Sunday, November 27, 2005

On Reading the Passive Aggressive Signs

The house is empty, all our family and guests have departed. Za and I sat alone in our living room last night, not sure what to do with ourselves now that everyone is gone. I have barely left my bed today, wanting to just hide under the covers and read a novel.

The absence in the house is palpable. The bustle and the bickering of relatives sharing a small kitchen space was, well, home to me.

The night before my mother and grandmother left, I snuck into my grandmother's room to apologize for not having enough time to speak to her during the week. She spent a great deal of time, in the background, cleaning dishes, sweeping floors, walking the dog, and raking leaves. No one asked her to do these things, but it is her way of being part of the family. It is not easy for her to sit still and just talk; she is a doer.

Za's family, on the other hand, are much more amenable to the cocktail and conversation approach. We put food out, make some lemon drop martinis, and talk about due process, the Bush Administration, or the post-Katrina nightmare. These are the conversations that light me up and energize me. I don't think, however, that my grandmother gets as much enjoyment.

Every time that my grandmother visits me, she reminds me that has never been the Nation's capital. I proposed we go the friday after Thanksgiving, and she seemed pleased. Friday came, however, and I was caught up doing other things and it slipped my mind. I wanted to finish raking, I wanted to clean the kitchen, and then, I had a few other guests to entertain.

To solve the entertainment problem, I got three movies and broke out the leftovers. My grandmother sat quietly in another room, reading a book. When the eating would end (we ate in regular cycles), my grandmother would enter the kitchen and start doing dishes. None of us stopped her, nor did we probably realize she was doing this.

However, the last time she set out to do the dishes, we were all aware she was in the kitchen. She started banging around pots and plates, slamming things on the table, and heaving loud sighs.

I started to scratch my head, scrambling to figure out why she was mad. My grandmother doesn't express her feelings. She has told me many times about growing up in a small county in Iowa. People don't talk, they do. But, clearly she was upset, and I didn't know why.

By the time I hit the sheets, I remembered that she wanted to go to D.C. I snuck into her room to apologize. She swore she had been happy the whole day. She wanted to do whatever I wanted to do; what mattered was if I was happy and enjoying myself.

My guilt sank further in.

We talked for about and hour. What I started to hear in her words, her accusations ("you didn't call me last year on Thanksgiving"), was a woman who is 85 and facing the end of her life. Her friends are dying. She lost her companion two years ago. My mother works all the time. Her grandchildren are scattered across the globe. She feels alone.

What hit me the most, however, was that she simply does not have the language to articulate this pain. She is the product of a different time and a different place: women didn't go to school, they stayed home and raised children. She knew how to milk the cows, tend to the chicken, and care for the home and hearth by the time she was 6.

No one cared what she thought or what she wanted. She learned to please others and to influence decisions through indirection: "wouldn't it be neat if you were to rake the leaves this way? Wouldn't you like that better Aspazia?" "I want to do what you want to do!"

But, like anyone who tries to be pleasant and self-sacrificing for too long without others insisting on pleasing you in return, she melts down. She doesn't scream, call names, nor does she pitch a fit.

Instead, she has learned the art of directing attention to her martyred state. Slowly, consistently and just-under-the-wire, her used-up-self begins to work at our guilt. Lest you think I am wholly mocking her, let me clarify that I do believe that she has been used-up, depleted, and it is reasonable for her to be resentful. I also think that we should feel guilty for letting her work this hard, with little return for her labors.

My grandmother is afraid of being alone and neglected. She wants to spend time with people, to laugh, to belong, and yet, she has very few skills for obtaining what she wants. We, however, have learned to develop skills to figure out what she wants, but we are slow in picking up the message until it is too late.

I have written about the art of passive aggressiveness before. I don't like it. I don't like that I have been well trained to read the signs. Yet, I don't want to ever forget that my grandmother did not grow up in a time where people taught or encouraged her to assert what she wanted. I do not want to forget that she isn't going to suddenly become loquacious, intellectual, and self-directed.

Above all, I don't want her to feel alone and neglected.

UPDATE: I just wandered up to the room my grandmother slept in to grab a sweater. On the edge of my dresser sits the bible that she and my grandfather gave me for my confirmation.