April 30, 2011

When Grandma Came to Live with Us (3 by Margaret Ullrich)

     Grandma was a prisoner.  She refused to go to a store with a list to give to the clerk as other immigrant Grandmas did.  She refused to go to the store with anyone.  She refused to go for medical checkups.  Church was a quicky half hour weekly Mass, instead of the social hub of a group of friends with whom she could gossip.   
     Four years after Grandma arrived Charlie got married to an American girl.  Liz tried to get on Grandma's good side.  She couldn't find it.  Grandma didn't attend their wedding.  She never visited Charlie in his home.  She also didn't attend her new granddaughter's christening or any other family occasion outside our home.  No first communions, confirmations, graduations or weddings, including mine.

     Over the years Grandma began to understand what we said in English, but she refused to learn how to speak it.  She also refused to speak in Maltese with Pop's siblings.  She reasoned that if it hadn't been for them, Ma and Charlie would have stayed in Malta.  Grandma couldn't read the papers or magazines.  She didn't understand most of what was said on television or the radio, although she did enjoy watching wrestling.  Grandma's whole social circle shrank to the five of us.  

     Ma kept in touch with her family in Malta by having their letters sent to Pop's brother.  Ma needed to vent and she felt it wasn't disloyal to tell her siblings what life was like since their mother had moved in with us.  Who else would've understood?  

     As the years went by, Ma told me bits and pieces about Grandma's decision to live with us.  When Grandma was in her late fifties she decided she wanted to live with her daughter.  Aunt Stella was single and had her own business as a seamstress.  Stella said two women in the same kitchen would only make trouble.  Then Grandma approached her son.  Uncle Joe and his wife had two little boys.  They didn't think it was a good idea for Grandma to move in with them.
     Grandma wrote to Ma saying that her ungrateful children had abandoned her.  Grandma now wanted to move in with us.  Ma tried to explain that we had six people in four rooms with one bathroom.  Ma mentioned other problems a new immigrant would face.  Americans spoke English, not Maltese.  All her friends were in Malta.  She wouldn't know her way around.  It would be hard for an elderly woman to get used to everything, including the weather, being so different.  Wouldn't Grandma be more comfortable staying where she was?  Did she need more money? 

     Grandma then reminded Ma about all she had done for her family.  Was Ma an ungrateful child, too?  Ma started crying.  Pop said Grandma could move in with us.  After all, he said, she's sixty.  How much longer could she live anyway?  

     After Grandma had lived with us ten years, Pop feared that she was going to outlive him.

     One morning, when Grandma was eighty, she decided to clean the windows.  Feeling a little tired, she lay down and had three major strokes.  Ma had her rushed to the hospital but, outside of prolonging her life for a month, little could be done and Grandma died.  Ma phoned.  She wanted me to come for the funeral. 

     Ma had decided to give Grandma a traditional Maltese wake.  By the time I arrived Grandma was on display in the funeral home.  Her casket and the floral displays dominated the large room which was filled with dozens of chairs.  We five had to sit with the body for three nights to greet the other mourners.  Pop's side of the family came, said a prayer at the casket, said a few words to Ma, then left.  Charlie, Liz and their daughter came, said a prayer at the casket, said a few words to Ma, then left.  Most of the time it was just the five of us sitting and staring at the empty chairs.  I don't know who Ma was expecting. 

     Some people say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  Pop wanted to be near his siblings and to provide a better future for his family.  Ma wanted to help her brother and invited him to live with us.  She couldn't refuse Grandma when she wanted to move in, too.  I had wanted to have my Grandma live near us.  But, I wonder what she would've been like if we had stayed in Malta, if I had known her on her own turf.  I don't think I could say I ever really knew her when she lived in our home.  She made the rules she wanted to live by.  We followed her wishes.  It was hellish.  

     And it was all done with the best of intentions.

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