An Open Letter to my Grandmother

Dear Nana:

It never took much to make you proud. I never had to live up to expectation set by you; I only needed to be myself – to draw a picture, to do the dishes, to sing along to songs playing in the car – for you to be completely bowled over by me.

I was recently telling a colleague about one summer at your house when my sister and I squashed countless numbers of caterpillars in your garden. She was disgusted, and rightly so; it was gross and boring, but we did it because we loved spending time with you. We went to Ottawa every Christmas and every summer because we loved spending time with you. We got to know you and my grandfather in the same way you came to know both of us. You knew we loved music and art and taking pictures. You fostered those qualities in us more than almost anyone did. Squishing caterpillars was gross, but it was worth it.

I had no idea there was so much darkness in your life. Your past was tumultuous and difficult and yet, you chose to stand up for your family as opposed to yourself. It must have been difficult every single day. But you did your duty without pain. You were wise to pain and had no way of sharing that. All I could see was the brilliant cook, the gardener, the thrifty yet giving and kind-hearted woman who raised my mother to raise daughters who valued education, respectfulness, goodness, beauty and fun.

The last time I saw you, I was eleven years old and it was the summer before I began junior high school. I had just cut my hair so it was a chin-length bob. I was chubby and awkward and I didn’t know either of these things yet. We were in New Brunswick on a summer vacation retracing your steps and revisiting your childhood; it was then that I gleaned the darkness in your past; a broken balcony, some sketchy details. It was also during this trip that you began to fade away and I was too young then to understand the severity of these realities.

The kind of woman I am today has been shaped by these parts of you, good and bad, that I’ve come to know since my later adolescence; you were a maritimer and thus, incredibly friendly and a great hostess; you were strong but traditional; you were proud but self-conscious; you worked hard but were fortunate to raise a family of three very successful children, despite your own setbacks, both your own, and the results of your circumstance. You were never the type to live life to the fullest, take chances, throw caution to the wind, or deviate too far from the norm; you were uncertain of everything until something happened. You were wary of making promises in case you couldn’t keep them. So careful about making even the smallest rash decisions. And even in these qualities I learned how to shape myself from what you had taught me. I learned to be the kind of girl who wants to stand up for herself and wants to be heard and wants to make crazy choices just to see what happens. It wasn’t you, even though sometimes I knew you wanted that to be you.

What I take from you the most was your relationship with my grandfather. When I was 12 years old we flew to Ontario to celebrate your fiftieth wedding anniversary. Today, you would have been married for 64 years. A lifetime. You were such different people – he was a joker – constantly. So much so it was easy to forget that the man was a war veteran and fought at Vimy Ridge. He would make fun of you and you would yell at him and he’d tease you for yelling at him and your rapport bounced merrily along this way the entire time I’d known you. Only someone as fun as my grandfather could have been just the right balanced match for your uptightness and your endearing reproachfulness. He pushed you out of your comfort zone and helped you be the type of grandmother who went on rides with us at Centre Island and the Ottawa Exhibition. He took awful photos of you on purpose because he knew he’d get a reaction. It was wonderful to watch and represented for me, what it means to be together for a lifetime.

You’ve been gone for a long time but only now are you really and truly ‘gone’. On this earth you leave behind in your absence a family who have all been deeply affected at some point by your graciousness and selflessness. Even though I haven’t seen you in fifteen years, you were always there for me when I was  growing up and I know as I continue to get older I will continue to take more and more from the person you were and the memories I shared with you.

Much love,

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