Grieving the Grandmother I Never Knew

This weekend, my maternal grandmother passed away, quietly and in a dignified manner as she would have wanted. I met her when I came of age at 21, at the same time as I met the rest of my maternal family (that would be 5 sets of uncles and aunts, 10+ cousins, partners and children). Together, all at once, in 1996.

Having been adopted by a couple with few relatives where most of those who were living were also ostracized, it was a tremendous shock to the system to meet such a large family bonded through blood ties that meant very little to me.

And even more to realize that members of the family (of which I was now one) were expected to act with upper-middle class decorum and propriety according to our more or less illustrious heritage. There’s always a few skeletons in the family closet.

Yet I know how to behave decorously and despite all appearances to the contrary I do, when the occasion arises; but because the daily dose of quiet steel discipline that was insistently instilled in me from my adoptive family – who was also of middle class stock – my heart defies these value systems as I defy and challenge all false control mechanisms. The worm, eventually turned. Luckily for some members of my biological family they always have an excuse to fall back on for my unconventional life.

I am illegitimate and therefore unsalvageable. Inferior by the circumstances of my birth.

And so to outsiders my grandmother was the essence of respectability, whilst still vivacious, sometimes sharp tongued and very much cultured. And to insiders – who knows? For I am not one of them. I never will be.

So whilst the rest of my family mourn her passing, I – who cannot travel in my third trimester – am left here in Sweden to pen a few thoughts to read out at her funeral. I cannot speak of what she meant to me as she meant nothing; so instead I will speak of what I saw she meant to them.

“Her children did their utmost to care and protect her from unpleasantness, from worry and from loneliness.

They visited her every day most weeks when she finally moved into a home and before that had been instrumental in creating events in her life to keep her amused and entertained, as well as preparing her meals and ensuring her security.

She, their worry for her and her care were part of daily phone calls, and although I know that this family strictly honors duty, the burden that fell on her children was on occasion unbearably heavy, yet no one ever questioned it’s necessity. They demonstrated, categorically, behavior above and beyond the call of duty that can only be due to the love she inspired, with a damn good upbringing.”

This is what I will send to be read. And yet I feel my hypocrisy. It’s a half-truth for a family built on half-truths. Their so-called good upbringing and family duty also meant that I was hidden from sight, shunned from the family because the accident of my birth meant that I could not be acknowledged.

In today’s society of increasing fragmentation, my biological family is a shining example of togetherness and support; there is plenty of dysfunction, as with all families, but they have gone through the toughest tests which would have split the most solid of units. Whether or not I knew my grandmother then has no bearing on the respect and admiration that I have for the many positive qualities that she has passed down. Notably solidarity, responsibility and courage in the face of adversity.

Yes, courage.

On learning of my presence (and only that after my grandfather’s death 21 years later) my maternal grandmother pressed her youngest daughter’s hand and said.

‘It must have been hard, but you did the right thing.’

Because it was courage that my mother showed in telling no-one for 21 years, and giving me up to strangers. For the sake of herself and for the sake of her family she did the hardest thing anyone can ask of a mother. Because even as her daughter, I was not part of their family and in the 1970s could never be a legitimate part of it. But they still think it was right, even if I cannot.

So it’s time to say goodbye to my grandmother now, but not without thanking her for what I hope all her grandchildren inherited (even the illegitimate ones…); qualities that I adhere to, even in my rebellion. I am responsible. And I am courageous. But oh. I thank the universe that times have changed. And that I will not be called upon to display that courage by giving up my own children.