Does Learning to Love Flawed People Mean Forgiving Them Too? [The Lesson of the Granny Panties!]

by Charlotte on October 16, 2013 · 24 comments


Granny panties, size XL, beige, used. They’d arrived in a plain brown envelope accompanied by a single tea towel dated to the ’70′s by the brown mushrooms that covered it. This was hardly what a girl dreams of getting for her all-important 12th birthday and yet there it was. But the worst part wasn’t the suspicious stains (30-year-old coffee grounds or something more sinister?), it was that this was the only present my grandmother ever gave me. USED UNDERWEAR. She wasn’t demented, not yet anyhow, and this – this package of garbage with my name misspelled on it, to add insult to injury – was the final straw. From that day on I decided I was done with Nana. (Although I did always win the “worst present ever” game so there is that?)

It wasn’t hard to do really. Due to a rift in the family that no one quite remembered how it started but had grown infinitely wider over the years, I’d only met her on a few occasions. And I didn’t like her. I had my reasons: Her obvious impatience with children. Her yappy dogs that humped everything and yet were loved more than any human in her life. The overwhelming smell of cigarette smoke that permeated everything about her. The fact that I was born one day after her and she never forgave me for usurping some of her glory (the reason I never got any presents, perhaps?). The total absence of visits or cards or phone calls or any other tokens of grandmotherly affection. I told myself that I didn’t miss her – how could I? She was so unknown to me – and yet I deeply missed having a grandmother in my life.

All of my other grandparents died in horribly tragic ways when I was very young. These stories compelled me for years to think my family line was cursed. As uncles and aunts continued to die prematurely – most of them also in horribly tragic ways – I became convinced that no one lived past 60 in my life. (For the record, my father is now 58 and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous.) But not Nana. Despite doing everything “wrong” health-wise, she stubbornly determined to outlive us all through some voodoo combination of mail-order supplements, the Home Shopping Network and listening to Art Bell on CRZY radio every night. Indeed, when she did die, well into her 80′s, it was not from the effects of being a life-long smoker or being overweight or having Alheimer’s Disease but rather from a burst anyeurism in her stomach that took her quickly and painlessly in her sleep, no horrible trauma necessary.

It was her dying that brought her unexpectedly back into my life.

Before Nana’s death my mom and sister, sensing the end was near, went out to visit her one last time. I settled instead for a phone call during which I told her that I loved her and that I hoped she felt better soon, only slightly pained that she didn’t even remember who I was. I’m told that she was quite delightful that last visit. Her Alzheimer’s had made her forget all the reasons she had to be bitter and left her with little else but a warm feeling that made her exclaim euphorically over how beautiful these strange women visiting her were and how much she loved ice cream. My mother and sister were much comforted. I was unaffected. I’d outgrown my childish hatred of her but love hadn’t taken it’s place.

I missed her funeral – a simple graveside service attended by a handful of well-meaning relatives also unsure of their feelings for her. (I wasn’t the only one she alienated.) I meant to go. I bought my plane tickets and arranged babysitting and steeled myself. But then our sewer exploded in our basement inspiring a week’s worth of  ”crappy” puns and a singular kind of horror that comes from looking around your children’s bedroom and realizing that all the white flecks stuck to everything are actually toilet paper. Which means all the brown sludgy stuff is… yeah. Life doesn’t get much worse than a literal geyser of sh*t. So I didn’t go. I tried my best to remember her but any feeling was overshadowed by more powerful losses.

My mother, tirelessly compassionate on Nana’s behalf, brought all of the old woman’s jewelry to allow everyone to pick a few pieces to remember her by. I knew she wasn’t rich and had a deep fondness for QVC so when my mom presented me with what was left with a wry smile that seemed to say well, there’s no accounting for taste - I didn’t care. The point for me wasn’t to get rich hawking her cubic zirconia but just to find a memento or two that symbolized her title in my life, if not her actual presence. But as I opened up each little box and bag, I found myself increasingly surprised. It was beautiful! And wacky! And unique! And vintage! And even hilariously hideous! I loved it all.

