Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Grandma's Letters

My cousin has a binder two inches thick with old letters from our grandmother.  Today she lent it to me to see if I could find any genealogically significant information that she hadn't.  She'd already highlighted parts.  She told me Grandma wrote things that were weird to write to your grandchildren.  She said Grandma hadn't been the innocent victim of circumstance she used to think she was -- she made the choice to stay in her environment, and she made it repeatedly until she died.

I hadn't expected my name to come up so many times in her letters.  My mother was my grandmother's only daughter, closest friend, and primary source of transportation, so it's only logical I would be a prime source of gossip.  Except I wasn't interesting.  The gossip isn't always bad.  Sometimes she says I sang at church and did a good job, or she comments on how hard I've worked to maintain a 4.0 GPA throughout school.  Sometimes in the next sentence she comments on my related "whining" or "complaining" or my "mood swings."  "Same old, same old," she dismisses.  I was 17 for that one.  It was around the time my mother called the hematologist from church to prescribe antidepressants for her "moody teenager," though talking to the doctor myself or seeing a mental health professional was still strictly forbidden.  I'm not sure how much of my bad behavior was witnessed first hand and how much Grandma heard from my mother.  I mostly saw my grandmother at church at that point.  

She details my mother's breakdown in 2005 on a week-by-week basis.  She didn't detail it in my letters, but she did for my cousin, and probably for other friends and family on her mailing list.  She comments how I "finally got around to being worried" about my mother.  "File that under 'better late than never,'" she quips.  My dad and I had been talking and worrying for some time of course, but that didn't count because it wasn't for an audience.  She said my mother's change in behavior was partly due to her poor health, partly her bad husband, partly her daughter finishing school and choosing to continue to live so far away, and partly because she didn't have a good relationship with either of her children.  And partly the "over medication," of course.  Grandpa yelled from the next room, "Do you need to detox?!" while my grandma was on the phone with her, but my mother heard him and "snapped out of it" enough to behave better, so no action was taken.  All of this came from letters.

My grandmother gauged my mother's mental health by how much she talked to her and how much she ate.  "Annie only ate a quarter of her Frosty yesterday," was cause for alarm, but "Annie finished her Frosty today," was a sign that the worst was over, the dark cloud had passed.  "Did you know Annie has lost 70 pounds?" she asks in January of 2005.  I didn't realize it had started so early.  I don't know if I saw her between Thanksgiving of 2004 and my wedding in 2008.

Grandma's reviews of me improved when she started receiving regular letters from me.  I hadn't realized I was writing my own press releases.  She references my purchasing "a proper dining table" in three consecutive letters.  I guess she wrote to my cousin more frequently than I wrote to her.  She details the stressors of my Manhattan job, but this time without the added snark or the implication that I'm whining.  I wonder if her news bites inherited whatever tone the original teller passed down.  She wrote about my trip to Atlantic City, my cooking Christmas dinner for Michael's family, and she seemed delighted or at the very least neutral about all of it.  

I don't know if there are letters from the time my mother swore she would turn her parents against me.  I can't stand to find them.  I don't want to read anymore.  I was shaking from adrenaline as I read about myself, like I was being attacked to my face, but there is no one to even talk to about it now let alone fight.  My grandmother has been dead for eight years, and I'm just now seeing that she wrote what I perceive to be snarky things about me when I was in the darkest and hardest time of my life.  I don't like it.  I don't like being made fun of for "complaining" and "whining" and having emotions.  I was depressed, and my mother was mentally unstable and abusing drugs.  They complained about my emotions, and then they complained when I stopped exposing my emotions to their view, even though it was 2005 and I didn't cut ties with anyone for another three years.  I've tried to stop having emotions, and I can't.  The best I could do was shield myself from the people who mocked me for having them.  

I am finding it hard to be generous when I'm hurt and angry and no one in that family has ever apologized to me (or anyone else, as far as I know) for anything.  I'm afraid I will never stop being angry.  I wish my dad and my grandmother -- and, hell, my grandfather too -- were alive just so I could say mean, cold things to their faces.  I would be quiet and calm, and when they would get upset at my terrible words, I would scold them for being so emotional, so "moody," so sensitive.  (It's what I'd like to do to my mother too, but I hear she's kept heavily sedated these days. More on that later.)  

