This is my grandmother Signe and me shortly after I was born in 1963. Signe was my dad’s mom, and when this photo was taken, she was 59.
I’ll be 59 in a few days, and I can say, without a doubt, that I’ve lived a very different life in 59 years than my grandmother did. Signe lived in the same town all her life, she drove with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake, she was a prolific knitter, she wore jewelry—lots and lots of costume jewelry—and she never remarried after her husband died.
Other than premature gray hair, the only thing I share in common with Signe is that we were both widowed at a young age. How we experienced and expressed grief was like night and day.
When my grandfather Martin died in 1937, my dad was six and Signe was eight months pregnant with my uncle David. She was so distraught that she never wanted to hear Martin’s name spoken again. My dad, named after his father, was called by his middle name after that.
On the outside, it would seem that Signe became something of a maverick after Martin died. She went back to teaching country school and obtained a loan to buy a house, which she fixed up as a boarding house for single female school teachers. For extra money, she made donuts on Saturdays and sent my dad down the street selling them for “two bits a dozen.” Dad never got more than three blocks from home before running out.
I respect Signe and all she did to survive and raise her children, but am sad that she shared none of her grief experience with me. At the time my husband died, she was the only person I knew who understood what I felt, and yet, harnessed to a similar yoke as me, she never talked about Martin or his death, even when I pressed her. Signe only let me know her as a fun grandma who brought books, crayons, and puzzles when she visited, played Candyland and Canasta whenever I asked, and let me add too many drops of pink food coloring to the frosting when she made Aunt Sally cookies. She always had a pack of Beechnut in her purse, kept a bottle of Southern Comfort in the door of her refrigerator, and never missed The Lawrence Welk Show. I really wish I could have known the other woman, too—the grieving widow—but Signe kept those feelings buried deep.
Grief is as old as life, and most everyone will experience it at some time before they die. Thankfully, how we express and share grief has changed dramatically over the years. Unlike 1937, and even 1983, there is a greater degree of social acceptance of grief, although we have a long way to go with how we comfort those who are grieving (see Operating Instructions). More people are writing books about grief, both from a personal and therapeutic perspective, and the Internet offers thousands of sites that connect people who are grieving all types of loss. I wish Grandma would have had access to that type of support.
When I was nine, Signe signed my autograph book: “Be kind, be good, be always as loving as you are now. You are sweet as a girl, so continue being so and you will be a sweet old lady.” On the cusp of my 59th birthday, my grandma and I still only share gray hair and grief, but I do aspire to be the same sweet old lady she was (whenever I decide when “old” is).