This morning I am curling a piece of ribbon with my scissors and thinking of my grandmother, who taught me how. I miss her around the holidays.
My grandmother isn’t dead. She lives in a nursing home about 40 miles away. But I’ve been mourning my loss of her for a long time. She’s not the woman I used to know—because she’s bedridden and suffers from dementia, yes, but more because I’ve grown up enough to see her as a flawed individual. So I don’t really miss her. I miss who she—who we—used to be.
I miss my childhood days, when she was the ideal grandmother. She doted on me. Called me “Princess.” Spent hours playing with me—Tiddlywinks or Old Maid or pretend restaurant. When I was very small, we’d sit in her recliner chair and pretend we were in an elevator in a fancy department store. “What floor do you want to go to?” she’d say, and we’d recline all the way back to the third floor, ladies’ dresses. She gave me milk from an ice-cold mug she kept in the freezer. “Good, cold milk,” she always said. I knew she loved me. I knew she was proud of me.
The illusion that one’s parents or grandparents are perfect is one of the gifts of childhood. By the time I was in high school, I perceived the tension between my grandmother and my parents. I knew that for my dad she had been at times an absent mother, because of her severe anxiety, and at other times a harsh, unforgiving one. Although I never saw it, I knew that she had a mean side. She was judgmental; she could be cutting. Mostly, I think, because she lived with so much fear. She was afraid of driving a car and strange people and places and disorder and dirt.
By the time she went to a nursing home, wheelchair-bound because of advanced osteoporosis, I didn’t want to be around her. She reminded me too much of who I could become if I let anxiety take me over. It’s hard for me to look in a mirror without thinking of my grandmother. We look a lot alike—and, I suspect, we have similar inner lives. When I was a child, I never noticed my grandmother wringing her hands or wadding up the wrapping paper into tiny balls on Christmas, but as an adult I know all too well the psychological equivalent.
I hate myself for not visiting her. I haven’t spoken to her in two years. I’ll donate to charitable causes and help local families in need, but I won’t go visit my own grandmother, because she makes me feel small and suffocated and sad. So every year at Christmas I pick up a box of Cella’s chocolate-covered cherries, tie a ribbon on it, maybe put a cat calendar with it, and give it to my parents to drop off at the nursing home on Christmas Eve. A $3.49 box of candy and a cat calendar delivered via proxy is all I can muster up for a woman who gave me great cheekbones, a pleasant singing voice, unconditional love, and a lifetime of happy childhood memories.
We’re estranged—and yet the word “estranged” tells only part of the reality, for there’s an entirely different sense in which we’re inseparable. I guess I’ve been giving a long goodbye to someone I can never leave.