For Our Grandmothers

Me and my grandmother did not get along. We butted heads like a couple of stubborn rams. Now, if she were alive to read this, she would’ve said “Robbie, It’s not me and my grandmother, it’s my grandmother and I.” You may have guessed, I wrote it this way on purpose! Yes grandma, I’m still a rebel after all these years.

Years later, when a secret branch of our family tree was revealed, I found out we come from a long line of rebels. It is literally in our blood.

When I met my grandma, I met my match! She was just as pig headed as I was and she wouldn’t give an inch. I didn’t meet her formally until I was eight years old. You see, she and my mother had been waging their own dirty little war long before I came on the scene! The first time I was sent away to grandma’s house, I instantly knew why my mom had run away when she was 15 years old to join the beatnik generation, slinging alcohol and drugs to numb the pain of not being accepted for who she was! . For my grandmother, there was one way of thinking, one way of behaving, one way of doing things, and that way was hers!

I guess when she encountered me and my brother, she concluded that we had not been brought up properly! We were rude, ill-mannered, undisciplined, and just plain uncivilized. She took it as her personal mission to sort this mess out, perhaps to succeed where she felt she had failed with my mother.

For example, when she taught me how to cook, she explained “Each item used must be washed and put away before taking out your next utensil. This may seem laborious at first,” she said, “but you will be rewarded in the end, when the dinner is made and there is no mess to clean up.” As a contrast with my single working mom, all the dishes were left wherever they happened to have been tossed. We would get to them the next day. Me and my brother used to clean up by hiding all the dishes in the oven. When my Mom got home from work, we would soak up the 15 minutes of good boy praise and then stand around on pins and needles just waiting for our mom to discover our treachery and explode in a tirade of anger and disappointment. What were we thinking?

My grandmother once asked me if I was interested in any sports. I quickly burst out with “Yeah, I like football and I’m really good at it,” hoping to impress her! Her face turned white and her mouth fell open and she shouted, “Robbie, we don’t say things like that!” “Uh, like what” I stammered, genuinely confused. “We don’t compliment ourselves.” I replied sincerely “Why not? I’m just telling the truth. I’m good at football! You wanna come outside? I’ll show you!” “Robbie, we are supposed to wait until someone else compliments us.” She was calm having got her composure back. “If I do that, I might be waiting all day for a compliment. I’d rather just say it myself and get it over with. Plus, it’s true. I’m good!” She lost it again. “Robbie, you have to learn some manners or you won’t go very far in life!”

Now my grandmother never swore, or at least I never heard her swear. She wasn’t violent, but she had her secret ways of getting back at us. My brother and I had long hair, a fact that drove her nuts. She would always offer to help us groom it, so we would be “presentable.” She would get out her anger by digging the brush into our scalps. And when we screamed, she would say “Oh stop making such a fuss”! Her eyes lit up when she found a knot. “Hold still,” she would announce and then attack the knot with a secret glee that I could never prove. She, of course, never admitted to any of this, and I accused her of it her many times.

It wasn’t until my third visit to my grandparents’ house in Colorado that I spotted the crack in my grandmother’s armor. My grandfather, a quiet, soft spoken man, a people pleaser, or specifically a grandma pleaser, would occasionally take us with him to work. On the way home, he would stop at this corner liquor store every single time! One day, I asked him “Grandpa, why do we stop here on the way, home.” He replied very quietly, “Oh, Robbie, we have to pick up grandma’s medicine. Now be a good boy and don’t ask any more questions.” Trying to be a good boy, I accepted his answer and never really investigated why we were stopping at a liquor store to pick up grandma’s medicine! I guess I didn’t want to know.

On this visit, my grandmother set about teaching me the value of hard work! She had a beautiful garden, and she sat me down and explained to me that she was getting older and could use some help tending to the garden. I enthusiastically offered to help. You see, as much as we butted heads, I really wanted to please my grandmother and show her that I was good at something, and that I might amount to something one day!

She took me out to the garden, gave me a job, and explained in detail the proper way of doing each thing. Then she left me to “get the job done.” I have to admit, I would start with good intentions, but then I would get distracted building forts for ants, chasing butterflies, or just lying in the grass with a dandelion stuck in my teeth staring at the clouds as they passed by. When grandma came out for inspection, I always failed. She would go on and on about how I was a day dreamer and would never amount to anything in life unless I learned the value of a good day’s work.

One day, I came in from the garden a little early and found my grandmother in the living room with an old photo album and a pile of letters spread across her lap. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, and she invited me to come sit beside her in a gentle and loving tone that I had never heard. She started sharing the pictures of herself as a young woman and talking to me about her life. As she spoke, she often slurred some of her words and I immediately connected the dots and realized that she had been dipping into “the medicine.”

It was revealed to me that my grandmother was a remarkable woman! I saw photographs of her in college. She was beautiful, talented, athletic, and intelligent. She was a champion swimmer and wanted to compete in the Olympics. “I could have won,” she boasted. She had graduated with honors in biology, and wanted to do medical research to help cure diseases. She was in love with a dashing, Errol Flynn-like adventurer, whom she wanted to marry and someday travel the world with. When she spoke of him, her eyes flickered with passion and I could tell she still loved him. I was amazed that this brilliant woman before my eyes had been quietly repressed inside my grandmother’s body.

It turned out that her parents would have none of this life that she had dreamt of and had earned for herself. “That’s not what we do,” her mother had scolded her. “A good woman is polite and reserved. She doesn’t enter a man’s arena. She doesn’t humiliate herself by competing in sports and trying to earn degrees! You will find yourself a good man with a decent job and you will faithfully serve and nurture him! It is not a women’s place to be a leader or an athlete. Yes, dear you have fallen in love, but you have to let him go. He is irresponsible and will not be able to provide for a family. He will only break your heart. I know it’s hard to understand now, but your father and I love you and only want the best for you. You will thank us later.”

Here we were many years later, my grandmother and I, on the living room floor, bonding at last, through her drunken tears as she mourned the loss of a life she never got to live!

The next time I worked in my grandmother’s garden, I put my back into it, as they say. I tilled the soil, planted the flowers, and did everything the way my grandmother showed me — the proper way. I gave it everything I had. And when I was done, I went the extra mile. I took twigs and nailed them onto the side of a flower box. The twigs sketched out the words “I love you, Grandma.”

With dirt all over my hands and face, I called my grandmother out for the inspection as the sun was setting. At first, she didn’t see my message. She said, “Now that’s good work, Robbie. That’s the way it’s done. Perhaps you will amount to something someday, after all.” Then she saw my message and she burst into tears. “Oh, Robbie” was all she could get out, and she pulled me close and hugged me for the very first time.

Years later, I found out that my grandmother was not actually my grandmother, she was my great aunt. You see my blood grandmother was part of the secret branch of rebels that we didn’t find out about until after I was grown. My blood grandmother was the” black sheep” of the family. She was the” bad girl” and had many children by different men. My grandma in Colorado must have felt pressure to be the “good girl.”

Having too many children, my blood grandmother gave her baby girl (my mom) to her sister. Perhaps both of my grandmothers’ lives went off course because of the standard of what a woman should and could not do. One life poisoned by rebellion, the other by conformity.


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