She was short, a spud of a woman, who in the summer looked like an overbaked potato.
Her hair was a mushroom-cap, a helmet-poof petrified by copious amounts of Aqua Net hairspray. My grandmother was sweet, exceptionally sensitive, moody, gullible, and very much afflicted with Doormat Syndrome.
She let people walk all over her. She could not stand up for herself, could not raise her voice on behalf of her own self-worth. Many of her “best friends” were women who bullied, manipulated, and controlled her. She was used to playing the victim, and this was something she did until the very end of her life.
My grandmother was the perfect sidekick for dominant personality types, as she did what they wanted her to do. My grandmother’s strength lay in her affection for and devotion to her family. She was a caretaker, through and through.
She was the ultimate caretaker for her son, his primary enabler during his many years as a junkie. On the flipside, she was not a caretaker, she was invisible, a non-entity, a perpetrator of denial, in relation to the sexual abuse my mother suffered at the hands of her father. My grandmother’s inability to stand up to aggressive and dominant personalities, undercut her role as a protector and caretaker. My grandmother chose silence and blindness. Or rather silence and blindness claimed her. As a non-entity she was unable to function as my mother’s protector, or whistle-blower, her anything.
My grandmother’s love and affection was most deeply expressed through food, through cooking. She loved cooking for her family, and was always checking if someone was hungry, particularly the men. She worried more about the men than the women. She thought we needed more looking after, that we were in greater need of maternal comfort and security. The men were to be looked after, fussed over, cared for with kid gloves. In this respect, we were loved. In this respect, we became handicaps.
I also remember my grandmother with her red wagon. Like many of the other nonas and elders in the neighborhood, she would stroll up and down the avenue, stocking her wagon with groceries and store-bought items. My grandmother was an avid collector of cheaply manufactured merchandise, knick-knacks, or “junk” as my mother lightly referred to it.
My grandmother would buy plaques, dolls, figurines, stuffed animals, plastic fruits and flowers, mostly from the 99 cents stores, and proudly display what amounted to a Made-in-China collection of incongruities in the living room: on the tables, walls, shelves.
Ma, my mother would gently chastise her, why do you keep wasting your money on this junk?
What it’s cute, or, I like it, would be her usual response, and it only costs a dollar.
Buying knick-knacks made my grandmother a happy. It was a small, affordable pleasure, among so many unattainable dreams and desires.
My grandmother was prone to spells of depression, some darker than others. She attempted suicide through pills at least a couple of times that I can remember. My grandmother didn’t like emotional conflict, or directness when it came to painful or uncomfortable issues. She would quickly change the subject or dismiss it immediately. The broaching of certain topics would trigger a troubled look in her eyes, and she’d begin to tremble and her voice would quaver, and she’d say something like—Why do you have to bring that up, or, why are you making trouble, why do you always remember the bad things?
In a sense, my writing life has revolved around bringing up “bad stuff” and “making trouble.” It became a bit of a manic obsession with me, as so much in my house, and my grandmother’s house, was swept under carpets or hidden in closets. Very little, if anything was openly discussed or addressed.
I built a secret world. In this world the hidden bones were resurrected in other forms, manifested as vital, active entities.
It wasn’t direct exposure, but it was an oblique alternative that sufficed.
In that world I found my voice, I found the voices of my family, or perhaps just the echoes of their voices, intimations, outlines, the ghosts of their voices.
I believe that my grandmother wished, with all her heart and soul, that she could have been stronger, more direct, in certain aspects of her life. I know there was a great deal of shame that ate away at her insides, her vitals. Shame, that black parasitic slug, which devours so much of who we are, or could be. Shame, how we pass it on, a dark inheritance, how we infect others or are infected by them, how its contagions spread like a spirit-killing malignancy.
My grandmother gave as much of her heart as she could. She loved. She loved, as we all do, imperfectly. She loved through the shackles, through the screens, through the fears, she loved humanly.
I say to my grandmother, to the legacy of her spirit: thank you for loving me and giving me all that you could.