There are lot of gaps in the memories of my childhood, however there are a few things I remember about my grandmother. I remember she was usually high energy, and when she was happy that was fun. I remember her screaming at my grandfather. I remember her ranting about my mother (her daughter-in-law). But, most other early childhood memories of her are fragmented.
I remember more clearly in my preteen years when everything exploded. My grandmother became the menace of the family, and we never saw her again. Until a few years ago, that is. Things calmed down. We opened up a little, invited them to a recital or a birthday dinner. We never spent more than a few hours with her at a time, and she was able to keep things together for that little while. She was being fun and nice again. And it was even better getting to see more of my grandfather.
Both of my grandparents are in their 80s now, and I’m in my 20s. I decided that perhaps, before I no longer have the opportunity, I should try to spend a little more time with them. So, I asked to go to the beach with them for a week. And here’s how it went…
Their main house is in my town, and we were going to their beach house which was 200 miles away. So, about a four hour drive, on average. I arrive to their house at 12:30 pm on Thursday, completely packed and ready. We have a pleasant lunch on their sunny back porch, and everything is starting off delightfully. I helped them clean up the dishes and pack up the food, then waited for departure time.
We didn’t leave their house until 3:30 pm.
By then it was already rush hour. The original plan was to have dinner when we got to the beach, but because we left so late we had to stop for food and didn’t get there until 10 at night. A four hour trip turned into a seven hour trip because my grandmother wasn’t ready to leave on time. This would prove to be a common theme for the rest of the week.
So far, everything still seemed pleasant enough. It was Friday morning and my grandfather was making waffles. Grandma didn’t like how the waffles turned out. At first she told him to read the recipe, then she told him to read the instructions for the waffle iron, then she told him not to do this, or to do that, or to not use so much of that, or not to be so impatient. She became accusatory, condescending, and angry. I was honestly surprised at how rude she was being after someone else made her breakfast.
And she kept bringing it up.
After breakfast we drove around town. The plan was to visit one of their friend’s shop, but grandma changed her mind about that and we just went wherever her whim took us instead. She would constantly make comments about how hungry she was, how bad and disappointing and inadequate her breakfast had been. She did not stop talking about the waffles until we finally got lunch, then the rest of the day was relatively pleasant.
At some point, my grandfather told me that my presence was having a great effect on my grandmother’s mood. Usually she was very grumpy. Apparently this was her being not-grumpy.
The plan after lunch was to go straight to the beach, but we didn’t make it out of the house until 5 pm.
On Saturday we went to visit the farmer’s market and art fair, and bought some fresh produce and locally crafted jewelry. After that the plan was, again, to have lunch then go straight to the beach for the day. This time we made it there at 4 pm. Progress!
One significant trait to note about my grandmother is how much she likes to talk, and how fast she talks. I like to think of myself as a patient person but I could already feel myself starting to crack on the car ride down, and by Saturday I felt like I was going insane. Every single minute was spent with her telling me at breakneck speed about someone I haven’t seen since I was five, who was in the hospital, whose spouse died and from what cause, the marital status of all of their children, and so on. Every single one of them she knew by name.
And when I say every minute, I’m not exaggerating. When we were in the car I would count how long the silences between conversations lasted before she would start up another one or just make a random comment.
1… 2… 3… 4…
‘Oh, that’s John’s house, you remember him, he used to be a policeman, his wife died of cancer last year and their oldest daughter Jane is married and moved to Pennsylvania, and she has two children and…’
The highest I ever reached was 50 seconds. Literally, she could not stop talking for a single, full minute.
Sunday was mostly uneventful. Grandma got a call from one of her sisters that she would be visiting for grandma’s birthday. This meant that both of grandma’s sister would be there for her big 80 th birthday in July. She was happy about that, and talked about different possible plans for her party.
And this will be an important detail later: this week the town was going to begin construction on their main street, and had everything blocked off. Because of this, all the traffic on main street was detoured into my grandparent’s neighborhood, including construction vehicles, trucks, and so on. Every day after this, grandma would continuously complain about the situation, the noise of the cars, the exhaust fumes, and so on.
