Going to Seminary | Part 9

by Elouise


~~~Zaida Pannell Swift (1894-1988)

California 1974. I’m in my second year of seminary. The telephone rings. It’s my mother, calling from Savannah, Georgia. Her voice sounds hesitant. She isn’t sure whether to tell me this or not. She gives me Grandma Zaida’s address and phone number and says it’s entirely up to me whether I meet her or not.

I hang up, stunned. I have three grandmothers—my father’s mother who died of TB when Dad was about 5 years old; my father’s step-mom who raised him and his 4 siblings and had 6 more of her own; and Zaida.

Zaida the absent. The mother who abandoned her two children and her husband in favor of a judge who never could give her all she wanted in life. The grandmother my parents never wanted to talk about.

Mom hadn’t seen her mother for years. In 1944, the year after I was born, my father ordered Zaida to leave the house and never return. Her clothing was inappropriate, among other things.

Mom’s brother, living in California, was Zaida’s favorite. He saw her from time to time, and had sent Mom her address and phone number.

Zaida lived in an Episcopal retirement home not far from our home in Altadena. Did I want to meet her? Of course! I wanted to meet this legendary woman in person. I also wanted D and my children to meet her.

After an initial happy visit, we visited her regularly at her retirement home, took her out from time to time for lunch or to do shopping, and once had her over to our home. She was interested in what our children were doing, and showered them with little gifts, attention and encouragement.

I didn’t see it coming. From day one Zaida had precious little good to say about the Episcopal retirement home. I was astonished. Did she have no idea how many elderly women and men would think they were in heaven in this place?

But that wasn’t Zaida’s way. In her mind, she was still entitled to whatever she decided she needed and wanted. And what did she need and want from me? ‘Honey, I want to move into your lovely house with you and your lovely children and your wonderful husband.’

The question didn’t go away. I regretted having her over to our house. Between visits, she called on the phone. My internal guard went up. By the end of each ‘conversation,’ I was drowning in guilt.

I was the granddaughter she most wanted to get to know and was certain she could live with! We would get along famously! And there was this as well: ‘Hello, Honey. Did you know it’s been 7 1/2 days since you last called me? Don’t you love me anymore?’

I still believe she wanted me to be the daughter she had, but never knew. Impossible, of course. Nonetheless, there’s a bright side to this story. I now understood Mom better. Not just because there were similarities between them, but because I knew at least second-hand some of what it felt like having Zaida as a mother—even an absentee mother.

Zaida was a gifted, bright woman, living in a fairy tale world of her own. It seemed to give her some satisfaction and sense of importance. The photo at the top is her favorite photo of herself. It represents the honor and recognition she never got as a child, and longed for as an adult. When I knew her, she was carrying an empty bucket, trying in vain to fill it with other people’s love and admiration.

I often think how ironic it is that of my three grandmothers, I know Zaida best, for better and for worse. I used to think she could change. I now understand she could not. The burden of expectations she carried for herself and others was crushing. I wonder who bequeathed that legacy to her.

To be continued….

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 5 January 2016
Photo of Zaida Pannell Swift, American Legion Women’s Past Commanders Club President 1969