Grammy Mike is my mother’s mother. I remember her as a small, thin, wrinkled and bent woman with fading carrot-colored, wispy hair. She lived with us in the winter. Weak in body, only able to shuffle along between naps in her back room and her chair by our wood stove, in pain most of the time with osteoarthritis, she was a power in herself nevertheless. She never complained, only sat and watched, and sometimes made comments. She got along better with my father than her daughter. And with her grandsons than her granddaughters. I became aware of this through various incidents, and through her sharp words about us, spoken always to someone else or to no one in particular.
When I was thirteen, my Christmas gift from my grandmother was a small gold suitcase containing a beauty care set–comb, brush, and mirror, all with gold trim and nestled into white satin indentations inside. I was enchanted–it was the perfect gift, and a complete surprise. In my memory I am standing in the dining room–really just the other half of the kitchen addition to our old house–though I know we always opened our presents by the tree in the back living room by the fireplace. I can’t get the details to make sense–did we put the tree in the dining room that year? Or had I gone out there to thank Grammy Mike as she had her breakfast? Did my bewilderment about the event itself scramble my recollection? My hurt and confusion?
It must have been obvious how delighted I was–I couldn’t take my eyes off the contents of the case. I did not look into Grammy’s face. I was not in the habit of looking in her eyes, or, probably, those of anyone else. I told her how much I liked the gift, in simple terms–I’ve never been very effusive, either.
“She doesn’t like it,” she told my mother, or no one in particular. I insisted I did. She shook her head, smiling wickedly, and her glasses reflected the winter light from outside the window. My power to show gratitude was taken away.
Grammy believed I was spoiled and selfish. Perhaps I had hurt her feelings in the past by responding negatively to some gift or attempt to reach out, and she had not forgiven me. Perhaps she had witnessed a tantrum or two of mine and judged me thereby for life. But I gradually became aware there was more there than meets the eye. I knew early on I could not please my grandmother.
My response to my grandmother’s coldness toward me was not to reassure her, show extra appreciation and affection, bring flowers or gifts. I was no suck-up, and I also knew it would not work. Instead I maintained my distance. As far as I knew I had done nothing to deserve her cold treatment, nor had my sisters, yet subconsciously I felt guilt. I simply avoided her if I could, while maintaining a quiet politeness, asking questions occasionally. Yet I know I must have hoped she would show interest in me, seek my company for a game of cards, ask me for help, even. The most satisfying interaction we had in those years was before she lost all the dexterity of her fingers and taught me to knit mittens without a pattern. Then she forgot her critical ruminations. Though she lacked the nurturing instinct, he was a natural teacher. In her younger days, when her hair was a deeper red, she had taught in her local schoolhouse. She must have been strict.
Avoiding her was simple enough during our visits to her house in the summer, when she still lived there. I would say hello to her as she sat in her special massage recliner, then spend all my time at the river, swimming and wading or fishing off the covered bridge down the road, wandering around the old orchard, poking around old sheds and the cottage downhill of the house, or inside reading her collection of royal romances, looking at my grandfather’s fishing lures, or in the attic checking out old toys, dairy equipment, and my uncle’s collection of Playboy magazines stored there. When Grammy came to live with us in the winters, however, her nearness could not be avoided. Our life in winter centered around the wood stove, which was kept going to heat the big old house. She parked on one side and would talk with Dad or play chess with one of my brothers. It was a comfort to me to see she enjoyed some of her grandchildren’s company.
I wrote to my mother a few weeks ago to ask her about those memories, and Grammy’s apparent dislike of girls. Dad said in an email that she had “sat down forthwith and wrote a long account of those years from hers and her mom’s perspectives.” I awaited the account with ‘bated breath. I received the letter today, but I was surprised and disappointed to see that my mother only had a sketchy idea of the possible roots of what I had experienced with Grammy. She had had several older sisters who hadn’t much time for her. There was an alternating cycle of “laying down the law” and being (in Grammy’s view) too indulgent with daughters, and she thought Mom needed to be more strict and not spoil us with music lessons and lots of free time. Grammy looked back on her own mother as having been too lenient, but when Mom asked her what she had been allowed to do that hurt her, she teared up and couldn’t say. The year my older sister would have turned thirteen, Mom said, Grammy had been planning to take her to her house and “take her in hand.” She had also seen my next younger sister as spoiled, because of all the piano lessons, she supposed. I suspect Grammy was right about us not doing enough around the house, but other than that, we had few “indulgences.” With six children and Dad working as a civil servant, there wasn’t enough money or time. Maybe the extras came from an early inheritance from Gammy which my mom now controlled–her way was to use only the interest–and Grammy objected.
I’ve heard of other strange prejudices and uneven treatment of grandchildren and even children by that generation, from my husband’s family for example. It seems strange now that it’s anathema to have “favorites,” but that was the way, apparently, for some in those days. Perhaps for poorly understood psychological reasons. Seen in that light, I guess I could believe that Grammy Mike meant me no harm–she just didn’t know any better. Still, when one of my daughters (always the same one) asks me who my favorite child is, I not only will not give her an answer, I truly cannot. Maybe some need more of one kind of love, some more another kind, but I am resolved always to affirm the worth of my children, and their children if I should meet them. I don’t want them, after I die, to have to work at getting healing for wounds I have inflicted.