My maternal grandmother, Edna Johansen Wistrom, was the child of Danish immigrants. She didn’t learn to speak English until she went to kindergarten.
She grew up on a farm in northern Iowa, on the cold flat prairie. She had farm chores, and she told me once that she would rush to get her chores done so that she could go back inside to finish whatever book she was reading. A woman after my own heart.
After high school she attended nursing school, met my grandfather in her mid-20s, and got married.
Grandma Edna held strong opinions, could be stubborn, but was very compassionate to those around her who were needy. She and my grandfather hosted a family of refugees from Vietnam in the 70s. By hosted, I mean the family lived with them until they could get on their feet. I now realize what a huge commitment that was. She read voraciously, had a knack for decorating her house with an elegant and sophisticated flair, and traveled to the Holy Lands when she retired.
She was a good grandma. She taught me how to embroider dishtowels. She took me shopping for my birthday. We spent many holidays at her house, which always smelled of coffee.
But there are so many things I don’t know about her.
She was a typical stoic Midwesterner of northern European descent who didn’t talk much about herself. It probably didn’t help that my grandfather was often verbally abusive and demeaning. That had to have affected her over the years….made her feel that she didn’t have a voice.
Shortly before she died, I took a tape recorder to her small apartment to document her life stories. Time was running out, I realized, and I wanted to know more about her before those stories would be lost forever.
By this time, my grandfather had died, and she lived in a retirement village. She remained independent, but the shroud of death was hanging in the air. Friends she knew from around the village, blue-haired women she played cards with or went to church with, would die and she would never speak of them again. She and the other survivors would pragmatically move on. They wouldn’t even attend the funerals. After a while, so many of her cohorts had died that she seemed so alone.
The day I took my tape recorder to her house, I had high hopes. I was finally going to learn all about my grandmother. I imagined an afternoon spent talking about her childhood, learning stories that would fill all of the gaps of my understanding this important woman in my life. It would be an afternoon of connecting with my grandmother, learning more about her and maybe understanding more about myself.
I am a trained journalist – so I know how to ask questions to coax answers out of the most difficult interviewee. But my journalistic skills were no match for my grandmother. She shyly answered my questions, but barely. I would ask questions, and she gave me short, one-sentence answers.
I wanted stories, history, deep understanding. But she was as closed off and hard as the cold flat prairie where she was raised.
When I asked her “What was the most important day of your life?” She answered, “Oh, when my children were born, I suppose.”
But that was it.
At first I was frustrated, exasperated, and a little embarrassed. I realized my afternoon of listening to my grandmother’s stories would actually only take about 15 minutes due to her one-word or one-sentence answers.
I tried asking the questions in different ways, coming at it from different angles. Nothing.
Slowly, it dawned on me that she felt that her story didn’t matter. That she didn’t have anything worth telling. That she didn’t matter.
After awhile, I gave up, turned off the tape recorder, and we ate coffee cake and talked about my cousins and her flower planters on her patio…skating along the icy hard surface of shallow conversation. Grandma was more comfortable there.
My grandmother died a few years later, at age 89.
The tape of our conversation that day is in my desk drawer. I haven’t listened to it since that day. But sometimes I want to listen to it just to hear her voice again.
Lately, I’ve felt myself frozen too….just skating on the surface. I wrote a book and it was published, and now I wonder if I’ve run out of stories to tell. I sit down to write and can barely eek out one sentence. I feel that my stories don’t matter. That everyone else has more to say. That I’m not good enough. I don’t deserve to have my voice heard.
But then I think of my grandmother. I remember that day, sitting on the floor at her feet, as she sat in a gold, velour chair. I sat by her feet like Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, craving wisdom and grace and love.
That is why I will sit down every morning and write – even if it’s that one sentence that I can barely eek out – to find the stories of my family that my grandmother, and my mother, and probably scores of my ancestors believed weren’t worth telling. I will hack at the frozen surface and chop through the ice until I can dip my fingers into the rich, flowing water below.