In my childhood, it was only in books that grandmothers taught love by sharing baking secrets or by stepping in whenever Mom couldn’t be there. And since my maternal grandmother died years before I was born, my ideas of ‘grandma’ were influenced by my paternal grandmother, a woman whom the word “distanced” doesn’t begin to describe.
It was the summer of 1959, a transformational summer when I learned that yes, my dad’s mother really did dislike us. It was the year that I learned that life is often complicated and often cruel. But it took many years and lots of thinking before I realized that I had been raped by reality.
“Rape” is such a strong word but I have no other word to describe the sense of losing my childhood naivete that everyone loved us.
That was the summer my family moved into my grandmother’s house while our four-room duplex was remodeled into a two-story, single family home. Living on site amidst falling plaster and gutted plumbing was out of the question, as was renting an apartment for three months. So, with my dad’s oldest sister’s insistence that my parents pay rent, she gave her approval and off to Grandma’s we went.
Even though Grandma lived only a few blocks away, she had never been a big part of the 14 years I’d been on Planet Earth. We were never welcomed to her house and all I knew was that if Grandpa stopped over to our house on his way home from his job as a Soo Line engineer, my brother and I were not to mention it to any of Dad’s siblings. Like most kids that age, I never asked why; I merely accepted the directive and went on with my day, knowing that a trip to the local Dairy Queen was in store if I kept my mouth shut. So while I didn’t look forward to moving out of the small bedroom I’d shared with younger brother, I didn’t give much thought to what it would be like to share a small bedroom and a double bed with my grandmother.
That summer…oh my; what a summer. It started badly when, in the last two weeks of school, our gym teachers ordered us to take our reeking white cotton blouses home for washing. Grandma found me in her kitchen ironing my now-clean blouse, watched me for a minute or two, then slapped my hands hard. “You’re doing that all wrong! My daughters could iron better than you when they were half your age.”
The summer got worse. My mother’s oldest and dearest friend committed suicide, Mom was hospitalized with pneumonia, and I had oral surgery, a surgery that left me with black stitches poking out from between my top four teeth and a mouth so swollen that all I could do was drool blood and saliva for the following six hours.
“Don’t you dare get that blood on my sheets!” Grandma’s voice thundered with every passing hour as the novocaine wore off and my mouth and my head throbbed.
I tried to distract myself with stories that I created out of what I saw around me. A favorite was the three-dimensional Easter egg made of hard sugar. It had place of honor on her upright piano which, like the egg, I was not allowed to touch. So tempted, partially because I knew what would happen if I did.
As I laid in bed and looked through the doorway of Grandma’s bedroom, I remembere stories my mother had told me.
One that I still ponder after all these years: “I was a new bride,” she’d said, “and I wanted so much to make a good impression on your grandmother. The annual family Easter dinner was coming up and I asked how I could help. My assignment was to run the carpet sweeper around the front room. I wanted to do a thorough job so I flipped back the edge of the rug. That’s where I found Daddy’s and my wedding picture.”
Now there’s an image that stays with you!
But the memory that brings back chills, even after all these years, is the memory of my mother doing all she could to alleviate some of the cost of the remodeling by sweeping plaster dust and sanding wallboard tape. She would walk to Grandma’s gray with dust, climb the 14 steps to the second floor unit, ask to take a quick bath, and then prepare dinner for all of us.
“I suppose you forgot to get my butterfluffs from the bakery,” my grandmother said.
My father did what he could, but working 12 hour days shoveling coal on a steam engine and then working with Mom at our own house didn’t leave him much time for what was going on at Grandma’s.
Or was he avoiding his own mother?
The story continues but I don’t know if I can tell it. We’ll see.