Sunday, February 21, 2010

My Grandmother and the Titanic

Family lore has it that we're only here because of the Titanic.

According to my paternal grandmother her mother hated it in San Francisco. She and her husband had come over from France and she was miserable. After much moaning and complaining, my great-grandfather agreed to return to the old country after a period of five years.

And then the Titanic sank and my great-grandmother was so terrified she vowed never to set foot on a boat again and so the family stayed.

As I said, this is family lore. I also think it's apocryphal. I believe it's the one fanciful lie ever told by my staid and sober grandmother.

She was a tiny, rather bitter, decidedly un-grandmotherly grandmother with strict Catholic values and no sense of humor. She believed in two things: God and the San Francisco Giants. There was nothing cinnamon-scented or welcoming about her. We called her "Nan" and she was the kind of woman who would say the rosary aloud on long road trips up to Lake Tahoe because she firmly believed every trip would end in a fiery accident and she wanted to be prepared.

She was entirely miserly and cashed her Social Security checks every month, got cash, and kept the cash in a WWII ammo case under her bed. Each envelope was carefully totaled in pencil with a slip of paper rubber-banded around the whole thing with a running tab. At any one time she had several thousand dollars in that ammo case, and would give each of us five dollars for Christmas.

Nan smelled of Jean Nate perfume and old roses. She always had a kleenex up the sleeve of her sweater. She would sit in the kitchen, in the dark, and listen to Giants games on AM radio; swearing at the boys in French. She made huge, heavy, hideous quilts out of yo-yos of cloth and then never give them to anyone. She would go to church several times a week and nag us when we didn't go to confession regularly -- although we always had very little to confess. She told me I was going to hell but never told me why.

She had a knack of making you feel guilty for having fun. If we were outside, playing, making too much noise she'd knock loudly on the kitchen window and wag her finger at us. She would tell us to keep down the noise. And when my parents would go away and leave me with her she'd insist on watching The Lawrence Welk Show and would eat Salisbury Steak TV dinners.

If I'm making her sound unpleasant, it's because she was. I don't think she ever truly loved anything or anyone except for her only child, my father. When he died she wailed like a banshee for an hour and then stayed silent for about two weeks. And then, impossible as it may seem, she got even more bitter and cranky.

I tried to love her, because I was told you're supposed to love your grandmother. And she was the only grandparent I ever knew. But I could never connect with her. She held me at emotional arm's length for her whole life and never did anything to invite the work necessary to break through her wall. She seemed to be fonder of my brothers, perhaps because they reminded her of my father and I and my sisters did not. In retrospect I feel sorry for her, but at the time I just felt puzzled.

It's hard to feel affection for someone who never shows affection to you. I think I showed her respect, but never felt more than that. And on the odd times we would hug, I would feel a distinct coldness when I wrapped my arms around her thin, bony frame. As if I were hugging someone who was already dead.

Nan hated spending money, as I said. And in spite of the fact that she had a great deal of it, she dressed in cheap clothes with patches and holes. When she died, we had to go out and buy her a new dress because she hadn't anything decent to be buried in. That remains one of the saddest memories of my life. Not because the occasion was sad, because the situation was.

She lived with us when I was growing up. Eight of us in one house. Two parents. Five kids. One island. I don't know how my siblings felt about her or feel about her today because after she died, she sort of disappeared. She's a photo in an album, and an occasional quirky story about the one time in my life she made us crepes. And the one lie she made up about her mother and the Titanic.

1 comment:

Duke said...

Your grandma sounds like a peach. My dad's mother may have been even worse but my mom's was practically Mother Teresa. It was strange growing up with that situation.

People in your grandma's generation were real characters with strong personalities. I don't see it so much today. They are more homogeneous in attitude to the point of being nearly interchangeable. I think you could randomly change grandparents in a lottery and no one would notice.