Sometimes you just have to write…
When I was little, when my other grandmother, my father’s mother, was still alive (All I remember is some orangey-red lipstick and dyed red hair and the smell of cigarettes.), Grandma was my favourite of the two for one simple reason: she always brought presents. In my mercenary little toddler mind, that was of the utmost importance.
Grandma would always take my face between her hands and kiss me hard, almost violently, on each cheek, on the nose, the forehead, the chin, then all over again once or twice. My body would be pulled toward her on each kiss, and then pushed away from her after each. I endured it – I didn’t seem to be expected to kiss back. I wouldn’t have been able to if I tried; she had such a tight hold on my face. I saw it as a requirement for receiving my present.
She still did this well into her 80’s. Even though she was failing physically and I was a full-grown adult, half a foot taller than she was, she retained that amazing power in her arms to hold on to my face. My whole body was shaken with each kiss.
When I was older (and ruining my life, in her opinion), she didn’t love me quite as unconditionally as before. She limited her kisses to one on each cheek, but assured me that she still loved me despite my refusal to mend my ways.
One day she was trying to make a point about meeting men. She told me a story about Cousin Somebody-or-other who wanted to meet men. There was a big office building in Brookline (a section of Boston) where a lot of men worked. My grandmother, meanwhile, worked in her parents’ dry goods store. Cousin came to my grandmother and bought some men’s shirts in various sizes. She took them to the office building, figuring that men who were too busy to shop would buy them from her, and that she’d meet men at the same time. She’d always time her arrival to coincide with lunchtime, and someone would always ask her to lunch. Sure enough, she ended up marrying one of them.
Moral of the story: drop this goyische boy and find a nice Jewish doctor or lawyer!
Grandma told me about how she raised my mother: very strictly. When my mother was in college, she was living at home. She asked my grandmother if she could go for the weekend to New York City with her girlfriend and their two boyfriends. They planned to see a show and, of course, stay at different hotels (This was the early 1950’s.). My grandmother, whom, in her own version of events, the other mothers took as a natural leader, decided my mother couldn’t go, and so, of course, the other girl’s mother didn’t let her go either. That’s how strict Grandma was.
Moral of the story: Do what Grandma says and break up with that goyische boy and find a nice Jewish doctor or lawyer!
I asked my mother about this later. Her response: “Actually, I think we did go on that trip. She’s rewriting history!”
Barbara, my older sister, lived at home until she was 30, and then moved in with her boyfriend, Steve. Steve had a large tattoo on his forearm and kept guns. Barbara told me once never to visit without calling beforehand because, she said, “Steve doesn’t like surprises.”
Steve was unemployed except that he talked about starting up a computer business, whatever that meant. They both lived on what Barbara was earning as a nurse’s aide in a condo his mother had bought for him.
One day my grandmother announced her verdict on Barbara: “She’s fat! I would never have let her get so fat! When your mother was young and she gained even one pound, I wouldn’t leave her alone until she lost it again. Barbara needs to be told to lose weight!”
“Grandma, I don’t think Barbara’s going to lose any weight until she decides to – leave her alone.”
“She’ll lose weight if we tell her she needs to. And I’m going to keep telling her until she does it … It’s because she’s living with that boy. Do you know, she says he’s going to make it big in his computer business. When he does, he’s going to drop her in a minute. She’s so fat and they’re not married anyway! Do you know what she is?” Grandma’s voice drops. “She’s nothing but his mistress!”
Aunt Sylvia was a wonderful, warm, old woman. She was my grandfather’s sister and the absolute opposite of my very proper grandmother. When I was little, Aunt Sylvia used to write wonderful long letters to me, mostly about George Washington, for some reason. Nothing made me feel as special as receiving one of Aunt Sylvia’s letters.
I never got the story very clearly from Grandma, because I think she was afraid to say it, but Aunt Sylvia was married twice. The first marriage ended when she ran away in the 1940’s with another man. This is where the story gets hazy – I don’t know if she was divorced before or after she ran away. In either case it was perfectly scandalous behaviour as far as Grandma was concerned, so that meant we could never talk about it.
