Three Deaths Of Grandma
by Manya Author's note: This story is true. The image is not. It's a PhotoShop creation, not a photograph of any person, living or dead.
I don't think grandma ever said the words "I love you", at least I cannot picture her saying anything of the sort - she wasn’t big on expressing affection. Occasionally patting me on the shoulder and calling me a sparrow was as far as she would go. She had a tough life behind her and believed that actions speak louder than words. But she undoubtedly loved me, and expressed it the only way she knew: my shoes were polished, my buttons were sewn tight, my meals were hot, my ears were clean, and, above all - my education, manners, and morals were attended to.
When I was born, she retired and moved in with us, to babysit me: neighborhood children spread lice, foul language, and undesirable habits; socializing with an educated adult would be much more appropriate and beneficial than mixing with them. We spent our days in quiet walks in a park, peacefully discussing feudal structure of European medieval society or reasons behind the decline of Roman Empire (grandma had a degree in History), and evenings were dedicated to simple housekeeping skills every girl should master, such as bookshelf dusting or silverware polishing. One evening we had sewn a shirt for Bobby, my African-American doll: I hemmed the collar, and grandma did the rest, explaining to me the steps of the process, from measuring Bobby to figure out if we have enough fabric (mom's old mittens), to sewing the pieces together and seeing if the shirt fits. Simultaneously she updated me on the current crisis in Angola, thus justifying why does Bobby get a new shirt while the rest of the dolls make do without. I appreciated these calm talks with grandma, because they helped me make sense of the world around me.
And the world really wasn't all that complicated. Grandma had a set of simple and clear rules that covered it all. Any problem had a solution, and there was only one solution that was right. Grandma believed in doing the right thing, even in minor matters. One evening she was knitting a vest for me, while I was happily blabbering about titles for fairy tales we were going to write together, publish, and become famous like brothers Grimm. Grandma didn't approve of this because, first, she strongly preferred real history: the War of Spartacus, Spanish Inquisition, Song of the Nibelungs at most (as it reflects historical events) - but not meaningless fairy tales about frogs turning into princesses upon being kissed, which is questionable material altogether: it is bad manners to discuss or even mention bestiality, especially in presence of young children. Second - she was well aware of her complete lack of creativity, so the project was doomed from the start, if her participation was counted on. And mostly, - she didn't approve of planning so far ahead. She said, if you want to write fairy tales - let's sit down and write them. If you write a few - I'll let you use the typewriter to type them up, you can do illustrations, and I'll take them all to a bookbinder who'll make a hardcover "Book of Manya's Fairy Tales". But the way to do it is - actually write the tales, not come up with dozens of titles. I didn't end up writing a book of fairy tales, but I'm absolutely sure she'd follow through on her promise to bind them into a book if I wrote them. She did let me use her typewriter on special occasions: I typed up some of my poetry when there was enough to fill a sheet of paper on both sides, and then I also wrote a short story I wanted to mail to the other grandma, and I wanted it typed up, not handwritten, because it was a story, not a regular letter, you see. So I'm sure the typewriter would be all mine, for fairy tales. And she frequently took my drawings or my old worn out books to a bookbinder. She did not approve of the whole idea of me becoming a fairy-tale writer, so she did not encourage it, but she provided the structure and the means to attain my goal, if I were serious about it. Grandma certainly offered solid solutions to problems. I very much miss that, it's a rare quality in people - to offer you means to reach a goal they do not approve of. Maybe that is love?
In exchange, I had to be a good girl. That involved mostly common sense - I knew what was expected of me, things were very predictable, there were no surprises there. True, other children didn't have to go through half as much trouble as I did to be good enough for their parent's love, but then - I knew that those were bad children of bad parents, so there was no ground for comparisons. When occasionally exposed to other children by some unavoidable accident (such as in a hospital, for example), - I observed them in bewilderment and contempt: their loud voices, rapid movements, and frequent mood swings seemed abnormal. I wondered where were their parents, why were these obviously challenged children left unsupervised: they could hurt themselves or others, with their eccentric and erratic behavior. Thus the parents of these children were bad as well - we can't approve of someone who lets their disordered child run amok, you know. I certainly was lucky to have grandma instead of such irresponsible caretakers.
I don't know why a child loves somebody. I wasn't old enough to appreciate all the care I was receiving 24/7. When you're five - it seems only natural that the world revolves around you, and grandma exists exclusively to fulfill your needs and wants. I don't know why I loved her, but I did, with my entire heart. There was nothing in the world that I wouldn't give up for her approval, affection, quality time with her. I wanted her to be all mine. I understand now how selfish and cruel it was, but I was ready to sacrifice my life for her, and was sure she'd do the same, if needed. Yet I sensed she wasn't honest with me on some level: she wasn't happy, and didn't want me to know or understand. This angered and deeply saddened me.
