This morning, I found out that my grandmother died. It happened two days ago, and it took that long for the information to reach me. That says a lot about my relationship with her.
My first memory of her is from when I was 5 years old. My family had gone to Florida to visit Grandma and Pop Pop, as we called him. I remember swimming in the pool, I remember being told that the salamanders wouldn’t hurt me, and I remember taking a trip to the mall. Grandma needed to pick up a few things, so we stopped in some discount store. As we were leaving the store, I noticed that my grandmother had left her TV Guide behind at the cash register, so I grabbed it and ran down the hallway after her. “Grandma, you forgot this!”
It turned out the TV Guide was for the woman in line behind us, and Grandma hadn’t paid for it. But rather than accept it as an honest mistake, Grandma called me a “thief”, grabbed me by the arm and dragged me back to the store to return the thing and apologize. I blubbered uncontrollably as I confessed my “crime” and forced out an apology.
Grandma and Pop Pop liked to make their own Christmas ornaments. Every year, along with our presents, we’d get a few of them – usually clamshells lined with felt and decorated with sparkles and stick-on stars, with a string looped through a hole in the top and a label indicating the year and the location where the ornament was made. “Sanibel Island, 1977.” “Ft. Myers, 1979.” She’d wrap them in tissue paper and, instead of a bow or a ribbon on top of the package, she’d attach a scouring pad. My sister and I would whip the pads back and forth at each other like whiffleballs, and my mom would use them to clean the dishes.
The tension between my mother and grandmother was always a mystery to me. There would be visits where we’d leave abruptly and times when months would go by that they wouldn’t talk at all. I don’t remember them fighting, but I was definitely aware of a coldness in their relationship, like they stayed in touch because that’s what mothers and daughters were supposed to do but they really didn’t know each other at all. I think my mother tried to hide what was going on from my sister and me because she felt we were too young to understand it, and she didn’t want to turn us against our grandmother. Of course, that just made me feel left out and frustrated. I was being denied access to my grandparents, and I had no idea why.
Rather than a complete disowning or estrangement or something that might’ve earned them a spot on Oprah, my mom and grandmother continued this way for years. There would be a period of silence, and then a sign of hope. When my grandparents decided to move back north from Florida to be closer to their family, they didn’t choose upstate New York or Long Island, where my uncles lived. Instead, they moved to New Jersey, about fifteen minutes away from us. We still rarely saw them or heard from them, but we got the message that for some unknown reason, they wanted to be close by.
My sister and I hated being kept apart from our grandparents. My father’s parents had both died when we were very young, so Grandma and Pop Pop were the only grandparents we had left. My parents undoubtedly felt guilty that our grandparents were becoming strangers to my sister and me. One time, at our urging, my mom tried to reconcile with Grandma. She set up a lunch date and drove us all to Friendly’s to meet up with her. When my grandmother’s car pulled up, my mother told us that she wanted to talk to her privately for a few minutes. So my mom went over and got in Grandma’s car, and my sister and I watched them talk through the window of our car, several spaces away. “A few minutes” stretched on for half an hour or more, and at one point, my sister and I realized there would be no lunch with Grandma that day. Mom came back more upset than ever, and we watched Grandma’s car pull out of the lot and back onto the highway.
That year, Christmas came and went without any acknowledgment from Grandma and Pop Pop. After that, we knew that whatever was happening between my parents and my grandparents now extended another generation. Another year went by, and except for a card here and there or an occasional anecdote passed along by our cousins, they were out of our lives. Another Christmas went by, and again, we heard nothing.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I found out Grandma was an alcoholic. My sister told me, very matter-of-factly, as if she had known for years. I didn’t believe it at first. I had seen Afterschool Specials on alcoholism, and Grandma just didn’t fit the profile. Alcoholics were angry people who threw fits and said cruel, hurtful things, and they stumbled around and broke expensive vases, and they disappeared for hours on end, only to be discovered later lying in pools of their own vomit and blood at the foot of the stairs. I had never heard of a functioning alcoholic, but once I accepted the notion, suddenly, everything made sense. Now I knew why there was so much tension. Now I knew what all those whispered conversations between my mother and my uncles were about. Now I knew what that constant smell on Grandma’s breath was.
Inevitably, we ran into Grandma and Grandpa at a family function. My sister and I were about 14 and 15 at the time, and they were really excited to see us. They wanted to hear all about how school was going and whatever else people talk to kids about. They told us that they had a bunch of Christmas presents for us from the last two years. It seemed sad that they would buy presents in the hopes of delivering them and then just stow them in the garage. And it was even sadder that, with one set of presents still undelivered, they went and bought some more the next year in hopes of being able to deliver those. But that’s what this whole standoff was like for me. It just didn’t make sense. Grandma mostly avoided my parents the entire night, but my sister and I took it as a positive step that at least they could be friendly to us.
So my sister and I took the ball and ran with it. We went out and got them some gifts and planned a sort of Catch-up Christmas. Since we were still too young to drive and go to their house, my sister called Grandma and set up a time for them to come by our house, and my mother arranged not to be there when they arrived. The night before they were coming, my sister went to the supermarket and bought cheese and crackers, and she had my mother show her how to make coffee and tea.
I was still finishing my wrapping when I heard their car pull up. I didn’t leave my room, because I knew my sister, who was excited to be hosting her first social gathering, would answer the door. She had already set up the crackers and made sandwiches for lunch and had been nervously awaiting their arrival all morning. I heard the front door open, then a minute later, I heard it close again. I waited to hear my grandparents’ voices booming through the house, yelling for me to come say hello. But instead, there was silence.
By the time I went out to check on my sister, Catch-Up Christmas was over, and she was in tears. She had a bagful of presents at her side, but no grandparents. My sister had walked out and met them in the driveway, and they apparently handed her the gifts and said they couldn’t stick around for lunch. My sister asked them to wait while she ran back inside to get the gifts we had bought for them, but all my grandmother said was, “We don’t want them.” And then they sped off.
If we were looking for an excuse to write them off, we had it. Who were these people so afraid of running into their own daughter (they clearly didn’t know she wasn’t home) that they’d be willing to hurt their grandchildren like that? We really didn’t have much interest in their gifts at that point. I don’t think we even looked at them for a few days. And of course, when we did open them, we found the usual shells and scouring pads wrapped in tissue paper. “Sandy Hook, 1985”.
We saw our grandparents sporadically over the years after that. It was always at some function where we couldn’t avoid them. We’d be friendly and chat with them, but it was hard not to notice how much better their rapport was with our cousins, whom they saw more regularly. As I grew up, it never stopped being sad, but gradually, I got over the feeling that I was missing something.
Pop Pop died when I was in college, and I decided to skip the funeral rather than make the one-hour train ride back to New Jersey. I think I had an exam or something. Maybe not. Grandma’s health failed, and she gradually went blind and moved into an old age home on Long Island, near my aunt and uncle.
I’ve known for years that she wouldn’t be around much longer – she was 91 when she passed away – and occasionally I’d think about her and wonder if I should reach out. It’s hard to hold a grudge against someone who’s bedridden and blind, and I knew how happy she’d be to get a letter. But then again, what would I say? I hardly even know her.
I can’t say I feel guilty or remorseful, but I do feel sad. Clearly, I did miss out on something. I just don’t think Grandma was capable of giving it.