Lessons from Granny

VANESSA SMEETS

Mamy1

LIGHT OF OUR LIVES: Granny was a beacon of light in how to live life to the fullest. PIC: Vanessa Smeets

I miss my granny every single day since her passing 21 months ago… She endured a lot in her 89 years. She stopped school at 14 to start working and help her family in a little Belgian village. She survived the hardships of war and falling in love just as it started.

She chose career over family at times and although she once confided in me that this was her biggest regret, she smiled: “One child, one life, to give all I had to give.”

The last time I held her was the eve of my 26th birthday:
“Granny, do you know what day it is tomorrow?”
“I’d rather not, my sweet poupée (doll in French). I know it’ll be my last one with you.”

She sent a birthday card every year of my life. But this message was the hardest one to endure, because there would be no card in the post the next year or the next… There would just be the gaping side of love: the yearning for that hug at the airport, the phone call every Sunday evening, the random coffee and cake date when she was here.

After those words about my birthday, she slipped back into her strange Alzheimer’s world. She picked up a tabloid magazine next to us: “Oh look, it’s my neighbour on the cover!”

No, it wasn’t. It was the king of Belgium. I just nodded and smiled. What was the use in breaking her joy? She had taught me so much:

Save every penny.
Granny gave my brother and I a “doggie bank” when we were little. Every time we bought ice-cream, the odd 50c would go in there. At the end of our summer holiday, we’d have enough to buy the whole family ice-cream.

Cultivate your friendships.
Granny kept a little book with all her friends’ numbers and addresses. She’d check on them regularly. One year, she tore out the pages one by one. I was horrified. “Don’t worry, my child… These have all gone to heaven now. Enjoy your friends while you can.” 

Remember the “little people” as your biggest lessons.
For ten years (daily), she would give a few Belgian Francs to the blind beggar outside her pharmacy. One year, she followed him home to meet his family. Instead,  she was shocked to see him counting coins, examining them one by one. He wasn’t blind at all, but instead of being furious she told him: “I was the blind one all along. Blinded by my kindness for you. You definitely let me see the world in a new light.”

Listen to find love.
Granny met Grandpa as they took the train across Belgium every day at the same time. He was in uniform, going to translate things during the war, she was on her way to work. Grandpa claimed he fell in love with her when she kindly brought him stockings from the pharmacy. He had to give them to the Germans for their wives back home and somehow she remembered, even after just using it as random chit-chat:

“A woman who remembers your needs once, is a woman you keep for eternity,” he claimed years later.

They were married for 59 years.

Mamy2

PURE LOVE: On an outing with my grandparents in 1988. Pic: My mom

Forgive quickly.
Even though my grandparents fought passionately, granny hated bearing grudges: “It ages you. Every harsh wrinkle is a sour face you pulled once in your life, every soft one is a smile you shared. Remember that throughout your marriage.” 

Savour the moments.
Granny was one of the few people I knew who purposely shopped for the wrong size: “I savour the dress more, if I change it more to my liking. The same cannot be said about men. Take them as they are.”

Don’t over prepare.
When grandpa was late for their wedding day because he was out walking his dog, instead of collecting his suit, she just laughed it off:

“It taught me I had to make room in our marriage even for the unexpected. Love is compromising both your needs.” 

Stand out.
My granny stood out at Sunday mass in her bright pink suit and matching scarf: “Will they remember you tomorrow? Yes, if you stand out. Yes, if you stand for something. I am proud but not boastful.”

I was definitely proud of her and today I boast it to the world: she was the most stylish, kindest and most hard working granny that ever lived. I miss you so much.

Forever grateful,
Ta Poupée

More to read: Granny’s Alzheimer’s World

Happily Divorced?

VANESSA SMEETS

 

Divorce

TORN APART: Divorce continues to have repercussions on children, even in adulthood. PIC: online

Emma was just eight years old when she realised her parents’ marriage had ended.
At first, it was through subtle signs: constant arguing over new toys, the silent treatment, lack of time and increasing lack of temper. She even found herself counting the number of times they would fight a day: once, twice or at every meal. The last sign hurt the deepest: she placed their hands together at church and they pulled them apart.


From an early age, she had realised it wasn’t an easy marriage. She sometimes felt like her birth and the birth of her brother had been ways for them to stay together.
Little did she know her 8th birthday would remain the most significant birthday of her life:

“It was the happiest day of my life. Mom and Dad had gone out of their way to make me happy. Maybe they knew it would be my last birthday with both of them present.”

Family divorce

GAME OVER: Children often find themselves as the pawns in their parents' failed marriage. GRAPHIC: Vanessa Smeets

All of her friends from school were invited to the first pool party of the year. It was finally spring in South Africa! Her dad looked after everyone swimming, while her mom made sure everyone had enough fun games in the garden: playing catchers, throwing each other with flour and eating a lot of cake.