Grandma did not get along with father. She told him once that he was a despot (to his great amusement) - not in a derogatory way, just as a classification of his personality type. She addressed him formally, and tried to interact with him as little as possible (while living under the same roof). Yet she believed in proper upbringing, and all activities would always be interrupted when he got home at night. "Your father has arrived. Go greet him. Show respect." My father was certainly violating all codes of conduct grandma had in mind - he was usually late, drunk, and would cheerfully recite limericks in my presence. But she didn't see that as a valid reason to not teach me the "honor thy parents" rule, so I had to greet my wasted dad and watch him struggle taking off his shoes. While she would go into the kitchen and speak under her breath of how some fathers in general behave inappropriately while having young children in the house, how such irresponsible fathers should not have had children in the first place if they did not wish to care for them, and how she'd much rather move back to her hometown than be exposed to such evening scenes that obviously traumatize the young child's psyche. I would run to the kitchen, demanding an explanation, and grandma would wipe off her tears and respond that she wasn't talking to anyone, she was just singing a song to herself, like a caged bird. I have seen canaries - small gracious creatures that couldn't compare to my tall clumsy grandma with long arthritic rake-like hands, and I knew this talk of singing songs to herself in the kitchen was a lie. Besides, I heard what those songs were about. I was five, but I wasn't deaf or stupid.
Grandma didn't get along with mother either. I'm not sure what was it about - mom wasn't an alcoholic, so those arguments generally stayed behind the scenes - but I frequently noticed tears, silent treatments, closed kitchen door with mom and grandma inside, and occasional voice of grandma, shaking at first, but powerful nevertheless: "I'm silent. I'm always silent, like a fish. I never say a word."
After such arguments grandma would usually stay alone in our room, with the lights off (as a sign that she doesn't want anything from my parents, including their electricity). Sometimes I would run into the room to get something, and suddenly see grandma in her armchair - all twisted up like a pretzel, silent, staring straight ahead of her. She would reject me at such times - go play Manya, turn the lights off, I'm ok. I knew she wasn't ok because she would also add a word or two about her being a fish, or a bird, or other such creature, who would much rather leave this house inhabited by unfit people. I would ask her if I were an unfit person as well, as a member of the household she wanted to leave - and she'd respond that I'm my father's (or mother's, depending on situation; usually father's) offspring, his flesh and blood. The conclusion was left for me to draw, and it wasn't a pleasant one. Besides, silent grandma in a dark room with lights off - it was a familiar and an uncomfortable combination for other reasons as well. We had a secret.
Grandma and I slept in the same room. I would go to bed first, but grandma followed soon, so I observed her nightly routines from my bed, in semi-darkness - streetlights, and occasional traffic. When a car drove by, the light traveled across our room in a radial motion, and that frightened me for some reason. Grandma wore strange undergarments no other person that I knew wore: some harnesses with strings attached to them, that she wore under her panties - it was strange and unfamiliar, and the purpose of it was unclear. I asked her once why doesn't she wear pantyhose like mom and I do, instead of all this horsewear, but didn't get a clear answer, so usually I just looked from under my blanket, trying to not appear too inappropriately curious.
When she was done, she would lay on her back, hands crossed on her chest, silent for a while, both of us preparing for the last, final part of the day. And then she would slowly start talking. Never have I experienced such a paralyzing horror as during those nightly monologues of grandma, when I was laying in my bed, afraid to breathe, and staring at the window. The window frame was white, but in the dark room, with the light coming from the streetlights outside - it looked black, and that was terrifying too - at night everything seemed completely opposite from how it was during the daytime. Window was black, and grandma who loved me was a merciless prosecutor.
Pleasant are her looks, but her soul is rotten. Rotten it is, full of scorpions, and they will eat her alive. Laziness is one of them. For lazy she is, and her pleasant looks are vain, in the face of her vices. Foul mouth is another. Poison emanates from her, every word she speaks is a poisonous scorpion crawling out of her mouth - scorpions she spits out, not human words! Yet the truth will prevail, and the rotten filth of her soul will be exposed.
This went on since I remember myself until I was about seven. The topic varied depending on what have I done during the day, and the whole speech would take anywhere between a half an hour to a whole night, till sunrise. It was always in third person singular, and grandma didn't respond the few times I gathered the courage to interrupt her with a question or a plea for mercy. The relief came unexpected. One night, when I was yet again trembling with fear in my bed, grandma suddenly paused, snored, and said, "Mirror, mirror, on the wall - I'm the fairest of them all." I laughed hysterically that night, to tears, releasing the tension of all those years of helpless terror, - a silly quote from Snow White uttered in sleep destroyed the image of grandma as an absolute authority, a deity of sorts, whose each word is a dreadful prophecy. She tried to continue with the nightly routine after this incident, but I was immune - whenever she brought up the subject of my rotten soul again, I'd remember that she, on the contrary, was the fairest of them all, and that gave me uncontrollable giggles. I just couldn't take her nocturnal monologues seriously anymore. The spell was broken, and that was the first death of my grandma.
