When a Grandma Isn’t of the Cookie-Baking Variety

Despite not growing up in a religious household, I was a pretty spiritual kid.  I was baptized as a Catholic, and that was the only time I was in a church until I was 15.  I’ve always had an odd relationship with Christianity.  I was out of the traditional fold of religion, but tended to be very religious and spiritual nonetheless.  As a child, I wanted to be in that fold.  When my grandmother lived with us, there was a period of time where I would hold a “Sunday Service” in her room.  I’d bring my stuffed animals into her room to act as parishioners, we’d sing a few hymns from my grandma’s hymnbook (“Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” were my favorites, likely due to Little House on the Prairie), and I’d read a random bible entry.  My grandma got a kick out of it.

Grammy Gene was an interesting part of my memory.  She lived with us from when I was in Kindergarten until some time in second grade.  As an adult, I have snapshot memories of her.  After my grandfather died, our family offered to care for her and we all moved to a more accommodating house closer to where my father worked.  She had two rooms in the house, even though she never spent time in her second room.  She had MS and stayed in bed all day.  She’d use a walker to get up and go to the bathroom.  Before she lifted herself up from her bed,  she would often curse her legs, slapping them to the point where they would bruise.  She could be what my adult mind would define as “histrionic,” and she could be very nasty to people, however I had a pretty good relationship with her as a child.  She’d happily tell me we were both Pisces, and I think she saw a connection from that.  When I told her about a parrot that had a black tongue, she told me it must be a liar.  I’d spend a lot of time hanging out in her bedroom with her, watching TV shows on her Zenith.  Occasionally, we’d watch the 700 Club together.  There would be a segment where they’d tell everyone to hold hands and pray.  I’d place my stuffed animals in a circle and have them all hold paws as we prayed for something I didn’t understand.  I could never put my finger on it, but the 700 Club scared the crap out of me.  The praying part was the only part that didn’t seem scary.

Grammy Gene had a kind of mystical belief in Jesus.  Next to her nightstand, she had metropolis of pill bottles on a tray table – fat bottles, thin bottles, tall bottles and short bottles.  Some of the pills were pretty colors.  Some I never saw her take, but they sat there like trophies, souvenirs of every ailment that ravaged her body over the decade.  Among Pill City there was one resident that didn’t fit in – a relic that looked a little like a pearl.  One day she showed me the relic and told me it had a piece of the cross in it (or Jesus’s hair? I can’t remember).  She said whenever she had an important prayer for Jesus, she would hold it tight in her hand and pray.

“When your dad had to kick the winning field goal against Villanova, I held this tight and prayed hard to Jesus. He made it!”

Wow, I thought.  That is some powerful stuff right there.  My greedy little mind thought of all the stuff that could swing my way with that relic. The Power!

When Grammy looked away, I grabbed the relic and held it tight in my hands.  I closed my eyes and prayed in my mind.  Dear Jesus, how are you doing?  How’s your dad? Please bring me a pony and a…

“PUT THAT DOWN!” She hissed at me.  Apparently, the relic had limited juju, and she didn’t want me to steal it from her.  The Pisces blood only goes so far, I guess.  And for the record, all childhood prayers to Jesus from me involved buttering him up, then asking him for something as if he were Santa.

Things deteriorated over time with her living with us – I don’t remember the specific circumstances, but it wasn’t as much fun hanging out in her room over time.  She was unpredictable, like a game of Perfection where you know everything is going to blow up on you at any moment.  As a kid, I didn’t understand it; I was always sensitive to people yelling at me or around me, and I decided to hide away in other parts of the house.  I stopped having my church services with her, which I think disappointed her.  In part, I could never find a good story to read for “service” – I’d hit the begats and even the stuffed animals seemed to nod off.  Also, her unpredictability scared me. My entire family struggled with her – she was mean, demanding, thankless, and a hundred other things my childhood brain couldn’t comprehend.

When my mother told me Grammy Gene was going to move out of our house and into a place where people could take good care of her, I was both sad and relieved.  It was an odd combination of feelings to have at such a young age.  I loved her and I feared her.  She was at times grandmotherly, other times so full of anger.  I don’t really remember the day she left.  I wish I remembered it a little better, because it was the last time I saw her or spoke to her.

As a grew older, I’d wonder about her.  There were a few times I was tempted to write her a letter, but never did.  As you can imagine from the circumstances, there was a huge rift between her and my family that I still don’t know the specifics of.  It seemed like she had rifts with everyone in her life – she didn’t speak to my dad’s sister, either.  I didn’t know if she would even want to hear from me.  I couldn’t decide if it would be better to communicate or to remain a memory.  Typical for me in adolescence, my indecision made the decision for me.

When I was in high school, our phone rang off the hook in the middle of the night.  I finally answered, and someone asked to speak to my dad.  I told them he was sleeping, and they told me to wake him up.  I knocked on my parents door, and let my father know someone was on the phone for him, and they wouldn’t take no for an answer.  It turns out it was my father’s uncle, calling to tell my dad that my grandmother passed away an hour or two earlier.  I had an odd feeling of guilt.  I thought of our little Sunday services and what I learned about being what people call a “Good Christian” – a version I most certainly did not learn from the 700 Club. I realized that my fear of her unpredictability was selfish.  I regretted not writing a letter to her. While I have no doubt my family was justified in never speaking to her again, and it was apparently mutual, I personally never had that justification; I was a kid, and somehow others’ experiences with her became the expectation for what my experience would likely be.  It was very likely for history to repeat itself, but I’m disappointed in for not developing my own experience to judge from.

As an adult, this is a theme that has lingered with me.  I think about that regret when I am tempted to pass judgment on people.  I do my best to reserve judgement until I’ve established my own relationship with someone and I try to keep an open mind when a negative person from my past reappears. Judgement can be very tempting, because it functions as a protective shield.  There are times I fail at suppressing it, which disappoints me; thanks to my experience with my grandmother, I at least try hard.