Monday morning is when seams began to crack. Breakfast was had and I returned to my room to call home. After this call, I heard yelling from downstairs. Her tone was as I remembered it from my childhood: bitter, nasty, spiteful, and accusatory. The topic was grandma’s birthday. She was complaining that for grandpa’s 80 th , they had a reception in Florida, but the only things he has suggested was to have her birthday at a restaurant. She didn’t like that, apparently, because a restaurant is too loud to talk to anyone, as well as too expensive.
I did think it strange that she was jealous over a formal reception but thought having dinner at a restaurant would be too expensive. The rest of the (one-sided) conversation was her accusing him of not caring about her, trying to ruin her birthday, never standing up to her. (An example of him ‘never standing up for her’ is when the neighbors built a shed on their own property that she thought was ugly, and grandpa didn’t do anything about it.)
At some point she stormed outside and got in her car to leave. The engine revved a few times, but didn’t start. She had to call my grandpa over and have him start her car so she could finally drive off in a rage.
With nothing else to do, I used up some data on my phone to catch up with my long distance friends. I’m known for not cursing, ever, but the only word I could find to accurately describe my grandmother was, well, bitch. They found the story about the car amusing, and said that sounds like something I would do because of how bad I am with technology. And I found it funny too; I think I’ve always found humor in her behavior. The only thing that wasn’t funny about the situation was how my grandfather was being treated.
I also said that I suppose there’s a reason we haven’t visited her in ten years. Not that I had really forgotten, but I apparently needed a reminder.
When she finally came back, my grandfather told me we were going to go out to eat, and with food in our bellies we would ‘forget about grandma being naughty this morning.’
But this is her when she’s not grumpy!
On Tuesday their town was having an election, and they needed to vote in the morning. After that we would go ‘straight’ to the beach. We had breakfast, and I returned to my room to get ready. (Though by this time I knew we would probably not be going anywhere until well into the afternoon.)
A while after they left to vote their car returned, and my grandpa came inside asking if grandma was here.
Remember all the traffic on our street because of the construction? Apparently she was so upset by the smell of exhaust from all the cars that she… got out of the vehicle to walk along the street? Yes, that’s what she did. And now she’s wandered off and he didn’t know where she could be. I was tempted to tell my friends that I had lost my grandma but abstained so I could help him look for her.
We drove around a few streets, then returned to the neighborhood and walked around for a little. Then, lo and behold, she emerged out of nowhere! And absolutely lost it. We stood on the side walk as a large number of strangers drove by (slowly, by the way, it’s a residential neighborhood) and my grandmother screamed non-stop at my grandfather. The highlights include:
- The noise from the cars woke her up and she got no sleep.
- The exhaust fumes are killing her.
- Grandpa doesn’t care and won’t stand up for her and do anything about all this traffic.
- The government doesn’t care about her comfort.
- The government doesn’t care if she dies from these exhaust fumes.
- The government is trying to kill her.
I relate this story to my friends. ‘She sounds very dramatic,’ one of them said. Another word thrown around was psycho. Someone finally said that she seems bipolar. Bingo.
Eventually we got her back home and then out to lunch. We went to the beach ‘after lunch’ (at 4 pm) and while I was swimming around and acting like I couldn’t hear anything, she started yelling at him again. This time she complained about:
- How horrible her life has been.
- How horrible he personally has made her life.
- How he doesn’t care about her at all.
- How much she hates their marriage.
- How much she hates him.
- The nightmares she has of him leaving her, like when he left her in Florida (when she got so out of control that she was arrested and hospitalized.)
- How he always leaves her. (Their marriage has functioned for the last several years with him going to their main home, her following, him going to their mountain home, her following, him going to their beach home, her following, and so on like a sad and expensive game of tag.)
And the most memorable quote award goes to: ‘My life has really been a bowl of cherries. Or more like a bowl of applesauce that’s rotten.’
Tuesday was probably the worst she was all week, but I got to see some baby ducks hanging around at lunch so I chalked it up to a pretty good day.
Wednesday, and also my grandparent’s anniversary! Celebrating 59 years of marriage! And yes, all throughout the week their friends and neighbors have been wishing them a happy anniversary.
They had another argument that morning, but I didn’t hear what it was about. Grandpa drove off to go the store, and the next thing I knew grandma was in my room saying that we should go to the beach without him. I suggested we call him, or just wait for him, and after some very timid attempts at persuasion she relented and we waited for him to return.