My sister and mom and I talked and giggled. Who on earth would buy such a tacky thing as a gold bejeweled scary-clown brooch? Did she ever really wear it? She had a whole bag of brooches and scarf pins, in fact – a rare find because hardly anyone bothers with them anymore. Every time I go to a thrift store I keep my eye out for them and I hardly ever find any. And then there were all the hand-made pieces – things like earrings made out of spoon handles and intricately beaded chandelier earrings. I kept all of them too. Layered gold-plated necklaces, a huge fake cocktail ring, earrings made out of opals ringed in rhinestones and glued to dangly chains – all loud and gaudy and broken and cheap. All went into my pile.

Ever since my mom gave them to me, I’ve found many reasons to wear one or the other of them. Not out of a sense of duty or even love but because I really like them. Today I wore her earrings made out of peacock feathers covered in beads and sparkles and I’ll be darned if they didn’t make me grin every time I looked in the mirror. Nana and I have the same love for costume jewelry. Who knew? It makes me wonder what else I didn’t know about her. What other quirks we might share. What else I could have loved about her. I didn’t try hard enough.

Tonight I looked for a picture of Nana and I together – just the two of us – to put with this post. I don’t have one. I don’t think one exists. And this makes me sad. But, miraculously and thankfully, I don’t believe that death is the end. And when I see her in the next life I’m going to greet her wearing that hideous clown brooch, just so I can ask her about it. (I promise not to even mention the panties. Okay maybe once.)

As I look through her jewelry again tonight, I’m struck by how much it represents both her and I: beautiful, broken, well-loved, the shine gleaming through the tarnish. We are not perfect. We are real human beings. And this is what I learned from Nana: Do you have to forgive someone to love them? It turns out you don’t. And that is a merciful gift.

Do you have someone like Nana who you wonder why exactly they were put in your life? How do you answer that question? Do you believe you have to forgive someone to be able to love them? Anyone else love tacky costume jewelry?

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Jasmine October 16, 2013 at 9:46 am

What a sweet story. I too have a grandmother I do not like at all and never have, no effort made on her part to alter that situation. She’s a bitter old woman, disliked by her five children and dozens of grandchildren, none of whom she has bothered to get along with. We’re all certain she’s still alive out of pure spite, but who know, maybe she’ll redeem herself on her deathbed as your grandmother did.

I feel fortunate to still have my paternal grandparents, with whom I am close, and my maternal grandfather – who’s a complete horndog but otherwise a nice man :)

I’ve learned over the years to accept that I’ll never like some of my relatives, but those I do make up for it in spades.


JLVerde October 16, 2013 at 9:56 am

My mother’s aunt Ellen. I’m not even sure she was a blood relative (I think I asked my mother but I don’t remember the answer now). I have more happy memories from the few times we visited Aunt Ellen than I do with either of my grandmothers. (for the record, my maternal grandmother never really liked my mother and my mother didn’t like my paternal grandmother so. . .my father always remains painfully neutral in it all, smart man).

The older I get, the more I realize Aunt Ellen was a HUGE influence on me. Every time I make a wacky craft, I think of her sewing room stuffed with supplies (and the super ugly stuffed turtle I still have from her–it was made from upholstery and I think I’m the only person who likes it). She is the reason I love claw foot bathtubs (she had a bright red one) and still wish I had a craft matic adjustable bed (she had one of those too, and it was AWESOME).

I’m kind of sad that I didn’t get to know her better, but I was young and oblivious.


quix October 16, 2013 at 10:10 am

I had a cranky old grandma too (the only one of my grandparents I ever really knew, so I never got that whole “sweet old lady” thing…). We were always doing everything wrong, and as I got older I was always too fat, and she had no love for children being children. But, she was family, and as you do with family, we loved her with all her faults even if she wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around. :)


Cindy October 16, 2013 at 10:47 am

My mother and her side of the family are different. Dealing with any of them is like visiting a haunted house. You may get a scare or your feelings hurt or you may get a sucker. Regardless your senses are always on high alert!! You do get a lot of entertainment good and bad but I have a 2 day limit and then I have to leave and not come back for months.


