Monday, January 21, 2013

Grandmommie Dearest

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.

What?  Who?”


“You’re having a fatherless child?”


“Are you married?”


“It’s fatherless.”

Long pause…

“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.

It seems that when I was between one and two, she came from Chicago to visit my dad and meet me.  One day, she was upstairs playing with me and my parents were downstairs.  My dad heard her yell his name.  “Bobby!” A minute later, I came tumbling down the stairs.  When she got home, she took all the pictures of me that my parents had sent her and mailed them back, addressing them to my mother and using her maiden name.  My dad could never shake the idea that his own mother had pushed his baby down the stairs.

Still I was not bothered. Grandma Mary was far too old now to be left alone with a baby anyway. Even if she had pushed me down the stairs, it wasn't personal. Just a way of getting at my parents. The only thing that struck me was the fact that she was the mother of a son who believed that she might try to kill his child. I might have been angry if my baby fell down the stairs while she was in my parents' or in-laws' care, but attempted murder simply wouldn't cross my mind.

I was in my late 20s when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 85. It had taken her mother down at 33, leaving behind a disturbing legacy. When she refused treatment, my dad, brother and I decided to see her one last time, taking 3-year-old S with us. A well meaning person sympathetically asked my mom “Oh, so you won't get to see her again?” My mom patted her hand and said reassuringly, “Oh, I'll survive.”

My Aunt urged my dad not to tell Grandma Mary he was coming. She felt that if we just showed up at her door with no warning, she wouldn't have the time to build up a case against us in her head. But he couldn't help himself and called to tell her we were coming. Aunt Jeannie said that she called and told her “I just don't want to see those people.”

On our first day in Chicago, we lingered at my Aunt's house until early afternoon.  Finally, she asked, “Um…are you going to go see grandma today?”  The three of us glanced nervously at each other.  ”They’re all afraid,” my cousin Kati said sweetly.

Ultimately, of course, we decided to bite the bullet and go.  We arrived and rang the buzzer to her apartment.  As we approached her door, she poked her head out.  It was her 86th birthday, and she hadn't lost her beauty or style. She wore a green dress that looked elegant despite the fact that it must have been decades old. No woman in my family exceeds five feet tall, so Grandma Mary had never worn flats in her life and wasn't going to start now. She looked so tiny and vulnerable, sloe eyes darting nervously around the hall.  Nothing to be afraid of.

Her small apartment was immaculate.  There wasn’t much storage, but she had gifts for all of us, gifts she had obviously been amassing for some time.  She gave S a teddy bear and a tea set, among other things.  Later I found a note attached to the teddy bear that read “To Bobby’s granddaughter, Valentines Day, 2006.”  The height the cold war she had waged against us.

Her vanity knew no bounds, and, convinced that she was a hideous old hag, she didn’t allow any photos to be taken. However, her ignorance of digital cameras allowed me to sneak a few of her with my daughter.  When she caught me she made me delete most of them, but I secretly managed to kept one.

We decided to take her out to lunch. As we were leaving, we passed the building’s custodian in the hall.  She pointed at S and excitedly told him “That’s my girl!”  

Over the next few days, we took her out to eat and did a fair bit of walking.  She wore high heels, attractive dresses, and doted on S.  She tired out relatively quickly, but the fact that she was walking around at all stunned me.  The cancer had broken several or her ribs.

Over lunch, she told me she had cancer. I confessed to being aware of this.

“I'm not getting any treatment,” she informed me. “Do you know why? Because nobody tells me what to do.” The gleam in her eye told me all I needed to know. This final act of defiance was bringing her enormous satisfaction. I felt a little bit giddy. The delight it was bringing her was contagious.

Fried foods were her biggest weakness, but she was weight conscious and rarely allowed herself to eat them.  She blotted the excess grease of a piece of skinless chicken, cut it in half, and saved have of it in a to go box for her dinner.  In her mind, the fact that it was her last birthday was no excuse to cheat.  No amount of fatty foods were going to make a lick of difference at this point, and I wanted to tell her so.  But all I could say was “Grandma, it’s your birthday!” I suppose the difference in our attitudes goes a long way toward explaining why I'm fat and she never was. 

She pointed an accusing finger at Rachel Ray, blaming her for making even vegetables fattening. When I told my cousin about this, she was surprised. “She loves Rachel Ray! She calls her Ray Ray!” Even a beloved TV personality couldn't be spared my grandmother's wrath. If she loved someone enough, turning on them was a foregone conclusion.

She was thrilled to see my dad because he was her son, and my daughter because she was a child. Say what you will about Grandma Mary, she loved kids. I was treated politely enough, but I knew she was over me. That was okay. I'd had my turn.

When our last day came, my cousin, brother and I picked her up and took her to lunch.  We dropped her off at her apartment spent a good 15 minutes arguing for her to let one of us walk her up .  She wouldn't hear of it and firmly refused.

Instead, she watched us drive away, knowing it would be the last time she saw my brother, daughter and me. I wondered what went through her mind. But I don't have to wonder what she did when she got to her apartment. She called the snake lover, who by that time was her oldest and dearest friend, and complained that her horrible grandchildren hadn't even helped their elderly, dying grandmother up the stairs. I guarantee it.

Later, my brother, S and I sat in an airport restaurant waiting for our flight home.  Our dad was staying for another day or two. Whatever might have happened between them, everyone knew that having her 60-year-old little boy to herself was all she really wanted. My brother was sad.  He wished we had seen more of her.  I didn’t.  We had seen exactly the right amount of her. Normally serenity and contentment elude me, but I could not have been more at peace.

