Of Matriarchs and Memories

My grandmother died today. I learned it upon waking up. As I drew a breath that she wouldn’t. I learned it by text message from a sister who didn’t want me to learn it by Facebook where my mother, in her grief, had recorded her mother’s passing. I learned it while still in bed, my body warm, my heart rate picking up just slightly as I shifted the blankets, one of which my grandmother gave me. As I stepped out of bed to walk to the bathroom where I would empty my bladder because the need was pressing. A need she no longer felt.

I moved through the morning as usual. Eggs, as usual. Backpacks, as usual. Shoes, as usual. Ushered three children and one dog to a minivan my grandmother never rode in because she was never well enough by the time we got it. Took the kids to school while trying not to show the edges of my grief because it is my baby’s third day of Kindergarten and she was already anxious to the point of tears. Tried to stay calm, breathe calm, my chest rising and falling in a pattern my grandmother’s body no longer remembers.

In her final days, her body dropped memories at a waterfall’s pace. How to speak. How to walk. Who was who. How to eat.

I tried to hide the edges of my grief but my middle child found them. Those middle kids, my grandmother agreed, are always more sensitive. He found the edges quickly. He looked at me closely. He leaned toward me as I gripped the steering wheel on the way to his third day of 4th grade. “Is Grammie still . . .” he whispered.

He had ahold of those edges.

In the back seat, my other children chattered to each other, their words blooming into arguments. They rode oblivious like I wanted. But my middle child pulled on those edge and and I shook my head no because Grammie was gone.

I held his hand as tears slipped from his eyes. I held his hand and my edges and he held his edges and we made it to school with no siblings the wiser. He went to class. My daughter went to class, and maybe I stayed with her just a little too long because I was reminded we never know how long we have. But then it was back to the car where I lost that grip and my edges cascaded and my eldest child, still with me, came to understand that the grandmother he had always known was no more.

In truth, she had faded much earlier, but there is existence and there is death. Religion offers structures for understanding each, but we do not ascribe to any set of rules other than “leave everyone better than when you met them.” So I could not guarantee Heaven on my grandmother’s behalf, although I could remind him that she believed in Heaven and we both took comfort in her faith for a moment.

But the morning wasn’t over. There was more to do. My life hadn’t stopped, see, and I was signed up for a workout at the gym I started going to after hearing my grandmother repeatedly wish death would come for her. After watching her shift in pain in a body that was too much all the time. Too much body. Too much pain. And then her mind began to narrow even as her body broadened until the mind was a pinprick and the body was a mass and there were no more trips to the bathroom without machines because there was no more walking or standing without breaking under the weight of the self.

I witnessed this and I joined a gym and I ate differently and I began to take care of my mind and this is a testament to a woman I loved who did not love herself even though she deserved love. She was inventive. She had four children and nine grandchildren and many great grandchildren and she loved them all and kept them safe in any way she could. She loved all of us and she was proud of all of us and she invented ways, even when she had not a penny, to feed and clothe her children and bring them to a hill where they could sled on cardboard and experience joy because she was a survivor. From the Depression to single motherhood to the loss of a child and on, she survived.

And the workout was brutal. The hardest scheduled for some months. One with repetitions of movements my body struggles with and my grandmother would have marveled to see. She would have marveled to see me. I knew it, so I went in unafraid, for the first time in a long time. I am always afraid of the hard ones. But I was unafraid. I was there because of her, and I would complete my workout because of her. And I did. I completed it for her. Every rep even though I was 4 minutes and 12 seconds beyond the time cap. For my grandmother, I persisted.

At home, I showered. I released more tears. I wrote these thoughts. I thought about my last visit and wished for one more and meant to call my mom but when I open my mouth, I cry. There are a lot of words here, but none of them are enough. Not a single one or combination can describe what those edges feel like or middle children who show you their own edges. There is no soothing sound to make once the matriarch is gone. She rocked you. She thumped your back with the rhythm of generations of mothers. She sang, and her voice was the most beautiful one you ever knew. She shared her stories. She loved you. She is gone.

image from pixabay.com

Shawna Ayoub

Shawna Ayoub is an essayist, fiction writer, poet and instructor with an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. Some of her work has been published in The Manifest-Station, Role Reboot, [wherever], The Huffington Post, The Oxford Review and Exit 7. Her writing explores the intersections of race, place and survivorship. She writes with honesty about her own experience in order to transform pain.

7 Discussion to this post

  1. Martha Alhieh says:

    Damn. I don’t know what else to say. There is a lot to reflect on there…I love you so much!

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  2. I”m so sorry, Shawna. No matter how sick or old or faded she was,, it’s jarring when someone who has always beenin your life, suddenly or not so suddenly, is gone. I’ve been a weight lifter for years and so was my husband. After he died, I tried to stay fit the way he tried so diligently when going through cancer therapy. It also helps blow out the grief steam. Second. It’s OK to cry–in front of your kids, with your kids, with your mom. If they aren’t used to sharing hard feelings, it’s a moment to teach your family that sharing grief makes the closest family love bonds. It isn’t all just happiness in this life. Kids know that and we can teach them it’s OK to grieve. and somehow we survive.

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    • Shawna Ayoub Ainslie says:

      Thank you, Elaine. I did a lot of crying in front of and with them once school was out. They weren’t sure how to feel, so seeing my sadness helped. You are right about the sharing of grief. I’m glad I stayed open.

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  3. Jsackmom says:

    This is so heartbreaking and beautifully written. I too know the love of my Gram who at 4″10 could move mountains with her courage, strength, and devotion to her loved ones. I hold you and your family in faith and prayer. ❤️

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  4. sorry for your loss Shawna. My gram passed over twenty years ago and I still think of her often

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