An original profile written in CW 352: Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Summer 2010
Both of my surviving grandparents—my mommy’s dad, and my daddy’s mom—moved south to Arizona within one year of each other. The moves were not coordinated. One can’t expect one’s unrelated relatives to communicate. But it seemed a peculiar turn of events for us, the kids and grandkids they have in common. Because Grandma and Grandpa had long learned to revel in—even to profit from—the cold winters here on the East Coast. They had gotten used to us being within driving distance (albeit a long drive, a painful drive—with lots of poking and bickering in the back seat). They were healthy as racehorses. And they both had the misfortune of getting remarried to partners who proved unhealthy; who didn’t know how to revel at all.
My mom’s mother I wish I could have met. She died when mommy was on the eve of marriage—engaged, I think—to daddy. (So I’m not sure he got to meet her, either.) We were both told she was a kind soul, and had a beautiful voice (which my mother also had, before she lost it to a virus), and meant all the world to everybody, including Grandpa, such that Grandpa was something like a dingo’s kidney when he decided to move on as quickly as he did. The death itself was unexpected, but shouldn’t have been. A heart failure that should have shown up as a murmur, but somehow slipped through the physicals and the check-ups like the four-leafed clover in that song. Genetic, but mommy and her sister and brother are home free. At least, that’s the story I’ve heard.
My dad’s father I may possibly have met, but at best I would have drooled at him as he lay in a hospital bed. He may have held me. He died of cancer in the year 1990, when I was a year and a half young and my sister was smaller than small. It was, “A raging cancer,” as daddy says. A cancer of the everything, as Kurt Vonnegut may have put it. “His was a long drawn-out illness…He was a bit of a raging lunatic in the end.” I was the first grandchild he wouldn’t get to see grow old.
As my father says, his father and his mother had fallen, by this time, into “Irreconcilable differences,” although she still cared for him, still “loved him,” in the final months. The differences, according to my father, had been irreconcilable for longer than Grandma had realized. I’ve gathered that her husband was, shall we say, probably in need of AA for the better part of his life, and “could be” verbally—though not physically—abusive. Grandma was a peacekeeper. She turned daddy into the sort of person who volunteers to be a Resident Advisor when he goes to college. And peace-keeping wasn’t always easy with four boys in the house all vying for position.
Grandma wanted a daughter, and kept trying until she got one.
According to daddy, Grandma was “Always the one to tell us [kids] that everything would be okay.” He used an old adage to describe her, saying, “There is nothing she wouldn’t do for us.” From this I’ve taken the Grandma did most of the parenting, as well as most of the driving of the kids to school and to soccer practice. I didn’t really see this, though; this Grandma of the generous good-will. I saw Grandma of the kind-hearted-from-a-distance, Grandma the grumpy-up-close. She handled the raising of her own kids well, but has had some trouble connecting with the next generation. Not that she didn’t try, or isn’t trying. It’s just, I’ve always sort of been under the impression that she’s tried to buy us off.
I believe the “buying off” is a symptom of having so many kids you have to let be kids, and then have to let no longer be kids, and then, finally, have to part with. It’s the result of conscious efforts to real yourself in, to put an end to the rearing, to let mistakes happen so lessons can be made by them. My parents say that I never take the time to get to know grandma, while I’ve maintained that grandma never takes the time to get to know me. Both are accurate complaints, and could be made about or by any one of my cousins. The fact is, Grandma doesn’t talk much unless probed. She tries to reach us, the grandkids, through our parents. She doesn’t respond to letters or e-mail, because she forgets. She tries to show her love in other ways. In the beginning, it was books.
Grandma was a librarian through to retirement, and got free books by the bagful. She’d leave them in the middle of the living room, and daddy would tell us she’d said we could pick through. She’d be perched by them in an easy chair—herself pretending to read—looking over her reading glasses at the selections we’d make. “Oh, so you like the Hardy Boys?” And my father would say, “Tell your grandma thank-you.” I don’t think our trips were ever frequent enough that I ‘liked’ the same thing twice, but she took note of our choices. And when she retired, and the books disappeared from the living room floor, she chose another tactic to express her love for us: she married a fellow.
