'If you could live your life all over again, with everything exactly the same, would you?'
I asked my grandmother this question one afternoon, as we walked along the streets near our home. I remember looking up at her to see her response. I was around 10 years old. I don’t remember where we were going.
‘No,’ she said, with barely any hesitation and without adornment.
I remember the moment, my silent confusion. I waited for her to explain, but she said nothing further. I didn’t ask her why she answered that way. I couldn’t have formulated that question. It was too vast an idea, that she felt as she did, that there had been not enough happiness in her life to make her want to repeat it, even if that was on offer. It was a hard answer for a child to hear.
I don’t know why I asked her. I have no recollection that she ever spoke of her life, of her experiences: her two husbands, her family, the jobs she had done. Nothing. Although I was 15 years old when she died, and I loved her very much, I have little memory of what she used to talk about. I have little memory of her speaking at all. I remember her second husband, my mother’s stepfather. He held a lit cigarette to the back of my hand once, when I was staying with them, as some kind of warning that he was displeased with me. I have no memory of him being soft with her, with his wife. No memory of kindness.
When I think of Ada, my grandmother, I have a sense of a profound silence, an ineffable passivity. All of the stories I have of her came from my mother – the daughter she didn’t raise, because she was working as a live-in maid in other households, looking after other people's families.
Ada was the only girl among four siblings, and as a child her father doted on her so she learned music, learned to play the piano, unusual in her working class family. It was a statement, apparently - an investment in the possibility of another kind of life for her. That life didn’t appear, and at 27 she had a shotgun wedding and shortly after that her husband disappeared when his corner shop went bust due to the Great Depression, her own mother refusing to allow Ada to take a small baby and go with him on the road.
The facts are unremarkable for the time and the place, but to live the flesh onto those small bones of information is another matter entirely, of course. My mother described her childhood experience of her mother as that of meeting ‘a pretty lady who came to visit me on Saturday afternoons.’
It hurts to type that, although they are both now dead. I feel so for the girl who had no frame of reference even for missing her mother. And for the woman who had no language, and then no impetus, to articulate her loss.
I never heard my grandmother play the piano. I never heard her sing. I barely remember her speaking voice. She told us no stories. And I think of her right now, when I feel myself drift – as I seem to more and more – into disconnection from any form of hope that things might work out.
I feel the soft skin of her cheek, feel close to the swallowing silence of a life you would not choose to repeat.