To my Polish Grandmother (I knew I’d turn out just like her.)
I’ve worked in some exotic areas this past year, including Myanmar, Mexico, Honduras and Jerusalem. Soon I’m leaving for Ghana and Nigeria. But recently I took a hiatus from my blog.
The reason is that I found myself obsessing about something quite personal—the shape of my Polish grandmother Genevieve! I was in my 30’s when she died, after a long coma resulting from a fall.
We weren’t friends.
When my family would visit her, she would often get drunk. When I was little, she tried to beat me with a belt if she thought I had done something wrong. I always outran her. Not the grandmother Norman Rockwell might have painted.
My father was a sailor. A good son, he often visited her when he wasn’t at sea. Our family had to come along–my brothers, my sister and my mother, a Japanese war bride. These stressful visits often ended with my grandmother crying into her beer about the misery of her life and the hardships of her daughters, one of whom seemed to collect abusive boyfriends the way some women collect shoes.
Genevieve had seven children. My father was the oldest. Her husband—my grandfather—drowned in a boating accident in Michigan before my father had even met my mother. The details of the accident were vague and mysterious. He was fishing with his son-in-law, my uncle Einer. Somehow the boat turned over. Einer, who wasn’t a swimmer, survived. My grandfather, who was a swimmer, drowned.
After that my grandmother started to fall apart. To relieve her pain she began frequenting a local tavern for beer and conversation. She met George, who eventually became my step-granddad. George left his wife and five children for her. But his inability to control his drinking eventually damaged his business and their marriage. They separated and he later died in a poor house.
In time I came to like her, though I always wished for a more traditional grandmother. I don’t know if it is vanity or narcissism that now leads my thoughts to dwell on her body shape rather than on the hardships that she endured. But her body is the one that I am growing into.
I have a clear picture of my grandmother as my father drove us away from her home after another strained visit. I was sitting in the front seat of our Chrysler station wagon. I looked back to see her standing on the crumbling porch of her small white wooden house. She waved goodbye. Her strong hand was connected to her unexpectedly delicate wrist and muscular arm. Her sturdy wide body was wrapped in a cheap cotton print dress. She wore stretch stockings to help with the varicose veins bulging on her legs. Her feet were secured in sensible thrift store slippers. Her only income was Social Security.
I still remember the chill that ran down my back that moment as I looked at her. Somehow I knew that I was seeing myself in 30 or 40 years. I was quite thin in my twenties. Yet as I age, I appear to be turning into my grandmother—at least in appearance. She had the wide peasant face and the sturdy middle of many older eastern European women of a certain age. Hers was a body built to work. Now, when I look in the mirror, I can glimpse echoes of my grandmother.
Like her, I have a body built to work. Oddly, we both ended up in jobs involving heavy lifting. As a photographer I lug cases of camera gear around the planet. My grandmother’s final job was bussing tables at the country club in Spring Lake, Michigan. She lugged piles of dirty dishes back to the kitchen. She was amazed at how much food was wasted and left on plates. Fried shrimp was one of the more expensive items on the menu. “How could they leave the shrimp?” she would ask to no one in particular. Then in an almost smug tone, she confided that she would eat the fried shrimps left on the customer’s plates. “They hadn’t even touched those shrimps,” she would say to my frowning 15-year-old face. In fact, her bold move fascinated me. I wanted to eat some that shrimp. Even today, whenever I think of that story I crave fried shrimp.
Now, other ancestors seem to be passing on their traits to me. My joints are starting to creak like my father’s and my night vision is deteriorating just as his did. Driving at night has become terrifying, unless I wear glasses that give me better than 20/20 vision. Like my father, I also turned gray at a young age. If I’m lucky to live as long as he did, my hair will doubtless be the same snow white as his was. And though my face reflects the Asian heritage of my Japanese mother, my body belongs to the eastern European stock of my father.
My girlfriends who, like me, are half Asian all inherited the thin delicate bodies of their mothers. I have the study structure of my grandmother. A woman born to work. And to this day, no matter what else is on the menu, I always chose shrimp.