When visiting my grandmother, the first thing I can expect to hear when I wake up at 9:30 is, "Oh good, you're finally up, I've been starving for hours now." Then begins the delicate game of deciding where to go for breakfast.
Me: Where would you like to go?
G'ma: Oh I don't care. Where would you like to go? This is a lie. There is one specific place she has in mind for breakfast, and it is now my job to guess that place.
Me: I'm open to anything. How do you feel about Coco's?
G'ma: Coco's is... (downward lilt) fine. You have chosen: poorly.
Me: Is there anywhere else you would like to go?
G'ma: No, Coco's is fine. Five minutes pass. Although, you know, we haven't been to Pam's in a long time. She means Polly's, and God help me, I do the same thing all the time.
Me: Oh, do you want to go to Polly's?
G'ma: That's right, Polly's. Let's do that!
Then we drive to Polly's. On the way, she will criticize how fast I drive. If I point out that I am both going the speed limit and at or slightly slower than the flow of traffic, she will tell me, "Well, you know you're not on the insurance, sweetheart," and then make a tangential comment about the Christmas gift I didn't get right three years ago. If I ask her not to backseat drive, she will tell me that I'm mumbling and to speak up. I know that the correct response to all of this is to stonewall: sometimes I manage not to take the bait, but often I still don't.
Then we arrive at Polly's. She will not get out of the car if someone (possibly men in particular?) is walking ten feet away on the off chance that they happen to be the kind of hooligan who would push an old lady down while walking past. As I am pulling out my keys to lock the car, she will make sure to remind me to lock the car, because you know otherwise I might just forget and then where would we be? As we are walking inside, she will wax eloquent about the bank teller from the day before who would only speak in a whisper and who clearly did not know what she was doing and the grocery clerk who just insists on packing the bags too heavy.
God help our waitress. By the end of the meal she will say:
G'ma: Well, she just wasn't very good at all.
Me: I thought she was fine. She was nice and our food was on time.
G'ma: Yes but she insisted on refilling my coffee and now it is cold! Assuming, naturally, that the waitress poured cold coffee into her cup, rather than it having cooled down over the subsequent ten minutes.
Me: I'm not sure our waiter is responsible for the laws of physics.
G'ma: (sniff), you mean waitress.
Me: Ah, my mistake.
I decide to try and head some of this off at the pass. I've been thinking a lot about my mother recently, and I want to hear more stories about her before I was around while my grandmother can still tell them. So I ask her to tell me something about mom, maybe in her twenties, before she had me but after she had grown up and moved out of the house. It is the period I know the least about.
My grandmother almost immediately launches into a story about my mother in her teens, when she was sneaking cigarettes with her friend and ditching school.
G'ma: You know, she was always such a good storyteller, such a good liar. Whenever she told me these things I just believed her. But she wasn't the leader of this, no. She was more of a follower. It was that friend of hers who got her into trouble.
Me: Sounds like pretty normal teenage acting out.
G'ma: I guess. If only I could have been there more, done something more. I should have stopped it somehow.
This makes me suddenly, unreasonably and furiously angry. She believes that she should have done more, that she wasn't there enough, when it seems clear as day to me that she was there too much. My mother was just trying to exert some distance, some control over a situation in which she had none because my grandmother must always be in control. But as my grandmother keeps talking, I feel like I'm walking backwards in time. Parts of this story I knew, but others were just being filled in, and I feel like the audience to a bad black-and-white movie where we found out that Rosebud was the sled the whole time.
I am 17 years old, practicing clarinet in the den. I hear an odd sound coming from somewhere else in the house, so I try to find it. It's my grandmother, sobbing uncontrollably while sprawled across my mother's bed: she had been dead for six or eight months by this point. I try to comfort her, but inside I am thinking ungenerously that she looks and sounds like a beached whale. I am pissed that I have to the parent to her, and that aside from choking up at the funeral I have never cried for mom. It feels to me as if my grandmother has taken up all the room for grief and I have to be the calm, reasonable one all the time.
I am 15 years old, and my mother and grandmother are fighting over dinner again. Meals are forced family time, and it takes me a while to realize how much I dread dinners together. To this day, most of the time when I eat I zone out only to snap back into consciousness after the food is gone: I realize looking back that this is probably where that comes from. I finally snap at both of them and say, "Fine, we all hate each other, can we please just eat quietly?" My mother excuses herself to have a cigarette, in spite of just having gotten her second kidney transplant. Later that evening my grandmother is gardening without gloves and I can see a black widow spider crawling up the trowel towards her hand. I beg her to use gloves; she responds by telling me that she doesn't care if she dies because at least she loves me. I feel so bad that I apologize the rest of the evening.
