Death runs in the family

My grandma’s last surviving sister, Aunt B.,  died last week.

While she was very different from my grandmother, I hadn’t realized how I had found her life to be a connection to my past until now.

There were three sisters who grew up on the wild prairie in a painstakingly-built and beautiful stone house.  My grandmother was the oldest.  Then my aunt B and the baby aunt L.  The three girls had a reputation of being beautiful and intelligent.

My grandfather’s folks thought my grandmother a bit wild, which just shows how Puritan they were.  My grandmother’s wildness came in her quiet but wicked sense of humour and her love of literature, learning, and flowers.

This she shared with all her sisters.

Aunt B was the only ‘city girl’ who moved to a small prairie town.  Interestingly, most of her grandchildren live and work in the country.  She loved books, but her speciality was history.  She helped found and run the local museum.  Her house was a museum and one guest room was only to be looked at since it was actually a display.

Aunt L also loved books.  She read philosophy, politics, and erotica (according to her extensive collection of books I loved to skulk through; I doubt her family had any idea of what she read).  Her grandchildren are white collar professionals and success is the word to describe them.  Well, business success anyways.

My grandmother always quoted humorous stories and poems.  I discovered forgotten fairy tales and autobiographies such as Black Like Me at her house.  She encouraged imaginations and experimentation.  Her grandchildren pursued higher education in the humanities and mathematics.  (Yes, they are related in that they use language to explore the substance and meaning of the universe.)

My grandmother’s house was never neurotically neat and tidy like her sisters’.  In fact, ‘neat and tidy’ would not have been appropriate at all.  But, it was alive.  Her gift was community.  While her sisters got involved in community organizations, my grandmother got involved in people’s lives.  Quietly and deeply.

Aunt L was the brilliant and fluttering one.  Always on the go, collecting awards and accomplishments.  A big flashy peony.

Aunt B was the steady one.  You could count on her like clockwork.  Always ready to welcome you into an immaculate kitchen full of food, never late and always with a joke to share.  A reliable morning glory.

My grandmother was the wildflower.  At first, unnoticed, but unforgettable.  Full of secrets, mischief, knowledge and an everlasting love.   As evidenced by the number of people who came to her funeral.


Part of me wants the success and accolades that Aunt L earned in her life.  Another part wants the security and steadiness of Aunt B with time to just enjoy hobbies.  Part of me mourns the lost dreams I imagine my own grandmother to have. Most of me rebels against choosing a life of continual giving I perceived in her.

Can I have success and follow academic dreams without short-changing my family?   At the end of life, what becomes the most important?

12 thoughts on “Death runs in the family

  1. Kirstin says:

    The questions of a mother, hey? I ask myself the same things all the time. Where is the balance between my own self development and putting my energy into my family? My answer lately has tipped towards the family end of the scale because little E is growing so fast. I don’t want to have any regrets about how we lived life during her childhood. …But at the same time if I don’t do non-maternal things myself, I go crazy.

    I love your story about your grandmother and great aunts. They sound like the three women who help Meg and Charles Wallace in A Wrinkle in Time. Actually, this blog entry sounds a bit like L’Engle.

  2. Ahab says:

    My condolances to you and your family.

  3. I’m sorry to hear of your loss.

    You family is full of striking people, very much including you.

  4. I know women who are model mothers. They gave everything they had to stay on top of the cooking, cleaning, laundry, piano lessons, basketball games, etc. My own mother is one of these women. I love her but my memories of her during my growing up years are of a woman who was always too stressed out, too busy, too meticulous to simply sit down, relax, and enjoy life. While her life revolved around her children, there was a yawning abyss of emotional distance between us. Her reprieve came during those rare times our father would take us somewhere so she could have a few moments of peace.

    Now my mother invents tasks to keep herself busy. Her children all have families of their own. She watches a lot of television while laying on the couch. A few years ago I suggested she take a class at a community college — I offered to take the class with her. “What are your interests, Mom? We can sign up for anything you want.” The thought of having her own interests clearly made her uncomfortable. We didn’t sign up for a class.

    There is only so much a person, particularly a woman, can give before the well runs dry. Following her dreams, discovering and exploring her interests, and expressing her creativity refills the well. Then she has more to give. I believe that makes her a much happier person and a mother with even greater capacity to love.

    • prairienymph says:

      That is sad.
      My own mother recently confessed some dreams of hers that she never pursued. Lovely dreams, like cooking wonderful treats and leaving them on a neighbour’s doorstep (she is an artistic cook, but won’t accept the fact that others love to eat her food). I asked why she didn’t chase after them, but she didn’t have the confidence.

      How did you find your balance? You have a demanding job and were a single parent, and it is obvious you and your daughter respect and enjoy each other. Was it because you were following your dreams that you could manage?

      btw- you’ve just made me feel better about my untidy house 🙂

  5. Beautiful tribute and well ended with the right questions. You know my own mother even better than I. I always saw her in terms of how my father treated her and how she let him. My sister wants to be like our mother. She is in many ways the last woman on earth I would want my own daughters to be like. Yet she had so many good qualities and could have contributed so much to the marriage and home if she had been allowed.

    • prairienymph says:

      You know, Grandpa once told me that the way to be an amazing person of good character was to marry an abusive man (or have one for a father- which I didn’t). Now, he wasn’t actually recommending that, but I find it fascinating that the women he most admired survived difficult relationships and he associated their personalities with their circumstances. Perhaps he told your sister the same thing but she missed the caveat about it not being a good idea.
      The parents that you knew and the grandparents that I knew were very different. Believe it or not, the old man must have changed. I remember Grandma giving him the wittiest tongue-lashings (in good humour, Grandma could not be anything but kind even when pointing out a fault). He would just throw his head back and laugh, knowing he had been beat fair and square. Those are some of my favourite memories.

      • I think you are right. The last few years of their life might have been different. Though ask your aunt about their trip to Ireland, England and Holland.

      • prairienymph says:

        I could also be blinding myself to the dark side of their relationship too.
        Or perhaps they showed different faces to the generations too. Grandpa was not as harsh to us grandkids and Grandma was more protective and assertive around us too.
        Or both.

  6. prairienymph says:

    Kirstin, Ahab and Paul: Thank-you for your kind words. They are very much appreciated.
    (I love Madeleine L’Engle!)

  7. Sorry to hear about your loss, but your post is a beautiful memorial.

    I think you can have success without short-changing your family. Your family is important, but so are your dreams, and so are your kids’ dreams. You can teach your kids a very important lesson about life by pursuing your dreams. You just have to do so in a way which is not obsessive, and in a way that works for what your family needs at that time. Carve out time each week for pursuing your dreams, and let your kids know that you are doing it. If your dream is more serious study, like a degree, perhaps work out an every-other-semester plan.

    I don’t know what exactly will work for you, but I think you can find a way to make it all come together, and do so in a way which makes your kids feel loved while teaching them that they should never give up on their dreams. 🙂

  8. Shauna says:

    I love reading posts like this. I especially love stories about Grandma. Her and Grandpa meant alot to L and sadly I never got to meet them and when hearing stories and posts like this I feel like I get to know them a bit.

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