My two grandmothers could not be less alike. There is the short, nearly-deaf, one-armed Polish woman who hardly says a word and is characterized by extreme frugality; there is the tall, nearly-blind, stylish, Southern belle who never stops talking and is characterized by finicky taste. Somehow, I am baffled to realize, I am made up of pieces of both these women.
One night last week as both grandmothers were visiting for Christmas, after the Southern Belle had pulled herself feebly up the stairs for bed, the Polish woman sighed and shuffled her way to me, cradling her stub of a left arm.
“That is one woman I feel so sorry for,” she projected into my ear, unaware of how loud her voice was to healthy ears.
“What’s that, Gramma?” I shouted loud enough for her to hear, startled a bit to hear her speaking at all, and startled that it was pity she was communicating.
“Your grandmother,” she explained. “I can’t imagine losing my eyesight. What would you do with yourself if you couldn’t see?”
And while I agreed with the sentiment entirely, I was surprised by it. After all, Gramma has seen her fair share of hardship, between starting school in America without knowing any English at all, growing up during the Great Depression, losing an arm in a factory accident and a baby a couple months afterwards, giving up family members to World War II, raising nine children with one arm, and surviving a husband who flew into a rage when drunk. All the while, I’ve never heard a complaint, and I almost developed an assumption that her stout, silent 4-foot-10 frame didn’t even identify suffering anymore.
Yet as both my grandmothers shuffle their way into their 90s treasuring whatever faculties their weakened bodies have maintained, none of the differences in their background seemed to matter. None of the Southern Belle’s good looks or social graces that earned her four husbands mattered, none of her descriptions of wealth and yachts, none of her stories of befriending Winston Churchill at a horserace in England. She can hardly see, and that is enough to elicit the sympathy of a woman who has never had anything she deemed worthy of bragging about.
And as the days of their visit progressed, the Southern Belle matched the Pole’s pity with extreme admiration. She raved about the little woman’s “accomplishments” (though she never identified what any of them were) as if she were Winston Churchill himself. For the feeble blind woman, I suppose, money and social graces had suddenly become less flashy.
Her blind eyes saw the strength in the little woman’s silence, just as the other woman’s deaf ears heard the pain in the tall woman’s elegies. Sometimes we need to lose our eyes and our ears a little to find them.