More and more when I look in the mirror I see my grandmother’s face. I don’t see the thin, sharp features of mean grandma, but I see overweight Grammie’s flabby neck and jowls, her round, full cheeks and her shelf-like bosom. These physical characteristics, combined her hypochondriac, narcissistic, laziness that planted her on the couch in front of the satellite television for hours each day, made her a favorite with small children, if not the adults in her life.
The hours she spent cuddling grandkids under a blanket on the couch, or rocking with a toddler in the oversized wooden rocking chair, were a quiet haven for children whose parents were so busy surviving they didn’t have even minutes to spend on those sorts of non-activities, much less long hours to idle away in front of Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow. The sodas, chips and Twinkies Grammie stocked on her shelves were as foreign as Thai cuisine to a girl whose mother grocery shopped on a strict budget at the beginning of each month and then had no money left over to supplement meals with as the shelves were emptied.
I was a teenager before I realized that none of this was normal behavior; that Grammie’s pills were not like mean Grandma’s arthritis medication; before I knew that mental illness ran in the family. Then my new normal became visiting my uncle, barely ten years older than me, in the state mental hospital each Saturday as he tutored me into passing my high school algebra class. Slowly, while dealing with this new mental health emergency, adults forgot to guard their words.
All those times that us little kids were locked in the TV room at Grandma and Grandpa’s with the volume turned up loud were because our grandparents were beating on each other and throwing dishes in the kitchen, while our mothers intervened. Grandpa’s new found religion and complete intolerance to sin happened after he was forced to marry Grandma, already pregnant with my mom. They never forgave my mother for that inconvenience, no matter how sermons they heard preached about love and forgiveness, but Grandpa’s own “sin” was caused by Grandma’s influence and atoned for with the thousands and thousands of dollars sent to the evangelists on the television. We learned that Grammie could only love one of five children at a time, and that she rarely liked any of them, especially if they showed their frustration or lack of sympathy. If she was speaking to one, the others were out, but if you were on her good side, then the charity flowed. New washing machines, furniture, stylish clothes and the best school supplies were the rewards for going along and, as teenagers, we learned to work the system. We were not yet jaded by the inconsistencies or as worn out by the numerous interventions as our parents.
When I look in the mirror and see my grammie’s face, I fight hard to remember RC Cola and Twinkies, snuggled on the couch, not the medicine bottles and hurled plates and insults.