Six months later, Emma was in a new house.


“When is Daddy joining us?”
“He’s not coming, sweetheart. We’re now divorced.”
Divorced? What’s that?”

Divorce: she had heard about it at school: Teacher Sarah can’t come to school. She got divorced.
It sounded like a horrid contagious disease.

“Mommy, is it a disease? Are you sick?”
“No, not really. The marriage is sick. It’s when a marriage doesn’t work anymore.”
“If it’s broken, it can always be fixed.”

“No, darling. This time we can’t fix it. It’s when two people who once loved each other go their separate ways.”

Loved. Separate. The words spun around in her head.
“You and Daddy don’t love each other anymore?”
“It’s complicated. We still love you and your brother. That will never change. We are doing this because we love you both.”

For a child, this was extremely hard to comprehend. How could taking away the love between two parents be love in the end?
It took years for Emma to understand. She asked her father about it. For the first time in her life, she saw tears in his eyes:

“It’s complicated. You’ll understand when you’re older.”

Family divorce

KIDREAM: Children often believe their parents will get back together, no matter the circumstances. GRAPHIC: Vanessa Smeets

“DON’T DO THIS TO ME!” she screamed in her head, but didn’t dare tell him.

Those words haunted her for the next few years. It hurt that her parents saw her too little to understand. She was old enough to understand the silence was painful and that she and her sibling were caught somewhere in between a silent war.
They never really spoke of how it fell apart, so in her mind Emma believed it was her fault:
Maybe I should have never kept that dog that made Daddy so angry.
Maybe if I had been a top swimmer like he wanted me to be, he would’ve stayed.
Maybe I shouldn’t have teased my brother so much. Mommy wouldn’t have had to protect him so much from Dad’s harsh words.
Maybe we shouldn’t have been so spoilt; maybe he would have made more time for us.

It took almost a decade for Emma to stop waiting at the phone or door-step for her dad’s visit, or to stop visiting her old house which was only two blocks away. She had to let go of those memories, because they became increasingly bitter.
The shared custody was the worst. She dreaded each weekend in her old house. The walls were cold and the memories were stale. Even running around the garden was a constant struggle of juggling new memories with old ones.
It made it easier when her father moved away. Although she missed him everyday, she could create new memories each time they saw each other.

Ten years later, she asked her father for that chat he promised her years ago. She slowly made peace with all of it and realised it was indeed love in the end. Although it took years for her parents to make peace, it finally happened. Being friends was more loving than a tense and uncomfortable marriage. They were there at her 21st, at her graduation and even when she fell extremely ill.
Emma also finally made peace with the lost little girl inside of her, explaining:

“Two people you love dearly don’t necessarily have to be together. They remain great parents, separately. Once upon a time, they were deeply and passionately in love, but changing lifestyles and conflicting personalities pulled them apart. Not you.”

She continued: “Look at them now, talking and laughing. Those present memories are just as precious. Maybe one day, you and I will be brave enough to love too…again.

Advice to divorced parents:

  • Do not keep it a secret or wait until the last minute.
  • Tell your child together with your spouse.
  • Keep things simple and straight-forward.
  • Tell them the divorce is not their fault.
  • Admit that this will be sad and upsetting for everyone.
  • Reassure your child that you both still love them and will always be their parents.
  • Do not discuss each other’s faults or problems with the child.
    Source: the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/facts_for_families/children_and_divorce

Through the ages

How children react to divorce depends on their ages:
Infants
lack the cognitive development to understand what is happening, but they sense and react to changes in emotions and energy levels of their parents.
Preschool children may fear abandonment and often feel they are the reason for the divorce, by misbehaving in some way.
Preadolescent children have a better understanding of the divorce, but also greater self-awareness of their own pain.
Teens can feel overwhelmed with the stress, anxiousness and loss of parental support in coping with becoming an adult.

family divorce

WHOSE FAULT IS IT ANYWAY? Graphic: Vanessa Smeets

Divorce Facts:

  • Divorce can be either fault-based or no-fault. Fault-based means that you will have to prove your spouse is to blame, through: adultery, abuse or addiction. No-fault means that no one is to blame, claiming “irreconcilable differences.”
  • Couples who live together before getting married are more likely to divorce.
  • Children living with only one parent are more likely to suffer from poor health.
  • Divorced people are more likely to suffer from mental illness, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other chronic conditions. This is caused in part by the stress and long lasting trauma of divorce and the fact that married couples tend to have better health habits and thus live a cleaner and healthier lifestyle. Source: http://www.divorceadviceformentoday.com/divorce-facts

25 Lessons

VANESSA SMEETS

My first quarter of a century is up! 26, already?  Inspired by the voice of Baz Luhrmann for the Sunscreen song, I’ve come up with my own 25 lessons to honour the last 25 years that have passed by quietly or with a bang, on my eternal quest for love and truth.

