I intended to write something (ostensibly) clever and introspective about my work life this week, but Bryan Waterman’s post about his grandmother got me to thinking.

My dearly beloved grandmother – the classic cookie-baking, big-breasted, hugging kind of grandma – died about three years ago. She was my mother’s mother, and I loved her more than I think I’ve loved any other human in this world. She’d been ill for a while, losing both legs to poor circulation, and her life ended with days in nursing homes and hospitals where I, or one of my cousins or aunts, would spend days wiping her brow with a cool cloth and putting lotion on her tired, dry arms and hands. When she died, I cried not for her, as she’d been suffering for so long, but for myself. I didn’t want to face the fact that no matter how many times I punched the digits of her phone number, I’d never hear her voice again.

On the other side of the family, in North Carolina, my father’s mother – a fiery redhead – still survives. She’s 92 years old, and has always been incredibly self-reliant, doing her own shopping, cooking her meals, saving bird-sized portions of leftovers in old margarine tubs in the refrigerator. Her house was, until this week, filled with the kind of old-lady knickknacks acquired over a lifetime – plates hung on the walls, souvenir spoons from the world’s capitals, stacks of National Geographics. But a few weeks ago, she moved into an old folks home – call it whatever politically-correct name you will. But that’s where she’s ended up, and so my parents and my uncle are now packing things up to sell, with the aim of putting her home on the market in the next couple of weeks.

Whenever I call her, my surviving grandmother crows with excitement over the phone. She wants to know when I’m coming down, and tells me how happy she’d be to see me. I believe that this is true. She seems utterly sincere. But I’ve never felt about her the way I felt about my other grandmother, partly because she’s just generally a more prickly, cooler personality – and partly because I’ve never gotten over something she said to me when I was in my early 20s.

I had gone to see a stand-up comic with my uncle and aunt at a club in town. It wasn’t a fancy place, but in their town, it was a dress-up kind of venue. More importantly, my grandmother was the kind of woman who valued propriety. I’d gone to the event in jeans and a t-shirt, and she wasn’t happy. I didn’t know this – in fact, didn’t have a clue – until my uncle dropped me off at her house after the show, and I came in to find my grandmother waiting up for me in the living room.

At the time, I was recently out of college and trying to figure out what to do with my life. I had realized I was gay a few years earlier, and though I’d come out to my parents and brother by then, the rest of the family didn’t know. I had a crappy job as an administrative assistant, and though I don’t think I’d have admitted it then, I was young enough, smart enough, and utterly directionless enough to feel traumatized by the idea of what life might or might not hold in store for me. I was unsure and needing support – which my other grandmother always willingly provided. But this grandmother was judgmental, and on this night she gave full voice to it.

She’d stayed up, she told me, because she was so upset over what I’d worn to the comedy show. I told her it didn’t matter what I’d worn, as no one was there to look at me – they were there to see the show. I might not have dressed up, but my clothes were clean; what more was required? Well, she responded, she just didn’t understand it. What was I thinking? Didn’t I care how people perceived me? No, I told her. I’m fine with it – why shouldn’t everyone else be?

To this point, it was a fairly normal generation-gap conversation. But then it took a turn.

“I’m disappointed in what you’re doing with your life,” my grandmother told me. “Why don’t you choose some kind of career, and settle down? In fact, it’s not just me — you’re a disappointment to the family.”

I stood there, stunned. What kind of thing was this to say to your granddaughter? My anger flared, but I held back. As evenly as I could, I asked, “Do you really think I’m a disappointment to the family?”

“Well,” she said, “I know you are to your grandmother.”

At that moment, I had a choice. Do I walk out? Or do I stay there, and try to explain to her the choices I was making, why I wasn’t doing the things she thought were best for me? I wanted to stalk out, to feel like I never had to answer to her again. But I didn’t. I stayed, and for the next hour we talked. I explained to her why I hadn’t rushed off to law school, or become a teacher or an accountant, and after a while she calmed down. She thanked me for taking time to explain, and said she loved me.

Yet I’ve never felt the same about her since. Sure, I’ve gone to see her regularly. I wrote a funny poem for her 90th birthday two years ago. But I never got over the anger of having her say that to me. How can a person who has her whole life figured out lash out at a young person like that? Isn’t the whole grandmother – granddaughter relationship meant to be predicated on unconditional love and support?

My grandmother is dying. I am at a conference in California. I am sad, but not sad enough to race back to the East Coast. Is that bad? I don’t know. Do my parents wish I was there? Am I a disappointment to the family?

4 responses to “Grandmother”

  1. bacon says:

    i would have walked out.

    but then, i didn’t. did I? and i would have felt guilty about not rushing off to the east coast. i too am a disapointment to the family, but no one has had the courage to say that to me directly.

    i’m sorry, Parrish, about your grandmother.

  2. G-Lock says:

    Lisa, by virtue of the fact you are questioning your actions in relation to your family, then, no, you are by definition not a disappointment.

  3. JaneAnne says:

    Wow, Lisa, your grandmother sounds like my grandmother’s doppelganger, right down to 92 with red hair, obsessed with appearances and not afraid to say the meanest things to her progeny. When I was little, the mantra was “pretty is as pretty does,” and she was big on proper table manners and well-written thank-you notes. After I hit puberty, my weight became the big issue–she tried bribing with promises of a new wardrobe, and when that failed to motivate me she would start the needling: you’ll never know what true happiness is like until you’re thinner (and can attract the right sort of man). Fortunately, she’s mellowed in the last 10 years (being mean about my wedding planning and how inappropriate some of my choices were seems to have been her last big hurrah), but it still was a bit of a struggle to come up with something not-too-bitter for her 90th birthday celebration.

    Grandmas can be tricky. Good luck processing that whole bundle of stuff.

  4. Jeremy Zitter says:

    The grandmother I was close to, my Oma (who died a few years ago), sounds like a cross between your two grandmothers–she loved unconditionally, but she was still a bit prickly. I think my Oma would argue that she was prickly because she cared so much, because she was only looking out for her grandkids. My other grandmother is still alive, and she never expresses much interest in me or my mother. Despite my mother’s own yearning for her love and acceptance, my alive grandma seems like a sort of grandmother-robot.

    I’ll take my prickly Oma any day.

    I loved this post, Lisa. So so smart, as always.