At the age of ten I found my grandmother dead in the room next to mine. On that sunny summer New York morning, I knocked on her door to ask permission to go swimming in a friend’s pool. I called Grandma’s name, but she lay in her bed, beside the window. On her stomach sat The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene, and a pair of reading glasses. I touched her face; it was stone-cold. With a child’s intuition, I sensed that something was terribly wrong. I ran out of the room to phone my mother at work.
Within minutes, emergency vehicles lined our quiet residential street. Two uniformed men carried my grandmother, strapped to a stretcher, down our creaky wooden stairs. I prayed they wouldn’t drop her.
There wasn’t much talk about Grandma until one day more than twenty years later when my parents were moving from my childhood home in Queens, New York. While packing, they stumbled upon her retrospective journal, which she’d written after emigrating from Vienna in the early 1930s. Only after reading the document did I come to understand the deep roots of her depression, which had clearly tormented her her entire life, and eventually led to her suicide at the age of sixty-one.
I tucked the journal away and pulled it out years later ten years later just after my breast-cancer diagnosis. I was hungry for answers about my illness—after all, no one in my family had ever been diagnosed with the disease. I considered the possibility that my grandmother had committed suicide as the result of a cancer diagnosis that she’d kept to herself. I hoped her written words could provide an explanation for my own health crisis, but they didn’t. However, something even more profound occurred: the details of her tragic life drew me closer to her spirit.
My grandmother was orphaned during World War I at the age of twelve. While disturbingly unsympathetic soldiers marched through her town, she witnessed Russians killing a little boy on her childhood street. She wrote about trekking for hours through the countryside to an infirmary to find her mother dying of cholera. On a floor lined with bodies, she had to identify the one belonging to her mother—not an easy task for anyone, let alone a child.
Months later and barely fourteen, my grandmother emigrated to Vienna and lived in an orphanage while working full-time in a bank and attending school. The pages of her journal shared her compelling survivor story. The story pulled me in deeper.
While reading, I realized that I’d never connected with another woman in the same way since her death. As a child, I was an extension of her, and even more so as an adult after her passing. She was the person who planted the seeds for my writing—not only because she was devoted to the written word herself (evidenced by daily journaling and a propensity for leaving notes on the kitchen table)—but also because she taught me how to type. The experience stands out in my mind as if it happened yesterday.
Her black Remington typewriter was perched on her vanity. One Saturday morning before breakfast, she invited me into her room.
“Have a seat,” she said, pointing to her vanity chair. “I’m going to teach you how to type. This is a handy skill for a girl to have, plus you never know what kind of stories you’ll have to tell one day.”
She stood behind me, her reflection in the mirror—with dark roots framed, her bleached-blonde hair and her glowing smile revealing the rather large space between her two front teeth. I wasn’t surprised to learn years later that as a young woman she’d won beauty contests in her native Vienna.
She took my right hand and positioned it on the home keys, carefully placing one finger at a time on each letter, repeating the same gesture with my left hand.
“This is the position your fingers should be in. When you become a good typist, you won’t have to look at the letters. Let’s see if we can type your name.”
With my left middle finger she had me press on the “D.” Then we moved to the right middle finger and moved up a row to type an “I.” Then my left pinky pressed the “A,” a tricky maneuver for a novice typist. She then instructed me to move my right thumb down to the bottom row to type an “N.” Then my left pinky typed the final “A.” I glanced up at the paper to see the results of my efforts, and then proudly looked up at my grandmother’s face in the mirror.
“You see—you did it!” she exclaimed, squeezing my shoulders. “Like anything in life, the more you practice, the better you’ll become. You must work hard to get results; you’ll learn that soon enough, my love.”
That moment in time marked my own lifelong commitment to writing. Days after learning how to type, I went back and forth between writing stories in my journal and typing on Grandma’s Remington, much in the same way I do today—alternating from journal to keyboard. Thanks to Grandma, in college I earned extra money by typing term papers for other students, and as a young mother I chronicled my kids’ early years. Finally, as a breast-cancer survivor, I wrote a memoir based on that experience.
After my annual mammogram in May 2001, I received one of those dreaded phone calls requesting my return to the hospital for additional views. Alarmed but not terrified, I dragged myself back to the hospital’s radiology department, signed my name on a clipboard, took a number, and sat in the waiting room among other anxious women sitting in front of coffee tables splattered with outdated magazines. It was the third year in a row I’d been called back for additional mammogram views. Although thankful for the radiologist’s attention to my breasts, a part of me felt annoyed about the inconvenience that in previous years had just ended up being false alarms.