Jen October 16, 2013 at 2:36 pm

Hi Charlotte,

I just wanted to drop a quick note to let you know how much I love your writing. I’ve been reading your blog for several years, and I have to say I truly love it all.

I’m dealing with a somewhat similar situation with my Grandma’s sister right now and your story was the final push I needed to go see her in her (likely) last days.

Thank you :)


Jody - Fit at 55 October 16, 2013 at 8:37 pm

I think many have relationships like this. I don’t yet.. I do have a sister I do not talk top so we shall see…

My grandmother on my mom’s side was an emotionally abusive mother to my mom. I don’t think she ever cared when she died. She did not go to the funeral & as far as I know, she just moved on so it is hard to say with her…


Tina Miller October 17, 2013 at 5:51 am

Interesting that you ask the ‘world’ about forgiveness when you already know how your ‘Father’ feels about it… Simply this… Forgiveness is LOVE in action. Lol do a top ten reason why forgiveness is GOOD for you. :)


Amy @ Run Mom Run October 17, 2013 at 11:58 am

I avoided reading this post for a few days because I’m struggling with the flaws of someone I love this week and I didn’t want to forgive them.

I’m getting over myself, and working on the forgiveness thing.


Joan October 17, 2013 at 3:24 pm

That gift reminds me of stuff my mother gives us – she picks up odd stuff at yard sales. It drives my sister crazy. I’m just resigned to it. I have gotten old slips and dish towels, but thankfully not used panties! She is a difficult person, always has been, but I’m glad she’s still around.


Jill G October 17, 2013 at 3:47 pm

I too have been sad as the year approaches. I walked up to the personal training board at Lifetime on Tuesday, just to look at Steve’s picture, which they haven’t taken down yet. I laughed, I smiled and I swore* at him. And I might have cried a teeny tiny bit as I walked downstairs and on my way out the door. Steve was an amazing man and incredibly complex. One that inspired me. One that let me down. But I am so grateful for him in all of his not-perfectness.

I’m incredibly introspective on a good day, let alone a cloudy rainy crappy cold Minnesota day like today (making it your lucky day!). But you know what occurs to me, is that part of forgiveness is accepting people for who they are. The beautiful and the flawed. Probably at the core, I’m simply angry at Steve for being gone too soon. But Anger is one of the stages of grief. So we have to find joy knowing we’re . . . normal. I have done a great job of rolling 3 of the 5 stages all into one bundle (Denial, Anger and Depression). I just know that Acceptance is to come.

With your grandmother you found a unique connection that just didn’t really exist in life. It is a tribute to find it later and remember a life, to learn something about someone you didn’t know. It makes them human. Good or bad.

*Edited to remove said swear words . . . trying to keep it PG although those oversized undies are . . . a.!


Viv October 17, 2013 at 10:48 pm

Beautiful story. I do have to admit to a love of tacky costume jewellery! Thank you for sharing this.


Juana October 22, 2013 at 11:49 am

I like tacky costume jewelry as well,none of my sisters share my taste in jewelry lol..Also by the way really nice story.. I had a grandma somewhat like Your’s but she was around me from the time I entered this world,2 of her children rarely went to see her mainly on special occasions,such as her birthday,Mother’s Day (sometimes),and Christmas..My grandma was a silly woman she joked a lot and would act like she just lost her marbles lol and at times are jokes were at the expense of her children mainly my mother or her grandkids but the thing is my grandma was a bitter sad woman trying to hide behind her jokes she let that bitterness consume her as a result she spent a lot of years alone untill she got very sick and plus started losing her memory but despite how she was it was so hard to watch my grandma suffer and not remember who I was anymore was really difficult she lived for a yr and shalt after that in a nursing home and still barely any family went to see her but it was then that I believe my grandma made her peace with people and let that bitterness go …She died on Oct.31st of 2011 and I still miss her so much …


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