A curated webspace for Poetry, Politics, and Nature. Over 16,000 daily subscribers. Over 7,000 archived posts.
I was ten years old the morning I found my grandmother dead. She was my caretaker, and our neighborhood in Queens was serene while many residents were out of town celebrating the last three-day weekend of summer. My mother and father weren’t at home, and my grandfather was visiting his sister, Rusza, in Paris.
I knocked on my grandmother’s door. She didn’t answer. I cracked the door open and got a whiff of her perfume, Soir de Paris. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the sheer white curtain swaying in front of the open window overlooking the street.
My grandmother lay beneath her soft, checkered Scandinavian wool blanket with fringes. On her headboard rested a book by Graham Greene, The End of the Affair; a hairbrush; and an empty bottle of sleeping pills.
“Grandma,” I called softly from the doorway, “can I go to Cindy’s?” There was no answer, and within ten minutes an ambulance pulled into our driveway and took my grandmother away forever.
Now, more than fifty years later, I realize the impact that experience—and my relationship with my grandmother—had on my life. My mother, who was dealing with her own grief, felt somewhat helpless to comfort me, but since she kept a diary herself, she bought me a journal with Kahlil Gibran quotes at the top of each page. That journal became my companion during those difficult times. Little did my mom know that it would set the stage for my life as a writer.
There wasn’t much talk about Grandma until one day more than twenty years later when my parents were moving out of my childhood home. While packing, they stumbled upon my grandmother’s retrospective journal, which she’d written after emigrating from Vienna in the early 1930s. Only after reading it did I come to understand the deep roots of my grandmother’s depression, which had clearly tormented her for her entire life and eventually led to her suicide at the age of sixty-one.
I tucked the journal away and pulled it out many years later, just after my breast-cancer diagnosis. I was hungry for answers about my own battle with depression and my new diagnosis—after all, no one in my family had ever been diagnosed with the disease. I considered the possibility that my grandmother had committed suicide as the result of a cancer diagnosis that she’d kept to herself, because in the 1960s, cancer was stigmatized. However, that wasn’t the case. I learned that she’d committed suicide because she was unable to release the demons of her childhood.
My grandmother was orphaned during World War I at the age of twelve, and soon thereafter, barely fourteen, she emigrated to Vienna and lived in an orphanage while working full-time in a bank and attending school. The pages of her journal revealed her compelling tale of survival. The story pulled me in and had a profound impact on me.
While reading, I realized that I’d never connected with another woman in the same way. As a child, I was an extension of her, and even more so as an adult after her passing. She was the person who planted the seeds for my writing career—not only because she was so devoted to the written word, but also because she taught me how to type, and my first book was written on her typewriter.
I remember that, back then, her black Remington typewriter was always perched on her vanity. One Saturday morning before breakfast, she invited me into her room.
“Have a seat,” she told me, pointing to her vanity chair. “I’m going to teach you how to type. This is a handy skill for a girl to have, plus, you never know what kinds of stories you’ll want to tell one day.”
She took my right hand and positioned it on the home keys, carefully placing one finger at a time on each letter, repeating the same gesture with my left hand. She taught me how to touch-type, something that has saved me as a writer, so many years later.
After my annual mammogram in May 2001, I received one of those dreaded phone calls requesting my return to the hospital for additional tests.
My breast-cancer saga led to disturbing months laden with biopsies, blood work, long waits for results, and a great deal of mental anguish.
During that angst-ridden time, I thought a lot about my grandmother. I reached out to her spirit and her love. Once again I wondered if she might have had breast cancer but kept it a secret. I reread her journal over and over again until I was assured that that hadn’t been the case.
Although my grandmother chose to end her life after so many years of hardship, her life story was one she felt compelled to share in her retrospective journal. I’m so glad that she wrote down her thoughts and feelings and am relieved that she chose to keep the journal tucked away in her closet, since she could have just as easily destroyed it. Had she done that, I would have never found it, and telling her story would not have been possible.
Learning about and writing about my grandmother’s life has been my way of keeping her alive. After knowing her for the first ten years of my life and then reading her journal, I now realize that there were many aspects of our personalities and sensibilities that were similar. In addition to both being writers, we were both strong and resilient women, and we were both caretakers.
Reading the journal reminded me of the intrinsic value of writing and the value of passing on stories from one generation to the next. Grandma’s journal was the greatest gift she could have ever bestowed upon me. Her words and life experiences have, and will continue to, inspire my own writing, as I hope my own words will do for future generations.
I completed my first memoir, Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal, on what would have been my grandmother’s 100th birthday. While writing, I recalled every image and memory of her, and the result is a renewed understanding of her life and what she endured. Reconnecting with her as a result of writing about our relationship made me realize that a life without love is no life at all, and that those who’ve survived severe childhood trauma continue to live with their pain until the day they die.
It is with this new understanding that I will hold my grandmother’s soul close to my heart . . . and will never let it go. Every day during my writing hours, I realize that from all bad comes good, and I offer her thanks for inspiring the writer in me.
Copyright 2023 Diana Raab. First published in You Might Need To Hear This.
Yes, it is a moving account of a childhood memory.
LikeLiked by 1 person
What a moving essay❤️
How one gesture, one small taught thing can change a life…