We are in the car. My uncle has picked me up from the airport. He tells me that during his mother’s final years, years when I did not see much of her due to geography and young children, my grandmother was sweet and charming and loving and helpful. According to him, everybody at the retirement/nursing home where she lived adored her.
I’d heard this before, yet it still shocks me. My uncle laughs when I say so. He knows exactly why I am surprised.
My grandmother (and I’m being kind here) was a tough woman: critical, abrasive, defiant. She was not horrible just difficult and the antithesis of the typical Jewish grandmother who dotes on her grandchildren. She was all business, no softness.
Don’t misunderstand. I loved her. Pretty intensely. There is no doubt in my mind that she is the reason I became a writer. I was fascinated by her presence, by the way she carried herself around with purpose, the way she could shift from kindness to cruelty in a matter of seconds, the way she never sent me away when adult “things” were happening.
There were many Saturday nights, when I was very young, that my siblings and I slept over my grandparents’ house and we traipsed around their tiny dining room while a group of characters drank Scotch, played poker and laughed, telling dirty jokes, using foul language, and filling the room with clouds of smoke. I remember one guy, very effeminate, who always talked to me, called me Cherry (at the time, I went by the nickname Saree), and taught me the basics of poker as they played, all the while blowing smoke rings for me and stinking of booze. My grandmother was right in the heart of this circle, smoking and drinking and telling stories that kids probably shouldn’t hear at the ages that we were.
I’d say that those poker games ignited my love for this troubled and troublesome woman. I would watch her and see somebody that I didn’t usually see. She laughed and smiled, she poured drinks and emptied ashtrays, and she connected in a warm way with her friends. As a child, this both stumped and excited me. She was a puzzle with hidden pieces. She was a giant knot that needed to be unravelled. She was a character whose outward presence did not reveal the depths of what was inside her.
My uncle says that during those last few years of her life, when she was in the throes of dementia, she lost her oldest memories, many of which were of mistreatment at the hands of her family when she was young, and once she lost those memories, she no longer had to defend herself against the cruelty of the world because her world was no longer cruel.
Kahlil Gibran says that “forgetfulness is a form of freedom.” In my grandmother’s case, memory loss made it possible for her to feel happy.
Some time during my grandmother’s final years, my uncle got a call from his sister who said she was with their mother, who was sobbing uncontrollably, something very out of the ordinary for her. After some conversation, my uncle and aunt realized what had happened. At the home, they were watching the movie South Pacific. There is a scene in the film where one of the leads sings the song, “Some Enchanted Evening.” It was at that moment when my grandmother began to sob. A memory had returned to her. My grandfather, who’d been gone for years at that point, used to sing that song to her (and to anybody else who would listen). It was one of his favorites and for a few moments she remembered her husband and she grieved for him.
Is that good or bad that this memory came back and made her sad? I don’t know. If I had to answer, I’d say good because she was able to feel something strong for the man with whom she spent her life and then, due to her illness, she was able to forget that he was gone, that he even existed, and go back to being happy.
For somebody like my grandmother, who suffered more than most of us knew, not remembering may be what allowed her to be happy. But I’m not sure that translates to not remembering brings happiness.
The memories of my grandmother, the ones my uncle shares with me, the ones I tell here that are sparked by the conversation in the car ride home from the airport, bring this woman who impacted both of our lives, whom we loved for better and for worse, back into our lives for a moment. And we are laughing. Happy.
Some memories ARE better forgotten, but not all of them. The ones that bring those we’ve loved back into our lives for a few moments or hours, that remind us of what is inside our own hearts, those memories are better remembered.
I’m a firm believer in living in the “now” but sometimes, we are able to feel something profound when we allow ourselves to go back in time and be among people and situations that no longer occupy our present lives.
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