Nana 6 (Race and Ethnicity and Culture and Religion and Trauma)

I have hesitated to write the following as a brief post, filled with topics which could each comprise a tome of thousands of pages, but our precious granddaughter will arrive in the next few days and I will be penning observations in which all of them will feature, so I’ll provide some background now.  I am more of an observer and storyteller than I am philosopher or theologian, so I will be narrating and commenting, rather than seeking to create some overarching political statement.  And I will do the best I can to stick to my own story, as other stories belong to other individuals.

My son and his fiancée are the same age, 34, but their lives have followed different paths.  When they were seven, he was a Montessori first grader in the middle of the United States, secure and happy and enamored of sharks and dinosaurs.  She was a member of a large family and growing up in a Somali village, to which the violence and destructiveness of civil war and terror came, as it did to the rest of her country.  As a refugee, her journey took her from Somalia to Djibouti to Italy and finally to France, where she ultimately grew up with a foster family.  She and my son met when he was a college student spending the summer in Lyons, where she was working.  In the next decade, she married and had a son and divorced, and a few years ago they discovered one another again.

Now they find themselves in a world turned upside down by racial and ethnic and religious and cultural conflict — not that it hasn’t always been so, but the fears generated by certain political leaders ands groups in this country and in Europe and Africa exacerbate the natural challenges of creating a family in which so many different backgrounds and expectations and hopes present themselves. We are now a family of many colors; of England and Germany and Wales and Somalia; of Christianity and Islam; and of losses and stories untold.

May the tiny girl on her way be a source of joy who energizes the family into which she arrives.  And for her sake and for her generation’s, may we meet the challenges ahead with love and hope and laughter and a sense of boundless possibility.


Nana ~ 5 (Distance)

Distance.  Something we used to accommodate with some ease.

Americans like to emphasize close-knit, geographically proximate families but, in fact, many of us who are white westerners or Asians are descendants of people who departed home and family thousands of miles away with no expectation of seeing then again.  And those of us who are black and are descendants of slaves, forced arrivals to these shores, can add ancestral trauma to the family inheritance.

My own family seemed stable to me as I grew up, with several generations reaching back through Ohio farmland.  But I went off to boarding school at the age of twelve, and then to college in New England.  I didn’t give much thought to returning home for marriage or career or family.  In fact, my basic plan involved an adult life far from my family of origin.  My grandmothers were dear to me, but my stepmother growing up was not.

As a parent, though, I sought to create stability for my own family.  We even seriously considered moving to my husband’s hometown and raising our kids amidst extended family. (I deeply regret not having followed up on that one.) We did succeed in the stability goal for awhile, but eventually all of our children spent big chunks of the summer away and time in school in Europe.  I imagined that they would settle all over the world and that, with any luck, we would be required to travel to enticing locales in order to spend time with them and their families.

Then our son Josh died and the other two came home for grad school and, so it appeared, to stay.  I permitted myself the fantasy of adult children and grandchildren living within walking distance, and imagined reading to grandchildren (I still have dozens of my kids’ books) and taking them to the Nature Center and running them to sports and lessons.  And, as time passed and I approached retirement age, I even daydreamed of helping out on a regular basis while parents went to work or attended school.

Obviously, millions of grandparents manage long-distance relationships.  I have friends with grandchildren across the country and across the ocean.  I had just hoped not to be among them.  I dreamed of living the life of my own Nan, able to read bedtime stories and then walk home on a summer’s evening.  And, of course, I expected my son and his family to live together, not to be separated by thousands of miles.

We are lucky in some ways, of course.  Technology will make the distance more palatable, and planes make rare (expensive) visits possible. But I’m finding it quite challenging to imagine my granddaughter being born in a week or so in London, rather than in the hospital down the hill in which her daddy and their twin brother made their debut.  And I truly dread, on his behalf, the day when his newborn is only a few weeks old and my son will have to return to the U.S. and to the task of making a living.


Nana ~ 4

Time has sped up these past few weeks, and I haven’t even begun to address the reasons behind my reflections on Nanas.  In brief: My son and his fiancée became engaged two and-one half years ago, which brought us a now ten-year-old grandson, and in another week or so will bring us a newborn granddaughter!

