The night before my maternal grandmother died my mother pushed me so hard I fell to the floor and banged my head. My grandfather and I had just walked in the door after spending the day at a New York hospital where my grandmother lay there unconscious as I moistened her lips, rubbed cream on her arms, wept at the sound of her labored breathing. I felt such guilt, such helplessness… My grandfather who was behind me, shocked by my mother’s violent actions and sneering words muttered “Oh, Jane please,” without conviction. He knew his stepdaughter well. No one ever crossed her.
Stunned by the unwarranted physical attack and vicious remarks I picked myself off the floor and went into the dining room. The remains of thanksgiving dinner were still on the table. I don’t remember the conversation – just that my grandmother’s sisters were there. My grandfather and I left soon after, exhausted and depressed returning to his house three miles down the road. At 5AM the next morning the phone rang and I knew… my beloved grandmother was dead.
I was reeling – numb. My brother had killed himself the year before and now this. I remember nothing about the memorial service except that my grandmother was lying in a steel coffin. When my grandmother’s ashes arrived, I opened the door to receive them, took the box upstairs and put it in her closet…that was it. I spent the rest of the winter at my grandfather’s house feeling useless, returning home to Maine in the spring.
My oldest son, still quite young at the time was an explosive arrogant kid who had to get his own way, and he was the one that pushed my grandmother down when she broke her hip. She never walked again. For the next nine months I went to NY every month to care for my grandmother who I knew was dying. The dead years were in full swing – I had no feelings at all except one – I wished I was dead.
My children were emotionally neglected while the dead years droned on. But even then I managed to rise to holidays, preparing elaborate thanksgiving meals for family that included my parents and aunts who made the trip to Maine from NY. At Christmas my parents invited the children to NY, and of course I agreed. I was withering away under Survivors guilt wondering why I was alive when Davey was dead. It barely registered that my parents didn’t seem to want me to join them.
Ten years later I emerged from the underworld and began to mourn my little brother and the loss of my grandmother…My feelings, although painful were returning. I was coming to life again. Now I was able to be emotionally present for my children who had grown into young adolescents with an insensitive dead mother.
I tried to show my children how much I loved and needed them. I was consumed by even more guilt as I owned my inability to be present for them in meaningful ways during the years I spent locked in deep depression. I continued to cook elaborate meals. At thanksgiving I would bake pies and cookies that they would down without even a ‘thank you’ before they left for New York to be with their grandparents…
The moment I was alone, clearing up the remains of a complicated meal, old memories of thanksgiving would surface, and I was once again overcome with guilt. Thanksgiving was the last time I saw my grandmother. And she didn’t even know I was there. During that last year of her life she told me that I was all she had. That this was true was patently obvious. My mother wanted no part in her care and my grandfather who worked all the time had professional people come in to care for her. My grandmother was so forlorn and each weekend when I left her, deep loneliness followed me home. She lived less than a year after her fatal fall, and I was bereft. I still couldn’t leave that sorrow or the guilt that I carried for not being able to do more for her behind.
When my children left home I began the process of reclaiming my Native heritage. When I learned that thanksgiving was a celebration for colonists who massacred/poisoned the Indigenous peoples that had treated them so kindly I was revolted.
As Nature became more central to my life a childhood circle that had been interrupted by my brother’s death began to close as I was returned to the arms of nature. I began to celebrate the seasonal rounds beginning with the solstices and equinoxes. Soon after I added the cross quarter turnings, discovering in the process that I had finally found my spiritual home.
The year I moved to the mountains my father died just before thanksgiving, the second family loss that occurred in the month of November. I survived the holidays that year by feeding the beavers in my stream and by preparing a place in the forest to receive my dad’s ashes bereft of human companionship.
I didn’t know it then but I would never again celebrate this miserable holiday with anyone in my immediate family. Thirty years later I look back at that first thanksgiving spent with the beavers (and by extension my dad) as a turning point in my life.
Moving to the mountains funneled me into isolation on a level I had only experienced once before after my brother’s death. This was the world of the good ol’ boys who bullied and dominated others leaving a person like me a permanent outsider and a target for abuse. I was also discriminated against for claiming my Native heritage. I longed for family that never visited. The exception occurred with my youngest son who did visit occasionally, eventually making it clear that doing so was an obligation. A few years ago he stopped making the hour plus drive. Too much trouble.
One thanksgiving I had an astonishing dream in which I was with my grandmother who was alive and telling me that all the time she was dying she knew I loved her and was with her… When I awakened from this dream all those years of grandmother guilt dissipated, never to return. My love for her had been enough, after all.
To be continued tomorrow . . . .
Sara is a naturalist, ethologist (a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Maine.