PETTING WILD BEARS (AND OTHER STORIES)

A Feminist Genealogy of Grandmotherly Love

 by Emily Hill

 

We learn about love in childhood. Whether our homes are happy or troubled, our families functional or dysfunctional, it’s the original school of love.

—bell hooks, All About Love

Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.

— Proverbs 3.3

 

My grandmother was a woman of stories. She used to tell her grandchildren the same tales about her life over and over again, from the epic pier to pier sea swim that earned her a dog as a child, to the time she mistakenly pet a wild bear, to the first time she tasted peanut butter, and many stories about operating top secret radar systems during WWII.

By the time that I left my hometown in 2001, at the age of eighteen, these stories, which in my childhood had seemed so real, so certain, and so permanent were falling away piece by piece, along with my grandmother’s mind.

As Alzheimer’s disease rapidly enveloped her life, feminism was steadily taking root in mine. At university, far away from the Northern Ontario town where my grandmother lay dying, I was embracing the life of female resistance modeled by the feminist literary heroines I was reading. As my grandmother’s stories faded from her own mind, the stories of Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Radclyffe Hall, and Maya Angelou were planting themselves in my soul. The message they carried—that women’s lives mattered even, and perhaps especially, when they were complicated, disordered, and uncertain—allowed me to believe that my life mattered too.

When I received them as a child, tales of my grandmother’s life before Alzheimer’s seemed perfect, polished as they were by a lifetime of her recitals, and protected from the messiness of their lived reality by time and familial filters. The safe, warm, and loving realm in which her stories existed seemed worlds away from the cold basement apartment, filled with heartbreak and loneliness, where I lived. As I tried to figure out who I was, I wrote to my grandmother’s family, friends, and neighbours, hoping to collect the stories that I thought could save us both from the total darkness that seemed to exist outside of their protection.

The mass letter I sent in January of 2003 informed each of its recipients that my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s was worsening and that she often no longer recognized relatives and friends. I invited those who had loved her to participate in my New Year’s resolution of compiling and preserving my grandma’s story by sharing their own memories of her. Within months I received dozens of letters and photos from all over Canada and the UK, providing me with snapshots of her life.

I wish I could say that I did something productive with the amazing archive of collected memories thus assembled, but I didn’t. Each time a letter arrived, I hurriedly read it through once, then shoved it in an envelope at the back of my closet. Even after my grandmother’s death in October of 2003, the archive remained untouched. Although I wanted to hold onto her stories, her death marked the official end of my childhood, and I knew that I could never restore them to the perfect wholeness that they had formed in my mind.

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My life as a twenty-something was typically tumultuous, and my pursuit of feminism kept me busy studying women’s writing, creating alternative communities, protesting the war in Iraq, and generally getting into mischief. When I came across my long-forgotten archive in an old bureau earlier this year, I was surprised by its contents. I’d always thought of the experiences in my early twenties at university as the birthplace of my feminism. But when I re-read the letters about my grandma, I was surprised to find within them the portrait of a woman who shared my fiercely passionate, subtly subversive, lovingly rebellious, and beautifully imperfect feminist spirit.

What I couldn’t see as a young woman was that the magical realm of love created by my grandmother’s stories was born not out of a flawless life, but out of life very much like my own, filled with misadventures and mixed feelings. Confronting these letters again now, overwhelmed by the fragments of my grandma’s life that sit in front of me, I feel as if there is too much to write. The only thing that seems right to do is to spin a story out of the bits and pieces like she would have done, and to find myself again without fearing the rough edges of love.

I have not created a comprehensive biography, but rather a collage of collected memories clustered around three pivotal events in the life of Eve Patricia Watts (aka Paddy or Pat). For a long time I thought that a good feminist story required the protagonist to engage in public acts of resistance against oppression; however, in my grandma’s stories, like those of so many women, feminism takes subtler but no less powerful forms, expressing itself in private reactions to the intricacies of everyday life. The three pivotal events in my grandmother’s life that I will be discussing—her move to Canada, my grandfather’s death, and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease—represent moments of discomfort and change for my grandma. Without Alzheimer’s being part of this story, it would be too easy to write over all the difficult bits by weaving them neatly into a tale of triumph over adversity. Instead, I am telling a different kind of tale, one in which a woman’s life and a grandmother’s love refuse easy summation; they reveal the complex beauty of a life lived within the messiness of love.

