This weekend marks the 11th anniversary of my grandmother’s death. 11 isn’t a very special number, but I’m writing this post today because last year on February 16, I was too busy to pause and reflect on how I felt. Which sucked, because I felt awful and missed her a ton.
After both of my grandparents passed away (my grandfather died in October of 2003– about a year and a half after my grandmother did), my parents, sister and I moved into their house. The room that is now my bedroom used to be my grandmother’s sewing room.
I chose that room on purpose.
People comment a lot on my wacky fashion sense. I prefer skirts and dresses to pants because I think they’re more comfortable. I attribute all of this to my grandmother, who made a lot of my clothes when I was growing up.
I was raised in Grosse Pointe, mind you: a place where it’s not uncommon to see even the littlest kids wandering around in designer clothes. And then there was me, a first generation American from a Polish-speaking household, wearing homemade dresses and skirts.
My grandparents were both born in 1933 in Lublin, Poland. They grew up during the Second World War. That’s why, my parents told me, they died so young (of supposedly “natural” causes; war isn’t natural, in my opinion, but okay).
My grandmother was 68 when she died. I was 13, and in the 7th grade. Her death did not surprise me, and because it did not surprise me, I did not allow myself to grieve.
It was only later, as I discovered feminism and started figuring myself out, that I started thinking about how my grandmother influenced that very important part of my personality.
I came across her death certificate at some point when I was in high school. Under “occupation” I found the word “housewife.”
And that just did not seem to do her justice. She was one of the strongest people I’d ever met.
She wouldn’t tell me much, but I always sensed that she’d had a hard life, and pried as much information as I could from my parents. I learned that she:
- grew up in a war zone, just a few blocks from a concentration camp
- was hit by an ambulance as a child, from which she suffered a major head injury that, everyone assumed, would impede her growth and development
- was hit by a bus at the age of 23, which caused her to lose a leg to gangrene (she had a one-year-old child, my uncle, at the time)
- gave birth to my dad a few years later, which means she was a one-legged pregnant lady: badass, yes?
- moved to Detroit with her family during the race riots of 1967; she was 34 years old and spoke no English at the time
- learned English even though, due to that head injury she’d suffered as a kid, no one thought she could (she spoke it perfectly too; she and I always communicated in English)
- outlived one of her children (my uncle was hit by a car while riding his bike in 1980; what is it with my family and motor vehicle accidents?!)
So I mean, yeah. On the surface, she was an immigrant and a housewife. But she was also the strongest person I knew. I always sensed that about her even though she never, ever talked about any of it.
And she undoubtedly influenced my feminism. I often wonder what she’d think about that. I don’t think she’d like it, and that really stresses me out. She wanted to have kids more than anything: she had my dad by choice even though my grandfather discouraged it (“Sabina, you are missing a LEG”), so I don’t think she’d understand my lack of desire to ever have kids. And oh man, what the hell would she think if she knew I was gay? Or that I’m an atheist? The only reason my parents finally agreed to baptize me Catholic (even though they had no intention of raising me Catholic) was because my grandmother absolutely insisted upon it.
And so, as much as I miss her and wish I’d had more time with her, part of me is glad she died when she did. We’re all human, and she too, had her flaws: she enabled my grandfather’s alcoholism and, I hear, was quite racist. These are all things that I undoubtedly would have taken issue with as I grew older, but was still oblivious to at 13.
I don’t ever want to get married, which is another thing that would undoubtedly baffle her. But! She taught me how to make pierogi from scratch, and when one of my friends learned that I know how to make pierogi from scratch, he asked me to marry him: something that would make my grandmother extremely happy to know.
I’ll close with a poem I wrote for her several years ago, right before I graduated from high school.
After the war,
my grandmother learned to sew,
and spent the rest of her life mending tears
with needle and thread: her thimble a barrier
between weapon and wound.
left a scar in the fabric, a latch
on the door of the past
do not enter.
I’d watch her sew
skirts for me. They were long and opaque,
just like hers, shielding me
from what I wanted to know.
But each time
I’d ask, she’d shake her head
and measure my waist, insisting
I was too thin, like a victim
of what she’d witnessed, too small
to hold what was hers, what could not
be mine. All I could do was watch,
just as she had done
half a century before me.
When she died, she left behind
an unfinished skirt. I remember
wearing her thimble like armor, determined to
tie up loose ends. The needle pricked my skin, and
I tore the seam.
I opened the door,
but could not walk through it.