love family

YES, DAD: A beautiful day in Zimbabwe with my dad (1986) PHOTO: CVU

1)    Learn from your parents’ mistakes. Although marriage seems like a tempting way to consummate one’s love for one another, it rather comes from hours of proper communication and compassion. Yet, happily divorced parents tend to give great advice…

2)    Write down your grandparents’ tales. Parky (Grandpa) used to tell his World War 2 tales under the stars. Wish I wasn’t too little to really understand how precious these memories were…

3)    Speak to strangers. As children, we are taught: “Don’t talk to strangers.” But, in adulthood meeting new people adds colour to one’s own world. You’d be surprised at how many similar experiences you actually share. Today, I spoke to an Afghan refugee. It was the most thought-provoking conversation in a few years.

cocktail times

BICYCLE DIARIES: Happiness in the middle of the night PHOTO: CJ

4)    Ride a bicycle in a cocktail dress. Late one night, a friend and I jumped onto bicycles a little tipsy. We never arrived at our initial destination. Instead, we spent an amazing 40 minutes trying to perfect riding a bicycle in a cocktail dress and trying to stay on it without the cops suspecting we were a little over the limit…

5)    Don’t fall too hard in love, although it hurts just as much every time. After a few excruciating heart-breaks, I must say the shortest one was the most painful. Although you become a little more cynical after each failed relationship, you also make the huge mistake of settling for less. DON’T!!!

6)    Keep your girlfriends near. Many girls once in love brush away their friendships in order to make room for their new guy. A true gentleman will allow a wonderful girls’ night out, where you can recharge your batteries away from him.

7)    Ask your guy friends for direction. Blessed with wonderful guy friends, they have taught me how to laugh at myself, step away from abusive relationships and help make the right career move.

Valencia

SERENITY: The beautiful aquarium of Valencia, Spain PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

8)    Travel. Try the Paella in Spain, the white beaches of Mauritius, the beer-gardens in Munich, the apfel-strudel of Austria and the Table Mountain of South Africa. So many languages and cultures to explore, even in your own country.

9)    Write love letters. Somehow, emails never have the same impact. If someone really means a lot to you, the relationship is bound to last longer than a few weeks. Getting a letter written when everything was burning hot re-ignites that spark!

10)  Gain wisdom from children. Two years as a pre-school teacher taught me enough to last the rest of my life. The joys of being human come from our unique gifts: speech, creativity, compassion, reason and enough laughter to keep it all going strong.

11)  Give pseudoscience a chance. This year, I fell in love with Reiki, a Japanese technique of finding out what is bothering you and allowing you to heal in your own time. I also realised graphologists (people who analyse handwriting) contain a lot of truth. Even the way one presses against the paper means something exceptional.

12)  Leave the ex alone. As tempting as it is to flirt with an old flame, you have to realise it’s preventing you from meeting someone new. This is your turn to shine for someone who truly appreciates you.

13) Study in different countries. Travelling is somehow not enough in seeking solace for one’s soul. By living 11 000 kilometres away from home, I‘ve come to appreciate South Africa so much more. Yes, Internet and transport efficiency is amazing in Europe, but the sun doesn’t shine as much, the people tend to keep to themselves and you have to make the effort of getting to know them first. Long live the days of “braais” around a pool…

14) Be prepared to be criticised and criticise. Although I hate conflict, a little conflict with some of my closest friends taught me there is joy in reconciling only a stronger friendship.

15) Keep a journal. Writing your experiences, struggles and feelings helps you meet the person you will spend the rest of your life with: yourself.

Faith through Ibrahim

FINDING FAITH: Ibrahim gets paid a minimum salary for being the care-taker of Stellenbosch's (South Africa) only mosque PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

16) Have faith or find it through others. Whether it comes from believing in G_d or Allah, it gives one direction in living a purpose-filled life.

17) It’s never too late to fall in love. When I saw my grandmother smiling in the old age home because of a certain someone, it hit me that it was never too late to fall in love again. Although at the same time I realised I don’t want to find the love of my life in nappies.

18)  Fear only fear itself. In high school, we were taught by watching Strictly Ballroom that a life lived in fear is a life half-lived. I wouldn’t be where I am today (travelling like a nomad with little knowledge of what’s coming next) if I had feared this ocean of incertitude…

19) Party till the sun comes up. Watching the a sunrise over a beach or mountain at the crack of dawn gives life so much more meaning and so many more reasons to appreciate every day as TODAY.

20) Make peace with your past. My childhood friend passed away this year. Although we hadn’t talked properly in years, her death hit me hard. I found  our old letters and photos we had taken 13 years ago. I made peace by her saying goodbye in this way…

21) “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” declared Einstein. The world is so much more colourful when you stop over-analysing situations in exchange for creating new dreams and desires.

