I never knew my grandmother as anyone but a grandmother.
It is the curse and the blessing of children that we grow up seeing our parents as nothing more than our caregivers. Someone who tucks you in, who wipes your face, who feeds you and ties your shoes and carries you from the car to the house because you fell asleep on the way home.
Until the day comes when you’re too big to be carried and you’re woken up to carry yourself. Your laces stay untied until you tie them. The troubles you have can not be solved with a kiss and a cookie, they’re much larger than that. Your parents couldn’t possibly understand such things, they haven’t experienced life the way you do.
In a perfect world, a child grows to realize that their parents are people who have lives and adventures beyond the birth of their children. Hopefully a child comes to understand and take joy in knowing mom and dad as people. With actual names that aren’t mom or dad. I’ve been lucky to do just this.
I never really did it with my grandmother. I like to think she was okay with that.
When I was young, a trip to grandmothers’ house was always an adventure. A ferry across the water, the novelty of travel was a guarantee when there was talk of visiting her. She was the only grandparent I was really close to. My dad’s mum, my nana, was closer in proximity, but further in emotional attachment for me. We never spent christmas at nana’s. I never spent my summer vacation with her. It was always to grandma’s house I would go. She lived in North Vancouver, below Grouse mountain, the lights at the top in the wintertime an obvious runway for anyone who happened to be soaring through the night on a sleigh. Her large house, the musty basement filled with the toys from the past, a treasure trove of exploration and speculation about my mom, her brothers and sister’s upbringing. All of the photo albums and artifacts and dolls with cracked porcelain faces who said mama and tiny china figurines and old sewing machines with the foot pedal and a piano with real ivory keys and a three wheeled bike and a sewing room filled with fabric pieces and butterick patterns and a radio flyer red wagon and books lining a hallway and more than one tea set for small people and being allowed to touch or play with all of it. The best kind of house for hide and seek or imaginative games or just sitting by the fire watching the flames dance at christmastime. A yard, seemingly enormous to a child with chairs that could transform into spacepods or muppet mouths or the lowest maintenance fort ever and a raspberry bush that gave up just enough to tantalize but never enough for pie, blackberry bushes that climbed over the fence just enough to allow for picking, but not for prickly encroachment and a grand old tree that watched over us and kept the sun from being too intense, even though it dripped sap all over grandma’s awesome old green plymouth scamp. A car that I coveted and hoped to inherit someday when I was 16 and needed a car to transport my bass guitar from gig to gig. I think it died well before I turned 16.
The summers spent with grandma were often a perfect balance between heaven and hell. Her ability to make a consistently perfect lemon merengue pie(among others), her innovation with combining jello powder and koolaid to make the best popsicles I’ve ever tasted (it’s a beautiful thing), the ritual of the trip to the outdoor swimming pool on superhot days, screaming around the house being chased by the dog and having the kitchen as sanctuary because the dog wouldn’t run on the linoleum while grandma laughed at us, having her sing me to sleep at night and oh! her cookies. I have yet to encounter their match.
There is so much more, but oft times the summer joy was tempered by my suceptibility to seasonal or environmental allergies. A house that’s filled with 50 years of memories is also filled with 50 years of dust and animal dander. Which I developed a sensitivity to, as I grew closer to adolescence and started becoming more hormonally imbalanced. Unbalanced? Likely both. As far as it goes, I also developed food allergies and sensitivities when I hit puberty, it wasn’t awesome. But as a result, it actually became difficult for me to breathe and function normally while visiting my grandma, which certainly put some strain on the visits. Still, my grandmother would sit up with me until the wee hours of the morning, administering vicks vapo rub to my chest, refilling the kettle time and time again so I could breathe in steam from under a towel, taking me to the doctor for inhaler refills, even taking me to the hospital a couple of times so I could have pure oxygen when the inhaler, the kettle, the vicks vapo rub wasn’t working anymore.
I’ve since outgrown the asthma that I suffered from so brutally, but I’ll never take breathing for granted. And I’ll never take for granted someone who has the strength to sit up with a sick child all night long, sleep for maybe an hour, maybe 2 and get up and make what still remains the best french toast this planet has ever known for that aforementioned child.
At some point, I decided I was too old for summers at grandma’s house. I was entering what would be my dark years, a time that I think scared her. Her sweetest little girl was disappearing and being replaced by a sullen, impertinent, unappreciative, too much makeup wearing weirdo. I like to think that she realized I came through it alright, but I don’t know that she ever felt the same way about me again. I know that she loved me and I know that it pleased her that I went to Paris and learned proper french and while my lifestyle choices sometimes confused her, she always readily acknowledged that I am a free spirit and that’s okay.
Our relationship never again had the closeness of when I was young. The visits at christmas time were brief, polite, amiable but superficial. Some years we didn’t see each other at all. Perhaps I thought I was happy to have the memories of a childhood shared with my grandma, as an adult, I didn’t need someone to play that role for me. With that in mind, it stands to reason that being a granddaughter is a part that I played as a child, I’ve since moved on. It’s silly I know, there’s no logic in this rationalization. Perhaps I lack the emotional maturity to appreciate my grandmother as a wise elder, filled with stories to be passed on. I do wish I had sought out more stories.
Of course I would sometimes hear stories of when she was younger, some of my mother and her siblings, very few about my grandfather. But her focus was me and me, being a child and the centre of the known universe (I still live there sometimes) rarely pushed for anything beyond the moment. Even when she showed me pictures of the past, it was something to be touched on, not dwelt upon.
In hindsight, I think I would have like to have known Esther Agnes Desaulniers, the woman. It wasn’t a role she ever showed me. She was beautifully, indubitably, almost exclusively my grandmother when we were together. It was a rich and varied role, one she was fully up to. It did get awkward between us for a time, I had a moment of needing to be something more than her granddaughter, too young and inexperienced to understand that I can be many things at once, including a granddaughter. Which I am. A grand granddaughter, thanks to my grand grandmother. Who tied my shoes and washed my hair and sewed me clothes and made me french toast every single morning and sang me to sleep and let me rearrange her pantry and have tea parties and tucked me in and said “bon soir, je t’aime, dormir bien” every single night.
Bon soir, je t’aime grandmère. Dormir bien.