On manicures, family stories, and tears… cried and uncried
by Delphine O’Keeffe
My 92-year-old grandmother, Josette, is very proud of how straight her fingers still are, and delighted to have good hands, while the rest of her body is causing her much pain these days.
She is a proud woman of strong character, who struggles with vulnerability, and her own decline. Losing her eyesight in recent years has also forced her to slow down, and become more reflective.
Doing her nails has become one of my favourite rituals, when I go back to visit my family in the French town I was born in. A precious opportunity to connect
with her more personally amidst the family buzz, and especially to hear her stories—the familiar stories that are comforting to hear re-told, and occasionally, if you dig deep enough and she’s had more than one glass of rosé, some juicy new titbits or secrets that reveal more of who she was, and help me to better understand our family, and myself.
Born into her parents’ grief at having lost their three-year-old daughter to meningitis, she herself doesn’t really ‘do’ sadness. She operates mainly at a frequency of chirpiness and buoyancy, together with humour and unfailing optimism. As an only child, she thrived in boarding school and with her friends, and later lived through the impact of war in her town, before moving across France to pursue midwifery studies.
She cooks and bakes with crazy amounts of butter, and we love it. She has a glass of wine daily, and still occasionally tackles steak tartare and foie gras in restaurants! She has a wonderful sense of humour, a sharp tongue, and clear ideas about what one should and shouldn’t do.
She is quite formidable, yet also incredibly generous and kind and helpful to others. A consummate caretaker matriarch, basically. She is always well-dressed and elegant, remaining ‘coquette’ and proud of her appearance.
She loves learning, has impressive knowledge of French grammar, watches documentaries and soap operas, and is currently re-learning Les Fables de la Fontaine off by heart, to keep her mind busy when she’s bored at the hairdressers. She always lives more in her mind, as her body sensations and feelings are not a comfortable place to reside.
Dancing hands and stories
I love the musical tone of her voice, and the elegant movement of her hands dancing around as they trace the outline of her stories. They embellish the details of the clothes that were made for her as a child, of special food treats she remembers, of the house she lived in, antics in the school dormitory. Then occupation by the German armed forces, assassinations in the small rural village, people going into hiding and resistance activities… all told in rich language with her beautiful voice and dancing hands.
I particularly love the familiar folding motion her hands make when she describes recipes, like her delicious and moelleux ‘cake au rhum’ (and boy does she lash in the rum!), and other recipes that my sister now reproduces in Dublin.
She later moved to the city to study midwifery, which she never practiced, and of course, meeting the handsome medical student who became my grandfather, and the epic love story that ensued. He died at 63, so she has lived long without him, but the love and mutual admiration is alive and palpable still now.
On this recent holiday, she also described my grandfather’s last days and death in detail. She said she was happy I could listen and that it helps her to talk. I think it also helps her to prepare for her own ending. I like that she can talk about these things. Uncried tearsDuring the nail ritual chats though, and on every visit in more recent years, she is compelled to tell me at least once that she just cannot cry, but wishes she knew how. On this occasion she added, “you can’t imagine how hard it is not to be able to cry”.
I know she has lived through many sorrows in her 92 years, from developmental traumas to life’s losses great and small, but these were never felt or consciously processed. They were somatised, and remain frozen in her body, unreleased.
I tell her maybe it’s ok, because my mum and I have been crying all her uncried tears for her. She laughs, and somehow, it’s healing and lighter for us both to name all of this out loud. For it to be heard.
The things she was not supported to feel or do, her unconscious fears and shames, were passed on down the family line, as happens in all families. But now they are being made conscious and healed.
The manicure rituals are an opportunity to know my grandmother more, the girl and woman she was and is. It’s also an opportunity to recognise all the wonderful things she has passed on to me, how we are similar, and also how different I am to her, and how much it has taken for me to individuate from my family and become my true self.
I love that I share with her an ability to relish the small things in life, to appreciate the daily experiences in vivid detail. That I have inherited her strength and courage, and a sense of optimism and trust in life. I think of how easily my own tears flow now. How I used to be ashamed of being sensitive and try to cut off from my feelings, believing the unspoken family norms and judgments that expressing feelings made you weak, unstable, or even hysterical.
And then I feel a rush of relief and gratitude about how far I have come in my own healing journey, the psychotherapists and guides who have accompanied me, and how I have such full and organic, spontaneous access to all of my feelings, and just how much I love letting them flow, especially the uncomfortable or ‘unpopular’ ones… there is such relief in the truth of admitting the feelings are there, and letting them rise to the surface. They are a compass that keep me feeling at home in myself, and keep pointing the right way forward on my journey.
The gold in our wounds
I often think of my grandmother when I’m witnessing myself and staying present during difficult emotions, or when doing the same with friends or clients. I wish someone had told her it was more than okay to cry. I wish she had been witnessed and supported to feel and articulate whatever she was feeling, as she was feeling it. Supported to hold all feelings in her body, and let them flow, not overwhelm or get frozen in her. To know that feelings won’t annihilate you even if it can seem that way, and that they do eventually move and pass through you, when you can allow it. That they’re part of being a whole human.
I wish she could know the truth that, the more you can open and surrender to waves of sadness, the more you can tolerate deep joy and pleasure in your body. I sometimes still wish that for her, for my mother and myself, and our siblings. But that is the past and this is now, and healing can and does happen, in the present. Mostly I feel thankful that I have broken the cycle and defrosted many of the emotions, mine and those of my lineage that were handed down unconsciously.
I’m grateful that I have choices and awareness that my grandmother didn’t have. That I no longer need to approach life in warrior-mode and can thrive now. That I get to experience life as a whole human, without numbing or dissociating from any vital aspects of me. I feel thankful that my mother has been open to the healing journey too, and I see how it is never, ever too late for healing to happen, or for it to spread back up through the family tree.
I have harvested the good in my family history, and all the love, while composting the sorrows and losses, to fertilise my own healing and evolution. All of the past, both inherited and my own personal story, informs how I accompany others now in their own healing and evolution.
I feel so thankful that my grandmother, and the family I was born into, have led me to become the healer and guide I am today, for myself and for others. That all of it – the good, the bad and the ugly – has made it possible for me to do the work I do, and to live my life more fully and joyfully and consciously, in a beautiful, precious, and multicoloured kind of way.
And I’m grateful to be able to share honest conversations with my 92-year-old grandmother nowadays, while she savours a square of chocolate washed down with espresso, folding and wafting her hands around as she tells all her stories and makes sense of the incredible life she has lived.
Delphine O’Keeffe (MIAHIP) is an integrative psychotherapist based in Dublin. Her work draws primarily on psychodynamic, existential and attachment theory and practice, as well as incorporating a body-oriented and transpersonal approach.