As my mother stood in the vestry, just a few moments before walking down the aisle to marry my father, his mother appeared to share some advice. Had she not known her so well, mom might have assumed she was there to offer best wishes or some such nonsense, but Catherine is a practical sort and she was there to say this: “you should only do it once, you know.” By it, she meant IT. She stopped to tell my mother, in gown and full veil, that she had had sex once in her thirty year marriage – the product of which was my father – and that my mother should follow suit. As my mother stood amazed that these were the last words she’d hear before she travelled into married life, my grandmother, barrel-shaped and sausage-encased in a sleeveless brocade shift, spun in her baby doll-toed recently dyed jade green pumps – the wedding colors were mint and melon and this approximation, inexplicably, was the best she could do – and headed toward her pew.
That she offered such an edict should have come as no surprise to my mother, who was then in the fourth year of her relationship with my father. Over the course of the next several decades my mother would learn that my grandmother likely wasn’t speaking hyperbolically in that moment; for one, grandma had slept atop the bedclothes for the entirety of her matrimonial life. Even on the coldest Northern Illinois winter nights she slept uncovered in a sleeveless polyester nightgown while my grandfather slept next to her underneath a pile of quilts. Her daytime wardrobe echoed her incessant claim that she was always hot: homemade sleeveless polyester tops and matching elastic-waisted slacks were her permanent uniform. Make no mistake: my grandfather was repulsive, but I can’t understand why she married him – at sixteen, no less – in the first place. It wasn’t until he died of lung cancer in ’86 that we learned she’d been freezing her ass off for over forty years. Overnight she bought a nightgown and a dozen shirts all made of flannel and started sleeping under an electric blanket. Not once in the last thirty years have I even glimpsed her upper arms, which were a staple of my childhood.
A few years before she explained the birds and bees to her, mom had travelled with her future in-laws to Kentucky and Louisiana to visit my father, who had been conscripted thanks to Vietnam, and it had been a veritable freak show. My father, who displays a postmortem aloofness, hadn’t bothered to inform her about the trip that awaited: virtually no stops even for the bathroom; a cooler filled with nothing but Dr. Pepper and salami sandwiches on white bread with yellow mustard; my grandfather chain-smoking with the windows rolled up; sleeping in the car. To my mother this seemed like a ride in the most fiendish carnival on earth; for my father it summoned the nostalgia of childhood. His early life, as it turns out, was filled with vacations of this nature. My grandmother loved to travel, but she could not bear to stop unless absolutely necessary.
Each summer she would plot a path to the furthest point she could reach in the allotted days and make it back to work in time. Usually this was a full work week and two weekends; this permitted her 4 ½ days each direction if nothing went wrong. Her goal was to drive, drive, drive, then point out some landmark to my father and whoever else was along for the ride, and then turn homeward. In the first fifteen years of his life, my father visited over forty states and rarely set foot in any of them. He glimpsed Mount Rushmore; drove past Mount Vernon; crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. Worst of all, though, was Disneyland, a location that any kid wants to visit and explore. Not with my grandmother, though: she pulled into the parking lot in her ’55 Chevy Bel-Air and said “Look Donald, there’s Disneyland!” squealed her tires, and promptly got back on the road for Illinois. Her travel life, it seems, bore great resemblance to her sexual existence – the possibility was always there, but she categorically refused it.
This inability or unwillingness to engage – one could never be sure which it was – characterized her role as a mother and grandmother, though not in the ways one might suspect. She is not a shy or retiring woman – quite the opposite – she’s inexplicably aggressive and loud-mouthed, but also intimidated by just about everything. Manual labor was her sole delight for much of her life and she frequently boasted that nothing interfered with her work. She was fearless when it came to taking on the most daunting of tasks and if a job promised the possibility of proving fruitless after hours of backbreaking labor, she was even happier. She frequently proclaimed that she could “work harder than any man,” and my grandfather was happy to let her do so and he watched and directed, chain-smoking, from a lawn chair. She worked as a maid, a factory seamstress, and a pallet repairer, among other things. “She was the best stripper around. She made a fortune because she’d do anything,” my mother once remarked unironically at a Christmas dinner, referring to my grandmother’s fanatical campaign to destroy the original finish on countless antiques. Just imagining that woman, who looks shockingly similar to her 16-year-old self at 86 – and not because she’s aged well, mind you – taking it all off fills me with hysteria.