Life is complicated.  Mom and her son live in London, with an immigration application underway for the past several months.  Dad lives here and, as a lawyer contentedly practicing criminal law in Ohio, is geographically bound to this state, barring a complete change of career or focus.  In either direction, immigration laws are not easy to navigate, and neither are family dynamics.  And I haven’t even mentioned the political climate in this country, nor the complexities of this little family’s individual situation.

Grandpa and I are headed for London in three weeks.  I had made our reservations to ensure that the baby would have actually arrived before we did, which now looks like a definite outcome, as medical complications are ensuring a birth at the end of this month.

I have always so looked forward to becoming a Nana.  But I freely admit that I had imagined that possibility in fairly specific ways, which involved grandchildren residing nearby, all sorts of commonalities in culture and religion and interests and ambitions, week-end nature hikes, and annual treks to the beach.  At this point, I have had to abandon all preconceptions, including those I don’t even know that I have.  We will be whipping up Nana-ing from scratch.

Nana ~ 3

Grandparents ~ the stabilizing influence for a young family, in ideal circumstances.

When I was small, my grandmothers were the poles upon which our own little world depended.  Dodo, grandmother-in-town (all of two miles away, but a different world with its houses close together and its stores and churches and schools), worked some distance away and was not accessible to us except by car, and thus was the grandmother of weekly occasions.  We would gather for dinner around the small formica table in her living room, she would pay me a dime to wash the dishes afterward, and then we would re-gather around the television to watch The Lawrence Welk Show.  My plan was to grow up, style my hair in short curls, re-name myself “Peggy,” and sing on Lawrence Welk.  I have absolutely straight hair and can’t sing two notes in a row without wandering off key, so that was quite an ambitious plan.

Nana, grandmother-next-door, placed herself entirely at our disposal, and lived a quick walk from our own house,  so was the grandmother of everyday routine.  She would read to us for hours and play endlessly-running games of Old Maid and Go Fish, but she also permitted us the freedom that several acres of grass and woods and creek afforded.  If she ever worried about our safety, she did not let on.   We ran in and out of her house all day as if it were our own, and on summer evenings the adults would relax on her back porch while we children chased fireflies across the top of the hill.

Decades later, when I had three small children of my own in a city far from extended family, I would understand what it might mean to have two sets of grandparents nearby.  Kids sick, mom sick, too many places to be at once, errands to run, house to clean, time with each other?  My own parents had theirs, eager to participate and to be of assistance, and all desiring relationships with their grandchildren.  When I was a young mother and the debate over quality versus quantity parental time erupted, I knew from experience that quality was in part dependent upon quantity and the presence during the ordinary that it provides.  The grandmother who is right there, listening, even as she bakes a loaf of bread or sweeps a porch, and has the time to put everything aside for an hour of games, is the grandmother who builds a wall of security around a child and her family.

Nana ~2, part ii

Nan did lead a life of privilege, but it was not a life without pain and sorrow.

Her mother suffered from bipolar disorder.  Nan said little about that, other than an occasional reference to having accompanied her mother to Baltimore many times, where she had entrusted her care to a college classmate who had become a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins.  My dad had memories of seeing them off at the train station.  Her mother ensured that her daughter had the college education that her own parents had denied her, and maintained a gracious Victorian home on a shady street, but her illness cast a pall over the lives of her family, especially after she was widowed in her fifties.

My own grandfather suffered some sort of mental breakdown that prevented him from returning to college for his senior year, and another one less than a decade later, during the Depression.  I believe that that experience was the catalyst for annual trips to Florida.  Nan packed her family up, put what cash they had into a suitcase, and directed their travel southward, hoping that the warmth and waves would have a soothing effect.

As a young grandmother of fifty-four, my grandmother would stand in her picture window with a cup of coffee one morning and watch our car head down the hill, only to hear a thundering crash a few moments later.  Calling for an ambulance and racing down the hill and up the road in her dressing gown, she would be the one to discover the head-on collision that had already ended my mother’s life and would, a few hours later, claim my baby brother’s.  Living nearly five more decades, she would see my father widowed again, divorced, and widowed a third time, and her eldest son widowed and divorced as well.