22) Appreciate everyone, even the bergie (beggar) that will one day save your life. When I was being followed in Stellenbosch after a late night working at the newspaper, I bumped into Moksie (Stellies’ famous bergie). By being nice to her the week before, she “took care of” the people following me.

23)  Embrace your childhood. Time for the clichés: run like you’ve never fallen, laugh like it’s your first time, play before it’s too late, love like you’ve never been hurt and find your inner child again!

school days

PRECIOUS MEMORIES: Laughter and sunshine with school friends (2003) PHOTO: VS

24) Trust your teenhood. If it wasn’t for that first cigarette or terrible first kiss, we wouldn’t appreciate the real taste we have now.

25)  Feast your adulthood. People take for granted the ability to savour each new memory or experience. It comes from soothing your soul. You need time-out from work, friends and family to reflect in solitude. Ever listen to your own heart-beat? It’s possible…

Stranger in the mirror

granny crying

TEARFUL: Granny cries after laughing. She doesn't remember for what. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

I left my granny 11 months ago, to study abroad, with tears in our eyes. I remember her sitting every day watching me swim. She would smile, laugh and play with the dog.

 

 

I knew then I didn’t have much time left with the grandmother who had taught me how to make French toast, paper boats or how to be money-wise. Her neurologist claimed in eight months time, she wouldn’t recognise us. He explained to us her two cerebral hemispheres (logic vs. creative) were completely detached, making it impossible for her to decipher between her emotions and reasoning. There were also visible holes in her brain, shown up as grey patches on the MRI. She was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

At first, it was apparent in small things. She would forget where she placed her spectacles or that she hadn’t eaten that morning. She would confuse me with my mom or wake up shaken, believing her nightmare was real. This became more and more frightening, as she would accuse us of beating her or stealing her money. My once confident, stylish granny had turned into a skeletal, paranoid stranger.

 

gran foot

SWOLLEN: Gran's feet speak of years of hard work. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

I expected the worse. Every few months, I would visit my family and speak to her. Sometimes, she was quite alert, remembering things from my childhood. But, other times, she would speak of her youth with little sense. Suddenly, she was a mother to three sons who went to war. My mother is her only child, so this information fascinated me. It was like putting puzzle pieces together, only the pieces she had were slight versions of mine. She was confusing her sons with her three brother in-laws.

 

The trick to speaking to her is kindness and patience. This is extremely difficult, as it involves hours of repeating the same information and consoling her child-like spirit. She is afraid of everyone and everything.

Every time I visit, she smells different. One time, she smelt like mint and lavender. It turns out she was using the foot cream I gave to her for Christmas on her face. Her once beautiful ash brown hair is now straw-like and falling out. Bits of chipped toothpaste are found on her pillowcase. Toothpaste has her become her new shampoo.

She cries all the time now. Sometimes, she expresses herself through a few words “Father…dead.” I thought she was speaking of my grandfather and missed him. I showed a picture of him to confirm: “No, no! Who is that?” she snapped. She was talking of her father, who died in 1941. “He died yesterday…why oh why?” she sobs daily. It’s no use explaining to her when he died. So, I hold her and let her sob.

stockings

FORGOTTEN: Granny removes her stockings for the ninth time. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

I use her for my photo portfolio. Her ageing skin fascinates me. It is creased in a perfect pattern, linking up around her thinning muscles. Her swollen feet speak of years of working hard since the age of 14. Her adult nappy was the hardest to photograph. She is a baby again. Once obsessed with bathroom hygiene, she can’t control her bladder anymore. Instead of changing nappies, she pulls out the cotton fluff and litters it over her bathroom floor. It amuses her.

 

For her, the hardest part to make peace with, in ageing, are her sagging breasts. They reach her waist now. The other night, she held them in the cup of her hands: “What are these for? I don’t remember what they are for!” I tell her they’ve done their job well in her life. She smiles, still confused. The next day we go bra shopping, but it’s completely useless: nothing fits perfectly. She’s still very picky. Whatever sort of fits is the wrong colour or texture.

I don’t know how much time I have left with her. At least, she can still express herself. At least she wakes up smiling. At least she can walk to the window to pat the dog.

Most of the time, she is just waiting. Waiting for the train that gave her purpose and took her to work every morning. Waiting for my grandfather, whom she loved to argue with, to call. Waiting for her father to show up at the door and take her far away. Or, waiting for us to start making sense.

Our words mean nothing now. I can tell her I love her and she’ll simply walk away. I can tell her we’ll go for coffee and she’ll change into her pyjamas.

Her family members overseas have stopped calling. It’s exhausting and frustrating speaking to her. She bends over to see what I’m typing. I try to tell her, but she walks away to check the door again. My words will never bring the escape she yearns for.