I Inherited My Grandmother's Ring — & Her Anxiety

Photographed by: Rockie Nolan
When I got my period, my mother apologized to me.

I’d confronted her in the backyard, where she was weeding tomatoes. There was blood, I explained, and I was probably dying.

I should say here that I was 14 years old, almost 15. I’d been desperate to get my period for years. But when it finally came, dark brown instead of red, I couldn’t recognize it for what it was. I was sure it was evidence of some fatal disease.

My mom stopped weeding.

“When you were a baby,” she said, “the breast-feeding didn’t go so well. You were hungry a lot. I think that’s why you have so much anxiety.”

Breast-feeding is hard for lots of moms, I learned later, and there are many reasons it might not go well. But my mom had one particularly good reason: After her mom, my grandmother, visited me for the first time, she collapsed from heart failure. She was the same age her father had been when he died, of the same heart defect. Luckily, doctors were able to put a metal valve in my grandmother’s heart and save her life. But she was in the hospital for weeks of my infancy. My mom was temporarily motherless, and she was scared. It’s no wonder she didn’t have milk for me.

It’s tempting to think this is why I’m the way I am — that, born into fear, I became someone who sees death in a monthly bloodstain. But I think my anxiety — an unsatisfyingly clinical term for something that coils like a snake around my heart, often sleeping but always ready to strike — has more to do with who my grandmother was than with what happened to her when I was born.

My grandma was beautiful and very stylish. She had tiny feet and tiny Ferragamo shoes. I have one of her dresses, a cocktail dress with a black drop-waist blouse and a full, champagne-colored skirt, which I’ve never worn because no occasion has ever been right.

She was smart, with a head for numbers — for decades, she did the bookkeeping at a St. Louis gift shop, where the proceeds went to charity. She had a mean streak, and she was demanding — when my grandfather started making more money as a doctor, she asked for a bigger engagement ring than the one he’d proposed with, a palladium band studded with diamond chips. She generally assumed she would get her way, and she generally did.

My grandma also had anxiety. She usually went to bed early, but if my grandfather or my aunt, who lived with them, was late coming home, she would sit by the window in her weird, see-through white nightgown, all her glamour forgotten, and wait until she saw the car in the driveway.

She never got Alzheimer’s, but she worried about it repeatedly — I remember reassuring her, as a teenager, that I also forgot my keys sometimes. By the time I had to get therapy (because I became convinced my parents would get in a car accident every time they left the house), I believed my grandma needed therapy, too. To my knowledge, she never got it.

Her mind and body didn’t always make it easy for her, but I believe she was happy.

My grandma also had a good life. She loved my grandfather so much that when he died, after more than 60 years of marriage, she essentially called it quits and was dead within a year. She loved her daughters, she loved hockey and baseball; she even loved her hatreds, which included Republicans (she became a Democrat after Nixon), the Yankees, and, for some reason, the state of Texas. I always got the sense that she loved herself very much.

This was despite what seemed like her near-constant worry, and a series of medical problems not limited to the metal valve in her heart, which made a clicking sound in her chest as the blood pumped through it. Her mind and body didn’t always make it easy for her, but I believe she was happy.

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother a lot lately, as I soldier through one of those times when the snake wakes up and bares its teeth. I remember that if her life could be good, mine can be, too. I also remember something my aunt used to say: “Worry doesn’t run in our family. It gallops.”

My mom isn’t a particularly anxious person — Grandma’s anxiety seemed to skip her and gallop straight to me. I think about what this means for my children, should I have them. Will worry skip over them, leaving them blinking confusedly when I check the alarm clock eight times to make sure it’s set, or stare obsessively at a spot on my arm? Or will I pass my grandma’s inheritance straight to them, leaving them to crouch one day in their nightgowns by the kitchen window, waiting for their loved ones to come home?

I can’t know, of course. Our blood is full of gifts and curses, and we don’t get to pick which ones we pass along. Nor do we get to choose how our offspring feel about the parts of ourselves we’ve given them. But for my part, if I’m going to have anxiety, I’m glad it’s my grandma’s. I’m glad that when I think of it, I can think of her.

When I got married last year, I decided to wear my grandma’s engagement ring — the first one, not the upgrade — as my wedding ring. At first, I wanted it simply as something to remember her by, but now I think of it as a symbol of what I’ve inherited from her — worry, yes, but also the strength and joy to weather it.

Anna North's second novel, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, was released in paperback in June from Blue Rider Press.
Photo: Courtesy of Penguin Random House.

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