When my grandmother died, I hadn’t spoken to her in over a decade. My mother was her least-favorite child, which made me and my twin sister her least favorite grandchildren. (My younger brother she could forgive for being my mother’s child since he’s a boy.)
She died recently, less than a year after my mother. We joked that she couldn’t even give my mom a full year’s peace in whatever afterlife there might be.
My relationship with my grandmother was never easy. As far back as I can remember, she was always angry at someone. In my earliest memory of her, I am three years old and she is babysitting me and my sister. We are on her back porch with her, my uncles, and their wives, and she is berating me and my sister for refusing to eat the tuna fish she made for lunch.
“Can you believe them,” she fumes to the adults while my sister and I sit there staring at her. Even enraged, she is captivating, a platinum blond, porcelain-skinned beauty with ferocious, sky blue eyes. “They’re such brats. So defiant.”
“They’re three,” my uncles protest. “Let them have something else.”
But she couldn’t forgive us. She could never forgive anyone.[bctt tweet=”She could never forgive anyone.”]
* * *
Her rage had a source. A brilliant woman, she was raised during the early 1900s when a woman’s primary goal was to be a wife who would defer to her husband on all matters except household and child rearing. And marry she did, to a man almost twenty years her senior, who expected her to run his medical practice–unpaid, of course–and to raise the children basically on her own since he was always out, on house calls, at political functions, building his reputation as an upstanding member of the community.
And then, abruptly, she was a widow at forty-eight with no money, no college degree, a teenager still to raise, and three other grown children struggling with their own lives and commitments and grief. All my grandmother’s years of running my grandfather’s office didn’t count in the work world. She had to go back to school and get an associate degree in hospital administration before anyone took her seriously.
It’s no wonder she lived in a constant state of fury.
But there was something more wrong with my grandmother than rage. Even she knew it at some point. She once begged my grandfather to let her see a psychiatrist and get medication for what was most likely bipolar disorder.
He wouldn’t hear of it. He had a reputation to protect. Mental disease was an anomaly experienced by other, less prominent families. Better to ignore my grandmother’s rants, her threats about the horrors her children would experience if they disobeyed her. Better to let her berate my mother for wearing the wrong scarf or inviting her own friends to her own wedding instead of my grandmother’s long list of acquaintances.
Decades after my grandfather died, my grandmother finally took the medication that she’d begged him for. She became almost pleasant, her moods more manageable and predictable, until, abruptly, she flushed the meds down the toilet.
No one should be happy all the time, she said.
As an adult, I rarely saw my grandmother, especially once I moved to California after law school. I called her for holidays, her birthday. I tried to see her when I was in New Jersey, though often she made excuses at the last minute. She’d just seen my mother and didn’t have time for another visit, or she didn’t have room for me and my sister (who also lives out of town) at the dinner table. Or sometimes she canceled with no excuse at all.
When I did see her, we occasionally had good conversations. She could be funny, dynamic, charming. But she eventually would find fault: I didn’t say hello quickly enough; how could I be so disrespectful? And how could I have moved so far away from my mother? A daughter should stay close to home. Then she’d turn to my mother. How could you let her move so far away? How could you?
We never had a huge falling out. Eventually, I just got tired of the one-sidedness of my efforts, of the unpredictability of her moods. Of her mean-spirited manipulation of my mother and everyone around her.
I prided myself on being nothing like her.
* * *
The last time I saw my grandmother was at my mother’s wake.
I find myself thinking about that last encounter sometimes, about how my grandmother, in her nineties by then, arrived on her motorized scooter, the only way she could get around at that point, so bad were her hips and knees; how she rode the scooter twice to my mother’s casket, her pale face flushed and fierce, never glancing to where my sister, my brother, and I stood greeting people on the receiving line. How she stared into the casket at my mother, her daughter, her least-favorite child, and cried, then rode away, out of the room.
How I never once left my place in line even to greet her. She never loved me. My entire life, she never called me. She never loved any of us, really. She was self-absorbed, difficult. In her mind, her family was put on this earth to serve her. She owed us nothing, but we owed her everything.
She was ninety-six years old. She wasn’t going to change.
But I could have. I could have walked over and hugged her, said, Sorry for your loss.
Chances are she would have rebuked me. How dare you talk to me after all these years? Or, You should have said hello as soon as I got here. Where are your manners?
Or maybe she would have said, She wasn’t supposed to die before me. Children aren’t supposed to die before their parents. Maybe she would have held on tight to me, drawing comfort from my embrace, from what remained of my mother in me.
I didn’t have to forgive or forget. But I could have faked it. I could acted in a forgiving way, even if I know that I’ll never forget–or forgive–the way she never valued my mother, my sister, myself. The way she made my mother feel as if she always came last. As if she didn’t matter.
Maybe if I had faked it, if I had at least offered her my condolences, there wouldn’t be this seed of doubt that leaves me feeling petty and unkind for having acted upon my own most negative feelings rather than risen above them.
Really, though, I did fake it. If I had approached my grandmother and she had said something nasty, I would have said something worse in return. In that way, I am cut from her cloth. I hold grudges. I carry a rage inside me that I often struggle to contain. A rage that ached to erupt that day.
Instead, I stayed away. I avoided a scene. I allowed the wake to be about my mother, not about anger or recrimination.
Maybe she was doing the same thing. Staying away from us. Avoiding a scene. Letting the past stay in the past so that we could all mourn in our own private ways.
My intentions were mean-spirited, bred from anger. But I faked compassion as best I could. Maybe she did too.
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Your story resonates with probably more people than you realize. We can’t pick our family, and just because they are family, it doesn’t bind us to them unconditionally. In my own family there have been schisms and shifting plates not unlike the landscape. It just happened because of choices people made or trajectories others took.
The numerous cousins from now deceased aunts and uncles with whom I played with when younger like surrogate brothers and sisters have been whittled away by time and actions. Betrayals or slights take on a different meaning when we age, and I personally have excised many due to different things, and I refuse to fake it. My older sisters still manufacture some silly attachment to a few, and when there is the funeral or wedding, and we’re thrown into the mix, I just stand apart and they understand.
It’s a complicated life and I don’t reward those who cannot reciprocate emotions or social graces. I’m too fucking tired of manufacturing things that are not there.
My question to you is did you receive any blowback on your piece?