Roses are red. Violets are blue. Behind the curtain in the bedroom is something for you.
This was our Valentine’s Day tradition. My grandmother created the game, or at least I assume she created the game — a love version of hide-and-go-seek with presents. She would create a rhyme to “roses are red; violets are blue” as a clue to where our gifts were hidden. She did several of them for each of her four grandchildren. There were occasional misfires — times when she forgot to put the present in the right place or when the clue was too difficult for our 8-year-old minds to decipher. But it was perhaps the most fun on Sunday at Grams, ranking up there with Christmas and Fourth of July.
I think about that game every Valentine’s Day and realize how little I appreciated the creativity and generosity of my grandmother when she was alive and at her best. She loved with her whole being, which, in all honesty, could be stifling. All she had she would share. That was one of her greatest gifts. All she had was she never valued. That was her greatest sadness.
I think about Gram on Valentine’s Day and the stories she told about her childhood. “We never had child abuse when I was growing up,” she often said with a distasteful look on her face. I’m not sure if she wished child abuse was a punishable crime in her days or if she was disdainful of the whole idea because well she survived didn’t she? Sometimes that survival seems improbable. Sometimes I think I’m soft. I’ve had it easy most of my life. Then again, Gram worked hard so that would be the case.
She grew up in the Polish East Side of Buffalo. Her family frequently moved from rental to rental in the same four-block radius because her father usually failed to pay the landlord. He routinely drank his paycheck away. He called my grandmother the black sheep of the family and once chased her around the house holding a ketchup bottle as a weapon. Then there were the stories about her own mother.
“My mother used to always do the ironing with her purse hanging from her wrist,” Gram told me. “That was so my father couldn’t go in her purse and steal money.”
When her mother was dying, lying in a diabetic coma, my grandmother crawled into the oxygen tent to lay with her.
My maternal line has a flair for the dramatic.
Physical abuse was alluded to. Emotional abuse was evident. I don’t think my grandmother every fully recovered from those emotional scars. Those run deep and her generation was taught not to sulk, not to be self-indulgent, not to talk about what was really going on. We may have skewed toward oversharing in the social media age, but I’ve got to say going it alone seems an awfully big burden to bear. Still, Gram came out of all that with a pretty great life. She met my grandfather who was loving and kind and patient, almost to a fault. She had a family. She was financially secure. She had a circle of friends whom I only heard about in the gaiety of parties but also whom I am confident bolstered her in times of doubt and despair.
But I think about her and my great grandmother whenever I visit with people from Carolyn’s House. The women there are homeless. Almost all have domestic abuse in their background. Their support system was non-existent or failed to provide the safety net so many of us take for granted. See the other thing about my grandmother — she knew when other people needed help. That big heart of hers? The one that sometimes felt smothering to her family? That was the crux of her generosity.
I only got pieces of her story, filtered through time and undoubtedly altered to fit the narrative she wished to tell at the time. What I know for sure is that my grandmother created a life of love, family, joy and arguments, pettiness, forgiveness because she had good people she clung too through it all. I don’t think she ever took that for granted. So I carry her with me as I run my miles this year, raising money and awareness for the work of Carolyn’s House so that other women may find that support.
Roses are red. Violets are blue. I will never take for granted the love I have from you.
Please consider donating to the fundraiser “From Homeless to Hope” to support the work at Carolyn’s House.