That was Grandma’s response to whatever she disapproved of. A year after I got back from my Peace Corps stint, I went back to
Malawi to visit my then-boyfriend, Albert. When I got home, I dutifully went to visit Grandma. As she sat down in the car, before saying “Hello” or giving me a kiss or anything, Grandma asked “Have you slept with him?”
I was so surprised by the question that it didn’t occur to me to lie. “Yes,” I answered.
Her response was to tell me not to tell anyone. “You can still marry someone and just don’t tell him you ever slept with anyone else.”
I remember her response to my best friend, Stuart. Grandma thought for years that there was something going on between us, no matter how often I told her we were just friends. It’s not surprising she thought that: we shared a suite in college and we travelled together for months at a time.
What was funny was that her reaction was that if there was nothing going on, then why did I bother spending any time with him? In other words, if he’s not a potential husband there’s no reason to spend time with him. And what was worse: the time I spent with Stuart would scare off other men. They’d think I was “taken.”
Of course, I couldn’t tell her he was gay, because then the shit would really have hit the fan!
She didn’t want us together in any case, because as far as she was concerned, he was a “half-breed” (her word). His father was a WASP and his mother was from China. God forbid I should marry a mix; she’d rather I marry Albert! And his parents were divorced, which “only goes to show what happens with mixed marriages!”
One of Grandma’s elderly friends once told me, “Don’t pay attention to your grandmother. You see, she reached the 1930’s and then stopped! She can’t help it.”
“Grandma Brody” told me this at her granddaughter’s wedding shower. Of course, such an occasion was bound to upset Grandma, who had three unmarried granddaughters, the youngest already an old maid at 25. This family and mine had been friends since the two grandmothers were young and three generations of each family were there at the shower.
All went well at first. Grandma enjoyed watching Rebecca, the bride-to-be, open her presents. Grandma lived in an old age home by then and grabbed any excuse for an outing. She sat and gossiped with Grandma Brody, who, of course, was thrilled at the prospect of her granddaughter’s wedding (to a nice Jewish boy, at that!).
The trouble came at lunch. There was a buffet, and, playing the dutiful granddaughter, I filled Grandma’s plate for her and joined her and my mother at a table. There were about four other women at the table, and the conversation was very interesting, though Grandma did not take part.
Somewhere along the line I mentioned that I was planning to go to Spain over Christmas vacation. At that, Grandma perked up. “Why are you going to Spain?”
I explained that I was going to see Albert, my then-boyfriend, who would be there to spend Christmas with his parents.
Grandma was silent for a moment, looking down at her plate. “But don’t you see? You’re chasing him!”
It got worse from there. Without even trying to lower her voice, she went on to tell me how I was shaming myself, chasing him all the way to Spain. He’d never marry me if I chased him, and neither would anyone else, and so on.
My mother and I tried our best to get her to drop the subject, but it was not use. Terribly embarrassing.
Hence the comment from Grandma Brody, who had heard it all, as had everyone else present that day. Grandma reached the 1930’s and stopped.
When I used to visit Grandma she would talk about Barbara, because she knew that I wouldn’t stand for her to criticize me directly. To her the situation was identical; we’d both ruined our chances for a good marriage by sleeping with a man before marrying him. When she talked to me about Barbara, she was really expressing her opinions about me.
Grandma didn’t believe I/Barbara was capable of making wise decisions – I/Barbara needed to be told what to do. I gently reminded her that I/Barbara would make our own decisions anyway, no matter what we were told to do. Grandma even conceded that she didn’t always do what her mother wanted, but she should have. Barbara was ruining her life and must be told what to do. I was ruining my life and must be told what to do.
One day I tried a new tack with Grandma. I explained that I had never regretted any major decision I’d made in my life so far. Look at my two years with the Peace Corps in Malawi – it was the best thing I ever did.
My grandmother looked shocked. “That was the biggest mistake of your life!” What astounded me about this statement was that she didn’t say it as an opinion. She used a tone of voice that made it sound like established fact, like “Connecticut is in the United States of America.” How could I argue with fact?