I try to be generous because I know they all were mostly miserable, but I still judge them because they made me miserable too, and I deserved better than what they dished out.  Everyone does.  Everyone deserves better, but they were the ones who were responsible for me and prevented me from having that.  I will try to be generous and believe they did the best they could with the tools they had not because I think they deserve my kind thoughts but because it's good practice for the generosity I do owe to my daughter.  It's another way I can be less like them.  It's really hard.

I'm afraid I will never stop being angry.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Time My Mother Played Santa at Walmart

The best part of reconnecting with Dante has been having access to new "crazy mom" stories.  Here is one Dante told me that apparently happened several years ago.

My mother put on a Santa hat, went into Walmart, and handed out hundred dollar bills to strangers until security forced her to leave.

Dante made it sound like she did this at more than one location.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

"Dad's Dead"

I got a call last week from my estranged brother who has literally never contacted me in our lives except at the behest of one of our parents.  Caller ID showed his name, so I let it go to voicemail.  Even if I hadn't seen his name, I won't answer calls from that area code unless I recognize them.  They could be from my mother.

Dante left a voicemail saying to call him back, nothing more.  I received a Facebook message from a random stranger immediately after the voicemail.  A Google image search showed that the profile photo had been all over the internet, and a search of the name yielded no hits, so I assumed it was Dante incognito.  I discovered I could read the message without "accepting" it or sending a read receipt, so I did.  It was Dante saying our dad was doing poorly and the phone number he had for me was defunct (this is the beauty of not having an outgoing voicemail message, Friends) and to call him back.  Dante is still living at home with our dad.

My best friend, Jerry, didn't think I should call him.  I knew the only reasons anyone from my family would be calling me would be either 1) because they wanted money, or 2) they wanted me to do something, and I didn't have any intention of giving them anything or going there, even if a parent was dead.  Still, I hoped for the narrow possibility that something would finally force to the surface the fact that I am not my dad's biological daughter.  Maybe Dante would be asking me to donate a kidney or bone marrow and I could say nonchalantly, "I'm not any more related to him than you are.  Didn't you know?"  Maybe Dad actually wanted to talk to me for the first time in years.

I called back on speaker phone so that I could record our exchange and listen to it later and get thoughts from Jerry as necessary.  That is why I have a recording on my phone of Dante choking back a sob and saying, "Dad's dead."

Dad had been in the hospital in Cleveland again when he died.  His wound had reopened, as it always has, and the VA hospital in Cincinnati had shipped him back to Cleveland to stay in their spinal cord injury unit, as they always did.  He had been in the ICU lately, which wasn't a first for him.  I've visited him in ICUs since the '90s.  Dante said he hadn't been able to get in touch with him lately, though I'm not sure how "lately" he meant.  Some of his updates, such as Dad's driver's license expiring, were things I remember happening four years ago.  He said he had tried calling Dad's cell phone but got no answer, which doesn't surprise me since he always avoided taking valuables with him to the hospital out of fear they would be stolen, even if they were his primary means of communication and entertainment and he didn't know how long he'd be there.  He said he'd finally gotten in touch with a doctor at the hospital and learned that Dad had gone into cardiac arrest, which was a first for him.  He was alive but couldn't communicate except for subtle head movements.  Dante said the doctor had called him on his own cell phone from the ICU and was asking Dad if he wanted "to be made comfortable," and Dad supposedly nodded.  He died later that day, right before I called Dante back.  He was a four hour drive from anyone he knew.

Dante and I talked for several hours over the next two days, mostly trading ridiculous stories of our parents.  Every time one of us tried to get off the phone, we'd feel compelled to share one more thing and stay on the line for another ten minutes.  He was doing it too.  It was good.  I've never connected with Dante that way.  Maybe he had changed.  Maybe I had imagined some of his scariness and inflated it over the years of estrangement.

I was also surprised at how little Dad and Dante had presumably talked since Dante had moved back home.  I'm not sure how long Dad had been in Cleveland when he died, but Dante didn't know we weren't in touch.  I told him that he had all my contact information but that, when he wouldn't ask me any questions about my family or my life and I stopped working to maintain the relationship, I stopped hearing from him at all.  It had been three years.  Dante had no idea.

He also had no idea what Dad wanted to happen when he died.  He'd apparently only had that conversation with me.  As I recall, it only happened because he wanted the go-ahead to cancel all his life insurance policies minus the one the VA paid for, and we were confirming it would be enough to cover the cost of cremation.  He didn't want a big service or burial, he said.  He just wanted his favorite jazz song playing on a boom box to send him off.   I can do that, I had said.

More to come.  So much has happened.