Their roles had reversed. I watched my mother switch roles with her mother, who was my grandmother. After a long journey of eighty-two years my grandmother could no longer live in her rented apartment. By all accounts, she had lived a blessed life, albeit a simple life. She was raised in a rural setting, near a small town in South Carolina. She was a loving wife to a kind and generous man. Together, they raised four children, two boys and two girls. One of her daughters suffered with a failing heart until she passed on at age twenty-two. Her other daughter was my mother.
My grandmother’s life was wholly focused on caring for her family. After her remaining children grew up, married, and moved away, she carried on that tradition by offering to care for her grandchildren. This gave her grown children and their spouses an opportunity to visit, then leave their children under her care while they spent some time away as a couple. This was a splendid arrangement, until my grandfather died. I was ten-years-old when this happened, and I remember hearing my mother explain to my dad that Grandmother was afraid to live alone. So, this was the first role reversal. Grandmother became the one who went to live with one of her grown children. It appeared that she would receive care. But, she perceived that she was the one to watch after her grandchildren all of the time.
After a couple of months, grandmother left my uncle and aunt’s house and came to live with us. At our house, she repeated her practice of caring for me and my two younger brothers. But, I noticed something that I now know is called friction. Grandmother was not able to sit by and watch my mother do things different from the way she did those same things, to include cooking, cleaning, sewing, and teaching my brothers and me on how to behave. In about two months, Grandmother left our house to go stay with the uncle and aunt where she had not yet been. I remember this as a sad time for everyone. Usually just before, a social crisis compelled her to have to move somewhere else, Grandmother defended herself by saying, “I can do something.”
This cycle of unhappiness for her mercifully ended years later after Grandmother had exhausted her welcome among extended family and friends. She met someone, and she remarried, to live a content life once more for about twenty years, after which she was able to adapt to living alone in an apartment. In that apartment, she had control. When relatives visited to help her, Grandmother’s wishes were final. I went there several times with my mother to do some cleaning. I witnessed another role reversal. I saw my mother argue, “I can do something, to help.” This is such a simple phrase, but the context shifts, depending on who says it and why.
Essentially, it is as much a plea for a spiritual need to do something in order to feel good about helping someone else. At age eighty-two, Grandmother entered a state nursing home. My mother and other relatives felt bad about that, but there was little recourse, for all of us were poor. Statistically, her life should have lasted from a few weeks to a few months more. This is not what happened. She lived for five more years.
The nursing home was filled with people who needed someone to do something for them, far beyond what the hired staff was capable to do. This was an environment, made for my Grandmother. She made it her business to get out of bed, meet everyone, get to know them, encourage them, invite them to share friendship, meals, and she continually did something to make every one of these people feel like they mattered. They did matter to her. I was with my mother on a visit, and we saw Grandmother with a mop, cleaning up a mess on the floor left by one of the other inhabitants. Grandmother had been visiting with the woman, and when something happened, she pitched in. My mother reacted, told her mother that she did not need to be doing such things. I remember distinctly, seeing my Grandmother lean on the mop handle as she said, “I can do something. I can do something that matters to her,” she said as she touched the other woman’s shoulder.