I don’t listen to pop music. At least not by choice. I’m not making judgments. It’s just not my thing. But every once in a while I am in a place where it’s being played. More often than not, it’s in my car while I’m driving Catalina somewhere and she puts on “her station.” Anyway, today I heard a song by Kelly Clarkson that struck an incredibly deep chord with me. It’s probably been out for ages but to me it is brand new. It’s called “Because of You” and it is the story of my relationship with my grandmother, the woman who raised me. I am pretty sure that Ms. Clarkson had no idea about this when she wrote it. I guess that’s another reason why her lyrics penetrated me so deeply. When you are the center of your own universe, passing time in your own life, feeling your own emotions, it is nearly impossible to fathom that someone else might be having a similar experience to yours in their universe, especially when our experience is that of extreme pain (or love). When you hear someone express that emotion eloquently and with the same intensity you feel, you are overcome by this connection. At least that is the way it is with me. That’s how I felt when I heard this song.
I wept. No…I bawled. That’s kind of unusual for me. Five years ago when my grandmother died, this woman who by every definition but biology was my mother died, I did not shed a tear. Not when I was telling the rabbi who was to deliver her eulogy about her, the hardship she endured and all the sacrifices she made not only for me but for everyone…but especially for me. Not as the rest of my family cried at her grave. Not once when I’ve reflected on this loss over the last five years. That was her legacy to me. Be the rock.
I am thankful for that trait she taught me, for the most part. But I always felt like I was missing out on a lot. There were not a lot of hugs and kisses exchanged between my grandmother and me. Add that to the abandonment issues I felt with my mother (she lived with us, but she was very rarely around both in the literal and emotional sense) and you’re not left with an emotionally open person. I guess that’s another reason why I write. It’s the one place where I can really wear it on my sleeve yet still be detached.
My grandmother was overprotective to a great extent but was so blind to so many harmful things that were going on with me. I never learned to ride a bicycle because it was instilled in me to be deathly afraid of falling down. Fear, more than love, is what I remember most about my childhood. That is another legacy she left me.
This trait I am not thankful for. While some fear is healthy, it’s what keeps us from running out into traffic, when it keeps you from experiencing life’s gifts or effects your decision-making process it is crippling. So many decisions throughout my life were motivated by fear of falling. Fear of failing. My grandmother in her strange brand of logic thought it would be motivating to me if she only pointed out where my shortcomings were, compare me to others when I fell short. She didn’t want me to get a swell head or become complacent. What she achieved with that approach was instilling the idea deep inside me that I am not good enough. That I never will be good enough. That I will be judged by my failures instead of remembered for my successes. Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying I deserve absolution for all the mistakes I’ve made because I have “Mommy and Grand-Mommy Issues.” They’re my decisions. I own their consequences. There was nothing I could do as a child to stop these seeds from being planted in me. But as an adult, it has become my life’s work to pull the weeds that have grown from them. I’ve become quite the gardener of my mind, trying to plant flowering seeds…I am good enough…I have already achieved successes in my life…I am not defined by my mistakes. A lot of them take. But if I am not diligent with my weeding every single day, those weeds grow like wildfire and strangle the roots of those flowers. This is the life I was dealt. For many years I was angry about it. That didn’t give me anything but more misery. The more I let go of the anger and just accept what I was dealt and enjoy my life anyway, the better able I am to see these wonderful gifts I have been given and enjoy the successes I earn.
Hearing that song today helped me to understand a little why I never cried for my grandmother’s passing. I am forever grateful to her for giving me everything she could. If I say that is not enough, it would make me the perpetrator of these poisonous thoughts that have inflicted so much harm on me. That’s not who I am. Despite the horrors of her childhood, she was a better mother to me than her mother was to her. I will chose to carry on that legacy and be a better mother to Catalina than the mothering I received.
The last time I saw her alive, my grandmother had a tube in her throat to aid her breathing (she killed herself slowly with cigarettes). She couldn’t speak. She wrote me a note that I still carry with me “I’m going to say good-bye because I don’t know if I’ll be here tomorrow.” Her eyes were watery and I saw a softness and vulnerability in them that I had never seen before. My eyes were dry and crystal clear as I took her note, put it in my purse and told her that we should finish watching “Everybody Loves Raymond.” I am, after all, the Rock. She grabbed my hand and held it as tightly as she used to when we crossed the street together when I was a child. She always had such a firm touch and a heavy hand. She pulled me closer to her face and mouthed the words “I’m sorry” over and over again. Her soft, vulnerable eyes were now crying and I could see a desperation in them, something else I’d never seen before in her. I told her she was a good Mama and that it was okay. When I came home that night to Salvatore, I told him that I knew that this would be the last time I’d see her alive (with the COPD we had a lot of false alarms) and told him what she said. He asked me what she was sorry for. I told him that I didn’t ask. “Isn’t that going to drive you crazy not knowing?” he asked me. I told him that it didn’t matter. She was sorry and I forgave her. In the end that’s all that mattered.
Thank you, Kelly Clarkson, for making me feel a little less weird and alone today. Childhood wounds run deep. Knowing that there was someone else out there whose universe was just like mine and who made it out on top is both comforting and inspiring. Now it’s about time that I get back to tending to that garden of mine.