As a child, there was no word in my vocabulary more elevated that “grandma”. It meant perfect, saintly, kind, wonderful, patient, loving, adoring, and almost every other positive attribute you can think of. I saw my Grandma Georgie almost daily and spent the night at her house regularly. I'd come home from school to a clean bedroom and know she'd been there. She was resourceful, fun, intelligent, and generous. But never self-effacing or retiring. She knew how to take care of herself and others. She was everything a person should be. Her death when I was 15 still ranks as one of the most traumatic events of my lifetime.
Grandma Georgie was my mother's mother, and of course I had a second grandma. Grandma Mary. She lived in another part of the country, and I rarely saw her. However, I talked to her on the phone regularly, and on occasion we would visit her, or she us. Grandma Mary also, in her own way, adored her grandchildren, and because our contact was so limited I never had to learn just how unique “her own way” was. I can't believe my luck.
I worshipped her in much the same way I did Grandma Georgie, probably in large part because I assumed that Grandma Mary was just the same. But she wasn't.
When I was old enough to appreciate Grandma Georgie beyond doting grandmother, she became not only my saintly grandma, but an almost fictional great American success story. She grew up during the depression in a large, poor family. She had an eighth grade education and was widowed twice before the age of 30. But she raised her two children, one from each husband, on her own while rising and rising against all odds at work. When she was overlooked for promotions because she was a woman, she calmly but firmly fought for herself and won. In her 50s, she retired from her high ranking position with the company, citing a “domestic kick.” The domestic kick was all I ever saw.
She wasn't perfect, I guess, but I only say that because I'm supposed to. I didn't see it, and I still don't. My grandma was a brave, brilliant, kind, generous, highly capable and enormously competent. When she died, the nurses in the hospital cried. The checker who waited on her in the grocery store came to her funeral.
Grandma Mary, however, emerged as a more complicated figure as I grew older. She kept a real life soap opera that I was not privy to running behind the scenes, from which no one aside from my brother and myself were spared. We were kept in the dark in part because we were children, but in part because of the physical distance between us. She had one son, my dad, and one daughter. At any given time, she was on speaking terms with only one of them. My cousins, the same age as my brother and me, lived nearby and were not sheltered from her vindictive nature. No one who had regular contact with her could be.
However, there were clues that she wasn't quite the angel I thought she was. Phone calls would usually include the question “You aren't giving any money to bums on the street, are you? Don't help anyone, because no one will ever help you.”
On one occasion, she told me about an exchange she'd had with the phone company. “My phone bill came with this letter asking me to pay extra on my bill to help people who can't afford a phone. So I called them up and I said 'You're the ones with all the money. You feel so sorry for them, you pay for their phones!” She had a point.
Another time, she told me about a new friend. Despite her difficult disposition, she was an attractive, intelligent and funny woman. People liked her. “There's a girl downstairs,” she told me. “I guess she kind of likes me. She's always bringing me little presents. But every day I find out something new and horrible about her. Like, she likes snakes! Can you believe it?” I got a real kick out of her.
She could go years without communicating with someone on her naughty list. Amazingly, although her goal of dividing her two children was clear, it didn't work. I remember only one occasion of my dad and aunt not speaking to each other, and that had more to do with how difficult their mother had made it than them being angry with each other. They were and are allies.
During her periods of silence, she would condescend to communicate in the form of nasty letters. I hear they were quite upsetting, but if she ever sent me one my parents intercepted it. I never saw any of them and have never pressed for details. Normally I love a little drama, but I don't have an interest in hearing what she really thought of me.
The only time I remember her cutting me off was when I told her I was pregnant with my first child. I was in a stable relationship, but not married. Marriage had never really interested me, and I can honestly say that it scarcely occurred to me that a baby born to unmarried parents would bother anyone. Before jumping to any conclusions, understand that my grandmother was not religious. Her mother had died when she was only 7. Some smarty must have told her God just wanted one more angel, because she never got over her anger. God could have anything he wanted. Why did he need to take her mother from her? As was so frequently the case, she had a point.
Neither was she a big proponent of marriage, having endured a very unhappy one that ultimately ended in divorce. She used to pour water on the front steps an hour before her husband was due home on freezing Chicago nights. Yeah, yeah. I know. But in her defense, he was a much bigger jerk than she was.
Still, she did not welcome the news that I was unmarried and pregnant.
“You’re going to be a great-grandmother!” I told her.
“You’re having a fatherless child?”
“Are you married?”
“I was married once, you know,” she informed me.
“Oh, yes, grandma, I know.”
“He was a jerk.”
“Oh, so being married isn’t so great.”
I’d stumped her, and I have to admit that I thought my banter was pretty clever and amusing. She disagreed, and never spoke to me again until her death was imminent. For good measure, she also cut off my parents. I sent her the occasional card, but did not include a return address. Devoid of modern sleuthing skills, this barred her from sending me any hate mail. It was all sent to my parents. They didn't offer much information about what Grandma Mary had to say, and I didn't ask.
After my daughter S was born, it occurred to me that I should visit her. I hadn’t seen her since I was nine years old. Once I mentioned to my dad that I was considering taking Simone to meet her. Her grew concerned, took me aside and told me something he’d never told me before.