Certainly, Grandma always liked Mark. But I’m not convinced that any knots would have happened between them if Grandma had not had grandkids. Mark, to be honest, is a little rambunctious and a little immature. He’s in his fifties to her late sixties: only a half dozen years, or so, older than her oldest child. And the function he serves is the same, I think, as her oldest child’s function, as it relates to her childrens’ children. She liked Mark, but she grew to love him for the way he bridged the gap between us and her. He’s like a medium through which miracles can happen. He’s been great.
Mark always has a “big toy,” and lots of “little toys.” His “big toy”, when Grandma was beginning to realize how great he was with us, was a jet ski. This turned, as mark grew tired of it, into a motorboat that me, all my cousins, he and Grandma could all ride in together, as long as Grandma didn’t think we were going too fast. Gradually, though, Mark’s elusive, indefinable condition, which leaves him exhausted and gasping for breath after showing no signs of fatigue whatsoever, made a doctor of his, somewhere along the line, recommend he move somewhere easier on the organs. Moving meant he’d no longer be a short drive from a lake, so the boat went. So did the hammock and the trampoline. Now I think he has a moped, but I haven’t seen him get to show it off yet.
He and Grandma invited all of us to their wedding reception, after the pact had already been made in a small church in central Maryland. It was strictly a within-family affair, and strictly within-Grandma’s family to boot. I remember it being a happy, quick, kid-friendly event with balloons and music and dancing. I don’t remember if Grandma had a bouquet, or whom she might have thrown it to. Every adult in attendance was already hitched.
Mark did seem to give Grandma new energy in a lot of respects. She got into running for awhile, and continued—completing a few marathons, albeit slowly—before her toes curled over each other like thigmotropic vines. She took a few chances, too, and made a few mistakes. She decided to opt for laser-eye surgery when laser-eye surgery was still a brand new procedure. She had videos, even.
I remember one time when we cousins were over at her old house, her big East Coast house, the one she had bought in the double figures, expanded on, expanded on, and sold, at the peek of the Maryland housing market, for about half a million (though not all of it, I don’t think, was owned on a librarian’s salary), she played that laser-eye surgery video on loop for the company’s enjoyment. As was her custom, she didn’t attend the performance, and in this case didn’t check that it was attended. I think she thought little boys (and all seven of us at the time were little boys except—Thank God!—my sister) would be festinated by all the cutting and peeling away with the focused beams of light. We weren’t. It made us squeamish, with the possible exception of my sister, every time we entered the room. (My sister was the most boy-like of all of us, much to Grandma’s disappointment.)
I bet she sits on those tapes, though. I bet she sits on them, and I bet if she were to show them to a lawyer she could get a hefty settlement out of the doctors that preformed that surgery on her. She would never do it, of course, because she would never admit the surgery didn’t work. Everyone in the extended family knows she can’t see well, but she hasn’t told us, she’s stayed strong, she’s played it cool. Grandma’s biggest weakness is she doesn’t show weakness, which I suspect the bringing up of her four boys may have done to her. “Can you read that sign for me, Chris?”
“Good, I was just making sure you could read it.”
When most of us were old enough not to need spankings, Grandma started offering to take us grandkids for a week at a time while the parents went on outings. About these my dad admits, now, “We were always a little worried, but we didn’t want to hurt your grandma’s feelings.” He was worried, partly, because most of the fun was “unstructured.” Grandma tended to think we’d have the best blast if left to our own devices. And tended to give us plenty of toys to practice our devices on. But primarily the worry was born out of Grandma’s poor eyesight, and of her getting old, and of her ability to lose track of any one of us, at any time, when we went on, say, a long bike-ride, on which it was very possible—at least conceivable—that she might fall and break her hip. At these times, as a kid, I almost certainly misinterpreted my Grandma’s good, honest efforts to make sure we didn’t wander off as “grumpiness”, the same way a kid might misinterpret service for friendship when, say, the man behind the counter flashes a professional smile at you.
One bit of structured fun I remember concernedly was a “river tubing” trip. On the car ride over, Mark kept calling it “white water,” and Grandma kept correcting him. He’d say, “Oh honey, it’s at least a two out there,” or something. She’d turn around at us, generally, and say, “He’s exaggerating. It’s not that bad.” He’d laugh. I, in the back, was privately hoping it was at least “that bad.” I was hoping for a chance to tumble. I was also thinking about the excuses Grandma always made so that Mark would drive, and whether she thought she was fooling us or not. The last time Grandma drove my sister about, when we were at a vacation home and Grandma wasn’t on familiar streets, my sister reports that, “We ended up in the middle of a wheat field. Like, off the road. We were completely lost.”