Grandma told me about one time when my mother was in college. Ma invited Grandma to a bridal shower that was going on in the dorm for a friend of hers. Grandma went, and was impressed by the beautiful cakes and sweets the girls had made for the bride-to-be.
But then the bride walked in, obviously pregnant. Grandma was shocked, though she assured me, as she told this story, that she behaved politely. Ma told Grandma how wonderful and accepting the girl’s parents were being and added “You’d throw me out if I got pregnant, wouldn’t you?”
“Absolutely,” Grandma replied.
Grandma assured me, in telling the story, that she would not actually have thrown Ma out. At least this girl was getting married! But Grandma would never have let the pregnancy become public like this; she would have hidden Ma away somewhere.
She was leading to something, telling me this, though: Barbara (and, by implication, me). What if Barbara got pregnant? Well, Grandma had clearly given this possibility a lot of thought, and she had it all planned: she would send Barbara down to her aunt in Florida, where no one knew her. Then Ma would go down when Barbara had had the baby and bring it back, saying that she’d adopted it.
The way my grandmother said this! No concept of what Barbara or her boyfriend might have wanted! No concept that it wouldn’t have been something to be ashamed about anyway! No concept that the last thing my mother would have wanted was another child to bring up when she’d finally finished with her own! As if she had it all figured out. And, of course, the implication was that the same plan would apply to me.
When Albert moved to the US to pursue his Masters Degree, I moved from upstate New York to Berkeley, California to be with him. At that point, relations with my grandmother reached their lowest point. Up to now, I could always lie to prospective husbands and tell them I was still a virgin. Now, here I was quite openly moving in with a man to whom I wasn’t married. That was it: no chance in hell for a husband now. And Albert would never marry me, of course, because he was already getting what he wanted. “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”
Grandma even wrote me a very nasty letter about Albert. I wish I’d saved it. I was so upset and hurt when I read it that I immediately tore it up. I do remember that it was, as you would expect with my 1930’s-era grandmother, filled with old-fashioned words that were, to Grandma at least, very insulting. I remember the word “loverboy,” for example. It would probably be very funny to read now, but at the time the meaning behind the outmoded language was all too clear.
So we had no communication for almost a year. Grandma disowned me, though what that means when you don’t actually own anything wasn’t clear (Grandma’s social security income went straight to the home she lived in and she had no savings.). She didn’t contact me in any way and I didn’t contact her. My mother, meanwhile, along with several other relatives, got in regular arguments with my grandmother over her treatment of me. You see, she had kept a copy of the letter she’d written me and read it proudly to visiting relatives. The usual reaction was “I wouldn’t talk to you either if you spoke to me like that!” Some of the relatives even stopped visiting her.
A year after we moved to Berkeley, Albert and I decided to get married. The truth was that we got married so that Albert could get a green card so that he could get a job now that he’d finished his Masters. Nevertheless, Grandma was thrilled. Her verdict: “Albert is the grandson I never had!” What a reversal! In her mind, he wasn’t just my husband. He was positively saintly to marry me, considering I was “used goods” and he’d already gotten what he wanted. At this point, the issue of the “nice Jewish boy” she’d always wanted me to marry just didn’t come up. No nice Jewish boy would have me now!
The icing on the cake was when my daughter, Grandma’s first great-grandchild, was born – luckily, a respectable time after the wedding. Anne was a particularly beautiful baby, with enormous blue eyes and a big round belly. Whenever we visited, Grandma would hold her in her arms and poke at her belly. Anne, of course, would cry. Grandma, however, didn’t seem to be able to stop herself. I can still picture that finger, bent with arthritis, poking at Anne’s big belly. I would tell Grandma to stop, that Anne didn’t like it, but she’d always do it, every time we visited. It got so that, when Anne was older – two or three years old – she would burst into tears as we approached Grandma’s room in the home. She knew what was coming. I would have to bribe her to get her to enter the room: be nice to Grandma and we’ll go to the zoo/playground/beach afterwards. Come to think about it, that’s what was happening when I let her give me those violent kisses when I was a child. The gifts she brought were her bribes.