In the family portrait, my grandmother sits prim and pretty in a white party dress, hair fastened by bows, eyes solemn. Behind her is a wall of black suits, slick-haired brothers with faces like bulldogs. Her father stares at the camera, thin-eyed and well fed; her mother curves her shoulders forward, perhaps hunching around the baby whose long christening gown glows white against her black dress. The baby was an afterthought, raised once the sons had graduated and departed, the only daughter allowed an education. My grandmother went to work at twelve in a hat shop, crying for months as her dreams fell away like petals.
I imagine her behind a counter, ribbon in hand, dreaming of lights strung between trees, the swish of a silken dress, the lush chords of a band. After the war she married a gentle Swede whose service in the balloon corps let him float above the mud and carnage unscarred; they settled in a house rimmed with lilacs. I never knew my grandfather, who died while my mother was in college–a heart attack, she said, from working so hard to pay tuition.
Like all the Jansen women, my grandmother had beautiful skin, high cheekbones, a slightly bulbous nose. The only German things she retained were a stiff formality and the Christmas ornaments her mother brought over on the boat, four little birds made of silvery glass, glazed and sprinkled with glitter. Their tails were plumes of glass fibers, and each bird bobbed on a tiny spring soldered to a metal clip. My mother hung them at the very top of the tree, out of our reach, but still they wobbled sideways, the colored glaze chipping away year by year.
The last day we visited her, my grandmother and mother sat in the kitchen as my sisters and I regarded her meager toy collection—a wild-haired doll that creaked “Mama” when it bent over and a wooden ark filled with crudely carved animals. Tendrils of cigarette smoke twined above their heads as they sipped Maxwell House and filled a cup with red-stained butts. Beside the table hung a calendar of Christ in the Garden, staring up at moonbeams piercing dark clouds. Saints’ names marked each date, holy days of obligation in red. Thin as a winter branch, my grandmother seemed like a saint sustained only by cigarettes, a bite of bread, a sip of wine.
* * *
One night in college, as friend and I lay in a field and gazed at the stars, she said, I don’t know what kind of woman to be, except I don’t want to be my mother. I can’t believe her innocence and helplessness. The grass smelled like sunlight on straw, still warm and ticking from the August sun. We’d laughed together at our friends in the local beauty pageant, mocked the Jane Austen talent displays and swimsuit scholarship competition. Yet we’d watched. In the darkness we tried to imagine what lay before us, how to balance the self-cancelling roles that demanded our lives.
* * *
When she was young, my mother wanted to be Nellie Bly, the girl reporter who feigned insanity to expose asylums and who traveled the world like a man. My grandmother told her to study something practical like education. In my attic I have a crumbling album filled with sorority dances and homecoming parades, my mother’s headshots from beauty pageants. She is elegant in satin dresses, rhinestones, crushed corsages. Married weeks after graduation, my mother never taught, never wanted to.
I don’t know if this is a loss or victory. Though my mother sometimes laughed, “I never really wanted to work,” there was a time when investments turned sour and a second income could have saved all, and yet she seemed to know nothing. At the dinner table, in bank accounts and politics, our father ruled the household. She gave her opinions only when he was gone, when the house was quiet, when we asked her point-blank what she really thought. Even then she often fluttered, “Oh, I just don’t know.”
After my last sisters had left for college and I’d moved a thousand miles away, my mother wrote me a pleading letter, seeking the closeness she’d never had with her mother. I never answered it, threw it away, still burning with adolescent anger over the times I needed her and found only distance, the time I longed for university and was told to be a secretary. My mother is fading now into the fog of dementia. Having saved her later letters, I’m amazed at their lucidity.
* * *
In a silver box given to me by a sister, I have my grandmother’s rosary, carved from mother of pearl. As a girl I sometimes knelt before the blue-robed statue, the Madonna eternally young and shockingly white, eyes rolled to heaven and hands stretched forth to be a handmaiden. My mother’s Book of Saints was filled with women who faced torture and death with maddening passivity. For each story, I imagined the same plaster face, my mother’s long-suffering face, the face I promised myself I would never wear.
My mother named me for Joan, the peasant girl who heard voices and rode into battle in armor and a billowing cape, her eyes like fire. Though I’ve rejected my mother’s religion and evaded her dreams, in my wallet I carry a card of the Black Madonna of Lublin. My Polish friends whispered that under the Nazis, the painting wept real tears; under the Communists, blood. Shadowed in ochre and brown and smoke, her tired face seems like a real Madonna, a saint worthy of prayer.
* * *
Sometimes my sisters and I tried to imitate our mother’s upbringing by walking elegantly with books on our heads. We laughed when they fell and felt pleased when they didn’t, as if books were for balancing, as if keeping them perched atop our skulls were the true accomplishment. In the years I knew her, my grandmother moved haltingly, leaning on a metal cane, one foot sliding across the ground. My mother told me, “The doctor told her to exercise, but she refused, even when he said her leg would die. She wouldn’t even go walking. Exercise wasn’t ladylike.” Beneath the hem of her skirt or slacks, my grandmother’s wooden leg drew my eyes like a demon.
They were flowers, my grandmother and mother, brittle and fragile and pretty. Though I hated their weakness and vowed to hold my own power, I see, in the curve of my grandmother’s hand and the tilt of my mother’s head, a grace and elegance lost, like a language I’ll never speak.
After my grandmother’s death, my mother brought home a little jar of frosted glass, once filled with crème perfume that smelled like lilacs. My sisters and I held it under each other’s noses, pressed our fingers into the greasy edges to capture the last bit of scent. When my mother threw it away, we grieved it like lost springtime. Years ago I planted a lilac bush, now grown high and wild because I can’t bear to prune it. Every spring when its scent wafts across the lawn and through our windows, I close my eyes and think of my mother, her mother, childhood homes wreathed in blooms.
*Although Patti Crouch grew up in the Rockies, she’s been in the Northwest for most of her adult life. Her essays have appeared in various journals, and she teaches in Tacoma, where she lives with her husband and sons.