My Southern grandmother is dying, and I don’t want to go back

 

Cary’s classic column from

I finally escaped the deadly web of small-town Southern life. But it keeps pulling on me!


Dear Cary,

My grandmother is dying. I grew up in the deep South, so of course, there are a lot of obligations that go with having a dying grandmother. Especially when said grandmother is a pillar of the community. Luckily for me, I live in Oregon, so I get a pass on most of the obligations. All I have to do is call and chat with her every now and then, send a few cards, and show up at the funeral, which I hear could be any day now.

Of course, it’s never that simple. I grew up on the usual mishmash of bigotry, hypocrisy and Southern Baptist hospitality that occurs in the South. So when I was 16, I fled and have only returned for visits every year or so. It’s hard to cut it off completely, because of course, my dozens of aunts, uncles and first, second and third cousins all still live there. Family is important, and I try to keep up appearances, but my heart is not into it.

Out of this entire huge family, my grandmother lived the nearest, a short walk from my house, so she played a very big role in my childhood, which basically means she forced me into a lot of things: church, piano lessons, dresses, you name it. Throughout my teens and early 20s, my naive childhood love for my grandmother was replaced with hatred for trying to make me into someone I was definitely not. A few years ago, I realized that, obviously, she did it out of love for me, and it’s not her fault she grew up in the generation she did, in the place she did. So I stopped being angry with her and visit whenever I go home, but I’ve just felt kind of blank toward her these last few years.

She’s been really sick for a year or two now. I’ve gotten the “Grandmother’s about to go” phone call at least four times. But she’s pulled out of it every time. So here’s my problem: The last time I went home was in September. I had a good visit with her and figured her dead within the month. She’s hung on, though, despite the odds. I, however, haven’t spoken to her since that visit. I’m over it already, I guess. Unfortunately, she hung on long enough that other family members have begun to realize that I haven’t called in a long time.

Naturally, the phone call came two days ago: She’s really going this time. Tonight, I got an e-mail from my aunt begging me to call. I know it’s probably going to end up being a big family drama, because I’m not going to call. But should I tell my aunt that and start the riot before my grandmother is even in the ground? Or maybe I should just cave and call her already, she’ll be dead soon, and it will make everyone happy except for me.

I’m just not a sentimental person, I guess, but I don’t care that she’s dying. I know it’s harsh, but it’s what I really feel, and those people made me spend a lot of years hating myself. I like myself now and I like acknowledging what I really feel. However, it is a large, relatively close family, and I’ve finally gotten away from being their black sheep. Do I really want to make this stand and have to go through it all again? And should I bother with going to the funeral if I don’t even care about calling her? Talk about hypocrisy. Life is stupidly messy sometimes. Thanks in advance.

The Prodigal Daughter

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Dear Prodigal Daughter,

I hope your grandmother is still alive by the time this reaches you.

You are to be congratulated for extricating yourself from the baffling maze of polite intrigue, manipulation and deadly charm that characterizes many but not all Southern families. You are to be congratulated for figuring out what you yourself feel, as an individual, and for learning to express it and put it into action.

Now forget all that for the moment and call your grandmother.

Having discovered who you are, you will not lose it by reverting to form for the sake of family unity and memory. Call your grandmother. Call whomever you are supposed to call in this moment. Do whatever the moment requires of you. Go there and be a part of it. Better than that: Be an exemplary part of it. Bring to it everything you have learned about straightforwardness in the presence of obfuscation, humility in the face of arrogance, open-mindedness in the face of bigotry. Go there and do your part when it is time.

It is OK that you don’t feel as if you care that she is dying. You have already prepared yourself for this event. That is natural. It is unpleasant to be emotionally whipsawed, as you have been, by premature reports of her passing. One naturally defends oneself against further such false alarms. But because you have armored yourself against her eventual passing, because you have let her go, does not mean that you don’t really care. It’s just that you have prepared yourself. And perhaps you have prepared yourself precisely so that you can go, and can be of service, while others are overcome with the shock of finality.

So call, and go, and do your part to bury your grandmother. Then go back to Oregon and pick up where you left off.

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