ON FAMILY

My grandmother died yesterday at 2:30am. I think she was 88. My sister called me first and then my father, each from hundreds of miles away in Minnesota, while I looked outside my apartment onto the morning sea of Denver trees and buildings. The Rocky Mountains surrounding the city had just begun to turn blue with the air of another approaching Fall; I noticed it day and night as I acquainted myself with a new apartment and a seventh story, West-facing view. There had been something calming about this blueness, registering the feeling of loss and change. As I get older I find myself turning to any vista more often than before. It’s my way of taking a pause, a chance to see the long view of my life and where it fits into the rest of the world.

 

When each of them calls to share the news, the family tears arise immediately: the ones you feel in the instant you sense a close family member flailing or feeling pain. I never want to make that scrunched up face I see people make when they cry, the one that says, “I’m helpless.” So I cry into my hands a lot and almost always, alone. Sometimes I imagine the generations before me and decide our family learning curve is long. I don’t believe my Swedish ancestors were very good criers, and my grades in the expressing feelings class are still floundering at best. During the conversations with both my sister and my dad, the family tears emerge and I do my best to let them stay briefly, long enough for them to know that being in Denver and living this distance, doesn’t make me far away from them.

 

My dad looks for the right words to tell me and calls himself a “soft touch.” Just as I have to cry into my hands, my Dad must apologize for being a man who cries. He reads my grandma’s pre-planned service and meal preparations, which she had neatly organized and written down years earlier. She did not want piano, but organ music. She was specific about what foods should be served at her Lutheran church, varying the menus slightly depending on whether lunch or dinner would be served. She wanted “scalloped potatoes with ham, coleslaw, buns, and cake,” the quintessential Minnesotan meal of churches. She requested both decaffeinated and regular coffees, and specified “No Jell-O” in quiet parentheses, a surprise to all of us after years of my sister and I having made grotesque faces at her perennially present green Jell-O salad with carrot shavings on top.

 

My father alternates between the moments before her death and the funeral details as we talk. He remarks that the East Indian and Native American gals taking care of my grandmother before she died sure did a nice job; he made sure to thank them for their work. As always, he discloses their ethnicities like compelling tidbits of trivia. Two different kinds of Indians? At a rural Minnesotan retirement home? And then, because my father is chronically sensitive to all audiences, perhaps most to his own daughters, he corrects himself slightly and says, “I don’t know why I mention their race, that’s really not important…”

 

I wonder as I listen to him how often my dad censors, pre-thinks what he wants to say. I can’t tell if he’s still repenting after having been inaccessible for so many years, or if he’s actually a relatively progressive man I haven’t learned to appreciate. When he had surgery for prostate cancer nearly three years ago, he was delighted to report that his “East Indian surgeon does these procedures all day long.” He felt he was in very good hands. And, despite his preoccupation with saying the right thing, and an insatiable desire for approval, I recognize it’s been a relief to date a plethora of men from various countries and never hear anything negative from him regarding their ethnicity. I have to admit my dad is, at least in this way, living uniquely outside his cultural and generational cohort.

 

My dad continues on with the funeral preparations, laughing about my grandmother’s need for efficiency and planning as he reads her self-written obituary. In it, she focused on her acts of service and work, a list of things she did. She was a teacher before she married, involved in the family cabinet business, worked for the East Central Regional Libraries, was a secretary-treasurer of the Rum River Ramblers Camping Club. She was involved in her church, made seasonal church banners, knit blankets and mittens for hundreds. With the loss of my grandmother’s life so freshly filling the air, I suddenly see, without any edge or disdain, the heritage of my Scandinavian roots stamped into her obituary. We are working people, and I am.

 

Suddenly my yoga teacher’s suggestion that we are human beings rather than human doings seems like a line from Candy Land. I feel a sense of pride burst through my body and think, “I came from her; I’m part of her.” I see my 15 years away from Minnesota, all this yearning to unhinge myself from overworking, of thinking my only identity is what I produce, and find that I’m not condemning the workaholic piece of me at all. It can exist in my Grandmother’s life, in her obituary, in my own thoughts and internal struggles about how to be a good worker without letting it swallow up my life. In my first year of college, I was so attuned to my family’s appreciation of work and productivity that I sent my grandmother a copy of my weekly schedule. I was so proud of myself for being nearly insanely busy with college clubs, projects, and classes and wanted her to be proud, also. It was one of the few ways we knew how to feel close to one another.

 

I marvel that all of these memories get moving in one 20 minute conversation with my dad. We discuss a few more logistics and hang up, but near the end of the conversation, I try to find a way to tell him I’m sorry. I say I’m relieved that she wasn’t in pain for that long. And I ask if he had the chance tell her everything he wanted to say. “Oh ya, oh ya,” he responds, his Minnesotan accent thick and quick. His immediate answer lets me know something’s hiding in his words, folded tightly and heavily into his heart. Maybe being the eldest son kept him from telling her the deepest, most tender of things. Maybe I’m not supposed to be asking this question. Or maybe he doesn’t know yet. As I picture him watching the life of his mother carried away with cremation workers and a box of button up nightgowns that will be sensibly donated to the local clothing center, I see that a “soft touch” doesn’t mean every feeling must be spoken or even acknowledged. It’s been my fantasy for years that sensitive people can always express the most deeply felt of sentiments. But those with a soft touch, a camp where I’ve begun to include myself, have things rolled down into dark, maroon-y places. Inside things that ache and stay aching until a new light lifts them up. The maroon shifts to red, and orange, and feels like the relief of the sun, but you can’t orchestrate it. You have to let it happen.

 

I look out the window and see the quilt my grandma made for my high school graduation, hanging on the back of the patio bench and flapping in the Sunday morning breeze. It’s filled with scraps of old doll dresses and blankets my grandma made for me when I was a child, with the year of my graduation sewn into the corner, in pink, crisp letters. The border is solid and strong; it never frays after all these years of lugging it between apartments, lifestyles, relationships and plans. I tell my Dad, as a way to honor both his loss and my grandma’s life that I will sit with her blanket and be with her today. But when our conversation has ended, I find there are so many other things to do.

 

Jennifer Sandberg, September 2011

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