut off and never spoken to again. I wonder who she was under that shell, and I ache for both sides of the severing. I grieve for the mother who was thought long dead, until a notification of her actual death revealed that she’d been consigned to an asylum all those years.
It’s not all awful. Each life has moments of love and connection. I remember my father-in-law sharing music with me, surprised and delighted at how many I knew and could sing with. (To be honest, several were because my husband had shared them with me, creating a circular connection.) Arguing with him recreationally, and his bark of laughter when I outwitted him. Dragging him out on the dance floor at a niece’s wedding so we could dance to Kid Rock’s “I Wanna Be A Cowboy.”
And I remember shopping craft faires with my mother-in-law, pointing out cute things to each other. I remember her laughing at silly Christmas presents and sneaking cookies to my eldest kid (and her exaggerated claims of betrayal when they “ratted her out.”)
I remember my grandmother moving around the kitchen and “helping” her hang laundry to dry. I remember how proud my grandfather was of his baby potatoes.
Yes, there is happiness and joy, but it is also true that to everything, there is a season.
And for now, I grieve.