To My Mother, Life is an Iceberg

Three years before my paternal grandmother died, my 60-year-old widowed mother relied on her children to move her from a St. Louis suburb to Decatur, Georgia. My sister, who lived in Decatur, found a nearby condo for her, and the other three of us did every single thing required to pack and move our mother to a new home.

In Georgia, my paternal grandmother lived five miles away from my sister Anne and my mother. Grandma Meyer had been a wonderful grandmother, doting on us when we visited when we were kids. She was the only adult who ever really showed my siblings and me any love.

During these visits to my grandmother’s house, which were days long several times a year, we rarely saw my parents. That was fine with us. Grandma was devoted to our happiness. She was delighted to make things for us; she loved to see how thrilled we were. She baked coconut cakes, she dragged out big boxes of toys, she played cards with us, she nurtured inside jokes, she filled the cookie jar, she stood cheerfully at the stove in the morning, spatula in hand, to ask each of us what we wanted for breakfast. Unlike our mother, Grandma never made us feel like we were trouble or that we weren’t important to her.

My mother had known her in-laws since she was a teenager. As far as I could see, her in-laws were nice to her. But my mother never seemed to want a relationship. Once Mother settled into her Atlanta condo after my father died, she could have spent some time with her widowed and lonely mother-in-law, who didn’t drive. My 60-year-old mother made no attempt to work again, she was healthy, and the route to my grandmother’s house did not violate any of her too-dangerous-to-drive rules. But she never visited Grandma unless my sister Anne took her. And Mother agreed to accompany Anne and her boys, who visited weekly, only a small handful of times in the three years from the time she moved to Atlanta until the day Grandma died.

So at a time when my mother and her mother-in-law could have built that long-deferred relationship, and when my mother could have paid back some of the care-giving Grandma had provided for her children just by showing up and keeping her sick mother-in-law company, my mother ignored her.

When I came to town from Boston with my six-month-old firstborn about six months before Grandma died, I brought him over to her house so she could meet him. Anne came along, but Mother didn’t.

It was a joy to see how thrilled my grandmother was to see my son. She loved babies, and he was a happy baby. He sat on the living room floor and picked up some of the toys that we had played with so many times, toys that she had gone to the trouble to pull out and display for him even though he was too young to do more than pick them up and drop them on the soft living room carpet. It was the last time I saw her.

Shortly after that visit and two years after Mother’s relocation to Atlanta, Grandma’s health had clearly become an issue. She resisted seeking treatment and hid her symptoms as long as she could. By the time my uncle, her only surviving child, finally got her to a doctor, her colon cancer was too far advanced for treatment to make any difference. But the prospect she’d feared the most, surgery, was necessary anyway. Without surgery, she would have died of an excruciating obstruction. She spent her last months back in her house, in pain from the effects of the surgery, afraid, sometimes delirious and sometimes alone. My mother never visited.

When Grandma died, it was summer. My son had just turned one, and I brought him when the family assembled at Grandma’s house after her death. My siblings and I lingered in each room, pausing to absorb the feelings and share memories, trying to grasp that she was really gone and that this was the last time we’d be in this house where we’d always been happy and felt more loved and safer than anywhere else in the world.

I wanted my grandmother’s red-handled spatula, the one she used to flip so many pancakes for us, a tube of her dark pink lipstick, a bar of her trademark pink Camay soap and the round box of bath powder she used to dust our backs after we got out of the tub, before we climbed into the brass beds in her house that was a kind of sanctuary to us.

My uncle took charge of doling out Grandma’s furniture and disclosing the will. There was an issue with the will, one that catapulted my normally docile mother into high panic. The will specified that the estate was to be divided equally among my grandmother’s three sons or directly to their children in the event that any of the sons predeceased her. Two of her sons, including my father, had already died, which meant that my siblings and I would get our father’s third.

Among her important papers and the copy of the will, my uncle had found a hand-written note from my grandmother. The note, written shortly after my father’s early death, declared that my father’s share should go to my mother rather than pass to the grandchildren. This note wasn’t legally binding, and my uncle announced that if my siblings and I all agreed, he would have the lawyer draw up papers for each of us to sign, yielding our claims to the estate to our mother. All four of my mother’s children immediately agreed to this. It should have been no problem. My mother should have been pleased. Maybe even a little appreciative.

But Mother, usually so passive, never interested in taking the lead on anything, was on fire. She could not rest until each of us had signed the papers and the big check was hers. Once we got back home, she called every day to see if we’d gotten the papers, to ask if we’d signed them, to find out when we’d mail them back and to demand to know why it wasn’t done yet. It didn’t matter if we assured her that we’d take care of it. No one even hinted resistance.

But, as my brother Dan said, it got insulting after a few calls. If our responses seemed too casual, if there was a small sign that we might not be making this process the single top priority in our lives, she burst into angry remonstrance. She needed that money! Why hadn’t we done this yet! Didn’t we understand how much she needed that money! What was the hold-up?

Dan’s papers were the last ones in, so he caught the most heat. He told me that he would have done it sooner if she hadn’t treated him like he was going to keep her from getting the money. And if she hadn’t acted like the only thing that mattered about our beloved grandmother’s death was how it affected her bank account. Just like she did with our father.

But it’s not money per se that she animates her so intensely. She doesn’t care at all what other people think about her relative wealth or her possessions or how she dresses. In fact, she prefers to play the poor widow so people take pity on her. But not having the security of an insurmountable fortress of effortless money is stressful and frightening. Money is the safety and the freedom not just from the nightmare of job demands and critical bosses, but from having to face the mystery of the world, the puzzle of other people and the work required to please them so they give her what she is so certain she must be given.

Life is an iceberg to my mother, and money is protection from having to worry about more than the surface 10% that she can see.

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