When she wasn’t working for wages, she occupied herself with endless insane household tasks, all the while gloating about how everyone else was “stupid and lazy” because they didn’t remove every particle of dryer lint with a straight pin or regularly wash down walls – even those sporting wallpaper – with hot soapy water. And yes, just in case you’re uncertain, this did serious damage to the walls. An avid gardener, she believed wholeheartedly in not allowing anything to bloom or produce fruit. Anything she planted – especially trees and shrubs – lasted only a year or two under her relentless pruning schedule that rendered her landscape into a nightmarish, postapocalyptic winter garden even in the heat of July.
She figuratively applied similar principles to mothering and grandmothering. Once when my father was four, while she was maniacally scrubbing the exterior windows of their house, my father crashed through a storm window. In the process he fell and completed a 340-degree turn, nearly slicing himself completely in half. When she discovered him bloody and shrieking, her only response was, “I ALREADY WASHED THAT ONE!” Miraculously, he survived this accident, but sports a surreal scar from the hundreds of stitches required to put him back together again. To this day when she tells the story, the storm window is the undoubted victim. On another occasion when a bully – one who had been harassing my father for months without intervention despite his please – finally broke his arm so badly that the bone protruded through the skin, she responded to his call to her at work to be taken to the hospital by saying that he had to wait until she got off a few hours later. He passed out in protest; she continued assembling bras.
By the time my brother, sister, and I came on the scene, she had acquired no additional maternal, or even human, skills. Her primary mode of demonstrating affiliation with us – though in gradations because she generally preferred to acknowledge only my brother as her legitimate grandchild – was through the food she prepared. She considered herself an accomplished cook and had sparred with my mother – who was actually an accomplished cook – over anything to do with food since my parents set up household. In her defense, my grandmother made outstanding potato salad. To her detriment, the only thing she could make was potato salad. Sadly, though, it wasn’t all she made. She processed her own pumpkins for pie but only made them about a half inch thick for fear of them bubbling over into the oven. They were “baby shit yellow,” according to my mother and they tasted like stringy sadness spiced with regret. Her hamburgers were like angry golf balls, probably because she boiled them in roughly three inches of the Crisco oil she bought in a gallon jug.
Her crowning culinary insult, though, was her legendary “salmon soup.” It wasn’t so much a soup as it was an affront to humanity; it consisted of a large stock pot half-filled with tap water to which she added about six cans of uncleaned salmon. The result included floating eyes and bones and always reminded me of what I imagined as a kid Love Canal looked like. These culinary cruelties were further compounded by the fact that we were forced to eat them in her house, which perpetually smelled violently of sewer gas, a problem no repairman could ever solve, and made it seem like we were eating crap directly out of an anus. When the meal concluded, she rapidly collected from the table whatever was left – regardless of volume – and dumped it directly into a garbage bag, which she would then carry, leaking, out to the garbage can. While that was clearly the right choice, it always seemed incongruous that the point of her boasting always ended up in its rightful home so quickly and of her own volition.
Beyond the food torture she liked to inflict on us as a reminder that she was our grandmother, she usually offered gifts for birthdays and Christmases. These events often felt like pageants of sorts, though not because of their regal grandeur. No, they were always a chance for her to remind the three of us which one she liked, which one she didn’t, and which one should have been born a girl. I was always the contestant lucky enough to place first in two categories – the only one of my kind – and it wasn’t the first category. In her oddly animalistic way, my grandmother was the first to inform me after isolating me from the pack that I “should have been born a girl,” and that I “wasn’t like everybody else.” The latter part was true; the former was just her folksy way of letting me know she didn’t approve of male femininity. I was six. My gifts included items like a fiberboard 49ers toy chest, Velcro tennis shoes from Kmart, Tuffskin jeans. All of these gifts made me furious – not because I wanted to be a girl – but because even as a kid I had style and there was nothing queer about any of that. If she’d had her way I would’ve been a boxy little garbage disposal who kept quiet and let my brother shine. I did not.
In an odd way, my grandmother taught me a lot. She always scolded me for reading too much saying, “I never read a book in my life – quit school at 13! – and I turned out fine!” I earned a PhD in English literature and gender studies. She never followed a recipe for anything – perhaps that was part of her anti-book agenda – and I’m pretty partial to making meals that don’t include floating bones or feces-resembling concoctions. I like to make children feel good, even if they’re strange or behave in ways I find baffling, and that includes allowing them out of the car to meet their dreams if I have the opportunity to do so. Oddly, the only time I ever have was while passing an early Mormon settlement in Ohio en route to a wedding, but that’s a different story. I teach others the value of expansive attitudes about sex and I don’t engage in work for work’s sake. Most importantly, though, I work to appreciate the fact that I came to exist at a time when I had options other than surviving in a terrible situation, existing in a role I couldn’t fulfill by living in the perfunctory.