Irony and My Grandmother – Part Three
American Period Short Stories
continued from part two
I spent a long time discussing my grandmother and the life she led. My mother and Marianna didn’t get along at all until my mother left home for college. It was only when they were no longer living together under the same roof that they began to relate with one another.
My mother instilled in us when we were young that smoking cigarettes kills, and my grandmother was the testament to this ideology. So I carried the thought of my grandmother making the ignorant choice to smoke as partaking in her own demise and selfishly ending her life before her grandkids could even begin to be a part of it or even know her. That’s all I knew of her or chose to bother to know of her: that my grandmother could be a real bitch, according to my mother, and that she killed herself by smoking.
But maybe there was something I was missing?
Antiquities might not have been the only thing Marianna brought back with her from Japan after WWII. Not only did Marianna tour and live in post-war Japan, but she also visited the aftermaths of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1947, just two years after we dropped the nuclear bombs on both cities.
It suddenly occurred to me that maybe Marianna actually wasn’t to blame for the cancer that took her life. Marianna had originally been diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1982, and it cancer spread throughout her liver and lungs. She finally succumbed to lung cancer in 1984 just a month and a half after her sixty-first birthday.
There is now no doubt in my mind that she acquired cancer from radiation poisoning while living in Japan. Granted, the smoking killed her and most certainly attributed to the spread of her cancer, but you cannot tell me that Marianna was unaffected by the radioactive material that blanketed Japan in the late 1940s.
The connection among cancer, radiation poisoning, and smoking hadn’t been accepted as medical facts until the 1950s. So this ideology I had had all my life proved false: Marianna didn’t want to die. She did not kill herself. In the end she may have, according to my mother, succumbed to her illness. But Marianna was a winner. Marianna was a fighter. And frankly, no one can really be blamed for their death. Can I really judge someone by their choices? Honestly, who the fuck am I to criticize anyone for their actions? I’m hardly an innocent little black pot sitting here in my glass house.
I’m so very grateful that I can share her story. It is invaluable to really realize who your grandparents were as people. Until less than a year ago, I really didn’t know who my grandmother was at all. I set out with a predetermined goal, then irony set in. And I was changed. My outcome wasn’t what I had anticipated, nor was she the person I thought I knew her to be. I initially set out to prove that her parents were responsible for her death, due to her picking up smoking in school, but that proved to be at least partly wrong as well. At the end of the day, can we really challenge fate when it comes knocking on our door?
The silver-haired, overly-tanned, fashion-forward, chain-smoking person that I see in photographs known to me as Mimi was a lot more than the name Marianna or even just my grandmother—she was a person. A woman who lived and challenged the mold of society’s expectations. Whether she likes it or not, my mother became an independent and headstrong woman—be it under Marianna’s guidance and influence or in opposition to it. I see traits of my grandmother in both my two siblings and myself as well: be it her stubbornness, her strength, or her perseverance.
Then there’s me. I have a single memory of what could be my grandmother, despite my mother being convinced that I was too young to be able to remember Marianna. So maybe it isn’t a memory of Marianna at all. But that doesn’t discourage me from holding onto that memory for the rest of my life and convincing myself that it is a moment in time in which my brain captured, what I associate with, a connection I once had with a person who I now greatly admire.
The truth is, you really don’t know somebody unless you’ve walked a kilometer in their stilettos. If all you’ve got are stories, then it is up to you to decide how that person, who is now gone, responded to each course and obstacle in their lives. Just don’t cloud the memories and what could have been an alternate reality of the way that person actually lived their life.
I miss you, Mimi.
What I DO know is that I have a fire in my belly. I always have, and I always will. In anything I set out to do, I strive to succeed, and I never give up the good fight. There’s a drive in me that wants to see the world and soak it all in. There is an energy in me that wants to be the best. To conquer the world. Live life to the fullest! To travel and see every ounce of this planet.
That’s the Marianna in me, I think. Telling me to stand up for myself! Telling me that being different is OK! Telling me to fight for what I want and to fight for my dreams! Telling me to be strong! Telling me to never give up!
And of course: telling me not to smoke!
Marianna Chapman Landrum Pelham: January 16, 1923 – March 6, 1984
previous: Irony and My Grandmother – Part Two
more by KOELEN ANDREWS
photograph by New Old Stock