When I turned 50 my mother gave me an heirloom, her mother’s only piece of real jewelry. I was surprised that it had not already been given by seniority to my older sister, Cheryl. The gift was a rose gold ring set with pieces of opal arranged as a blue flower.
Mom had it cleaned and repaired, then presented it to me for my birthday. I had always admired the ring and I guess she gave it to me because I love history and because I care about family lineage and tradition. I know she wanted to pass on something of significance at that milestone of middle age. It was precious and valuable to her, and I wonder too if she gave it to me so that I could feel something of what she feels for her own mother.
My mother reveres her mother. She speaks of Minnie Cordts Kuhl as if she were a saint. She always refers to her as “Mama.” Mama was widowed at a young age right before the stock market crash. She was left with three children and a rented farm she couldn’t work. My mother still has the newspaper clippings that advertise the auction held to sell off all of the equipment and farm machinery. My mother was only a baby when her father died needlessly. He was a diabetic traveling without his insulin. One story says that he was on his way to a faith healer and didn’t expect to need this medicine any longer. Another version is that he was visiting the Mayo Clinic in hopes of being cured. But surely the Mayo Clinic would have had insulin on hand. Had he felt he needed some insulin at any point on his journey he could probably have seen a doctor and gotten some. This lends credence to the faith healer story.
My grandfather is very handsome in his photographs. I know from seeing the resemblance in his other children that he had clear blue eyes that looked far into the distance. My mother’s sister had those eyes. Her sister was six years older and her brother four years older than that. The family stayed in the same small Nebraska farm town with other relatives nearby. They were so poor that my mother had false teeth by the time she was seventeen from lack of dental care. My memories of my grandmother are not the idealized ones that my mother holds dear.
I cannot recognize the woman my mother describes; she is completely unfamiliar to me. My grandmother lived with our family and minded us children while our parents worked. I remember Minnie as harsh and ungenerous, even cruel at times. I had felt the hardness of her hands. My best friend was afraid of her. I wasn’t exactly afraid, but I had learned to stay out of her way. I was born with a sunny disposition, and when I would wake in the morning, I had a smile on my face. My grandmother would hear my voice and admonish “If you sing before breakfast, you’ll cry before night.” If I asked for a second helping of dessert she would call me “greedy goat.” When she wanted a household chore done she would say, “Those who do not work do not eat.” I cannot remember a single thing she liked about me. I can easily remember her critical tone and routinely dismissive remarks that undermined my confidence in myself. She would not compliment for fear of engendering vanity. She would not praise because obedience and good behavior were what was expected and did not need to be recognized as an accomplishment. My singing and dancing were showing off, she felt, and not to be encouraged.
My grandmother became seriously ill when I was about 9 years old. She had congestive heart failure then known as “dropsy.” When she could no longer get around easily she was put into a sickbed. It was my bed. This bed and its matching twin with headboard bookshelves remained in the room I had shared with my sister. I was dislodged and moved down the hall to share sleeping quarters on a rollaway cot close by my younger brother in the den. Cheryl stayed behind and her company, among our common things, was no longer within my reach. I was not really able to call my room mine anymore. There were water glasses with bent glass straws in them on the nightstand. Sometimes Grandma would call out and I would fill the glass and hold it so she could drink. I hated to look at her. Her limbs were thin and wasted while her belly was massive and distended. Her hair was dry and scraggily around her gaunt and waxy face. I was terrified that she would die while I was in the room. I can remember being left home alone with her sometimes. I was afraid she would call for me to help her with something. Whenever she did call I was berated by her, by my mother and by my sister for not being fast enough or attentive enough and labeled selfish or unloving.
When Minnie died I was kept away from the funeral because I was “too sensitive” and the experience might be upsetting to me. I am amazed by the irony of that decision. I had participated fully in her illness and decline, but I was kept from hearing the Service For Burial and observing a family ritual that might have taught me how to mourn and how to accept death. Still, I felt guilty because I hadn’t done enough for her while she was living. I had not served her lovingly—only fearfully. I had not pleased her or earned her respect. I knew, even then, that her death was in no way my fault. But I also knew that the end of her life could have been more comfortable and sweeter if I had been more giving of myself. It was hard for me to love her because I did not feel any love from her. My own feelings about her were not those a little girl should have for her grandma and they were not feelings I could reveal to a sister who served her willingly and a mother who was devoted to her.
What I carry with me from my childhood years is guilt and shame. Both of these are inheritances from my time with my grandmother, Minnie. Her critical voice lives on inside me and I often hear it when I indulge myself. Do I deserve this thing? I hear it when I attain something and rationalize away the value of my achievement. It enters in like an insidious worm and undermines my enjoyment of the pleasures of life. I am never able to compete without sabotaging myself in some small way. I succeed in spite of myself and in spite of her presence within me. If she were alive today I still don’t believe that I would have her approval. For some reason my mother wants me, out of all of us, to have her ring. Perhaps one day I will understand what that means.