It may seem strange to someone unfamiliar with the dynamics of my family that this woman, who will gleefully tear down and scream at her husband in public, will relent to anything her 20 year old granddaughter suggests. I find it strange too, but it’s how things have always been. I was the golden child in their eyes from the time I was born, and it put me in some awkward positions as a child. I hated the attention (though I’m sure there were moments in my childhood where it turned me into a brat until my parents corrected me) but at this point if she’ll listen to me I’ll at least do what I can to help out my grandpa.
So, in this instance, I suggested we not abandon her husband on the day of their anniversary (I would have been enthusiastic about going to the beach with just grandpa, on the other hand) and so we waited. He eventually returned, we went to the beach, and then had a nice dinner for their anniversary. It was surreal to say the least, but at this point my ‘vacation’ was about eating a lot of good food, watching the wildlife, and sitting in the sun. And hey, there was plenty of that!
Departure day, finally! I was all packed and ready to leave before breakfast. The plan was that we would leave at noon, then stop halfway to visit and have dinner with one of their nieces (my second cousin). If we managed to get there between 3 and 5 pm her son would even be able to join us. In private, grandpa told me that his goal was actually to leave by 1, but better to tell grandma noon. I agreed whole-heartedly.
While they were outside, they had another argument. Grandma was especially manic today, which I was expecting. But when I went outside to help them pack up the car, grandpa made a comment suggesting he had bite marks on his hand. My mind didn’t compute for a moment and my first though went to him being bitten by a stray cat, but then I realized what he meant. My grandmother had bit her husband.
She bit him.
I asked him about it and he confirmed, she had bit him on the hand, though she hadn’t broken skin. ‘First time that’s happened,’ he said. There were many times throughout the week I wanted to ask him why he stayed with her, if there was anything she did that made their marriage worth it, or if he was just there out of pride and obligation. I didn’t say anything, but I especially wanted to this time.
We didn’t manage to get on the road until 2:30, of course.
I fell asleep pretty quickly, then woke up and tried to go back to sleep but didn’t manage it because grandma began to complain that she wanted a turn to drive. You see, grandpa and I are both very tall and all week he had been driving, I had been in the front seat, and grandma was in the back. I had offered many times to have grandma ride in the front but she refused to move unless it meant she could drive, so I didn’t have much of a choice.
But she began to complain that she was getting cramped in the back seat, and that she wanted to drive, and that it wasn’t fair. Eventually she said she needed to use the bathroom, and demanded that grandpa pull over. She also complained that she even had to ask. Well, the nearest possible place to stop was 20 minutes away, so he said we would stop there. Then she said her leg was cramping, and began to sob in the back seat for the next 20 minutes.
It brought to mind a memory of when I was a child, probably in the last year before we stopped all contact with her. She wanted to take me to Florida with them over the summer, but my dad had said no. She sprawled on her couch and sobbed while 12 year old me awkwardly sat nearby in silence. Well, I was trying not to laugh. When I was much younger, her eccentric behavior scared me, but by 12 I just found it sad, absurd, and silly. I remember thinking at the time that she was like a little child crying because someone told her she can’t have what she wants.
And here we are again, an almost-80- year-old, sobbing because she can’t have her way. Honestly, you have to laugh to keep from crying along with her.
We finally found a place to stop, then continued to my cousin’s home. We didn’t get there until 6, much later than they planned. If they had their way, we would have spent the night there, but I was anxious to get home. We had a nice dinner but didn’t leave her house until 10:30. By then it was dark and raining heavily, and I spent the next two hours praying fervently that we didn’t crash on the highway and die. At exactly 11:59 at night we finally made it to my house, and I was free.
All in all, I would honestly say I had an alright vacation. Good food, nice weather, beautiful location, lots of cats and ducks. The only bad part was her, however she managed to be consistently terrible. I suppose I had hoped she could keep it together for at least a week. But, even when she wasn’t being an abusive, awful human being she was just plain annoying. Would I go back? Maybe. And only for my grandpa’s sake. He’s a sweet man and does what he can take care of her and treat her well. Ideally, I could just spend a vacation with him, but I know that’s not possible. I still want to ask him why he stays with her, but I probably never will, and I’d probably never get a satisfying answer. But for his sake, I’ll probably be back. But not for a long while. And definitely not for a week.