After that first death, I started doubting her words. They were true, her philosophy was very practical and down to earth: basic conscience and common sense, - yet it just didn't seem to fit in real life somehow. Grandma had solid morals, knew right from wrong, always did the right thing, and could find the right solution to any problem - yet her interventions were never invited, welcome, or successful. It wasn't just mom and dad - grandma didn't get along with anyone. She was the best person I knew - yet she was an outcast, a freak people pointed fingers at. Nobody wanted her help, input, ideas, feedback, or opinions. If she offered them anyway - they were met with an eyeroll, violence, or anything in between. This was incomprehensible, but it was so.
I was 8 when the old world finally crashed and the pieces fell together, forming an entirely different picture, as in a kaleidoscope. It was when grandma found out I was being molested. She stood up (the chair fell down), stretched her arm in the air, and said in her most powerful, convincing, and condemning voice, - "This is sexual abuse. It is wrong. It needs to stop immediately." The naiveté of the intervention produced a roar of laughter from my dad - which shocked grandma so profoundly that she washed her hands off the entire issue and went to sulk in our dark room and sing like a bird about unfit fathers.
I knew grandma loved me. But I thought she would kill for me, if necessary. I thought I was more important than rules. I thought rules existed for people, not vice versa. But she clearly felt differently, and her rules just weren't enough to survive in this world, where people sometimes hurt each other on purpose. Where there is evil. Grandma did not know how to handle it except for exclaiming, "Exit, Satanas!" To which, unfortunately, he doesn't always listen.
What pushed me over the edge was that she kept on enforcing her rules. After disclosure of sexual abuse, after my suicide attempt, when the failure of her upbringing was obvious and clear, and she washed her hands off it all, refusing to resolve it in any way - she still wanted me to greet my father when he got home at night, keep my knees together when I sat in a chair (a hard thing to do, when your feet don't reach the floor), not talk unless spoken to, and not scratch my ears in front of adults. That filled me with bitter frustration, anger, and a feeling of no escape, no hope, no future, no chance of a resolution. I felt we were living a tragicomedy, a farce. And I wanted out.
I decided to murder grandma. I didn't want to punish her for anything, and I wasn't resentful, but I wanted to tear her out of my heart. She failed me, what she taught me was a lie, what she lived was a lie, what she believed was a lie, what I loved - all of it was a lie. I didn't want to keep loving her. And I couldn't stay in the same house with the person I used to love. I have read that datura was poisonous even if you just smelled it, and I knew a place where it grew. I picked some (got a really bad headache while doing it, thought that must be the poisonous effect of the plant), and stuck it into grandma's pillowcase before her afternoon nap.
And then I went back into the woods, kneeled in front of a pine tree, and prayed - that she should not suffer as she dies, that God should forgive her all her sins, I take them upon me, that He should forgive me for murdering her because I really had no other way around, and that she should please forgive me too, because I still love her, as long as she's still alive. I wasn't sure how fast datura would work, but I figured if people pass out and die from smelling it for just a few minutes - she surely would die from sleeping on that pillow for a couple of hours. I was in the woods all afternoon, crying and praying, murdering my grandmother, the only person I loved.
She survived of course, this second death was a fail. When I returned home, there was an ambulance in our driveway, grandma's blood pressure was high again for some reason. Nobody found out about datura. Grandma was dead to me though, since that day in the woods and until many years later.
She passed away two years ago. The third death, the physical one, - was the one I missed. I knew she was ill, but I was far away, and couldn't make it to her bedside. One day, in the office, I suddenly realized that grandma was dead. It was just a gut feeling, but it was so strong that I took the rest of the day off. At home there was a message on my answering machine that grandma just passed away. I wish I could have been there to tell her I'm sorry, and that I loved her. We got along really well once I got over my childhood grudges. It surprised me just how warm and witty my grandma really was - as a child I never knew this side of her. Her genuine kindness, warmth, and hilarious sense of humor - I never noticed those things before. The last image I remember of her is when I was leaving, on my last visit. She was at the door of our old apartment, and I was in the elevator, the doors were closing, and we both knew we will never see each other again. I told her I loved her. And she lifted her arms slightly above her head, blessing me, and said, "That life should be good to you." Grandma never said she loved me, but she surely did.
My strengths and insecurities, my beliefs about the world and people that inhabit it, the basic skills from how I tie my shoes to how I write cursive "b", things I'm most proud of and things I'm hopelessly battling in therapy for the past decade - I owe most of them to my grandmother. She died three times for me, but as long I catch myself saying that I'm silent like a fish, or as long as I'm not afraid to bless someone I love - grandma is alive. Certain things you just can't get rid of with datura. Maybe it's not such a bad thing either.
~ Jonathan Swift
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