Grandma M.G. was my father’s mother. She wore a make up and a wig and smelled of Chanel #5.
She was glamorous. Always and forever. When I was little she would arrive in Puerto Rico, where the weather was 85F pretty well year round in a gorgeous designer wool suit with a fur stole.
She then shed these “traveling clothes” for her resort wear. Also chic. Also perfectly appointed and considered outfits. With matching head scarves and colorful jewelry and sandals that matched her outfit’s color to perfection. Much luggage was necessary.
Every morning I would sneak into her room and watch her put on her “face”. She had a very ritualistic and precise process of make up. It was artistry and magic to me.
Grandma M.G. was born in South Africa, the daughter of an Englishman who worked in the Ministry of Agriculture. Her mother was French. Her uncle was a big game hunter. When you are 10 years old these things all seem very glamorous and exotic. When you are 18 the reality of it begins to dawn on you. When you are in college in the 1980s and there are demonstration in the U.S. against Apartheid in South Africa, it makes the glamour turn to shame.
When you are 50 years old, you realize that humans live in their time and place. I don’t know if my great grandfather did anything overtly horrible or just worked in a system that treated humans like garbage under foot. Or if he treated the people he met with dignity regardless of race.
I will never know and it won’t ultimately have any impact on my life. Which is odd, since I carry his DNA in me. But his actions may still have some unknown effect on the people who live in South Africa. In the same way that they say a butterfly beating its wings in the Amazon will cause a typhoon in the South Pacific. Each action spawns others and those new actions spawn more and more… And now it’s impossible to say what the outcomes of a man who lived 100 years ago are.
Which is an accurate summary of human existence everywhere and we would do well to remember it. Your genetic inheritance may affect your health and appearance, but it’s unlikely that it will ever have the large long term impact of your actions. The long term effects may not be predictable but the short term ones are predictable enough. And kindness and helpfulness are always positive.
My grandmother left South Africa when she was 18, but I don’t think she ever let go of the conviction than race mattered. I was in college when I realized that she thought the caucasian race was inherently superior. It’s a terrible thing to know about someone you love so dearly.
Grandma M.G. was in almost everything the opposite of Grandma Allen, who never wore make up and was practical in all things, especially clothing. Neat, practical and durable pretty well epitomized Grandma Allen. But Grandma Allen was also a racist. She was also born in a time of racism but in the state of Missouri. But Grandma Allen did not die a racist. She changed. I don’t know if that is true of Grandma M.G.
Grandma Allen died surrounded by family and is mourned to this day by her children and grandchildren. She mattered to so many people in her family and out. Grandma M.G. did not inspire that level of love in so many people. She was glamorous but not generous of herself. She was was funny and charming but ultimately a bit selfish. She was not alone when she died because Grandma Allen raised my mother, who cared for Grandma MG until her death. My mom was always kind to her despite not being very fond of her.
I had two grandmothers, whom I loved very much. But in the end, I want to be like Grandma Allen. She lived a deeply successful life. I’m afraid I’m more like Grandma M.G. who probably suffered from depression in later life. She became reclusive and didn’t leave her room.
I wonder why knowing the path isn’t the same as walking it. I want to walk the Path Grandma Allen took. But I’m probably wandering around on Grandma M.G’s path. The paths are marked on a map, but somehow the map isn’t the territory.