I am 9 years old, and my mother and grandmother are fighting again, and my grandmother is throwing my mother out of the house for maybe the 30th or 40th time since they've been living together. This time it seems serious, though, so I pack up a bunch of my toys in a pillow case and tell my mother I'm ready to go with her (she insists she is taking me). My grandmother tells me that I have to leave the toys behind as I will just lose them or my mother will sell them if we are out on our own. My mother says, probably for the hundredth time since she found out about her kidney disease, "you'll be so sorry when I'm dead." I unpack my toys, but I'm crying. Nobody leaves the house that night.
I am 5 years old, and visiting my grandmother for the summer. My mother and her (meth-addicted) boyfriend Rod are living back in Ohio, and my grandmother is concerned. I have no marks on me, but I am apparently telling "everyone who will listen" about how Rod hits my mother. When I left the previous year I had been well-fed, but now I am very skinny and appear undernourished. I woke up from a nap screaming because I thought that my grandmother had left me all alone in the house. I have a disconcerting habit of wandering to the fridge and eating peanut butter from the jar. Perhaps most concerning, I tell a story about how Rod had me touching his penis in the shower, and how my mother screamed (at least once, possibly often) for me to get a knife so she could defend herself against him. My grandfather is telling my grandmother that she should sue for custody, although he does not seem willing to do so himself.
It is 6 months earlier, in winter in Ohio. I remember my mother teaching me how to get canned peaches and peanut butter on my own because she and Rod liked to sleep in. I remember an incident where he bent her fingers back at an impossible angle because she wouldn't give him the money from her bank account, and in retrospect he must have been fixing pretty badly. I remember there being a lot of Playgirl magazines around the house, because my mother said she liked them. I remember that my mother loved me, and that it felt like her and me against Rod and maybe between the two of us we could take him. I remember having fantasies of stabbing him while he was hurting my mother.
I am 4 years old. My mother and Rod are moving to the East Coast, against my grandmother's objections. They insist on driving, and have carved out a small space in the back seat for me between the piles of objects they are moving. Rod will ultimately strand my mother in a gas station and drive the car back to his parent's house, selling most of the possessions to pay off the money he owes them. My mother will forgive him, then beg for money from my grandmother to get both of them a bus ticket to make it all the way to Pennsylvania (where they lived before Ohio). I am already in Pennsylvania with my grandfather, because my grandmother had the foresight to plead with them to send me on a plane instead.
My mother is 26, four and a half years before I am born. She is telling my grandfather, not for the first time, that when he left the family there was nobody there to protect her from (my grandmother). He is apologizing. He is unaware that she has been bulimic for years, and that it is destroying her kidneys. The doctors will notice something is wrong when I am born, but she won't follow up until I am 9 and it is already so bad that she needs dialysis.
My mother is 16, sneaking cigarettes with her friend and ditching school, probably talking about what bitches their parents are.
My mother is 9. My grandmother is a stressed-out single mother with a full-time job who's just finished getting her divorce from her alcoholic husband.
My grandmother is 9. She has much of the responsibility for raising her younger siblings, of whom there will ultimately be seven, because her mother is busy flirting with the neighborhood men and gossiping with her friends. She is the oldest child in a shotgun wedding, and her own mother has a hard time concealing her contempt (while doting on the male children). She is learning that she is expected to be in control at all times, and that when things go wrong she will often be blamed for it instead of her siblings. She is also learning that her siblings like getting into trouble (probably because there weren't enough parents to go around), and usually will if she isn't there to stop them.
My great-grandmother is 9. Her father is an alcoholic, and has locked her out of the house again. She has to spend the night sleeping across the street at the neighborhood park. She will get pregnant and marry early to escape...
After two hours of talking about our family, I am not angry any more. I have cried, more than I did in six or seven years after my mother died. My grandmother doesn't seem to notice, although she does say that she's upset at me for making her talk about all of this. We're back home by this point and she says that she wants to rest. But before she does, the last thing it occurs to her to say is this:
G'ma: Thank God you turned out the way you are. Thank God you didn't wind up like your mother. You know, she always used to tell me that I was a bad mother, and I think she was probably right. But I remember that time before I sent you on the plane to Pennsylvania, the night before when you and I were cuddling in bed together and I was so afraid. I remember your little arm hugging my neck and thinking, "I can die now. This can be it for me."... Anyway, we missed The Price is Right. Where do you think you want to go for dinner?
And the thing is, death is coming for her. We might have five or even ten more years at the outset, but the closer it gets, the faster it seems to move. I know that she is too lost in the past to hear what I want to say to her, and I guess that this has to be okay, because I've tried in every way I know. But what I would want to say is this: it's okay. I forgive you, just like I forgave mom a long time ago. I get it; I can help you carry some of the sadness and the hate. I wish you understood that. I love you; not just the fake, socially compelled "I love you," we always say to each other. The real one, the one that understands how bad you had to hurt for me to be who and where I am. And I'm sorry for when I fail. I love you.
And I do. And if she can never quite hear that, then by God the people in my life will, from my friends to my clients and one day my partner and my own children. I love you. I really do.