It’s been twelve years since my paternal grandfather, George Forrest Sullivan, passed away. My grandmother, Marge, passed the following year. Neither had much in the way of funerals, and I was out of the state at the time anyway. This weekend, while I recovered from my second COVID vaccination, we went to visit their site at the Tahoma National Cemetery columbarium. I brought flowers.
I didn’t have a close relationship with either of my dad’s parents. I never got the sense my grandpa liked us much, although I loved visiting his house on Mercer Island and playing in the basement. My sister and I didn’t have a basement growing up, and we reveled in the level of chaos we were allowed to engage in down there. I remember thinking nothing had changed in his house since the 1960s, except maybe the little chess set he had out to play chess puzzles.
Later in life, after he got too sick to make his annual winter migration to Palm Springs, my parents moved him to an assisted living place near their house. There, my sister and I liked playing pool in their pool room. We were terrible. I remember one time going for a walk with him around the area, but his heart had started failing so much, even a gentle stroll had become difficult.
Not long after, I moved to Massachusetts for college. I visited him occasionally on school breaks when my parents went by, but we never really spoke. I remember seeing pairs of polyester pants in his closet, original from the 1970s I assume, when we went to visit once.
Now I wish I’d played chess with him (he would’ve beaten me for sure) or asked him to teach me to play bridge. He was a killer bridge player, and maybe he wouldn’t have been patient with a kid who made mistakes. I’m sure he’d have snorted and said, “That’s ridiculous!” — a very Grandpa Sullivan thing to say. But who knows? Maybe he would’ve wanted to try to teach me. I regret not asking now.
My grandmother was schizophrenic. Growing up, that fact defined my relationship with her. Most of my childhood, she lived in a group home with other people in her plight, and I dreaded visiting there. The entire hour-long drive I prayed to stretch out so we wouldn’t have to arrive. The residents scared me, with their abnormal behavior. The facility smelled strange, and even as a kid, I recognized the worn linoleum, faded, scuffed walls, and residents all hunched in wheelchairs around a TV as dismal.
Every Thanksgiving, my parents would take us to help serve Thanksgiving dinner to residents. My grandmother proudly displayed us at these events, while I resisted the urge to hide.
I wish now that I’d tried to know her through her mental illness. Because she was kind. She worked so hard to come up with Christmas presents for us — drug-store candy in a plastic bag, a tacky plush doll when we were long past doll-playing ages, a hair brush. She had no resources and no way to acquire gifts, so she would give us things other people had given her.
She loved to be around us and wanted to talk to us. Once she saw me struggling with peeling potatoes and offered a correct suggestion. But I was rude and stand-offish because I was afraid of her, afraid of the tics her medication caused, the strange breathing and twitching, and most of all the scary stories of when she went off her medications and departed for her own reality. I couldn’t see past the outside and the illness to know who she was inside. I regret that now.
Both of them lived through the Great Depression. My grandpa served in the Civilian Conservation Corps. They both remembered World War II and the Cold War. What a trove of memories and experiences, lost forever. I regret not asking for whatever memories they would have shared.
They’ve both been gone for 10 years and more now. But they can still give me one more gift: Teaching me to live so I don’t have regrets like these with other relationships. I hope it’s a lesson I can learn.