The churning of the waves here and there tosses up tiny pieces of green and brown sea glass. I was collecting the pieces in my pocket. I was looking for a message, a whisper, some piece of wisdom from the sand beneath my feet. Just before I reached the jetty, I was stopped in my tracks by a silver-dollar-sized piece of aquamarine colored glass just at the edge of the surf line. Besides its unusual color, its size caught me completely off-guard. However did it make it here right next to the rocks of the jetty and not be smashed to bits?
My gift from the sea. It sits here on the table as I write—a testament to how beautiful things can remain even in the most treacherous environments. And it makes me think of my grandmother, herself someone who remained beautiful in the treacherous environment of her life. For most of her adult life she played a role, a part, in the play of being a surgeon’s wife. Subject to my grandfather’s easily ignited Italian temper and his suppressed anger for what he could not control and who he could not save. Most would never know the abuse she endured. But I did.
|Photo by Kathleen Keagy|
My earliest memory is the day my twin sisters got their tonsils out. I always thought the memory stayed with me because it was my first night alone without my parents. But something else made it stick in my mind. I remember kneeling on the seat of a dark leather chair with metal tacks like rivets securing the leather to the wood. In the shadowy hospital waiting room I kept my back to everyone thinking that if I did not attract attention to myself I would not have to go, go with my grandparents back to their house. I had already spent a night at their house, and after that night, I did not want to go back alone.
I used to run and lock myself in the bathroom when my grandfather, the doctor, would come to our house with his black doctor's bag. When he had his bag he was not Grandpa anymore, but Dr. Mike, everybody's hero, but not mine. He was not my hero. I saw too much at two-years-old. I saw my grandfather take out his pain on my grandmother because he had no place else to put it. All his helplessness when he was unable to help a patient get better. All his helplessness when a patient died. All his helplessness to express those broken parts of himself and be received with compassion.
My grandmother looked like she had it all from the outside: surgeon's wife, beautiful house, beautiful clothes, closet full of shoes, extravagant jewelry. But I see it all now as a bribe, as a payoff, for what she endured to save face for the family. When I look at the necklace she made for each of her ten granddaughters from the diamonds in her wedding band, I see her pain transformed. And I understand why she was so profoundly connected with her granddaughters. We filled her life with love. I think in her mind, she did what she did for us. And I did what she asked of me for her safety—for in her day, in the conventions of her time, I wonder if she would have survived telling the truth. I wonder what agreements her soul had made with my grandfather’s soul. Maybe this was their agreement.
“Be a good girl and don’t tell.” I didn’t tell. I locked that memory away. I fixed the truth so no one would get hurt.
|Grandma Adele, July 1978|
After my grandfather died, I watched my grandmother’s personality come into bloom. I caught a glimpse of the woman waiting for her turn to shine all those years. She did most of that blooming confined to a bed, battling ovarian cancer. But still she seemed more free. There was a twinkle in her eye that I had not seen before, a boldness of action and a willingness to take whatever came along with it. She was no longer limited by what she “should” do. She quieted all the ghosts of the women who came before her—the ones who held the space for the pain of the men in their lives at the expense of themselves. In those last years, she opened the window for generations of women after her to breathe freely for the first time. She opened the window for me.
When my grandmother died at 67, she still had blond hair. She never went grey. I think of her now, as I hold this piece of sea glass in my hands. Of all my ancestors, hers is the opinion that matters most to me. Am I daring enough, Grandma? Is this the right path, Grandma? And unlike other ancestors in my tribe, she doesn’t voice an opinion. She has no agenda for me. Nothing she wants accomplished for her. She just watches over my left shoulder. Stands behind me in support and watches to see what I’ll do. Because she knows what it’s like to be told who to be and she loves me enough not to say a word. And more than that, she trusts me. Trusts that I will choose the paths that stretch me, that challenge me, that make me feel alive. She trusts me to live my truth.
Happy Birthday, Grandma Adele. You would have turned 91 this March.