Last night, I held my Nanna’s hand as she took her last breath; a precious moment suspended in time, one that you can feel coming but even in it’s inevitability cannot prepare you for it’s finality. It was a vulnerable moment of the highest order, for anyone, but for us in the lineage of this fierce matriarch it was finally a chance to see her soft. Albeit, it wasn’t a chance taken by her own choosing but instead the effects of the morphine, but it was nice - for us at least - to see our head matriarch just simply being serene, to be able to have her hand held and hair stroked, as we convinced ourselves that if she were conscious she would not have beat us away with her walking stick.
Through my life, I had always known there was a hardness to my Grandfather and as I grew the realisation of the extent of that hardness also grew. There were unspoken violences, relationship riffs between the children and the parents and always for us, the grandchildren, a knowing of our place. We never saw the conflicts, there was a very deep knowing that certain things were not to be spoken of, but we could feel them. The children, who were our adults, our parents and our uncles, trying to navigate their adult years off the back of brutal childhoods in working class England, where even the weather could provide satisfactory torture for the children if their parents saw fit.
Up until my thirties, I worried for my Nanna - how did she fit into all of this? As a strong, independent woman I would imagine the oppression she lived in under the iron fist of this very strong man. Then during my thirties, a strange shimmering of my version of events started to occur. Some things happened at family bbq’s, words were said, sparks of aggression were witnessed and it began to become known to us - the granddaughters of the lineage - that the General of viciousness was not our Grandfather alone but our Nanna too. The older that she got, the more difficult it became for the presentation to remain and the true behaviours began to reveal more and more and more, until the day before she died reaching an undistilled crescendo of fever and vitriol; our Granddad having to be removed from her hospital room for his own physical and emotional safety until she could be sedated and all in the room could be beyond the reach of her swinging stick and her unbridled rage.
As I sat there in the room, with my Grandad stroking her face (for perhaps the first time), Dad, his wife, my two sisters, my daughter and my niece - all members of the same limb on this expansive family tree - watching Nanna’s last moments with prana in this lifetime, I couldn’t help but feel my Nanna’s whole life’s wrongs being brought to the fore in one suffocating, desparing detail - the absence of her other two sons. As I sat there and looked at this powerful being, this mother, grandmother, wife now so frail and small, I wished her boys would come for their own sake, just to see her in this way and let this be the last memory. A memory to eradicate the years of tyranny and fear, to gift themselves their adulthood from this point forward in seeing her vulnerability, just for the most fleeting of moments. I wanted them to just grow up in that instant and show this woman some respect, although, at the same time, I didn’t live their childhoods - I could understand the confusion and the pain of such an event upon them.
Looking at Nanna, I thanked her for the immense strength that she passed down to us women in her line, I thanked her for being a rebellious woman, I thanked her for the questions about love that she raised for us all as we tried to figure that out in the context of a Dad who had never received any from his own Mother, I thanked her for showing me the things I didn’t want to be but at the heart of that again and again, I came back to thanking her for her strength - imbued with her nastiness it was of course weakened - but a strength she passed on nonetheless. She taught me to not judge cruelty by gender, because for us, it has always been the women who have been the most ferocious. She showed me the good in my Dad, who I always lamented for being so distant, until I learned that he stayed distant out of wariness, in only knowing the patterns of parenting that he experienced and cautious he might perpetuate a cycle.
As three sisters born down the line from a viciously strong Nanna on one side and a powerfully stern Nanna on the other side and thankfully a somewhat softer Mother in the middle, we have taken some good, some bad. For me, the rage used to be ever present. Not justified by provocation, just something that seemed to sit like a toxic speck in each cell of my body - I’ve had to learn about softness, what it means to be a woman, how I can move beyond my sense of righteousness as a modern ‘feminist’ and be less hard, to explore the power in being deeply loving and the supernatural strength of kindness. I have learned through my own children, the well of love that exists within me, and as I become a Nanna myself in coming weeks, I look forward to being a powerful matriarch who laughs a lot, has crinkly eye corners and sneaks my granddaughter the best cookies of the batch.
I was so pleased when another of your sons did arrive last night, becausee at the end of it all, you were his Mum and whether good or tragic, anything we have in our lives comes down to one undeniable point - that without all the lineage that came before, we would not be here in this way, in this lifetime. From that springboard we make our choices, We step into our lineages because they are the ultimate part of our spiritual requirements - sometimes they show us qualities that inspire us and sometimes they show us qualities we learn directly are qualities best left by the wayside. Thank you Nanna for all the great memories you were able to give to me, as well as the scary ones that remind me to be soft. I wish you could have been so much kinder to my Dad so we all could have fasttracked our journey about love but you were on your own journey too. Nanna, you were a cantankerous, cheeky, terrifying, anarchic, overlord of the lady variety and I love you.