Introduction

 

Moving Into The Unknown

I know Paddy discussed with my father whether she was being unkind to leave her widowed mother here in England and go over to Canada to marry Gordon. My father’s advice was that her first priority must be to herself and that she should go and marry Gordon and live in Canada.

—John, my grandma’s cousin

Pat came to The Soo [Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario] about 1946 to meet the Watts family and decide whether to get married. Very adventuresome for those years! My memory tells me that she arrived in the weather—plenty of snow—a usual SSM winter… I also believe that she definitely didn’t want to be a war bride—hence the separate trip.

—Betty, my grandfather’s niece

I often wonder what it must have been like for her coming so far from her home and family to Canada at the end of the war. Just the change in culture must have been an eye-opener. When she and your grandfather moved out to their home on the highway, they didn’t have a lot of neighbours.

—Fran, my grandma’s friend from church

 

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Growing up in small city like Sault Ste. Marie, it was exciting to have a grandmother from a faraway place called England, where they used expressions like “I’ve got to spend a penny” when they had to go to the bathroom. By the time I came along in 1982, my grandmother had been in Canada for over thirty years. Therefore, my vision of England as a child came directly from my grandmother’s memories of middle-class London during the 1920s and 30s. I imagined England as a fanciful island where kids lived in “flats,” drank tea, played tennis, and went on long summer vacations to the Isle of Wight.

I never thought about what it must have been like for my grandma to leave that place. My grandmother told many stories about the disruptions that WWII brought into her family’s life, but mentioned very little about the disruptions her own choice to move to Canada must have caused. Her impetus for emigrating was my grandfather, Gordon, a Canadian she’d met in Belgium where they were both stationed during the last part of the war. My grandma was a member of Britain’s WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), and had volunteered to go to Europe to work as a radar operator—a job she proudly told us was Top Secret! My grandfather was a photographer with the Canadian forces, and his job was to take pictures of soldiers’ graves.

Although we all imagine that their courtship was an exciting romance against the backdrop of falling bombs, we actually know little about their life together in Belgium. We do know that my grandmother refused to be married until the war was well over, because she did not want to be labeled a war bride. I’m told that, when my grandmother brought my grandfather home on leave to London in 1944, she was clearly smitten, but that she spent many months afterwards debating whether or not to choose marriage to Gordon over her life in England. Each of the letters I received from my grandmother’s cousins mentioned how difficult it was for my grandmother, an only child, to decide to leave her widowed mother behind in the UK.

In the process of making her decision, my grandmother came to Canada for a month to meet my grandfather’s family. She arrived in the dead of a bad Northern Ontario winter, but the bitter cold and snow were not the only difficult circumstances she encountered. In one of the most interesting letters I received, my grandfather’s niece described my grandmother’s first visit in 1946 as that of a refined and generous English lady arriving into my great-grandparent’s “dark and scary” home. As a child, I had heard that my great-grandfather—a train engineer who was often on the rails for several days at a time—was a heavy drinker with a razor strap he didn’t hesitate to use. At the time, I didn’t know that my great-grandmother was illiterate and suffered from an unnamed disability that required her family to care for her on a daily basis. As my grandfather’s niece pointed out in her letter, even without the cultural differences, this would have been a challenging home to enter.

My grandmother did join the Watts family several months later, when she returned to Canada again, this time with her mother and dog, to be married. One of the funniest stories I learned about this period involved my grandmother’s beloved terrier, who accompanied her almost everywhere, including to a tea party my grandfather’s sister had planned. My great-aunt had put out her special prized teacups to impress her brother’s English bride, but the first thing my grandmother did was pour tea into a china saucer and place it on the floor for her dog. My grandfather’s relatives were scandalized, but too polite to say anything to my grandma.

