I’m writing today because my 95-year-old-grandmother’s dementia is progressing and it has me thinking about the story of her life (and what I might say at her memorial).
When her husband, my grandfather, died 5 years ago, he mentioned numerous times (to my dad) that he felt so bad because he had cheated. My grandfather was the charming, supportive, playful loving parent/grandparent. And my grandmother… people use terms like opinionated, willful, particular, not the most nurturing terms. Like people say “you’re so much like your grandmother” whenever I would fight against something, and it wasn’t always a compliment.
And then my own D-Day came 3 years ago and it blew apart what I thought I knew about cheating. I started thinking: what if my grandpa had only been charming to us? What if my grandmother seemed so edgy because she was being abused for decades and was trying to cope? What if our family narrative is all backwards about who the nurturing parent/grandparent actually was and is? Grandpa traveled to work while she was raising four kids and self-employed at home (piano teaching) so she could attend college classes for her mental well-being. So, pretty mighty, all in all, but unhappy (now I know why).
Or: a lot of what we all know about cheating, which you dispel here, is predicated on being able to get a divorce rather than eat cake. But at some point (100 + years ago? 50+ years ago?) people really couldn’t divorce, and maybe all our stupid cultural narrative about falling-in-love-with-schmoopie-and-staying-for-the-kids, has some truth to it for our ancestors. Did you know that Ancestry.com has unearthed that 1/10 of people don’t have the biological father we thought?!
I think about these things because Right Now, 2021, people who cheat are lame. Likely in the past, they were also lame, and patriarchal themes woven in with keeping hostages (wives) etc to boot. Maybe we need to acknowledge that for a long time people couldn’t leave marriages safely and that’s where this narrative is rooted…?
And with my grandma, I decided not to tell her about the cheating, she hardly remembers her husband now anyway, but maybe I should have before the dementia got this bad. Everyone else in my family thought “No, we wouldn’t want to hurt her” but I know, for me, it would have been the opposite of hurt, a huge validation that the guy who was devaluing me was really truly an ass.
Granddaughter of the Patriarchy
Dementia or no dementia, I would go visit your grandmother and I’d tell her how much you admire her.
“Grandma, you’re such an impressive woman. The way you valued education and the arts. I admire how you always earned money, which is something many women of your generation did not, or could not, do. And I admire your feisty spirit. You always have an interesting take on things, and boldly expressed your opinions.”
In short, you could take the qualities of her life, that as you suspect, were forged from chumpdom, and tell her how she is mighty.
Whether or not she knows (or once knew) that Grandpa was a cheater, she probably does NOT know how much you respect her. That’s good news that would be happily received. You see her. You understand. You hold her in high esteem.
my grandfather, died 5 years ago, he mentioned numerous times (to my dad) that he felt so bad because he had cheated.
It makes you wonder if he told his wife he “felt so bad” too? Or was this just another conspiracy against mom, son was supposed to take the grave?
If he didn’t tell Grandma, this is a benefit of impression management Grandpa gets (oh look! I feel bad!) without the difficult confession to the woman he harmed. It strikes me as rather, “I’m dying, you clean up the mess. Bye!”
a lot of what we all know about cheating, which you dispel here, is predicated on being able to get a divorce rather than eat cake. But at some point (100 + years ago? 50+ years ago?) people really couldn’t divorce, and maybe all our stupid cultural narrative about falling-in-love-with-schmoopie-and-staying-for-the-kids, has some truth to it for our ancestors.
Yes, except men (it was most often men) could just up and abandon families too. Just like they do now. Run the rails out of town. And there was no safety net for those women, except their own families, and whatever job skills they had. (Probably scant few.) Abandoned family stories are all over genealogy. No wonder your grandmother kept the piano lessons and education going. She probably constantly feared being left.
So these cheaters were not being noble — “I’m staying for the kids” — they were enjoying the power of cake.
Of course women throughout history have cheated as well, but with much higher stakes, including risk of pregnancy, no reproductive freedoms, and the same perilous inability to support oneself. (Makes the Pick Me Dance stakes much higher.)
Maybe we need to acknowledge that for a long time people couldn’t leave marriages safely and that’s where this narrative is rooted
Leaving a marriage has always required bravery. And there still are systemic injustices in place that make it difficult (see child support enforcement yesterday), not to mention the perceived loss of status, the remaining religious and cultural shame of divorce. And yet, abuse and a lack of agency is worse.
Women fought very hard for the right to vote, to be educated, to have workplace protections, and have divorce reform — and we’re still fighting. (Family care leave anyone?) We can do better than the previous generations of what we will tolerate. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants, as the saying goes.
I don’t judge anyone of an older generation for staying with a cheater. Or an alcoholic. Or a beater. That’s how it was. They must’ve felt very alone and resigned. I have nothing but compassion for your grandmother. Within the confines of her life, she fought back for her autonomy. With her opinions, and her money, and her education. All while raising four children.
I also acknowledge the women of her generation and the ones before, who braved divorce and abandonment. My great-great grandmother Jaeger was one of them. Short story:
She was brought over from Germany at age 15 to marry a guy she’d never met. (He’d fallen in love with an Irish Catholic, so his father had gone to the Old Country to find him a proper bride.) She had six children with him and then he died. She became a well-to-do widow, because she ran the business he left. Which caught the attention of a fuckboy who pretended to love her. He became her second husband.
When she found out he didn’t love her (my grandmother left out the particulars on what transpired)… My grandmother would tell this story and mimic her grandmother’s German accent: “Love vlew out da vindow.” She divorced him.
This was the turn of the last century. Scandal be damned. She threw the bum out.
Decades later, in the 1980s, my grandmother gave me her brooch. (She thought it was creepy and Victorian.) As far as I know, that’s the only thing in the family anyone has of hers.
I’ve only worn it a few times — in divorce court. To honor her memory.
Here’s to the chumped generations of our ancestors before us.