A few months later, she took a turn for the worse. My aunt tried to keep her home as long as she could, thinking that being put in an institutional setting would trigger the trauma of her alive and well father placing her in an orphanage after the death of her mother. But her efforts went unappreciated. Grandma Mary screamed at her, “I want to be put in a home. You promised to put me in a home!”   She was ready for the hospice.

During her final weeks her rage grew, and she was abusive to my aunt, cousins, and the hospice staff. The director sat my aunt down and told her they didn't have the resources for mentally ill patients. My aunt, having no other options, told them “She has no history of mental illness.” This was absolutely true. Grandma Mary had certainly never sought any help, so there was no documented history of a problem.

One night, my aunt arrived to take her out to eat. As they were leaving, a nurse called out “Enjoy your dinner!”

“What do you care what I eat?” Grandma Mary snapped. “Worry about your own nutrition.”

My cousin's visit was met with screaming abuse. This was played to the balcony, meant to cause anyone who might overhear to feel sorry for the poor old woman with the awful, awful grandson. Could she have known that if anyone was garnering the sympathy of strangers, it was the poor 30-year-old man with the awful, awful grandmother?

When it became clear that she only had a few days left, my dad flew out to be with her. They had a meaningful goodbye, with her revealing secrets she'd never told her kids before. Flawed though she may have been, she was the only mother they had. Neither my dad and Aunt ever stopped trying to win their mother's approval.   

They day after my thirty-first birthday, my dad called to tell me she had died. That night, my husband's family came over, and my brother-in-law overheard his mother asking with concern how I was doing. He looked puzzled, and I explained that my grandma had died that morning.

“It's okay,” I told him. “She was so....”

“Nasty?” my husband offered helpfully.

I glared at him. “Complex.”

Grandma Mary sent me rock hard juicy fruit gum and five dollar bills in the mail. 

She wasn't too proud to play with the boundaries of murder.

She had a fantastic, dry sense of humor.

She nursed a deep hatred for everyone she was supposed to love.

She nursed a deep love for many of the people she hated.

As a child, my mind played tricks on me. I thought we saw her regularly, but the truth is that she visited us twice and we visited her twice. She was someone I had almost never met. We talked on the phone once a week, and even that probably varied depending on how she was getting along with my parents.

“I love you, grandmother,” I used to tell her during our phone calls all those years ago, exaggerating the formal grandmother in a way my 8-year-old self found hilarious.

“I love you too, granddaughter. I adore you,” she would say back. I am not lying when I say that I have never, for one second, doubted it.

Her two visits to Seattle had convinced Grandma Mary that she hated my Grandma Georgie. I was oblivious to the fact that she felt this woman she hardly knew had “ruined her life”. Grandma Georgie probably was, too. She never had unkind words for my Grandma Mary, although she probably disliked her for the way she treated my mother.  I suspect that for the most part, Mary barely registered on Georgie's radar. 

However, the fact is that women like Grandma Mary, the kind who lash out in manipulative and passive-aggressive ways because they feel so powerless, were the one type of person I remember Grandma Georgie looking at with contempt. She once told me with disgust about a woman she knew whose husband preferred a specific kind of milk, so as revenge for his abuse she kept the right carton on hand but kept it filled with the kind he didn't like. She could not understand what would drive a person to such petty and, more importantly, futile behavior. It was the one thing for which she had no patience or understanding. If you have a problem with your husband, tell him so. Secretly giving him the wrong kind of milk won't do a thing to solve your problems.

Having fought sexism and oppression and done well anyway, she could not accept that this was not always an option. Her relationship with her third husband, the man I still consider my last surviving grandparent, was like something out of a fairy tale. Did it occurred to her that the fact that they met and married at the age of 50 might have had something to do with this? She was never arrogant, but she possessed a healthy amount of self-respect. Grandma Georgie wasn't wrong to believe that her life was good because she had sown the seeds for a good life from the time she was a child. A little understanding for those who didn't possess her confidence and tenacity might have been nice, but everybody has their blind spot.  No wonder Grandma Mary couldn't stand her.

For years, I credited Grandma Mary with the fact that, no matter how she behaved, I was supremely confident that she was a perfect angel who loved me. But I see now that she didn't earn my faith in her. They may not have liked each other, but this was a gift given directly to Grandma Mary from Grandma Georgie. A gift that would have only made Grandma Mary hate her more, but a gift nevertheless. Grandma Georgie infused the name “Grandma” with so much power in my mind that nobody who held it could be anything less than extraordinary. Nothing Grandma Mary did could tarnish it. Her name was Grandma, therefore she was in my corner. It's as simple as that.

As an adult, I have been saddened to realize that the fact that Grandma Georgie died when I was relatively young, and the fact that it hit me so very hard, has left me with disappointingly few concrete memories. Normally I have a memory so keen it feels like a sizable burden.  Like Grandma Mary, I have a mind like a steel trap, holding on to everything as though it happened yesterday.  Unlike Grandma Mary, I know that's crazy.  It's a problem.  I work to keep it under control.  

But the Grandma Georgie in my mind is the one who succeeded at work and won the respect and love of friends, family, co-workers and strangers alike. Auntie Mame, a cousin of my mother's called her. That's not really the woman I knew, who to me was not a feminist icon or a fictional character. She was nothing but grandma. But now she lives in my head as a misty fairy godmother, when what I really want is to remember a real person.

A few weeks ago I encountered a woman in her 30s holding a newborn baby named after the grandmother she'd lost as a teenager.   A gutsy move for a woman whose voice broke when she tried to get through the sentence "my grandma died".  10, 15, 20 years later and she could not do it.  Chalk it up to post partum depression if you must, but I choose to believe that there are two of us.