It didn’t take long for my grandma to settle into married life in Canada. My mother remembers fondly the home she grew up with her two siblings just north of Sault Ste. Marie. We used to drive by “Old 1256,” as it was affectionately called, on our way to the beaches along the north shore of Lake Superior, and my mom would tell us tales from what seemed to be an ideal 1950s childhood. My grandma’s life “back home” occasionally entered into those tales in the form of an overseas phone call or visit from relatives. But, as far as my mother could see, my grandma was completely at peace with her decision to leave England.

I can’t help but feel that that peace must have been hard won. Reading through the letters, I’ve been thinking about what might have been going through my grandmother’s mind on those two long transatlantic boat journeys. I imagine her worrying about the same kinds of things I worry about every time I enter into a new venture: Am I going in the right direction? If so, why does the journey feel so hard? Is this path leading to misery, happiness, or something in-between? Afterwards, when things settle down, it is easy to forget about those worries—and to be caught by surprise when they reappear, as they inevitably seem to do. On my grandmother’s third transatlantic journey, this time back to England for her mother’s funeral, I imagine the grief and guilt she must have felt at not having been with her mother during those last years. Even though she had created a beautiful young family in Canada, perhaps she wondered why she had to leave one family behind in order to gain another.

Despite pervasive narrative patterns reinforced by countless films with happy endings, the rewards of moving forward can never fully erase the pains of leaving the past behind. What I see in my grandmother’s fragments is that every step forward required an element of sacrifice that wasn’t always easy to accept. In a patriarchal world, the sacrifices demanded of women are often greater than those demanded of men. Although my generation is no longer bound by the same gender norms as my grandmother’s, many women are still asked, or all but forced, to leave huge parts of themselves behind in order to succeed in their marriages, careers, and social circles.

As a feminist, I often think about whether the sacrifices I’m making in my life are truly of my own choosing, or if they are rather the products of continued gender disparity. Gender, identity, ambition, and desire are entwined in such complicated ways. This is especially true for women because female identity can never simply be assumed. Instead, it must be fashioned out of the difficult work of confronting the patriarchal structures that limit our ability to imagine who and what we’d like to be. I don’t know if this work can ever be truly finished. What I do know is that my grandmother also carefully weighed her options, and that she did not let fear of taking the wrong next step prevent her from moving forward. When pressures to conform to prescribed norms interrupt the hard-won peace I’ve managed to cultivate, it takes all of my courage not to be overwhelmed by feelings of fear and deficiency. I am here because my grandma refused to turn back to the predictable path, and, for that reason, I continue to trudge forward and cultivate trust in my own ability to face the unknown with faith and determination.

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Being Comfortable with Solitude

Mom would tell us stories of the little white church in Tarentorus that dad and her decided to try one evening instead of going to the cathedral. They continued to go to that little white church, Holy Trinity. Both her and dad were very involved. Her strong faith had a big influence on me. When mom could no longer get herself to church, I would drive her. I now miss having her sitting beside me in the pew.

—Susan, my grandma’s eldest daughter

When Gordon passed away Pat was very lonely and that affected her.

—Millie, my grandma’s longtime friend

Don’t be afraid to trust an unknown future to an all-knowing God.

—Grandma, written in her Bible on June 17, 1988

 

My grandfather’s death is only mentioned in one letter, and only to say that it “affected” my grandma. I was four when Gordon died and I only have a few memories of him. I remember him running to the door with a bowl full of candy when my sister and I came to visit. I remember him demonstrating how to use a bendy straw from his hospital bed when he was dying of cancer. My final memory is of seeing his dead body in the casket at the funeral home. From what I’ve been told, he and my grandma were an ideal couple. The letters describe them working together to raise a family, hosting memorable Christmas dinners, supporting their church and various charities, and going on yearly vacations.

The narrative that my grandma and grandpa had the perfect love story ran deep in our family. When one of my relatives was going through a rough time in her relationship a few years ago, she told me that all she wanted was a marriage like theirs. I remember trying to convince her that, although it looked perfect to us as children, there had to be as many struggles in their marriage as in any other. Trying to think of concrete examples, I asked, “What about when grandma had to move across the ocean to be with grandpa, or when he died and left her alone for the last fifteen years of her life?” Although it was largely hidden from me, I sensed, even as a child, that my grandmother struggled with loneliness after my grandfather died.

