ColumnConscious life, hear me roar.
Even when I was little, I knew my grandmother was a deeply sad woman.
In fact, my earliest memory of my grandmother is the one of me listening to her weeping quietly in her bedroom when she didn’t know I was hiding in her closet (having just found a bevy of beautiful hats in striped hat boxes).
“Why is memere sad?” I may have asked my mother and father, but only they knew at the time the weight she carried, and they never answered me.
For years, my grandmother and I would play War with miniature playing cards that had images of Paris on them – the Moulin Rouge, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame – she in her comfy rocker in the corner, me on the piano bench she positioned for when I’d come over. With my three brothers and three male cousins playing touch football outside, there was no room for girls, but Memere would sit me down with some strawberry soda in a fancy glass and always make me feel special.
“Who cares about the boys,” she’d say in her French Quebecois accent, smiling, “for we’ve got each other.”
Through the years, I’d share and teach her from my reading texts from school (she with only a fourth grade education), tell her winsome stories about life as a tween, teen and finally, when she came to live with us, how much I just had to get away. Having lived in the same house my entire life and at that time, attending a local community college, I longed for travel and a chance at adventure and freedom, far away from the confines of anything comfortable, familiar.
“How much do you need to get away?” She asked.
“I feel like I’ll die if I don’t,” I said.
My grandmother told me a story of why she was going to give me money to get away, and I have never forgotten it.
Having grown up in Montreal, my grandmother was very stylish and worldly. She had big dreams of doing big things and shirked many a suitor, not feeling that commitment was her primary responsibility in life. She left Canada in her twenties and ended up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where she waitressed at a mom-and-pop restaurant until she met my grandfather. She was considered a spinster, not having married yet, and my grandfather cured her of that with a proposal for marriage.
From here, the story changes. My grandfather was, simply, a bastard. He left her alone on their honeymoon to attend an electrician’s conference, left her alone in her home for years while he had an affair with a paraplegic woman (my grandmother explained how she’d watch them from a corner drug store as they had daily lunch), left her alone as she vomited out windows from her descent into alcoholism, left her alone as she raised two children. Left her for the circus when he retired.
Left at home, she subscribed to National Geographic and collected all the center-folded maps, wrote to nuns and priests at the Vatican and Paris’ Sacre Coeur to give her strength, was never taught to drive so watched mass on television – going through the motions of blessing herself, kneeling and never getting the body of Christ placed in her mouth.
At some point, she just gave up. Gave up that she would ever see Paris, gave up drinking, gave up romantic love and settled into her rocker to play solitaire.
“I always wanted to do what you are going to do,” she said, and told me I had $10,000 to do what I wanted with. It otherwise would be mine when she died.
There was one condition: “I want to see this,” she said.
Aren’t we all destined for greatness thanks to our grandmothers?
With her money, I went to school for Italian Literature and Art in Florence, Italy, and lived in a castle with artists. I backpacked Europe by myself, exploring 13 countries. I slept in the Sahara in a goat skin tent during Ramadan. I roamed every European city’s streets, drinking strong coffee, having affairs, and when I went to Paris? I called my grandmother collect.
“What do you see? What does it smell like?” Memere asked through strangled sobs.
Jammed inside a pay phone booth staring at the Notre Dame I didn’t know what to say except: “It’s beautiful.”
When I would arrive home many months later, I would surprise them all at a family party. I would run in and my memere, so stunned, could only grab me and bury her face in my hair to see what Europe smelled like.
A few weeks ago, I was on a flight to San Francisco and passing over a very cold middle America: snow capped Rocky Mountains, frozen rivers and cities dotting the landscape out of nowhere. My grandmother died years ago, and yet I still think of her when I travel. How she would’ve felt to be all alone on a plane, touching down on another coast. How the Kerouac blood runs deep when you need to travel. How the spirit of her roams with me in every city I explore.
Between the Lines is a weekly column navigating the sometimes-sharp, sometimes-blurred lines of life and culture between city and country, between inner worlds and outer.