Her presence next door (and since we lived in the country, “next door” meant that a gravel lane separated our houses on top of a hill, ours behind hers) was the saving grace in our lives in a family marred by repeated experiences of sudden loss.  We seldom spoke of what had befallen us all, but she and my grandfather were the rocks of fortitude who ensured that we all survived.

Nana ~ 2, Part i

Nana ~ my paternal grandmother, “Na-naw” to my brother and me when we were children and then “Nan” by the time we were adults, is my model for nana-hood, and the reason I have always looked forward to that role.  We were exceptionally close, pushed together by physical proximity, life circumstances, interests, and attitudes and, while she was no more perfect than I am, she was an extraordinary woman in her brilliance, her inner strength, and her graciousness.

Nan’s life was structured by privilege.  The only child of a successful businessman in a small city in southern Ohio and of his troubled wife Robin, she attended a private girls’ high school and then a Seven Sisters college, leaving a stream of academic honors in her wake.  She exemplified the tensions between family and career experienced by women long before the 1960s; her decision was to marry my grandfather on the same day on which she became a college graduate, and to return to Ohio and a life as wife of a small town grain dealer and mother to three boys.  In the second half of her life of 100 years, she often sighed over her college alumna journal, taking note of the many of her classmates who had become scientists and physicians.  Her own life was filled with three generations of children, women’s clubs, gardening, volunteering in classrooms and with Girl Scouts, “raising” monarch butterflies, maintaining a few essential friendships, and keeping up with the study of nature, art, and literature.  She made use of the latter by taking all of her grandchildren on a series of elaborate and extravagant trips ~ first within the United States, and then to Europe, Africa, and Australia ~ on which the other travelers she encountered often thought that she was a college professor.

Widowed at about eighty, she had a hip replaced and managed one more international birding trip before retiring to a quiet life, first in her home and then in an assisted living apartment.  As deafness and near blindness descended upon her, she became isolated and profoundly lonely.  Her mind never failed her, but her inability to communicate was devastating.  Like so many older people, she had to endure the gradual constriction of her life to a small circle of people she could barely understand ~ a heartbreaking end to a life always lived with others in mind and consumed by a variety of interests.

Nana ~ 1

Ch-ch-changes . . .  I am going to be a grandmother.  A destiny for which I have longed, happening not in the way I had hoped or anticipated, not in the least.  Le plus ca change . . .   .  So some of what I plan to write about is, unsurprisingly, grandmothering.  I’ll start with profiles of my own grandmothers, women who played roles of immense significance in my life.

Dodo, so called by my entire family for decades after her two-year-old first grandchild (that would have been me) mangled Dorothy when trying to imitate the adults who surrounded me, was my maternal grandmother.  Barebones of her life story:  Grew up as Dorothy Stockman in ethnic German Cincinnati.  After high school, she went to work in the five-and-dime, maybe a Woolworth’s, and quickly married the manager, twelve years her senior.  Her two children, Carol and Charlie, followed in short order.

Grandpa Felix was not a consistently stable provider.  When my mother was a teenager, the family lived on a farm outside my small hometown north of Cincinnati; I believe that he was attempting to raise goats.  (Something I myself consider when I am feeling particularly pressed.)  By the time I was small, the farm was gone; I can recall my mother taking me to visit Grandpa’s barbershop in Cincinnati.  A few years later they were back in our town ~  though, with her children grown, Dodo commuted to Cincinnati to work as a secretary.  She was probably the stable financial force in that household. During my teens, they returned to a Cincinnati suburb, where he managed apartments.  He died very suddenly at about 70; out walking their poodle one night, he sat down on a small stone wall and was gone.

Left in her late fifties with nothing but her two-family house in which Uncle Charlie and Aunt Edie lived upstairs, Dodo went to work as a saleswoman and was remarried quickly, to a widowed co-worker in the appliance store. She and her second husband, Kirk, eventually moved to a mobile home park in Clearwater, where she died of cancer in her mid-60s.

