My Grandmother, on my mother’s side, lived with me for all of my childhood and to this day I do not know my grandfather’s name. While organizing some of the boxes I kept from my Dad’s place, I came across this photo of “Gram” on her wedding day. For the first time, it struck me that not only had I never met the man standing next to her but that I also did not even know his name or practically any detail about him, except that he was a drunk and a bully.
I don’t know all that much about my Gram, either, considering the amount of time I spent with her. I certainly never knew her as the graceful, carefree beauty in that photo.
Gram moved in with us, I believe, when I was a baby. I say believe because I have no memory of her arrival. In my reality, it was normal for grandmothers to live in the bedroom next door to yours because that is all I remember from as far back as I can remember. In fact, I took Gram’s presence so much for granted that even my husband was shocked when, after more than seventeen years together, I made an offhand comment about my childhood living situation. “I didn’t know she lived with you,” he said. I realized then that I had never told him because, to me, it seemed like something everyone should just know.
And because Gram had always been in the bedroom next door, it never occurred to me, as a child, to ask why she lived there, just as it never occurred to me to ask what happened to her husband, my grandfather.
One day, I think I was in my early teens, the phone rang, Dad answered, then he called for Gram. She came to the receiver, listened a while, made a few comments, and then hung up. Her husband, she informed us, without a trace of emotion, was dead.
That was the only time I remember Gram ever talking about him.
“Kristene! Are there boys down there?”
This was a favourite joke between my friends and me during our teen years. Gram, it was well known, did not like boys and she particularly did not like them in our rec room, with me. Unfortunately for Gram, I’d always counted a good number of boys among my close friends. I’m sure if it weren’t for her bent and arthritic body, she would have come downstairs with a broom to chase away any boys who dared come near me.Instead, she had to suffice with calling down from the top of the stairs.
The Gram I grew up with had a dowager’s hump, fingers bent at painful angles, and a shuffling gait. She chain smoked Number 7 cigarettes, watched TV in her room, cooked our dinners and washed our clothes. And, until I discovered that I liked boys as more than just people you ride bikes and climb trees with, I loved her like my best friend.
Mom and Dad both worked full time, my sister Kelly was at school or out with friends, and so Gram filled the role of babysitter, housekeeper and cook in our house. Her room was plain—a bed, a TV, two dressers, a couple of pictures on the wall—but to me it was a wonderland. Sometimes she would let me “sleep over” and we’d play cards and stay up late to watch Johnny Carson. When I was very small, she let me pretend her sturdy clothes hamper was a horse and I’d climb on top, grab the big brass handle on one side, and rock that hamper until I was galloping. On rare occasions, she’d get dressed up, put on lipstick and a nice coat, and we’d take a taxi to the mall. She loved to tell the story of the time she took me out for lunch, when I was six, and when the waitress asked me what I’d like to drink I’d said, “Apple juice, on the rocks.”
I knew she argued with Mom, and sometimes with Kelly (probably about boys), and that she was uncomfortable around my dad (and all men), for reasons I never understood, but to me Gram was perfect. I have this beautiful picture in my mind of the two of us, drinking tea at the kitchen table, and her listening patiently and intently as I told story after story after story.
I wish that was the only picture I had of her but as soon as hormones and boys became a part of my life the friendship ended and never really recovered. I didn’t know her aggressive nagging was fear. I didn’t know she was still my best friend, trying her damnedest, in her withered body, to protect the little girl she loved so dearly. I resented her interference as I stumbled my way to adulthood, and I was mean to her in the way that only teen girls can be.
Mom rarely talked about her childhood and my own childhood was so sheltered and safe that I never considered her life could have been any different.
My relationship with Mom was never quite as black and white as it was with Gram. From what I know now, Mom likely suffered from some form of depression and anxiety. There was a period of agoraphobia that I don’t remember, along with low self-esteem, body issues, and passive-aggressiveness. Mom had it all. She was the queen of the silent treatment and I eventually dubbed her the head travel agent for Guilt Trips International. Between her moods and Gram’s ridiculous level of policing, my teen years convinced me that my only hope for sanity was to get out of that house just as quickly as I could.
And I did.
One of my best childhood friends told me, when we were adults, that her brother predicted that my over-sheltered home life would turn me into a wild girl the moment I was free. He was right.
Our late teens and twenties are rarely a time for introspection and I was definitely no exception. I went full speed ahead, determined to do everything and go everywhere, rules and my own well-being be damned. If I’d stopped and examined my behaviour, if I’d taken the time to really talk with my mom and my Gram, I would have seen their history shining through in every bad decision I made.
