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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Motherhood After Tenure: death of a matriarch
July 8, 2010 - 7:59am

This past month, I have been trying to follow fellow blogger Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s advice on how to eliminate summer regret by breaking up my writing goals into small tasks and plotting them onto a calendar of available days. I scheduled weekly dates with my writing “coach”/colleague. I made progress by forcing myself to write drafts even before I felt quite ready, instead of circling around and around a project. Perhaps, I thought happily, by summer’s end I would have made substantial progress on my book, prepared for my new administrative duties, and organized my courses! I was on a roll.

And then my Grandmother died. She was 98, so her death was an event we’d been expecting for so long that we’d started to believe it would never happen. Death disrupts our schedules, our plans, or lives. And so it should.

My grandmother was the matriarch of our family and an important figure in my life, but our relationship was also fraught with criticism, disappointment, and occasionally anger. She criticized me more than any other person in my family. My hippy upbringing upset her notions of proper decorum, and I often thought her life as a wife and mother limited. But her attitude changed markedly when I began achieving in school. When I graduated from college with honors, she surprised me by breaking into tears. Later, she helped support me through graduate school, and she became the first person to whom I sent news of my awards, honors, or recognition. Over the years, particularly after she became a widow, I called her more and more often. I realized that she was a very satisfying conversationalist: she might not like everything I said, but she paid attention.

She was self-sufficient until she was 93, when she moved in with my mother and stepfather. They did an extraordinary job of taking care of her — redoing their spare room to resemble the home she’d left, driving across town for the muffins she liked, and then later performing the grueling duties of caring for a bed-ridden invalid. Compared to how most elderly people end their lives, my grandmother was incredibly lucky.

Yesterday, we went through my grandmother’s things: beautiful clothing (sadly, not my size!), jewelry, scarves, souvenirs of her many world travels, and a small packet of old letters. Although they’re both dead now, it still felt like an invasion of my grandparents’ privacy to read their love letters. I was shocked to discover sorority dance cards from 1930! I knew that she had loved college; for years she would describe the fur-lined gowns she wore at formals and she stayed in touch with many of her college friends. Still, I was surprised she kept these relics of the three semesters she spent in college before the Depression caused her father to lose his money. My mother once asked my grandmother why she didn’t go back to college when she had the chance. By that time, my grandfather – the son of immigrants who worked his way through Northwestern while supporting his mother and sister — was a college professor. My grandmother told my mother that she worried she’d embarrass him by not performing well.

I grew up defining my life against my grandmother, whose life seemed so conventional, so limited. And yet I realize that some day my daughter will sort through my belongings, and confront those items that mark my own unfulfilled goals, disappointments, achievements, relics of youthful passion, and select something to remember me.


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