I grew up in a non-nuclear family setting. My parents divorced when I was eight, and I lived a few years with my single-parent mom, and then a few years with my single-parent dad. Luckily, before they divorced, my folks had the sense to move back from the wilds of the Great Plains, to Michigan, where they originally met, and where their respective parents still lived. When they divorced, and became single parents, they both were lucky enough to have their moms to help them out with their three obnoxiously precocious children.
Now, those of you who've been following my ramblings for any length of time may have recognized that I do not have a "traditional" mother-daughter kind of relationship (whatever that is) with my mom. Her mental condition combined with my typical early-teen angst to produce some rather spectacular conflict (I imagine that standard sullen rebellion might look pretty intense through a lens of psychosis and paranoia, but at the time, I wasn't exactly able to be charitable). So, you know, in addition to my confusing gender-bendy-sexual-abuse issues, I didn't exactly have a good relationship with mommy. I suspect this is part of what makes me who I am.
However, I was very lucky to have not one, but two amazing mother figures in my life. No, they weren't the typical kind. No, I didn't have that bond-y closeness that does whatever-it-does that can only come from "a mother's love" or whatever touchy-feely bullshit. But I learned how to be a woman from my grandmothers.
My mom's mom, who was one of my primary caregivers after my parents divorced and my sibs and I lived with my mom (while she worked full time and finished her B.A.), was and remains one of the few truly "good" Christians I know. My dad used to say she wouldn't say shit if she had a mouthful, and that's true...but she was also one of the most genuinely kind and caring people I have ever known. She taught me more about grace and courtesy and giving then I actually exhibit in my life these days, but she made a sterling example that I aspire to on a daily basis. She wasn't perfect - she and her mother sniped like harpies in the most hilarious ways. She lost her temper with my brother a lot (but then, most people who've spent more than five minutes in his company are guilty there). She even, on occasion, swore (seriously, I heard her say S.O.B. once - not the actual words, just the abbreviation).
She was a really strong woman, and not a "traditional" one for the time. Back in the sixties, her husband (my mom's dad) was institutionalized (he, like my mom, was schizophrenic), and she was left with four kids to raise on her own (I'm pretty sure she didn't get disability checks at that point in time). She had her mother's help, of course, but she did it. She worked for the State of Michigan until she retired. She raised three boys and my mom - all of whom went to college. At some point, she remarried and gained a stepson...her second husband died when I was a toddler, and she was alone again, living in a farmhouse on a dirt road way back in the Michigan countryside.
She was a model Christian, tithing regularly, doing good works, the whole bit. She read her Bible, and she did her level best to live by its tenets. Sometimes, when I stayed home sick from school, she would let me tag along to the Rescue Mission Quilting Circle, where I would tie yarn in knots and gleefully listen to the old women talk about their families and churches. Sometimes, she would let me come with her to church choir practice, and it was at her elbow that I learned to sing harmony and gained the vocal flexibility that still is one of the prime joys of my life.
When I was around twelve, she married a minister who told some of the best clean jokes. He's a die-hard right-winger, and I rarely see eye to eye with him, but he makes her happy. I have never and will never talk with her about my spirituality....not because I'm ashamed, but because if we never talk about it, I know she can tell herself I'm not going to burn in Hell. I detest her sons, and I will never tell her that either.
My dad's mom is a straight-talking matriarch of the first order. She had six kids with two husbands, and never worked outside the home - except inasmuch as everybody works on a farm. When my mom was diagnosed, and my sibs and I went to live with my dad, we spent a couple months staying in a camper in my grandma's backyard.
It was my freshman year of high school, and I was at that really awkward stage, and on top of all that usual rigamarole, I was dealing with the revelation that my mom was crazy and I'd spent the past couple years being angry at her all the time over shit she couldn't really help, not to mention the joys of going to a brand new school. Those first couple months, coming home with the stack of books I was using to escape my real life, and talking things over with my no-bullshit grandma...it helped me put things in perspective, and not take on too much guilt over being human and out of my depth.
She taught me a lot about family, and what family means, and what family does. She operated a complex web of cousins, aunts, uncles, family friends, and several generations of various family ties. She worked the gossip mill like a champ - and taught me that everybody spends time in the doghouse, and nobody is beyond redemption. She also taught me that gossip is a kind of accountability, and the trick to avoiding its effects was to not do anything you minded people talking about. That's a rule I really try hard to stick to in my life, though I'm sure some of my crazier choices are popular topic of conversation these days ("Is she a communist or what?").
When I graduated from high school, my grandma gave me her valedictory pin. It was a big deal, because I was the first of her grandkids to be going to college. I'd been a really good student in high school, probably should've been my class valedictorian (not that I'm bitter), and wasn't - but my grandma gave me her pin anyway, and that pin was salve to my wounds on that score. I felt like I was some kind of standard-bearer, and I was so happy to feel like I was doing her proud.
When I dropped out of college after the first year, I didn't visit or talk to her or my dad for six months. I felt like I had let her, and the whole family, down, and I was consumed with guilt and regret and self-loathing. When I finally went and saw her, she dressed me down right to my face, telling me what a jackass I was being, and that I was breaking my father's heart by not talking to him, that shutting them out was a slap in the face, and who cared about some damn pin and some damn college.
I did my time in the doghouse, and survived it.
Between all the moving around my parents did when they were married, and all the moving around they did after they divorced, I never really got attached to the idea of a physical place as "home." But my grandmothers have both lived in the same two houses, six or eight miles apart in a little tiny town in Michigan, for my whole life. Their phone numbers haven't changed, either - they're one digit apart. My idea of what makes a family, and what makes a home, is tied into these two beautiful, strong, amazing women.
I haven't lived within four hours of either of them since that brief stint in Michigan after I dropped out of college. I moved first to Atlanta, and then to Chicago, and in the eleven intervening years, I've been home three or four times a year at most. When I do go home, I usually only spend a couple days - see the parents, go to some big extended family functions, see the neices and nephews and the sibs if I can work it in. I don't usually make time to visit my grandparents. I'm a fucking idiot for that.
These women, these two women who taught me so very much about life and how to be a good person, are both in very poor health. My mom's mom is going through kidney failure and a third round of chemotherapy, and she is not doing well. My dad's mom has just had a Hospice consult and is now only taking sleeping pills and pain meds.
My life is so much different from either of my grandmothers' lives. I don't think I could be who I am, who I am supposed to be, and have stayed any closer. But I will regret to the end of my days not making more space for them in my life. In the time that remains, I can't even begin to come close to making up for that lack, but I want to try. I hope I have the guts to not let my guilt stop me from doing the right thing, because I love them, and I am grateful to them, and I have not done their love and their gifts justice. I haven't given them the tiniest fraction of what they deserve of me.
Even in this, they're still teaching me.
Loud-mouthed liberal feminist. Anarchist knitter. Tequila-drinking artsy-smartsy fat chick. Bluesy folk-rock singer-songwriter. Rebel with too many causes. Quirky eclectic pagan poet. Paradoxical intuitive smartass. Sarcastic brainiac insomniac. You know, for starters.