When Mom was diagnosed with cancer, she started to take stock of her life for the first time. Sometimes, out of the blue, she would share pieces of her past with me.
She’d always openly hated my proclivity for “vintage” clothing. Having grown up poor, she explained, she wanted her kids to never be stuck in second-hand clothes, as she had been.
But she had not just grown up poor, she had grown up in fear. Her father was a drunk, a mean drunk. According to Mom, most of his sadism had been directed at Gram. One of the incidents she remembered was a time Gram had badly sprained her ankle. The doctor had ordered her to keep her foot elevated and so Gram sat in a chair with her foot on a stool. Her husband, drunk and angry, yanked the stool out from under her and sent the injured foot crashing to the floor. She remembered Gram wailing in pain and her dad laughing.
That was one incident out of what I’m sure were many that Mom tried hard to forget. But she did not forget the times Gram would grab her and her sister and run, to escape a drunken rage. Cold, terrifying nights spent huddled and hiding behind a dumpster. That was my mother’s childhood.
Last year, during the long hours I sat with Kelly in the leukemia ward, I asked her if she had ever met our grandfather or if she remembered anything about him. She said she remembered one night, Gram hiding in Mom and Dad’s house while our grandfather yelled and screamed outside the locked door, hurling threats and insults. Kelly remembered being scared to death that he would get inside.
My mom was a child when Gram divorced her husband. She was called into court at the age of thirteen and had to sit in front of a judge and her two parents and choose which parent she wanted to live with. Despite everything he had done, she was overwhelmed with guilt when forced to tell her father that she was going to live with her mother. There were other details about the divorce that I only vaguely recall, something my grandfather did to set up Gram and make sure that she never received a dime of financial support.
A beautiful young woman marries a handsome young man. Instead of living happily ever after, the young man turns out to be broken, a monster no doubt suffering from demons of his own. At his hands, his young wife becomes a cowering, fearful refugee and, later, a bitter old woman. His daughters grow up in fear, grow up in guilt, grow up with the knowledge that marriage is a dangerous business and men are not completely to be trusted.
And their daughters?
I can’t speak for my cousins but I know my sister and I—even with our safe suburban home and two parents that loved us—grew up under the lingering shadow of a grandfather we didn’t know. Our mother’s psychological damage affected us in ways we spent years—not always successfully—trying to undo. Even today I battle the instinct to mimic the bad behaviour I learned from my mother and grandmother—low self-esteem, passive aggressiveness, guilt. I’ve made mistakes because of those bad behaviours; some that hurt people I loved.
The actions of one man have rippled through three generations. A man whose name I do not even know helped shape some of the worst parts of me.
My Gram’s name was Dorothy Mason, nee Armstrong. She had a sister, Evelyn, who we all called Ness, and her ancestors came from the Isle of Skye, in Scotland.
Gram loved Mackintosh’s toffee and made delicious Scotch Broth. For a time, she worked in a factory in Vancouver for a peanut butter company. Kelly said at Christmas Gram would come home from the factory with a paper bag full of hot roasted cashews and the smell was heavenly.
She watched a lot of TV in her later years and became a huge fan of WWF wrestling. From my room, I could hear her squeal with excitement whenever her favourite wrestler, Jake the Snake, would take his famous python out of the bag to torment his foes. One week, when my parents were out of town, Gram and I ate pancakes every night for dinner and we never told anyone. After Gram had cataract surgery, she told me she was amazed to discover the world was not all yellow and we both laughed. Whenever I did something goofy, which was often since I was the family ham, Gram loved to say, “You’re nutty as a fruitcake!”
I do not know my grandfather’s name and I hope I never do. He and his demons are dead, the damage is done. Good riddance.
I wrote this Coconut Chronicle post because I want some recorded memory of my Gram’s suffering and her joy. I did not do well by her at the end, not nearly as well as she deserved. I don’t want to remember the times I found her weeping, lonely and frustrated at her isolation, playing endless hands of solitaire while the family around her ignored her. How many ways I could have brightened her days if I had not been so consumed with the tiny sphere of drama that was my young life.
I can only hope that I live every day in a way that honours the spirit of the beautiful young woman with the flower corsage, unbroken, happy, with her whole life ahead of her.
The past is written but may we all consider that our words and actions here and now can last for years and shape the lives of people generations down the road. People who do not even know our name.
I love you, Gram.