My grandmother was not an easy woman to love. She worried a lot, she complained a lot, she criticized a lot. I’m not sure I actually have a single good memory of her.
This makes me sad sometimes, because it’s something I can never change.
But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about identity and how we construct it. Who we are is so much about what we want and what we dream, and it’s often at odds with what we actually end up doing. We are so much more than the daily routines we grind out, and too many people never connect the dreamer inside with the performer who walks the fearsome realities of everyday life.
Before I knew that I needed to write, I only knew that I wanted to live an extraordinary life. I did not want to be bored in an office cubicle lit by florescent lights. I suspect most people feel this way, because there’s nothing particularly extraordinary about not wanting to be ordinary.
But I want it anyway.
And that brings me back to my grandmother, Elsie Chomiak. She was a total disappointment in the role of “Grandma” but that was not the sum and total of who she was. She was a daughter, a sister, a maid, a nanny, a wife, and a mother–and I really wonder if any of those things turned out the way she envisioned.
She is a mystery to me. I know small things about her, but they tell me little about who she really was. She liked good looking men, she called on God a lot (oh bo-zheh bo-zheh is what it sounded like in Ukrainian), she made the BEST perogies, and she liked nice things. She grew up on a farm and wanted to live in a big house in the city.
Instead she worked as a maid and nanny to a wealthy family in Toronto, then married a farmer and lived out her days in rural Manitoba. She wore the cast offs of her rich employers and married the best looking boy in town. He was younger than her too–good job Grandma, you cradle robbing cougar!
These small details help me to think of her not as she was in my eyes, but how she wished to be in hers. And this brings me to the photos.
A lot of the old family photos are a mystery in black and white. Where were they? When was this taken? Who’s that weird kid in the corner? Most of them take place in unremarkable country fields, or maybe the nearest farm town, or (most frequently it seems) in the driveway of the family home. They led small hard lives, rarely moving beyond the sphere of their community. An annual trip to the county fair held the type of excitement that we modern folk reserve for ten day tropical resort vacations. I think that reality was probably hard for my glamour loving grandmother.
So one day I decided to play with the past and make grandma’s life a bit more glamourous. I took scissors to the original photos (gasp, oh no, how could she!? I know, I know, but they’re really just pieces of paper at the end of the day. Get over it.) and placed the figures into new backgrounds.
I think they look very pleased in their new role as world travellers and bon vivants; actually, it was surprising to me how at home they looked. In many ways our identity is such an accident of location. Who might we be if we had been born somewhere else?
Seeing them in this new guise helps me to think of them as they truly were– complex human beings, full of hopeful wishes and fragile desires. They were young once, and wanted everything. Just like me.
A leisurely day at the seaside for Paul and Elsie. Perhaps they’re touring the British coastline on the first leg of a European tour?And here they are, all smartly dressed for their afternoon on the town. Maybe after a five course meal they’ll saunter down to Chanel’s and take in the summer collection.
And this one makes me a little sad, but in a good way. Here she is, my grandmother, in her maid’s uniform. She worked in a beautiful mansion and looked after the children, and sometimes the lady of the house would give her last season’s clothes. She was just a young girl from a poor farm who would have loved to go shopping in the fancy Toronto department stores. She would have loved these Manolo Blahniks.
And she would have looked damn good in them.