Essay #1 – Missed Opportunity
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
I see the ash beginning to bend, threatening to break apart and scatter on the Persian rug. My body tenses, waiting for it, wanting to stop it yet resisting the urge to say something, knowing it’s none of my business. At the last possible moment, Grandma moves her cigarette toward the ashtray and taps it. Disaster averted. For now.
My memories of my mom’s mom, Grandma Mac, are hazy, like the cigarette smoke that continuously wafted up from her long, delicate, piano-playing fingers. She died when I was 18 years old, having suffered a stroke two years previously, which left her paralyzed and speechless. At the nursing home, her eyes would dart about occasionally filling with tears, obviously wanting to express something the rest of her body could not. I regret not speaking to her before she lost her voice, while she still played the piano, when Grandpa Mac was still alive. But I was teenager and not at all interested in the life of an old woman who never showed me much love and drooled on her hospital gown. Today, as a middle-aged woman, I regret not knowing her better, not asking her about her life.
We still lived in New York when Grandma had her stroke, and I remember Mom saying, “I ought to have Mother come live with us,” and Dad countering, “You know you can’t take care of her and the kids, it would be too much,” and Mom conceding, “I know, you’re right” but always feeling guilty about it. Two years later, we moved to Utah—even farther from Wisconsin and all of my parents’ family.
Grandma Mac lived for four years after her stroke, for six years after her husband died, and for twenty-eight years after her last child was born. But it took my parents another 10 years after she died to tell me the truth about her. Perhaps they felt I wasn’t ready to absorb the information at 18 or maybe they didn’t want to spoil my college experience. But at last the truth came out and all the pieces fell into place. Grandma had been a drug addict. She had needed daily injections of Demerol, a painkiller, because she’d become dependent on the medication after Uncle Ken was born. Grandpa was her supplier. He prescribed the drug and administered her daily (or twice daily?) injections.
As an adult, I’ve analyzed this situation to death and all I do is end up with questions—questions I’ve asked my mom, though she doesn’t know the answers to most of them either: Why did Grandma need a painkiller? Who first prescribed it for her? How did she get hooked? Why did Grandpa continue to supply her? What happened to Uncle Ken when Mom and Aunt Mary moved out (which they did as soon as they could)? When Grandpa died, what happened to Grandma? Did she suffer withdrawals? Is that why she had a stroke? Horrific images fill my mind of life at that house. But I knew that house. I stayed there. And I survived my visits. My uncle, my aunt, and my mom survived too.
My mother, Harriett, was born in 1938, the eldest of three children, each separated from the next by seven years. Her dad, Kenneth, was a pediatrician; her mother, Astrid, a nurse. In photographs, I’ve seen Mom smiling while her dad pushes her on a swing. Pigtails flying, glasses not disguising her crossed eyes. This condition—she explained it to me once—appeared at birth and she later had surgery to correct it. But even today, when she gets tired, her eyes sometimes cross a bit. Her mother or “Mother,” as she called her, rarely appears in the “happy” photos I’ve seen. That should have been a clue.
When she was seven, Mary Margaret was born and Mom seemed genuinely happy to have a sister, though she didn’t like sharing her dad with anyone else. I suspect this because Mom talks often about how much she loved her dad. She almost worshipped him. Later, when I found out about all the bad stuff, I wondered how Mom could idolize him when he so clearly contributed to the problem. Mary became Mom’s best friend and my favorite aunt. I’ve heard that Mary is a lot like her mother—similar bone structure, similar temperament, and similar addictive personality. She smokes, like Grandma Mac did, in spite of the horrible photos of blackened lungs that I would drag home from junior high health class or my surreptitious efforts to banish cigarettes from her house, which I admit to doing as recently as 4 years ago.
Mom was fourteen when Kenneth John (KJ Junior) was born and, according to her, she began taking on many of the household duties: cleaning, cooking, washing (they didn’t have a dryer back then, so she hung the clothes on lines strung across the basement ceiling), and tending the baby. According to Mom, Grandma Mac was ill—too sick to take care of her family—so Mom stepped in. Until I heard about Grandma’s drug addiction, I always thought my Mom’s upbringing was normal. The way I saw it, my grandmother worked and became ill after her last child was born, so it made sense that my mom and her dad took care of things at home. As a kid of approximately the same age my mom was when took on these extra responsibilities, I just thought my mom was an amazing kid who did everything around the house—unlike me—and that Grandma Mac’s place was simply different from Grandma G’s. That’s all.
When we visited the family in Madison, Wisconsin, I’d alternate sleepovers at each grandparent’s house, though my parents usually stayed with my dad’s parents. I never knew to ask why they didn’t stay at Grandma and Grandpa Mac’s house. Grandma Mac would sleep late. Grandpa would get up and help fix breakfast for me. Usually toast with raspberry jam. The smell of toast always takes me back to that old kitchen, with the Norwegian plates hanging on the walls, the counter-top linoleum beginning to crack. Upstairs, I’d sleep in the small bedroom with eaves and a door that led to the attic. I loved to explore this dark and musty place, filled with books and trunks smelling of mothballs. Unlike my Grandma G’s modern apartment, which boasted soda machines down the hall and an outdoor pool, my Grandma Mac’s house was filled with reminders of the past. Great-grandmother’s braided rag rugs covered the floors, lace doilies covered the armrests and headrests of already antique furniture, and somber paintings of the old country hung from the walls. I loved to stay there, in that quiet place.
But when Grandma awoke, which sometimes wasn’t until the afternoon, she always seemed so foul, so grumpy. If Uncle Ken happened to be around, she’d lash out at him, her temper vicious and totally unpredictable. Ken’s only 10 years older than me—closer in age to me than his older sister, my mom—so he was more like a big brother to me than an uncle. I felt sorry for him when Grandma yelled. Yet I also sensed that she was mad at him for not growing up and not moving out earlier like his sisters. It took Ken a long time to “find his way,” as they say. He struggled in school, barely making it through college, and had his heart broken by several women. Eventually he made it out of the house, but it wasn’t until Grandma died.
They all made it out: Mom, Mary, and Ken. Yet they’re not unscathed. None of us are. I know what’s happened to all of us. The one I don’t know about is Grandma Mac. Apart from a few photos, in which she doesn’t look very happy, I have only my dim memories and little bits of stories my mom tells me. For instance, Mom has suggested that her mother might have been happier as a lesbian, without children. I wonder why my mom thinks this—are these merely the words of an angry, disappointed daughter? But I’m not offered any other information. Apparently, Grandma was an intelligent nurse, a brilliant pianist, and a keen analyst of politics. Dad talks about how much he enjoyed discussing issues with his mother-in-law: she was well read, with an acerbic wit, and could argue about almost anything. I’ve inherited many of her books, everything from Milton to Tennyson to Emerson. Perhaps she even read Fitzgerald too. I want to meet this woman now: when I can appreciate her, when I can really talk to her, and when, just maybe, I can finally begin to understand her.