That basic outline of a woman’s life does not reflect the anguish of her life: The death of my mother and baby brother when my mother was 28.  My uncle and aunt did not have children, so for Dodo, nana-hood was my younger brother and I ~ with lives complicated by a series of stepmothers; the fact that, since she worked, Dodo was not available to us as our paternal grandmother was; and the distances created by boarding school and summer camp life. She also said little about her deep loss.  These days, having suddenly lost a young adult child myself, I understand much better how she lived the remaining eighteen or so years of her life in a state of mostly concealed interior shock and devastation.

We did spend time together — holiday occasions, week-ends here and there, a short trip to Chicago.  I lived with her and Kirk the summer between high school and college so that I could work at a nearby hotel, spent time with them at his cottage in Kentucky, and visited them in Florida on a couple of short trips.  But we had little in common, and no daughter-mother to mediate our relationship or some of the wide differences in our viewpoints and experiences.

In retrospect, especially given what I have learned the past ten years, I regret having made so little effort to uncover who Dodo really was.  I was in Florida shortly before she died, but her husband refused to tell her the truth about her illness and, being a young early-twenty-something, I had no idea how to navigate the strange adult world of bizarre secrets and words unspoken.   While Dodo was a woman of great importance in my life, she was so mostly as an example of how circumscribed a life can be.   She must have missed her daughter terribly, every day, and I’m afraid that I was a poor substitute.



No Hospice Time

Trigger Warning: Parental Death

Several of my friends have lost or are in the process of losing parents, parents who have been or are in hospice care.  I admit to being a bit envious.

When my dad was diagnosed eighteen months ago with lung cancer for the third time, he and my once-stepmother-back-together-again immediately began looking at treatment options.  The initial information was sobering — multiple lesions in his lung — and the news became more dire as a scope was recommended and then not, due to a tumor wrapped around his pulmonary artery.  I was surprised that he was considering chemo, as the brutal death of his fourth wife, from lung cancer treatment as much as from the cancer itself, had caused him to swear several years earlier never to fall victim again to such medical excess.  But the impetus to live is strong . . .

I went down to visit for a couple of days while he awaited further testing which he had inexplicably rejected a couple of weeks earlier.  I said that if the cancer had spread beyond his lungs, he might want to consider wrapping up in a sleeping bag and spending his remaining time sitting on his deck, enjoying the woods and creek below, and the birds visiting his feeder.  It was November and he was nearing 85; it seemed like a plan to me.  He seemed to hear and not to hear.

My stepmother told me later that they were hoping that the chemo would eradicate the cancer as quickly as it had appeared, and that he would have several good years left.  I decided to remain silent, and headed home, beginning to work out in  my head how I might arrange my schedule to accommodate several trips to their home four hours from mine, as I had been able to manage when my previous stepmother was dying.  I had read about tumors encasing pulmonary arteries, but I permitted myself to imagine that it would be a privilege to care for my father, if there were time in which to do so.

Three mornings later he was doing laundry just off the bedroom, and collapsed and died. Presumably that wraparound tumor had ruptured the artery. After a mad dash to the hospital and a declaration of death, the paperwork for his donation of his body to the medical school was completed and he was transported to . . . somewhere.  The test results, confirming the spread of the cancer across and into multiple areas, came back a few days later.

I admit to being a bit envious of my friends who’ve had hospice time.  I guess that conversation about the deck and the sleeping bag and the birds was it for us.


Who Knows Where the Time Goes?



A friend just published a post, on another topic entirely, in which she quotes a song from Judy Collins’s album, Who Knows Where the Time Goes?  My friend’s post is about a memory significant to Lent.  She dredged up some memories for me as well.

It’s the fall of my junior year in boarding school in western Massachusetts.  I am “campused” (like being grounded, boarding school style), due to an unfortunate encounter with a teacher who discovered a friend and me visiting the boys’ school five miles away in the middle of the night the previous spring.  Thus I spend a lot of time on my own, gliding around my dorm room or sprawled on  my bed, listening to music, when my friends are away – which means that 50 years later (FIFTY ?!?!) I will still know all those songs by heart.  At sixteen, I have loooong brown hair with red and gold highlights, a romance going very badly, and a stack of English papers to write, having largely given up on Algebra II.