Grandma denies this story.
When we got to the river, Grandma set up camp. “I’m too old for tubing.” But before we took a shuttle upstream, where we could rent tubes out and drift downriver, Grandma wanted to make sure were all protected from the sun. She got out a can of spray and went to work on my cousins Sammy and Casey. Sammy squirmed away after awhile, the older of the two, beginning to get self-conscious about the process, but she was generous with Casey, who was good-natured about her fussing. Casey has a lot of skin. He is not overweight (although he probably was, a little bit, at the time) – but he had already reached the critical mass that had coaches—of soccer, baseball, basketball, football—what have you, trying to recruit him willy-nilly through elementary and middle school hallways.
After seeing the thoroughness with which she worked on Casey, my sister and declined to be next. “Come on” she said, “you’re gonna burn.”
“I don’t want any,” my sister said.
“How about you,” she said at me, brandishing the spray can like a rolled newspaper.
I felt confident, in light of my sister’s refusal and the lack of repercussions for it. I said, “No thanks.”
“O-K”, she say, letting her voice rise and fall, emphasizing the “K” sound, turning her back to us and throwing the can in the back seat. She wouldn’t hold this over us if we burned, she wouldn’t say “I told you so,” but we’d hear about it from our parents.
The river, once we got to the head of it, was not white water. We made fun of Mark about this, which put him in fits of giggles. The water was brown and slow-moving and wide and shallow. It was probably the safest natural river you can imagine. In fact, it was so safe, I needed to get out a few times to try to push my tube along. I even tried to self-capsize. We took to splashing each other. The river was maybe a meandering mile, mile and a half before it found its way to Grandma’s camp. This took perhaps an hour and a half, during which, floating on our backs with the sun near its zenith, my sister and I had probably burned. But Casey’s skin was red, too. And what’s more, when we took our tubes out of the water, he was screaming.
Grandma hustled to him. “What’s wrong? You’ll be Okay. Oh, you’ll be okay.”
I repeated Grandma’s question, “What’s happening?”
Mark responded. Along the lines of, “I don’t know. Looks like he got into something. A bug bite, or something.”
It didn’t look like a bug bite to me. Poor Casey was probably not in much pain, or he would have started screaming sooner. His skin may have itched. The sight of it, I think, is what got to him. It looked terrible, much of his back and belly dermis raised and red and puffy-looking, a truly frightening thing to find on your own body. To me—and I’m not an expert, but I am a biology guy and now have a Biology degree—it looked like an allergic reaction.
Gradma will never admit to what happened, and maybe she doesn’t know. But my sister and I looked in the back seat after we got back to Grandma’s place. There was spray-on suntan lotion back there, but there was also a can with a skull and crossbones on it, next to some fine print. Still, Grandma shouldn’t have needed reading glasses to know not to methodically rub that stuff into Casey.
She had sprayed him with RAID.
We grandkids still love Grandma, and rightfully, as I’ve said, for all that she does for us behind the scenes. For the last four years or so, she has rented a beach house for us (all her sons and son’s sons, and son’s wives, and son’s daughter) somewhere up north—the finger lakes, or the great lakes, or along the Atlantic Ocean—and pays for the whole, mammoth place herself. She does not have a lot of money, and almost put of this expense a year or a couple of years ago, until she “Came into some money.”
Those are my Gradma’s words. My dad prodded her, though, gradually, slowly, got the truth out of her by degrees. Gradma had come into some money, it’s true. The source: she had taken a second mortgage out on her Arizona house.
And although she doesn’t say much to us, you can tell she is constantly thinking of us all. Every cheesy American holiday, every birthday, every anniversary of something-or-other, Grandma sends all of us a card, which consistently contains a couple of dollars. This tradition started when school started for me, and continues now that I have graduated. The cards are usually silly—Charlie brown, maybe a dog gag or a blond joke (which Gradma has always liked, despite that she is blond)—to which Grandma never adds a personalized message, but always seems to have put deep thought into. The cards are each different (the one I get has never been the same as my Sister’s), and scrawled at the bottom, in her handwriting, is:
—written by Christopher Beyers