Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Death, and Distance

Last night I get a call from my brother, about 8:00 or so. Now this, in and of itself, is odd. My brother and I are close, but we're not telephone people, really. We work together and see each other on a regular basis outside of work, so if one of us calls the other there's a reason. Calling on a weeknight is especially odd, since we both have kids and plenty to do once we get home from the office. So, it's gotta be news.

So I pause the movie we were watching (Monday night is movie night for the kids -- they pick the movie, no set bedtime, snacks and whatnot with the whole family, etc. -- the movie this week was "The Neverending Story" which dazzled them and irritated Christine and I beyond words) and grab the call.

Mike sounds weird, kinda shaky, and my first thought is that something has gone wrong with the negotiations with an unnamed company that will result in some significant changes to my unnamed company in the near future. This stuff is all he's -- and I've -- been thinking about for the better part of two months, now. But nope, it's not that.

Turns out that our Grandmother passed away yesterday.

Now, our family history is a bit, well, involved. This is my father's mother, and my father died when I was quite young. After his death, the relationship between my mother and her in-laws soured quickly (my grandfather was a vicious, controlling, drunken prick who thrived on feeding his ego by debasing everyone around him) and when, after a few years, they moved to Florida, the relationship between them and us quickly became one of distance and attempted manipulation through cash (they had cash, whereas my mother was a widow raising two kids on Social Security and a part-time job at Sears) where they would try to make us feel guilty for not visiting them in Florida but would never offer to assist with the cost of plane fare or a hotel. Really intrinsically mean stuff.

Time went by, and the relationship slowly resolved into the basic Christmas/Birthday Cards cycle, with an occasional visit when they were in upstate NY for the summer months. As I got older, I hit a stage when I decided I wanted everyone to get along (17, idealistic, whatever) and there were a few more get-togethers -- they even attended a community theater performance of "The Rainmaker" in which I had the lead over the summer after I graduated from High School.

Then College, more distance, and then some sort of perceived slight at my brother's wedding (apparently we didn't spend enough time with them, although they were who we spent most of our non-wedding party oriented time with) led them to decline to attend my wedding a couple of years later. After several letters were exchanged, my grandmother owned up to the fact that the "slight" was an excuse, and that simply put it was too painful for them to see me. I looked, at that time, almost exactly like my father did not long before he died -- I was about 25, he died at 32. And she said, simply, it hurt them too much to see me. My grandfather maintained until the day he died that we snubbed them and that he had no use for us (including the very vocal and dramatic gesture of disinheriting us. He had a lifelong mantra that we'd be sniffing around for cash when they got older), but I at least knew the real story.

So, talk about your irreconcilable differences.

Anyway, after that I settled into a basic "dutiful grandson" role. Whatever chance there was for some sort of relationship had been pretty methodically snuffed out by my grandfather, but I decided that the best route was to keep them in the loop, with Christmas cards and small gifts, the occasional letter, pictures of my kids each year, and so on. Really more for my own benefit, I suppose, but it seemed like the right thing to do. I figured that if nothing else, I knew I was being kind and maybe it would help my Grandma, a silly and fairly dippy old lady, cope with her marriage to a miserable old drunken prick a bit better.

So, anyway, then my grandfather died (we didn't find out until a month later), and then my uncle (my grandmother's other son) died (pancreatic cancer. Awful), and then it was just Grandma, down in Florida, slowly degenerating, drinking Scotch, playing cards, and chain-smoking. Then there was throat cancer, and an operation, and recovery, and more drinking and chain smoking, and several minor strokes, and more drinking and smoking, and repeated bouts of pneumonia, and then yesterday she was having trouble breathing and then, after being put on oxygen, she died last evening.

It's all very odd.

I've never had a death of someone in my family about which I felt so … ambivalent. I mean, it's sad, but mostly because the entire history was just plain sad. Bitterness and misery on their part, carried like a talisman over the 25-or-so years since my father's death until the death of my grandfather, and then Grandma living another 6 or 7 years, settling into a quiet life in which she made it clear she didn't really want any visitors and that she was happy to receive the occasional card and letter but that mostly she just wanted to be left alone with her booze and ciggies and elderly neighbors and friends as her life slowly ground to a halt. By all accounts she was quite happy in her final years, and that's a good thing. Being free of the presence of my grandfather was almost certainly a blessing. I hope my notes and pictures brought her some happiness.

Now it's done. Every ancestor on my father's side of the family, aside from a cousin whom I can't stand and his widowed mother (not a "blood relative" exactly, but family), is gone. My family tree's looking fairly barren these days….

So we're waiting for information. We know there is a will, and after my grandfather died Grandma wrote us back into it (Mike and I, at least – don't know about my cousin or Aunt. I hope my Aunt is in there, though if there's any justice my cousin will be utterly and completely excluded) although what it contains is anyone's guess. These folks had income from full NYC pensions (he was a firefighter, she was a clerk of some sort) and I assume their medical expenses were covered by the pensions as well, and aside from their drinking and smoking they lived extraordinarily frugal lives. There could be little, or there could be lots. I honestly don't know. I suppose it seems ghoulish, but I am terribly curious to see what comes out of this.

And apparently, I might be the executor of the will. Waiting to hear more, soon, and I might need to take a brief trip to Florida to take care of her effects and see if there are any family heirlooms that should be distributed that aren't covered in the will. I kinda hope that the trip is necessary, actually. I have such strange, unresolved feelings about this -- I'm not sad, exactly, but a big part of me keeps telling me that I should be, even though there was literally no actual relationship here outside of one of token respect. A trip to take care of the final "stuff" could be what I need to get some closure on what is a very odd event in my life.

As for her remains, she has requested cremation without any remembrance or ceremonies, and to be shipped to my Aunt. My Grandfather's cremains were buried, illegally and without our knowledge or permission, in my father's grave, and the assumption is that this is what she wants as well. For my part I have no real objection, other than that it's not legal and I'm not sure it's fair to ask my aunt to do this. We'll see.

So, anyway, in memory of my Grandmother, Charlotte. She wasn't a smart woman, nor was she brave or even particularly kind, but she wasn't so bad, either. Over the course of 93-or-so years she buried her husband and both of her children, a fate that I wouldn't wish on anyone and due to which I am willing to forgive quite a bit. In a different life, with a different husband she would probably have been a very different person. Kinder. Perhaps nobler. In the end, she was sweet, in her way, and probably happier than she had been for a long time, and I hope my token attempts at familial rapport added to that.

Mood: Unsettled
Now Playing: Nothing


Ray in New Orleans said...

I guess "sorry for your loss" doesn't really seem completely appropriate...but sorry you are going through what it is you are going through.

Sounds like your grandparents combine all the "best" aspects of my mother-in-law's parents and my mom's father.

We need to sit down over beers sometime and compare wacky ancestry stories.

Hang in there.

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