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In daily life, I thought it was awesome to have a granny without a husband, because it meant that she could devote all of her time and energy to us grandkids. We all loved being with my grandma, and we used to fight over who got to sleep in her bed when we stayed at her house. Even after I had long outgrown getting cuddles from my parents, I used to love sleeping next to Grandma because it felt like the warmest and safest place. In my cousins’ letters, they recount the same experience of my grandmother’s love and devotion. She ate at our houses most nights. She attended all of our events, sport games, and graduations. She played games with us and let us watch TV late into the night. She took us to church and prayed for us. Many people described my grandma as “living for her children and grandchildren” after my grandfather’s death. But, thinking back, I wonder what she felt on the nights we weren’t sleeping next to her.

Sometimes, especially as I moved into my teen years, I would run into my grandma outside of our usual familial spaces. I would see her out walking the dog, or run into her in a coffee shop, or spot her in the distance at the mall, and I would catch a glimpse of the particular kind of solitude that comes from moving through the world as an unattached woman. It wasn’t a weak or pitiable solitude, but rather the kind of bold aloneness that is cultivated through relaxing with loneliness.

All of the letters praised my grandmother’s commitment to her family; however, I am equally impressed by her commitment to relationships that extended beyond the bonds of kinship. Part of what allowed my grandma to embrace solitude with grace was the female community of widowed women from her church, who formed what one letter described as a “circle of comfort for each other.” After my grandfather’s death, my grandmother shared the intimacies of daily life with many friends, including her best friend Marion. Even as a child, I could see that there was something special about their friendship, which seemed to have the ability to transform the loneliness of two women into a powerhouse of love reflected back out into the community.

My grandmother was my first example of how to live well as a single woman. In my twenties, I lived in fear of the soul-crushing kind of loneliness—the kind that says “you are alone because there is something wrong with you”—that seemed to come over me most often in the dead of night. As I age and cultivate my own circle of comfort, the panicky and anxious loneliness I used to experience is slowly being transformed into the bold aloneness I witnessed in my grandma. Now, when I’m walking my dog alone in the morning or going to bed alone in the evening, the memory of my grandma has become a companion in solitude, just as she was for the women from her church. Her example allows me to feel like I can face the world as a single woman with my head held high.

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Living Amid The Fragments

The last time we went out together we went to the new Swiss Chalet for lunch. She told me her memory was not good, but it was not long afterwards that she had to give up her home for the Retirement Home.

—Millie, my grandma’s longtime friend.

Grandma is failing. When we couldn’t visit her for one month because of a flu virus the nursing home wouldn’t allow visitors. I couldn’t believe the change. She is in a wheelchair now and I really don’t even know if she knows me anymore. That’s why this little project for you reminds me of the good times we had.

—Jennifer, my grandma’s youngest daughter

Visiting her is very hard on me because I know how things used to be and I find it difficult to sit and talk to her knowing that most of the time she has no idea who I am. But I always think back to the times when her face would light up and she would smile from ear to ear whenever any of her nine grandchildren would come over to visit.

—Brad, one of my grandma’s nine grandchildren

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One of the big downsides to living alone is that it is difficult for others to see when you start to lose your mind. The signs of Alzheimer’s were subtle in the beginning, and my grandmother hid them well. The early signs were not that out-of-the-ordinary for a person who regularly lost her keys or called her grandchildren by the wrong names. It was when other scarier things started to happen—my grandma getting lost on the way home, accidentally hitting a pedestrian with her car, hallucinating about men appearing in her house—that we started to understand the severity of what was happening.

I witnessed firsthand the way Alzheimer’s can invade not only a mind but also a family. Some family members refused to believe that Grandma was doing “that bad,” while the reality of my grandmother’s worsening condition consumed others. By the time that Alzheimer’s had fully taken hold, I was old enough to be privy to everyone’s interpretations of what needed to be done. The only person who did not speak about it in my presence was my grandmother herself. I don’t mean that she didn’t complain about being forgetful, or worry out loud about having to move into a retirement home; she just didn’t name the disease directly or say what we were all thinking about it tearing her life apart.

