It was the nineteen thirties, in rural Nova Scotia. A young woman, just 18, was starting married life with her new husband, and her newborn baby daughter. They had some property, and a house which her husband was still in the process of building. Every weekend he’d add a little more to it. In the meantime, though, the wall studs stood bare as ribs, and the sound of hammering often echoed through the tiny home.
The young bride lived close to her parents. Her mother, still young herself, also had a baby daughter. The bride’s daughter, and her sister, were very close in age and growing up together – more like cousins than niece and aunt. But there was a difference between them. The new mother’s daughter was a first born baby, to parents just starting out. Her clothes were sparse – what could be knitted in the months of pregnancy. Their resources were slim. But the baby sister – ah, well, she was the youngest of many, to parents with piles of hand-me-downs, to parents well settled.
The baby sister had clothes and luxuries that simply were not available to an 18 year old girl and her new husband. The girl would look at her own baby in her skimpy clothing, and feel inadequate next to her mother’s experience and resources.
But what really got to her were the black leather booties.
Her baby sister had tiny leather booties, very fashionable at the time, while her own daughter’s feet went bare.
Those booties ate at the poor young mother, as she looked at her barren house, the exposed wall boards, and her little daughter. It ate at her that she couldn’t even afford leather booties, the way that her own mother could for her newest child.
And so, one day, her husband brought home a pair of booties. They were tiny, and soft, and fashionable, and expensive.
They were every bit as good as the baby sister’s down the road.
Fast forward seventy five years.
The 18 year old bride is now a tiny, 93 year old woman. She is a grandmother, and a great grandmother. One of her many granddaughters lives in the old house once built by her husband, who passed away more than 15 years ago. The house’s walls have long since been insulated and drywalled. In fact, they need some repairs. And so, they have been renovating.
In the walls, on a supporting board once used as a shelf, they found a pair of black leather baby booties.
They bring it to the tiny matriarch, and she holds them, and she smiles as she remembers.
…Fast forward another year. She is told that her oldest son is dying of cancer. She does not go to see him in hospital, can’t bear the thought of watching him struggle for his last breaths, but writes him a note, bidding goodbye to her child. Then she sits back and waits for death to claim her and take her back to him.
Her daughter, a grandmother herself now, comes by every day to care for her, but the visits are not always remembered. Mostly she sits alone in her room in the care facility, and looks out the window with big, puzzled eyes.
She reads and rereads letters from her baby sister, now an old woman too, and each time she reads the same letter, it is new to her.
She is told that she has now become a great, great grandmother, and she smiles vaguely at the picture of the tiny baby in a strange woman’s arms.
I am 27, and visiting my grandmother at Christmas time. My husband and I find her room and look in. She is sitting in her rocking chair, and clutching a blue teddy bear to her chest as she rocks back and forth, looking at nothing.
She recognizes me, and is delighted, but she never uses my name. She clutches the hand of the grandson-in-law whom she has no memory of meeting before, although she recognizes him from photographs on her wall.
She holds me tight in a gnarled old hand, with skin as fragile as tissue paper and soft as a baby’s. She shows us a picture of the great great granddaughter. She tells us that babies are such a blessing, that when I was born my hairline looked the same as my father’s. She asks me if we know what we will name our baby.
I won’t discover that I am pregnant for another week.
She rocks, and she holds us tight, and her eyes fill with tears when she realizes that we must leave soon. She shows us pictures, and she talks about when my uncle was small. She tells us that the nursing staff put snakes in her room at night. She has been terrified of snakes all her life.
“I don’t think they were real snakes, Nana,” we tell her gently.
She rocks, and she holds me close, and tells me how much she loves me, and she looks at us with big, sad eyes.
“I never meant to live this long…” she says miserably, “I keep hoping I won’t wake up…”
and our hearts break for her.
…I got a phone call today.
It would be wrong for me to be sad. I should be happy for her, relieved for her, and in a way I am.
My Nana passed away today.