I do not know that some thirty years later, I will have a son who will be a high school senior and living in the same dorm, with the same view of the mountains stretching before him.  I do not know that, like Judy Collins’ son, mine will die of suicide only a few years later, and that her music and those memories will all be wound into one ball of yarn, forever unraveling.

I still like the music, though.


Some days, I try to figure out which is worse.  Is it that he is not here, living his life to the fullest, that life in which we had invested every square inch of our own beings, everything we had to offer?  Not enjoying a family, not succeeding in his work, not taking photographs or making pottery?

Or is it that he is not in this world, sharing his multitude of gifts?  At only twenty-four, he was fluent in French, a comfortable world traveler, a gifted writer, knowledgeable about history and science and literature.  I glance at an article about desperate need in French-speaking Africa and wonder why he is not here, lending his talents and expertise to creating solutions.   I see a new architectural design and imagine that he might have participated in its development.

Or is it that he is not here with us?  Not here to add his considerable wit to the political predicament in which we find ourselves?  Not here to share his young adulthood with his twin brother and their little sister?  Not here to help us as we age, become less able, falter, and die?

Sometimes, in the course of my ministry, I meet elderly men and women who tell me how close they are to the brother or sister with whom they have shared eight, once even nine, decades.  I smile and say something encouraging.  I want to hollow out the landscape with my cry into the nothingness that is left.


I remember little of the first years.  Some things.  The suffocating, nauseating guilt.  The icy rejection which slammed me against a brick wall.  The feeling of falling, falling, falling . . .  of stepping across shards of glass. The way my joints, and back, and head, and gut, and everything, hurt.  The way I went to classes and wrote papers and looked at the grades . . .  always good grades, always gracious comments, always such a disciplined and even sometimes insightful student . . . with no recollection whatever of having written those pages.  The way I walked, and walked, and walked, wondering if I might simply walk right into the stratosphere.  The questions people asked me . . .  isn’t it time to focus on life? don’t you feel wiser, more compassionate?  don’t you find comfort in your faith?  . . .  causing me to understand that I had moved to Jupiter, or perhaps little Pluto, not even an official planet anymore.  Pluto. That sounds about right.


It takes a long time.  A recently widowed parishioner wrote me a note this past week, mentioning that she believes that the American tolerance for grief lasts about three months.  I can understand how it is that no one knows about this.  I look at my friends, reeling from the deaths of children six, seven, eight, nine, ten years and more ago, and I see how productive and engaged and filled with joy we all are . . . and yes, we are, filled with costly and hard-won joy, for we know, if we did not before (and I, actually, did . . .  I’ve known since I was seven . . . ) that it can all be erased in a second . . .  but I also see the things which are not so visible.  The shadow which crosses a face standing in the crowd at a wedding.   The smile and slight shake of the head when a baby is offered as a gift from a beaming mother.  The step out the door and onto the porch when the laughter over the antics of small children echoes throughout the house.


The last couple of years have been much easier.  I don’t know why.  I suppose the wavelengths of grief stretch and become more flexible, given enough time and practice.  That did not stop me from twice bursting into tears at my desk during the most recent Christmas season, grateful to be the only one in the building when an unexpected letter arrived from a high school classmate, last heard from 45 years earlier, who has lost one of her own sons, and when a FB message appeared from one of my son’s roommates, silent since the shocked condolence letter written years ago, and now a husband and father in his home country, France.


Who, I wonder would he have become?  Would he have continued with his corporate career; would we have returned to Chicago for a B-school graduation?  (Unlikely.)  Would he have left that life behind and begun to nourish the artistic gifts he resisted, begun to write and travel, relaxed into the world that beckoned him to so much? (More probable, given enough time.)   Would he have become a husband and father?  That woman, or another?  Would he have been tormented by episodes of depression, or would he have found hope and possibility where it one night seemed that none existed?   Would he be up in Canada right now, or out on a soccer field, introducing a small son or daughter to the world?


I live my life.  I do good work, important work.  I extend myself for my family.  I do love this world.


And there is not a day on which I do not breathe, Come back. Come back to me. Come back.


Our son Josh died by suicide on September 2, 2008.





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