I am sitting here at my beach house feeling that longing I often get when contemplating the ocean’s vastness and the loved ones I have lost. I am ready to write a new book now, I want to tell your life story, and so I must ask you what you’d like the world to know about you…
To me, you were a hero, a bodhisattva, and a stand-in for an absent mother. From the beginning you withstood great loss and pain: never cradled by your own mother, watching your own gentle face sink and change form from a strange paralysis, a marriage of convenience when you turned away from love, and a myriad of physical assaults ending in total blindness. I remember that when that door to sight was closed, you expressed rage at your irrevocable helplessness for the first and last time. You taught me table manners, curiosity of mind, generosity toward all those less fortunate, you taught me dominoes and hearts, and the love of adventure in far away places and speaking a foreign language… I sat at your table and grew up into a marvelously civilized young girl. Did I ever tell you how grateful I was for all you gave to me? The largest gift of all was your love — you sat on my bed at night and read the Greek myths, held my little hand in yours, and then left the nightlight on. You made me feel safe.
If you were to write your own story, what would you want known about your life? Perhaps the devotion you had for your stern father and your beloved nanny Goldie who attempted the unspeakable task of imparting a mother’s love to you, the gratitude you had for the loving black servants in your home in Charleston, and the piano your father encouraged you to play. Yes, the piano. You gave yourself to that, didn’t you, practicing energetically not only because that was expected, but also because you needed to express beauty — your unique beauty. Would you like the world to know that you rejected true love because embracing a married man was socially unacceptable, and then you married a safe and chilly business man because that was what was expected? You never admitted this, but I knew. Eventually I came to mirror a few of your choices… Turns out you were scared of intense romantic love – remember that you told me “passion is messy”? I didn’t believe you then, but I think do now. Messy and beautiful.
You loved one son more than the other and in the end he broke your heart. But most people didn’t know that. Motherhood was hard for you, and besides you were expected to have a nanny, and then there was grandfather’s belt… Young boys were hit, humiliated, and you could do little to stop it. Yours was a patriarchal world. I always saw you as the tough matriarch who could weather everything for the sake of the family’s survival: heart attacks, cancer, and a deeply disappointed heart. Did you see yourself as a survivor? How did you do this?
Please tell me more. Tell me what you’d like me to say about you.
Still missing you deeply after all these years,
My grandmother Lavinia who helped to shape my young life died in 1988, and while I can still hear the quality of her gentle intelligent voice, feel her delicate gnarled hands, and remember the scent of her body lotion, I have lost many of her stories. I hope my invitation to the grandmother who lives inside me will bring forth some of the moving stories of her long life, so that I can offer them to the world. Let’s wait and see what shows up… This is the least I can do for a woman who saved my life.