I squinted against the sun, peering over the ship’s railing. The unfamiliar vista of small, dancing wavelets and green hills capped by castle ruins mesmerized me.
The year was 1967. Back in Canada, the country where I was born and where I had lived all my life, centennial celebrations were ongoing. But that particular day, I drifted along a section of the Rhine River many miles from home. My mother and I were on a three-week vacation, travelling through Germany. We’d spent our time visiting relatives and sight-seeing.
Behind me on that sunny afternoon, two women spoke in German. I understood a word here and there but not enough to follow the discussion. Though I heard the odd burst of laughter, the conversation sounded polite, almost awkward. This might have been unremarkable in some circumstances but I found it odd, given that the speakers were mother and daughter—specifically, my maternal grandmother and my mother.
Many of the kids I played with when I grew up had grandparents living nearby. Sometimes, I envied them, because that wasn’t the case for my brothers and I. Our parents had emigrated from Germany after World War II, leaving their brothers, sisters, cousins, and parents behind.
This trip to Germany was my first opportunity to meet my mother’s mother. I am not sure what I expected. If anything, perhaps I thought my grandmother might be like the grandmothers portrayed in the movies of the day—kindly, solicitous, smiling.
My grandmother proved to be more like Marilla Cuthbert at the outset of Anne of Green Gables, solemn and forbidding. Tall, with slate grey hair severely styled, she seemed distant. My short hair and tomboyish mannerisms did not appear to meet with her approval, and she chided my mother more than once for failing to teach me German, a language that didn’t have much scope for practice in a small town in southern Ontario.
One day during our visit, my mother, my grandmother and I were walking along the street. I was in the lead, looking down now and then to admire my new patent-leather shoes, a gift from a relative. I glanced behind, finding myself puzzled yet again by the way the women interacted—stiff, reserved, not at all as I would have imagined.
Back home, my mother and I did tons of activities together—playing card games, going for walks, skating on little ponds that sprang up in the course of the winter in the neighbor’s farm fields. The two women trailing me didn’t seem to have that kind of closeness.
Is this just part of growing up? I asked myself worriedly. Will I be like this with my mother when I get older? I felt sad to think of my mother becoming like a stranger.
That visit to Germany turned out to be the one and only time I met my maternal grandmother. A few years after that trip, we received word that she’d passed away. We did not attend the funeral.
My mother herself succumbed to leukemia in 2001. In her final years, she jotted down a few brief snippets about her life history in a brown, spiral-bound notebook, which I hurriedly stashed with the other contents of her writing desk when we cleared out my parents’ house prior to selling it. Months later, when I found the time, I unpacked the boxes, one by one, ultimately finding the brown notebook. When I leafed through the pages, I had an “aha” moment when it came to the mystery of my grandmother’s demeanor.
The journal revealed that my mother had been born out of out of wedlock, the result of a relationship that didn’t work out. Her mother wanted to give her up for adoption, but mom’s great-grandmother, her Oma, wouldn’t hear of it and took mom into her own home to raise her. It must have been difficult for someone that much older, who had thought themselves long past the child-rearing stage to take this on, but if Oma had any reservations she kept them hidden. My mother’s journal tells of a happy childhood overall.
The journal also confirmed what I’d suspected—my mom’s relationship with her own mother was not particularly close. Now that I know more about the back story, I wonder if the look I took for disapproval back when I met my grandmother was more internally-focussed. Perhaps my grandmother, in studying me, sought signs of resemblance to a remembered face. Maybe she found me to be yet another unwelcome reminder of past choices and actions.
I’ll never know.
Though undeniably there was a stigma attached to having a child out of wedlock in the 1920s, I would say to my grandmother, if she were still alive, that good came out of it. My mother grew up to be a kind, gentle person who was loved by family and friends. She had three children—my two brothers and I—who each led fulfilled lives.
It would be easy to pass judgment on the choices my grandmother made. Instead, I have tried to recognize the strength and courage it must have taken to give my mother up to be raised by another family member. In some ways, I feel sorry for what my grandmother missed out on, as a result of both geographic and emotional distance. She didn’t get a chance to watch my brothers and I grow up, or to share in special moments along the way.
I think of my grandmother sometimes when I spend time with my own grandchildren—building block towers, reading picture books, or playing outdoors. Her example makes me appreciate those special moments all the more.
In the end, maybe that’s not such a bad legacy.