I remember when Grandma came to live with us in an excited avalanche of hugs and happy tears. Oh, and curses. “It’s so damn good to see you two little shits,” she blathered as she squeezed my little brother and I into a soggy sandwich.
“That’s just the way Grandma talks,” Mom told us. “And don’t repeat it.” Dad suggested that Grandma was a good reminder that for every curse there was a better, more intelligent word to use. That advice stuck as the adult ‘me’ began my career as an editor; of course, it works in the opposite direction as well. No two-cent word is above replacement by a good “god damned”.
Mom and Dad warned us Grandma was coming to live with us a couple weeks before she did, and that we’d have to get used to it. But to my thinking things got way better. Grandma had been alone and sad on that spread down in Hawkins County, Tennessee, since Grandpa passed the year before. Mom said as the oldest it was her responsibility to bring her up to Chicago, even though we lived in a condo about a third the size of the house my Uncle, her only other child, had in the suburbs. Uncle thought Grandma would be an “unsettling” influence on my cousins and insisted, instead, that he knew of good ‘retirement villages’ nearby. Grandma told him in no uncertain terms, “You ever try to put me in one of those places I’ll have your balls for lunch with green tomatoes and sausage”.
Besides, Grandma had always loved visiting us in the city and loved living in it even more. We had a fourth-floor condo just north of downtown, not far from the Red Line, which she had figured out within a month. “God damned ‘L’ will take my ass anywhere I want to go”, she said. She went downtown at least a couple times a week and up to Wrigley a couple times a month. Even down to Comiskey on occasion. She started taking me to the Art Institute fairly regularly; I guess I was 10 or 11 by then. She loved the impressionists and I loved Lichtenstein.
Her arrival meant my brother and I had to share a bedroom, but that was okay. We set her room up with her own TV and a reading chair, but she mostly liked the front room where she watched every single Cubs game possible and spent most of it complaining about those “shit for brains” out on the field. But on those occasions they won, oh she would be in a good mood, laughing and dancing around the condo. Grandma liked to sit out on the balcony a couple times a month and smoke a cigar. Dad never failed to get a chuckle out of that sight; little old lady sitting outside no matter the weather smoking a cigar so big she could barely wrap her hand around it. She kept her whiskey drinking back in her room, mostly late at night. I never got the impression she did a whole lot of it, but I could have been wrong. Dad, who was something of a scotch snob, tried to introduce her to the more expensive, celebrated brands, but she preferred the cheap stuff.
Uncle never liked the idea of her living in the city and thought her wanderings dangerous. He distrusted the city’s diversity and bustle. He’d bring up the retirement village thing every now and again, and she’d cuss at him for an hour. Irony was, Uncle grew up sort of a ‘mommy’s boy’, and Mom used to tell her, “You know, you’re the reason he turned out this way because you’re the one who doted on him.” Grandma would tell her she had to as Grandpa was always trying to beat his ass, which she never experienced because she was a girl. “Well, you over did it,” Mom said.
It was Uncle’s genealogy work that brought the most hostile reaction. Uncle had done extensive research tracing our family all the way back to the second boat into Jamestown. There were just two slight holes. Hawkins County was the epicenter of peoples identified as ‘Melungeon’; early America multi-ethnic families of European, African American, and Native American backgrounds who migrated to frontier regions, settled near each other, and intermarried. In Uncle’s family trees there was a great-great-grandfather and a great-great-great-grandfather whose wives could only be identified by a first name. ‘Mary’ in the first case, and ‘Sarah’ in the second. That was a dead giveaway to a person of color being drawn into the family lineage. To Uncle’s thinking, that meant a Native American. “Your Mom and I are 1/16th Cherokee,” he happily told me during one family dinner, clearly delighted by the romance of being part Indian.
“Horseshit!” Grandma fairly spat at him. “You’d like to whitewash that your ancestors include freed slaves, you asshole! You’re more like 1/32nd black, by my reconning. Pull your god damned head out of your god damned ass, you’re as white trash as the rest of us whether you want to be or not! Shit for brains dumb ass!”
I was in my freshmen year at college when she had her first stroke, and in my sophomore year when she had her second, bigger one. After that she was confined to a wheelchair and slurred as much as talked, so Uncle finally got his wish, and she was moved to a nursing home out in the suburbs. She lingered three more years, passing right before Christmas when I was in my first year at the publishing house. Uncle gave a eulogy in which he called her a sweet angel, which, when we got back to the car, Mom cut loose on. “That despicable son of a bitch,” she groused, and Mom rarely cursed, so I knew how pissed she was. “He’s already sanitizing her memory to fit that elitist, pious, racist pea brain!”
I’ve wondered since if that is actually a common approach to memory. We fill gaps in our family trees with the ancestors we’d like to have. Our lives are a conglomeration of complicated emotions, selfish motivations, and flawed perceptions; do we reorganize the past into rationalizations supporting what we’ve done to ourselves? We’re addicted to ascribing order to chaos. Is any of it worth a good god damn?
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.