Today is my grandmother's 80th birthday. That's her on the right, as she was when she was 5 years old. I haven't called her yet. We're having the big family she-bangy bang in Texas next weekend. Why next weekend and not this, I don't know. I'm looking forward to it because I enjoy family gatherings - even with the fundamentalists on my mom's side. But I think I'm also looking forward to it because my relationship with my grandmother has changed for the better over the last decade or so.
My maternal grandparents are the only set I've ever known. Dad was orphaned by 24, before he and Mom started dating seriously. Grandmothers in our society are always painted as being doting and forgiving, lavishing their grandkids with unearned praise and affection. I never knew any of that from her. I never knew where that myth came from, because it certainly wasn't my experience. She and Grandpa provided my brother and me with afterschool care when we were younger, and when we lived in the same town, we'd sleep over at their house often. They were both critical of us, but Grandpa's was constructive and delivered lovingly; it was obvious he believed his corrections would make us better people, whether we agreed or not. But Grandma was a snapper and her criticisms were almost always personal in nature, even if what she was addressing wasn't personal at all. That I loaded the washing machine differently than her, for instance, was a poor character reflection on me, not simply a different - if less efficient - style. As a result, for years, I thought she didn't love me. (As another result, I'm often offended by people offering me a different or more efficient way to go about a simple, obvious task. I always have to remind myself it's not personal.)
But she's changed in the last dozen or so years. And I have, as well. With some family transitions that conflicted with her "perfect" script, she's mellowed greatly and is more accepting of me and others. Having grown into adulthood myself, and lived the married life, I've come to sympathize more with her than ever. Also, I knew that my mother felt similarly disdained by her mother growing up, but I've since learned that her baby sister always felt imperfect to Grandma for the same reasons Mom and I did.
After my cousin's funeral 12 years ago, Grandma stroked my hair, turned to a now ex-aunt, and proudly and lovingly told her when God made me, he broke the mold. That was the first time I ever realized that she truly loved me for me - despite the years of her attempting to shoehorn me into her narrow ideal. It was liberating. It opened my eyes to who she really is, beneath the shell and how her personal history shaped her dealings with her family. She's not just a meanie; there's a reason - right or wrong - she interacts the way she does.
As we both grow older, patience and delight seem to be the themes of our relationship. I actually enjoy talking to her now, and seeing her. Life is too short for her not to love me for the anti-ideal that I am and for me to get hung up on the emotional bruises she didn't mean to inflict when I was a child, anyway. We may as well enjoy this time.