Growing up in a family of twenty-three grandchildren meant I never really got a chance to know my grandparents very well. I was grandchild number seventeen and by the time I had come along, my grandparents were close to petered out by the sixteen who preceded me. When I was old enough to have sleepovers or enjoy one-on-one time with them, they were tired and, quite frankly, old.
By the time I was ten, my grandfather had died and my grandmother had become very set in her ways. Most, if not all, of my childhood recollections of her were of a very strong, opinionated woman. Her running commentary on our lives and how we should live them became her unfortunate trademark. As a result, being around her became a great source of irritation for me, especially as I became a teenager.
The negative image of grandmother from my childhood and early adolescence stayed with me when I reached adulthood. As I became more independent, my dislike of her ways reached the point where I purposely saw little of her. In part because I could not stand any perceived criticism, and also because seeing her made me feel guilty for my periodic dislike of her.
Several years went by when, one morning, I received a call from my mom telling me grandmother had had a stroke and was in the hospital. She was ninety-one at the time and, while we never expected her to live forever, the news still came as a shock.
Expecting the worst, we were all surprised when she survived. The stroke, however, left her partially paralyzed and required she leave her home of sixty-one years to reside in a nursing facility. As grateful as she was to be alive, it soon became clear to everyone that part of her had died when she had to leave her home. Her house had been the constant in her somewhat tumultuous life, in addition to being where she had raised her eight children. It wasn't until she left that we all realized how much a part of her was in that little home.
Another year went by and while my grandmother's physical condition improved, her spirit seemed defeated. Her usual critiques of our lives didn't stop, but the stream of advice slowed a great deal. She seemed to be in her own world much of the time. Only now and then would I see glimpses of the woman I remembered her to be.
Around the time she marked her first anniversary in the nursing home, my husband and I suffered an unexpected and devastating financial setback that required we move from our home. My grandmother offered her now empty house to us.
My initial response was to refuse the offer. I wasn't ungrateful, but the idea of moving into her old, cramped house seemed like a death sentence. We had been living in a sprawling home with every modern amenity. Grandmother's home, on the other hand, was a third of the size of ours and lacked conveniences such as a dishwasher and central air and heat. The prospect of living in the house seemed dismal, but in the end we were left with little choice.
I tried to mentally prepare myself for the hardships that would come with living in grandmother's home. But I couldn't foresee what would happen when we moved in. Instead of finding our living situation intolerable, I slowly and surprisingly found myself discovering a great deal of charm in the house. It wasn't that washing dishes three or four times a day didn't get to me. Or that going out on the porch to wash clothes was ideal. But something about the place made me feel very safe, very at home.
More time passed and my initial self-pity turned to wonder at how my grandmother raised eight children in the home my family of four found cramped. While fixing meals in the tiny kitchen, I would think about the hardships she must have encountered feeding and taking care of her children with little money. I wondered if she ever got a moment of silence in the small space given to her. And I thought about how little she had in the way of material possessions, but how she took such pride in what she did have. A clean house, a nice yard and her tiny rose bushes. My thoughts turned more and more to someone whom I really knew so little about, but who was growing in my admiration as each day passed.
Another year went by and we became more accustomed to the house, along with its shortcomings. Each time I found myself thinking how hard we had it, I would think of my grandmother. Comparing my circumstances to hers always put me on the short end and made it close to impossible for me to feel sorry for myself.
Living in the house reaffirmed my belief I was a strong woman, as well. I also realized, for the first time, my strength had less to do with how I endured my own hardships and more to do with the spirit I had inherited from my grandmother. While she had shortcomings, she also had an enormous reserve of inner strength. And I was a part of her.
The last time I visited my grandmother she had come to realize she would never again live in her home. She didn't say it in so many words but I knew. It may have been because she no longer told me how to take care of her roses or because she didn't ask anything about the house. Whatever it was, it seemed like an unspoken acceptance on her part.
She was very perky that day and we laughed a bit before she suddenly became quiet. Her face clouded over and tears formed in her eyes. I asked her what was wrong. She looked up to me and whispered, "I wish I could go home just one more time."
At that moment I felt I understood the one person who had been a mystery to me my whole life. I took her hand and told her I understood. And for the first time I really did. I couldn't give her the wish she desired most but I could let her know I knew what she was feeling.
I look around her house now and know my family's time here is limited. We will soon move into a home of our own again, leaving grandmother's house empty, probably to be sold. Yet I feel very blessed for having had the chance to live in her little house. As a child I didn't have the opportunity to share special time with my grandmother. But as a woman I've been able to share something much more special with her.
BIO: Maryanne Walker is a writer living in Highlands, Texas (still in her grandmother's house) with her husband and two daughters. She writes about entertainment venues in and around the Houston area for a local newspaper, as well as essays and parenting articles. She is currently writing her first novel. You can contact Maryanne at firstname.lastname@example.org.