For the last three months I have been helping my dad fulfill his mother’s last wishes as the executor of her estate. It has been one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life to say the least. Death brings out the best and worst of people, reveals the heart of family members, tests other relationships, and reminds us of the importance of treating family members well.
The Journey Home
I haven’t been home to visit my dad in Carolina in a month, but I have stayed in more frequent contact with my father. Gramps (my grandma’s nickname) is no longer here for my dad to call and check on, so he is lonely now. With no father, no mother, and no sibling connections anymore, he has no one now except me, “his big girl” or so he likes to call me.
My dad’s younger siblings have shown their displeasure with my grandmother’s affinity for my dad during the handling of her burial arrangements and attempts to circumvent my grandmother’s will, leaving a wound that’s likely to never heal. Money and other people’s stuff makes some people lose their minds. I have been my dad’s unlicensed pro bono legal representative for the last few months, helping him get ahead of the ensuing messiness of the family estate squabble.
He’s been distraught lately with all the tasks of running around informing my grandma’s bill collectors of her death, looking for a realtor to sell her home, learning about her accounts and contracts, and locate/read mail which would give leads about who my grandmother owes or her assets. One of my aunts went to my grandmother’s house and stole her file cabinet containing all of her contracts and documents, so my dad has no way of fulfilling his obligations.
My dad is almost 70-years-old and doesn’t have the patience, stamina, or skill to handle the legal challenges and impediments his siblings are about to hand him on a rusty platter, so I needed to go home to help him get things done. His sobriety and mental health are on the line. I watched my dad almost die several times a few years ago prior to getting long-term inpatient and outpatient substance abuse and mental health treatment. I can’t go through that again. I’m trying to have a season of living my best life before the next series tragedy occurs.
So, big girl goes home. My dad is happy, comforted with the fact he has family around. He feels alone. He needs help, and he has no one to talk to now with his mom gone. Suddenly, his children have become more important than ever. No longer does he take us for granted, and the way he treated me during my week-long visit changed my feelings and perceptions about my dad. I also learned so many valuable life lessons about treating family well and taking caring for those who take care of you.
Each morning I awakened to coffee made just the way I like it and 2-boiled eggs, my usual breakfast prior to getting on the road. I really appreciated it. In the evenings, my stepmother made dinner for me and we ate together. Things were different now, and suddenly I appreciate their love language much more than I did before. We even got to go fishing one night (it was freezing). It was fun fishing with my dad, something I hadn’t done in years.
My dad needed my help. He was usually strong. But this job… taking care of his mother’s estate, going through her belongings, and learning about her private affairs seemed to be too much for him to deal with. He felt going through her things was an invasion of privacy that was too much to handle alone, so I did it with him. I did it for him.
I must admit it was more therapeutic for me than it was for him. I learned more about my grandmother than she could have ever revealed to me in person.
What I Learned About My Grandmother
I had no feelings about going into Gramps’ home to take inventory and pack it up. I wanted to do anything I could to make the process quick and painless. I had 3 full-days and one half day to pack and clean an entire home. I had no time to fear or be uncomfortable. This was business.
My grandmother’s home was neat, mostly. Although she was a 90-year-old, her rooms, and closets were immaculate. I learned a lot about gramps.
My Grandma Was Very Religious: Gramps’ life was church and God, and everything in her home illustrated that. She had more religious books than I could count. Bibles in every room where she’d sit and read, making notes. She had religious photos throughout her home symbolizing one of the most important relationships she had in her life. She prayed without ceasing.
Gramps Was a Creative: My grandmother was a Creative Soul. Although I’ve known her all of my life, I never put two and two together to realize she loved creating. She was a writer, even until a few months before she died. She was a professional seamstress most of her life, a cook, she knit, she taught, a nurse, she enjoyed making things. I realized we had a lot of things in common. This made me very sad because I could have learned so much about myself had I been able to have an adult relationship with her. But she treated me so bad as a child I wanted nothing to do with her.
Gramps Had Many Talents: My grandmother had an organ. I never knew she played. It was covered up with an old tablecloth hiding in a corner of her dining room. I learned something new. My grandmother was a master seamstress. She sewed for years. I had forgotten she taught me to sew. She showed me how to make my first pageant gown. I was so proud of creation. I didn’t win, but I was the only contestant that didn’t buy my gown. My grandmother made all the curtains and drapes in her home. She was talented, modest, and extremely underrated in her skills and abilities.