The thing that happens to many older people with dementia, where they repeat stories from the past as if they happened yesterday, didn’t happen to my grandmother. Or, if it did, I don’t remember that phase well. What I do remember is that the woman who used to tell us at least three times every summer the same story about the time she pet a wild bear was growing quieter and quieter. The story of the bear had always been my favourite as a kid. I could so easily imagine my grandma stepping into the woods near the old gas station up on Highway 17 N, reaching her hand out and gently patting a bear on the head while my grandfather stood at a distance waving his hands frantically and shouting “This is not the gas station with the pet bear!” At the end of the story, my grandmother would tack on the moral lesson: “If you aren’t afraid of the big scary thing in front of you, it won’t end up biting you.”

In those last few years, it was hard to witness my grandma being so savagely bitten by the big bear of Alzheimer’s and no longer being able to extend her hand without fear. In front of our eyes, she dwindled from being a vivacious and beautiful woman to a skeleton in a wheelchair. Whereas she’d always carried herself with pride as a well-groomed and well-dressed older lady, she now looked tired, unkempt, and small in the nursing home. A woman, who one letter described as “Junoesque” (an old fashioned adjective meaning “marked with stately beauty”), was collapsing in on herself.

Before I went away to university, I used to go visit my grandmother in the nursing home regularly. Sitting by her bedside, I would look at the mementos my family had placed in her room: current photos of her grandkids, old photos from when my grandfather was alive, artwork my younger cousins had made, decorative trinkets from her home. Contemplating these fragments from her former life, I’d always wonder: How could a life so well lived end this way? My grandma’s friends and family members repeated the same question in their letters as we collectively witnessed the deterioration of a woman we loved.

Now, over a decade later, as I once again sit and contemplate the fragments of my grandma’s life, the question of “why did it have to end this way?” is far from my mind.

Perhaps the passing of time has soothed the anger I felt towards Alzheimer’s disease, or perhaps distance has softened my memory of the indignities of my grandma’s slow death. But, honestly, I think the change in me has more to do with the way that I’ve come to understand life. We fear Alzheimer’s disease because it forces us to confront the illusion that we are in control of the stable and rational identities we create for ourselves. Closer to the truth is that our lives are fragmentary, and any seamlessly straightforward narratives we attach to them are our own fabrications and fictions.

In order to explore these fragments without fear, I’ve had to adopt my grandmother’s ethos of love. What I learned through the letters is that she had the courage to move into the unknown, not due to the sentimental and heterosexist love of contemporary romantic narratives, but through a deeply spiritual love that gave her the strength to face the difficult journeys of life without turning away. Her bold aloneness was an act of faith, a choice to believe that she would have the fortitude and support she needed wherever she went, even into the unknown depths of Alzheimer’s disease.

For most of my twenties, I was searching for the right feminist foremother to guide my way. It turns out that she was hiding in plain sight. I have become a feminist autobiography scholar—a collector and teller of stories like my grandma. The feminist frameworks that now inform my vision are resistant to the types of grand narratives that simplify or write over the difficult parts of women’s lives. Of course, I wish Alzheimer’s hadn’t come into my grandmother’s life. However, I’m grateful that the disease’s refusal to be subsumed into a perfectly happy ending has led me on a journey of discovering the beauty of my grandmother’s fragments.

I still struggle each time I feel called in a new direction. In those moments, I find myself being tempted to take refuge in familiar and predictable, though not very nourishing or healthy, narratives of female identity. Revisiting my grandmother’s stories has given me renewed confidence to continue faithfully stepping into the unknown, trusting that love can be found amid whatever pieces await me there.

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ABOUT

Emily Hill is a feminist autobiography scholar who has managed to turn her lifelong love of reading and hearing other people’s stories into a semi-professional gig. She just completed her PhD in English & Cultural Studies at McMaster University, and is currently working on publishing parts of her dissertation on Victorian working-class women and labour. She is a member of the Women’s and Gender Studies Association of Canada, and has spoken at multiple conferences on themes related to women and autobiography.

 

“Petting Wild Bears (and Other Stories)” is from our MOMS Issue (spring 2015)

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