Some people get dreadful mothers-in-law. Mine was fantastic. I want to share some of the ordinary but remarkable life of Grandma Betty. We lost Betty to breast cancer about six years ago, when she was in her seventies. She was ready to leave us. Her only regret was that she wouldn't see all her grandchildren grow up. She had led a full life, although not always a happy one.
Quite large chunks of Betty's life aren't known to her children, including my partner, her youngest child and only son. Betty had severe depression from early in her life. Parts of her life she simply couldn't remember (due to the effects of illness, and the awful psychiatric treatments of a generation ago), and other parts were so painful that she was either unable to recall them, or couldn't bring herself to speak about them.
There was, I've heard, a suicide attempt made in her teens. Parts of her adult life were spent receiving mental health 'care' of the most brutal sort: electro-convulsive therapy, and drugs so potent that they caused her to fall asleep anytime and anywhere, or to lose continence. Amidst the difficulties of her life came a tragedy following the birth of her second child, a sister whom my partner never met. Shortly after she was born, Susan suffered a massive brain haemorrhage. It was probably a misfortune that this poor little baby girl was discovered by a nurse just minutes before death. Susan lived for seven more years, but profoundly disabled, entirely immobile, unable to speak or - as far as anyone knew - to comprehend anything at all.
In accordance with the wisdom of the day, Susan was sent to live at Templeton hospital in Christchurch, many hours' travel from the family home in Otago. Betty and her husband allowed this in the belief that it was the best thing for their daughter. But being apart from her child was a hurt too deep for Betty to talk about, and it seems that much of the depression of her adult life related to this. Later, Betty befriended her new neighbours - a couple who had a very disabled son of similar age to Susan, but who had defied the medical establishment and raised their child at home. This was a bittersweet revelation for Betty, inducing guilt and sadness for what might have been it she'd made a different decision for her daughter's care.
As well as Susan, Betty had three other daughters and a son. She struggled with the responsibilities of a large family and keeping a house. Her husband worked long hours, and she had to cope alone. I was always amazed at her unstinting affection and patience with her children and grandchildren. Like many people who have severe mental illnesses, she developed an array of tactics to cope. Some of these tactics were pretty eccentric. Betty was a woman utterly on her own wavelength, but often in a good way. (Forty years ago, when she insisted on picking up and disposing of dog poo left in public places by the family pet, local people thought she was nutty. Now, it's a bylaw - take that, Betty detractors.)
Many of Betty's eccentricities were just plain hilarious. We have postcards she sent from her mundane holidays, packed with mundane details of utter mundaneness. There was so much mundaneness that she sometimes struggled to get it all on one postcard and had to write really, really small. Classic examples of mundaneness included things like, 'Visited Jim and Daphne at 2.45. Had a "cuppa". Jim and Daphne have bought a new bedspread for the spare room. Had a look at the bedspread. Left at 3.37.'. Adrenalin-pumping stuff.
It was when she bought people presents that Betty's full eccentricity shone through. One Christmas, she decided to buy everyone in the family a pen with their name on it. She couldn't find one with 'Anna' on it, so got me an 'Anne' pen instead. I wondered later to my partner why she hadn't got me a pen that said 'Gordon', since that's not my bloody name either. Another year, she gave my partner an erotic fireman calendar. Everyone laughed uproariously, to Betty's confusion. 'I'm not gay, Mum', my partner explained gently. Blank look from Betty. She'd simply seen a good cause - a Fire Service fundraiser - and bought the calendar accordingly.
And there was no one who threw herself into good causes quite like my mother-in-law. In her fifties, she had a sort of mysterious political awakening and became uncontrollably left wing. There was no good cause - particularly those related to animals - that Betty didn't subscribe to. The Red Cross, the SPCA, Amnesty International, prisoners' aid organisations ... these were but a few of the causes she supported. All her money (and as a pensioner, she had very little) was donated to someone who needed it more, or spent driving hither and thither to attend sub-branch meetings of obscure community groups, often armed with baking to share. Much of her time was spent writing sometimes incomprehensible letters to the Otago Daily Times - a generally incomprehensible newspaper - denouncing everything from specific policies of the National government of the day, to certain unnamed capitalist fat cats (the only cats she didn't have an affinity for). She was very deeply sensitive to the suffering of other people and of animals - so much so, that she she seemed ill-equipped for the unpleasantness of the world at times.
One of my fondest and proudest memories of Betty is of an elderly woman, her health declining rapidly as her cancer spread, marching against the then imminent invasion of Iraq. She was becoming too frail for the drive from her rural home into the city, let alone for marching two or three kilometers in a protest, but that's exactly what she did, supported by her children and grandchildren. She turned the suffering of her own life into compassion for others. Her funeral was packed with people young and old, wanting to say a fond goodbye to this nutty and ordinary and much-loved lady.
I miss Betty, and I've sniffed back a couple of tears as I've written this. I would have liked my kids to have known their Grandma, and seen in her an example of a good person, doing the very best she could with the difficult hand she was dealt. Wherever you may be, Grandma Betty, I raise my Anne pen to you.
Depression diaries #2: turning the black dog into a friendly family pet
Depression diaries #1: silly excuses