What’s a Mother to Do?
by Ann Edwards Cannon
The Red Bag
[p.122]My grandmother and I often worked at cross purposes: I would put things out for the Deseret Industries truck; she would whisk them off my front porch and put them back on my shelves because I might need them later. She would bring over fried chicken for lunch; I would tell her that I had already fixed us some tuna sandwiches. That’s the way it was with us. We loved each other, but we drove each other crazy.
She was a woman who took profound delight in the company of very young people, my grandmother. Perhaps because the memory of her own Cache Valley girlhood was ever fresh with her, she understood children utterly—their fears, their triumphs, their rages, their pleasures. And she also understood what small children want the adults in their lives to provide.
I can remember crawling into her bed long before the sun was up where I chattered away like a noisy little bird as she listened to me, interrupting occasionally to ask the kinds of questions people ask when they are really paying attention to you, and when she laughed, it was always in the right places. Sometimes she told me her growing-up stories—how she’d loved playing softball with her brother and swimming in the icy waters of Bear Lake. How she’d hated her freckles and rubbed a special preparation on them to make them disappear. How she’d wanted Santa to leave her a doll with a china head for Christmas one year.
She was particularly gifted at providing the kinds of small physical attentions children savor—she would scratch my back for hours as I watched cartoons in the afternoon, and when night fell, she provided warm milk laced with honey, as well as flannel quilts and pillows sheathed in crisply cool pillowcases. She relished, in fact, all the little jobs of maintaining children—brushing hair, filling up the bathtub, getting out the toothbrush.
One morning when we were outside, my grandmother told me that trees had their own secret language.
“Can you understand them?” I asked her.
[p.123]“Yes,” she said. And then she translated.
My grandmother loved me hugely when I was little, and I loved her back.
As I grew older, however, things between us became more complicated. Eager to prove to the world that I could take care of myself, thank you very much, I began to find her attentions annoying. By the time I was a teenager, they even felt intrusive—like attempts to control me.
“I’m not a baby anymore,” I would whine to my mother. “Grandma treats me like a baby.”
Even after I was married with babies of my own, my grandmother hovered—advising me how to eat and what to wear when the weather turned raw—and I responded sullenly, assuming that her remarks were implied criticisms of the way I was running my life.
Sometimes I would watch her with adults who weren’t members of the family and marvel at how wonderful she was with them. Warm and wise, interested and intelligent—she inspired genuine, lasting affection. She kept in close and constant touch with women she had known for fifty years.
There were those times when the two of us would come together in a grown-up friendship, too. We’d compare plans for our gardens, for instance, while sipping sodas and sitting outside to enjoy the breeze. Peers. Comfortable in one another’s company. But then she’d start fussing—had I read that article on what too much sun could do to my skin? Did I know that laundry detergent was on sale at Sears and should she place an order for me? That’s when I would turn as mulish as a teenage girl in love with the wrong boy, digging in my heels and refusing to turn from my course of action.
Whenever I would complain about the ways my grandmother interfered, friends would look at me like I was crazy. “How can you whine about a woman who brings Jell-O salads and cleans up your house every time she comes to visit?”
“She brings salads because she thinks my children are starving to death,” I would tell them. “She cleans up the house because she thinks I won’t do it myself.”
One of those friends eventually told me to grow up. “So she doesn’t do what you want her to do. Get over it. Give her some space.”
[p.124]This really stung. After all, I wasn’t the one giving my grandmother suggestions for improvement every time she turned around. Excuse me, but I wasn’t the one trying to change her. When I pointed out these things to my friend, she shrugged.
“She doesn’t think you’re incompetent. She gives you advice because she wants to be important to you.”
Which, I grew to understand, was the truth. My grandmother had a hard time accepting the fact that the children she’d loved so much—my mother, my brothers, me—had changed into people she hardly recognized. She worried, I think, that once we put childhood behind us, we would cease to need her, not realizing that we needed her still, only after a different fashion.
And so she continued to tell me what to do and I continued to ignore her suggestions. But I listened, at least, and I was usually kind. Whenever we ended one of our conversations, she told me that she loved me, and I told her that I loved her.
The red bag, however, stirred up all my old resentments. The night before we left for our year in New York, my grandmother showed up with an old red leather bag.
“Do you have a first-aid kit?” she asked.
I shook my head no.
“I knew you wouldn’t, so I put one together for you.” She handed me the red bag stuffed full of bandages, Tylenol, Neosporin cream, cottonballs, and rubbing alcohol.
I was tired. I was hypersensitive. I said I didn’t have room for one more thing. I gave her back the bag. She said I was tired. She said I was hypersensitive. She said of course I had room for a first-aid kit. She gave me back the bag.
“That damn bag!” I spluttered later to my husband. “It’s a symbol of my entire adult relationship with Grandma.”
The petty part of me wanted to leave the bag behind, but in the end I stuffed it somewhere in the back of the U-Haul and promptly forgot about it.
Several months after we left Salt Lake City, my grandmother became gravely ill. Six weeks later she died.
Not long after her death, my son Dylan sliced his finger open. “I need a band-aid,” he cried. “I need a band-aid.”
Since a band-aid is the only thing rarer at our house than a library [p.125]book that isn’t overdue, I told Dylan we would have to stop the blood flow with napkins from Little Caesar’s. But then I remembered: I had a first aid kit, a really nifty one with band-aids and ointment, too, a gift from Grandma across time and miles with no strings attached. Not long ago I had a dream. I dreamed I walked into a room and found her sitting in a chair.
“I’ve been wondering when you would show up,” I told her. “I’ve been busy,” she said. “You know me.”
“Yes,” I said.
And then we walked outside into the white hot sunlight. The grass was green and steaming, and the branches overhead were filled with glossy birds who—I’m not joking—were chanting African folk songs.
Unrushed, my grandmother and I linked our arms and listened to them, enjoying their fine and unexpected performance.