They treated her as if she was a homemaker, but I learned she was much more than that.
Gramps Made A Living Doing What She Loved: Gramps was a small businesswoman, turning her outdoor storage room into her sewing room. She made professional wedding dresses, prom gowns, bedding, curtains, children’s clothing. In going through her things I remembered her having me help her place patterns on cloth to get the most out of it, pinning the patterns down, then using her electric scissors to cut those patterns out. None of her other grands were interested in sewing except me. I owed her for teaching me the life skill, yet somehow, I’d disassociated my mind from it until now. Suddenly, I had a new-found appreciation for the woman I had long disliked because of her partiality in grand parenting.
Gramps Connects Me To Slavery: Every room I packed led to more discoveries. I found old photos of my aunts, uncles, and cousins who had served in the military. I found my dad’s old photos of his father who had died when my father was very young. I found census records where my paternal great-grandfather had been born in 1901, and his parents were slaves, named after their owner’s last name, Kennedy. Most Southern African Americans have last names of the people who owned them. It felt great to put some past to my present. So many times African-Americans can only go back 2–3 generations, with no real knowledge or evidence of our roots like other immigrant groups. I was excited to have a historic starting point without having to turnover my DNA to complete strangers to do God knows what with.
I always wanted to know more about my heritage but I had no starting point until my grandma’s death. I learned something else. My grandmother had saved a newspaper article of one of her family’s White, former slave owner’s descendants who is now a probate judge. The irony.
Going through her things was fascinating for me, but also very sad.
Gramps Was Lonely: One of the important tasks I had was packing her intimate belongings. In doing so, I ran across her journals. She had so many, some were almost thirty years old. My grandmother wrote about how much she loved her children, but also how they all wouldn’t come together for some odd reason. That reason was never revealed. I learned as she aged she was extremely lonely and she wrote about God keeping her company along with her sister who was deaf.
In one journal entry, she talked about how some of her kids didn’t come visit her for Christmas, making it not as complete for her. One of those kids that didn’t visit was my dad. She talked about my dad a lot, and often paper clipped cards from hand delivered roses on Mother’s Day, inside of her journal. Her other kids usually took her out to dinner, but it seems my dad always offered her memorable gifts. She wrote about my dad like she appreciated him the most of all her children, although she didn’t convey that in person as she aged.
She wanted her daughters to be something they were not, and that was grateful children who would care for their mother as they aged. She once said she the reason she had children so she would have someone to take care of her when she got old. She made a huge mistake placing her eggs in that basket.
My grandma’s writings detailed her anguish of wanting her kids to sit with her, talk to her, carry her around to run errands, and love her the way she wanted and needed to be loved. Gramps wrote that on some occasions her children wouldn’t even check on her to see if she had groceries, and if they took her to the store, they would leave the groceries in the car for her to carry in the house alone. Gramps was also sad a lot throughout her life, disappointed in her family. I learned so many life-lessons about how ignorant adult children can be, love, dying alone, aging in place, end of life, cultivating friendships outside of religious institutions, and the thankless job of caretaking. The most important lesson I received was the life of a creative is a roller coaster.
Gramps Was Proud of Her Children and Grand Children: She often wrote about her family was, how smart we were, and how beautiful her children and grandchildren were. She was proud of her offspring, which is something she never conveyed to me.
Gramps was complex, seemingly a good woman, and had I not been treated so poorly by her, perhaps I could have appreciated all of her wonderful attributes. Although I can’t undo the damage done by my grandma, I can work on improving my relationship with dad.
My dad understands how my grandmother’s behavior caused the divisiveness we are experiencing today. He’s also learned from his mother’s mistakes, vowing not to make the same mistakes my grandmother did when it comes to loving and correcting offspring. Kids are never too big or too old for correction.
The Life Lessons
Writing your feelings down is not only be therapeutic, but it can also leave your true feelings behind for loved ones to ponder post death. Sometimes we don’t know what our loved ones think about us, but having their words written by their own hands is a nice to leave children and grandchildren for their own edification. Sometimes it’s a rebuke.
If you enjoyed this story, perhaps you’d enjoy reading more about my dysfunctional family: