Friday, November 23, 2012

Everything But a Bitch

I always thought my grandmother was such a bitch.

She looked like Elizabeth Taylor and smoked Eves, drank a full glass of white milk at every meal and was appalled when I wouldn't touch the stuff. She was a hot headed Republican with an opinion on everything and her opinion, you could pretty much bet, was different than yours and you were wrong and she was going to tell you how and why you were whether you wanted to hear it or not.

I didn't like when she babysat me because she was an awful cook. There was never anything to eat at her house except everything I didn't like: tuna fish, green peppers, macaroni salad. When she'd run into the dairy mart for a packet of cigarettes, she'd leave me locked in her Cadillac, which reeked of ashtray and Jean Nate.

When I was a kid, it always seemed like my grandmother was pissed off at one thing or another. She didn't play with me like my other grandmother. She didn't bake. She had too many pets. She didn't host a lot of warm, family get-togethers. Her house was cluttered, a little tacky. She spent a lot of time sighing, smoking and looking out the kitchen window while she stood over the sink.

I didn't understand my grandparents' divorce. I lacked the empathy, as a child, to imagine how it must have felt to be married to an alcoholic and a cheat for 27 years, to have five children, four who lived, with a man who had more fun in bars with drunks and young sluts than with his own family. I didn't know then how she must have felt when he left with a pregnant twenty-year old and moved into an apartment a few miles away to start a second family when he was already a grandfather. Small town schadenfreude added insult to her injury. I once heard someone say of my grandmother that she was the most beautiful woman in town, and then, that she knew it. There were people who were glad to see her humiliated, people who'd always been jealous of her elegance. That made it worse for her.

But I just thought my grandmother was cold, snippy, bossy, a little stuck up, not anything like a grandmother ought to be. I know differently now.

Our families teach us what to be, what not to be. My grandfather, her ex-husband, who was a wonderful grandfather even though he was a shit husband, taught me not to drink, not to wander, not to chase a good time, but to stick close to home and family. Those are big things. I'm grateful.

My grandmother though, she taught me about grace. Real grace. And for such a bitch, she taught me a hell of a lot about love and acceptance. That was a huge thing. There is nothing bigger.   

No surprise that things didn't work out with my grandfather and his second wife. Neither of them were the best candidates to parent their baby daughter. She was too young to be a mother and he was too old to be a father again. She wanted to party and when she ran off and left him with the baby he couldn't be a full time parent because he had to work. My grandfather was a trucker. You can't haul a toddler across country in the cab of a semi. 

That's where my mom stepped in. She wanted more children. Back then she hadn't even regained custody of me and she dreamed of babies. She wanted to adopt or find a surrogate to carry another child for her because, at twenty, before she met my adopted dad, she'd impulsively had her tubes tied by an unethical doctor. She couldn't afford the reversal. Doctors scared her anyway. But she longed for a family now; a big raucous family of kids playing in every room. My mother took in her father's daughter, her baby half-sister to raise as her own. That's how my sister is my aunt.

My mom's siblings accepted this. My new sister played with my cousins (they were all the same age anyway) and we kids packed together. I was the oldest so I bossed the little ones around and if they got on my nerves or got in my stuff, when no one was looking I'd smack them around a little and tell them scary stories so they'd have nightmares. I liked my little sister.

Holidays though. Birthdays. Sunday dinners. They were the problem. The rest of us, my cousins and me, were my grandmother's real grandkids - the ones she babysat and left in the car, the ones she gave twenty-five dollars to, flattened inside a card every birthday and Christmas. My sister though, she wasn't a real grandkid. She was my grandmother's ex-husband's love child with a twenty year old drunk whore that he left her for.

Most women wouldn't be able to handle that. I don't know if I could deal with my daughter adopting her own half sister under such circumstances and my grandmother was more than a little ticked at my mom for doing it. Understandably, she didn't want any part of it. Her divorce was settled. She'd found a job after being a housewife for the past thirty years. She'd started dating again. My grandmother wanted a fresh start without any reminders of her painful past.

My mother says she knew it was never going to work, that my sister would never have a chance at really being a part of the family unless my grandmother could accept her as one of her grandchildren. We couldn't very well go visit my grandmother on Christmas Eve, like we did every year, eating her disgusting giblet stuffing, if we had to leave my sister somewhere else because my grandmother couldn't bear the sight of her and we couldn't punish my grandmother, who, Lord knows, had been punished enough already and totally undeservedly, by refusing to visit her unless she caved.

But my grandmother was not a woman without a heart. She loved children, in her own weird, milk-forcing, impatient way. She was a deeply nurturing woman under her veil of hairspray and cigarette smoke. She took in every wounded animal (she still does at 79). She cared for her schizophrenic son, her daughter in prison, her other daughter who struggled with addiction. 

So this is what my mother did.

It was almost Christmas. She had shopping to do. She called up my grandmother.

"Mom," she said, "I'm dropping the kids off at your house so I can run into town and get some things done. I'll be there in ten minutes."

"Oh NO YOU WILL-"

But my mom hung up on her and put us in the car and off she drove to my grandmother's house.

"Thanks, Mom!" my mother called after she'd practically shoved us in the front door.

My grandmother yelled at her from the front doorway.

"DON'T YOU LEAVE THAT CHILD! SISSY YOU GET BACK HERE RIGHT NOW!"

My mom pretended she didn't hear and kept on driving, right out of the driveway, down the street and straight into town.

She came back a couple hours later, not sure what she'd find, but hopeful.

My grandmother opened the door with a scowl. She didn't say hello, or anything. She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips.

"Well?" my mom asked.

My grandmother led her to the kitchen. My sister was happily  drinking milk and eating a sandwich. She pointed at my grandmother.

"Mommom!" she said.

"So?" my mom asked.

"She's an ugly little thing, isn't she? Looks just like your father," my grandmother said. She winked at my mom and smiled.

From that day on, my grandmother was my sister's grandmother too. She never forgot her birthday. She treated her exactly as she treated the rest of us. When my grandfather died, it was my grandmother who called my sister, then fifteen, to tell her. My sister still calls her Mommom, and she is, in every sense, my sister's grandmother.

Now that is grace. That is a setting an example. Rising above your circumstances and doing the right thing, the human thing, the loving thing? My grandmother will show you how it's done.
  
Because my grandmother is everything but a bitch.          

10 comments:

afterthegoldrush said...

What a wonderful story!
I grew up in Milford and am wondering if I knew your family.
Btw, I came here thru a link on FB by Michelle B. She lived two doors down.

Anonymous said...

One of your best stories (and all of them are wonderful).

I consider this a Christmas story!

L. in CA

Yasmine said...

What a beautiful story! Your grandmother sounds like a classy woman with a huge heart. Thankyou for sharing her stories with us. (I agree with L -- all your stories are wonderful!)

Alessandra said...

What a lovely story. You're right, your grandmother is a bigger person than most people will ever be. I think it particularly wonderful under her circumnstances, since more often than not, suffering makes people bitter and resentful instead of wiser and better.

Anonymous said...

That is a beautiful story. One of your best. Thank you.

Melanie said...

This story needs to be immortalized in one of your many hardback books that will be published in the future. (Hopefully the not-too-distant future!) It's so inspirational; it's the kind of story that could cause people to rethink their own lives and make positive changes as a result.

Ellen said...

Beautiful story. Your grandmother has a big heart.

I loved the touch of irony you threw in here:

"My grandfather, her ex-husband, who was a wonderful grandfather even though he was a shit husband, taught me not to drink, not to wander, not to chase a good time, but to stick close to home and family. Those are big things. I'm grateful."

So funny that your grandfather taught you to be everything that he wasn't. Do you think that he was aware of this?

Kim said...

Grandma rocks ..your family is so wonderfully dysfunctional and real.. I love it !

Dawn said...

Very sweet story, and you're right -- it's the true definition of grace.

Anonymous said...

This story touched me, drew a little tear. Thank you!

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