She is wearing a black blouse with bold pink flowers. Cabbage roses, they are, as big as her smooth cheeks, which are blushed to match them. I recognize my grandmother in the photograph, but her sweet, hopeful gaze, and the invincibility of her youth is that of a woman I do not know. It is 1943. Kathleen is twenty. She is the wife of a young man who is leaving for war. She is a young mother of two baby boys, my own mother not yet a sparkle in her eyes.
On her young face, there are no lines etched by three decades of factory labor. None textured with the grief of widowhood, which will come to her when she is forty-four, less than a year after I am born. There is no trace of the sorrowful eyes that I remember, the eyes that were a window to the pain of her loneliness, raging diabetes, and the heart disease that would take her life before she turned seventy. No, this Kathleen in the photograph, wrapped up in the arms of a handsome, bright-eyed soldier, who does not know what the war will do to them, is a vision of hope, of purpose, and of life all out in front of her.
Would that we could know the innocence of our grandmothers. To know the girls that bloomed their wisdom. To be friends with the women they were when their best days were in front instead of behind them. My grandmother had grit and humor, grown of her struggles. She taught me to trust my voice and the power of raising it. I loved her and appreciated her rough edges, which often snagged the tapestry of expectations about traditional grandmothers.
She was special to me because she was my grandmother and she loved me unconditionally. She was extraordinary to me because she was a woman who survived great hardship and profound grief and still she could belly laugh at a dirty joke and find joy eating sweets against doctor’s orders, or watching professional wrestling, or teaching her grandchildren how to curse like male factory workers in the 1950s.
But I wish my affection for my grandmother could have been rooted more deeply, as well, in the whole being of Kathleen. I wish her life could have overlapped with my desire to know her better. I wish I would have asked her what it was like to be twenty. In 1943. When she was young and the world was at war. I wish I would have asked her about that crazy blouse with cabbage roses and the bright blush upon her cheeks, and what she was thinking when she posed with my grandfather for that photograph. A photograph that is an artifact of the 1940s. A photograph that is evidence of both my tether to and my distance from my grandmother, far away and across the distance of eighty years and two generations of a family.