According to my readings and what I’d studied in nursing school, my risk for breast cancer was relatively low. As I mentioned, there was no breast cancer in my family—in fact, no cancer of any kind. My lifestyle incorporated all the cancer-prevention measures advocated in national magazines and newspapers. I exercised diligently, never took the birth control pill, ingested my daily cocktail of minerals and herbs, stayed away from red meat, munched on soybeans, and drank wine only occasionally. Each of my children was breast-fed, and the literature promised that this factor alone could slip me into a low-risk category. Part of me sat in the waiting room with an air of confidence. Another part of me suspected I might not be as lucky this time around.
I glanced at the innocuous paintings of animals hanging on the wall, and the rushing about of white-coated lab personnel as millions of questions whipped through my mind. I thought of being an only child. What if an unborn sister carried the gene for breast cancer? What about family secrets that may have been kept from me? I kept thinking, Why me? Why now? Why here?
That waiting room was the first of many where I’d sit during the following year. My breast-cancer saga led to disturbed weeks laden with biopsies, blood tests, long waits for results, and a great deal of mental anguish. In the end, it was recommended that I travel to Los Angeles for a mastectomy and reconstruction under the direction of Dr. Mel Silverstein, a world-renowned specialist in my type of cancer.
During those months of anguish, I thought a lot about my grandmother. I reached out to her spirit and her love, which I craved so much during difficult times. Once again I wondered if she might have had breast cancer but kept it a secret. I reread her journal over and over again. I searched my mother’s archives for old documents about my grandmother that might have shed some light on my own journey, even just an her doctor’s report. Much to my dismay, I found nothing.
I’d never thought about my grandmother’s depression until after my diagnosis, when I came up against my own depressive demons. I’d always feared depression more than I feared death. In fact, in my twenties, thirties, and early forties, I veered away from any discussion of depression. To me it was the poison that killed my grandmother and also infiltrated my mother’s life, so I never wanted it to touch my life or that of my children. But my commitment to that concept dissipated. I seemed to have little control over my emotions, and at the time, it was difficult to ascertain whether my bouts of depression were due to premenopausal issues, my new diagnosis, or a combination of both.
I began reading about depression and its genetic components. I think some people (and I may be one of those) are prone to depression as a result of their genetic pool, and that trigger can spring us into a depressive realm. This is what happened to my grandmother as a result of her turbulent childhood and marriage.
When we look for reasons why a loved one would take his or her life, we rummage through our memories, large and small, poignant and delightful, dramatic and banal, horrible and wonderful, in the search for answers. After arriving at the end of my grandmother’s journal, I understood how a slow accumulation of a history filled with hardships and horror could result in drastic actions—seemingly inexplicable, yet somehow logical—such as suicide.
Although my grandmother chose to finally give up after a life spent in hardship, her life story was one that she felt compelled to share in her retrospective journal. I’m glad that she wrote the journal and am relieved that she chose to keep it tucked away in her closet, since she could have just as easily destroyed it. Had she done that, I would have never found it, and telling her story would not have been possible.
Writing about and studying my grandmother’s life has been my way of keeping her alive. Sharing her story has also allowed me to understand who she was, what she went through, and why she ended her life. After knowing her for the first ten years of my life and then reading her journal, I now realize that there were many aspects of our personalities and sensibilities that were similar. We were both strong and resilient women in the face of disaster, and we were both caretakers.
Reading my grandmother’s journal reminded me of the intrinsic value of writing and the value of passing on stories from one generation to the next. I believe that we stand on the shoulders of giants, but if we didn’t know their stories, we wouldn’t be aware of that. Grandma’s journal was the greatest gift she could have ever bestowed on me. Her words and life experiences have, and will continue to, inspire my own writing, as I hope my own words will do so for future generations.
I completed my memoir, Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal on what would have been my grandmother’s 100th birthday. As I neared its completion, I recalled every image and memory of her, and the result is a renewed understanding of her life and what she endured. This journey has helped me realize that a life without love is no life at all, and that those who’ve survived severe childhood traumas continue to live with the pain until the day they die. It is with this new understanding that I will hold my grandmother’s soul close to my heart . . . and will never let it go.
# # #
Diana Raab, Ph.D., is an award-winning memoirist, poet, blogger, speaker, and author of nine books and over 500 articles and poems. She’s also editor of two anthologies, Writers on the Edge: 22 Writers Speak About Addiction and Dependency and Writers and Their Notebooks. Raab’s two memoirs are Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal and Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey. Her forthcoming book, Writing for Bliss: A Seven- Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life is due out in 2017 by Loving Healing Press. Read more here: http://www.dianaraab.com
Photo credit: Kae Sable