The Passing of a Proper Woman
My grandmother passed away two weeks ago. We buried her last Thursday. She was 96, her mind was mostly gone, and she’d been given two weeks to live fifteen months ago. She took a couple of deep breaths in her sleep then just stopped. There are worse ways of going.
I’d like to say she lived a grand exciting life, that she had flown airplanes, climbed mountains, or written ground breaking work.
She lived a very proper life. She grew up in Canada. Played field hockey in high school. She married her high school sweetheart. During the war he flew bomber missions with the RCAF. When he got home he married her then they immigrated to the US where he got a job in the petroleum by-product lab at Standard Oil. Ever used Pledge furniture wax? He helped invent that. They moved into a lovely planned post war suburban home in a lovely planned community where the men dug out the community pool and the wives made lunch.
She had two children and was a full time mother until the children were in school then worked as a secretary at a school. She was always home before her husband so she could have a drink and the evening news paper waiting for him. She wasn’t much of a cook but she used the ingredients she was supposed to. Miracle Whip, Ready Whip, Campbell’s Soup, Betty Crocker, Land o’ Lake, Dryers Ice Cream, Nestle, Stouffer’s, Folgers, Coke, not Pepsi. Don Draper would have loved her.
She went to church every Sunday. A nice respectable Presbyterian church. She was as a deacon, baked cakes for every event, drove around the little old ladies of the church until she became a little old lady. She was in the bowling league because in the 1960’s bowling is what good families did on Friday nights. Played bridge, tended garden. She was part of a local womens’ group. Not the kind that marched on protest lines for wage equality or victims’ rights. It was the kind that had bake sales and proudly gave out 200 dollar scholarships completely unaware that 200 dollars barley covers a single text book these days.
And when she lost her husband because he was too manly to have chest pains checked out, she drank a little too much for a bit, but in a very proper fashion. A little something extra added to the orange juice at dinner. The house was always perfectly tidy. Decorated for every holiday. She wrote letters and donated to charity but not too much. Voted for Nixon and Reagan and read Readers Digest.
As a grandmother she remembered every birthday and holiday. She would talk about us taking a train trip across Canada but that never happened. She tried to knit. She did absolutely everything society and the media told her she should do as a woman at the time and she did it perfectly.
And there must have been a reason.
That level of a ‘proper’ life takes work, and discipline, and there must be a reason for it that I never quite worked out. I heard her cuss, once. It wasn’t even hell or damn. It was the F word. There were a few obvious lies that she repeated so many times I think she believed them. There were funny stories that weren’t funny once you thought about it. There were stories that completely contradicted each other and stories about her own childhood that were just a little too perfect.
She always told us her husband was in the Battle of Britain. When we were going through some stuff earlier this year we found his medals and war record. He was part of a bomber crew but it wasn’t in England, it was in a far more dangerous campaign in North Africa. I’m not sure if he lied to her for some reason. If she lied to us, though there would have been no reason, or if she rewrote her memories over the years. By the time we had questions she wouldn’t have been able to give us answers.
There’s a saying that goes around, Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History. My grandmother was very well behaved. I don’t think she always wanted to be. She had the ability to swear. She had a freakishly high pain tolerance. When she broke her hip in a grocery store parking lot she drove herself home and didn’t go to the doctor until the next day when a friend came to visit and noticed she was limping. My partner once heard her make a dirty double entendre. I once saw a picture of her high school field hockey team and they looked like a tough bunch. She managed to forgive my aunt for being a lesbian. Never quite forgave my mother for marring a Mexican but grandchildren went a long way towards mending that relationship. The first/last/only time we talked politics was when she randomly mentioned she had concerns about some of Bush’s choices for cabinet.
There was something under that perfect post-war housewife. A different woman who never got the chance to run and I think I will mourn the woman I never met as much as I will mourn the one I knew.