Friday my mother returned from her vacation in Cabo and came right to our house to pick up her little dog. She brought my aunt and my aunt’s three dogs (who piss and yap like you wouldn’t believe – the dogs, I mean), my grandfather, and my new Mercedes, a lemon-yellow beauty I cannot wait to get my claws on (she will have it until next Saturday, when she and the kids and I Amtrak to PDX to pick up her car, and bring it back). My mom also brought t-shirts for my children and a lovely embroidered dress for Sophie – I had one very similar at Sophie’s age from a family visit to Mexico.
We had potluck dinner at my mother’s last night. It’s a different kind of meal at my mom’s: usually some kind of meat as centerpiece, only one vegetable dish, and lots of booze.
My grandfather is a difficult figure for me. This is almost entirely due to resentments I carry about my mother’s side of the family, which I will try not to go on at length. Patriarchy, in a nutshell. My grandfather was worshiped my entire childhood (which means for a long time I adopted a similar attitude) and to an extent, still is. He is, believe it or not, seen as raising his brood of five although my grandmother was the one in the house changing diapers and dealing with it all while my grandfather was off at war and later, an hours-intensive job driving a Mobil truck. My grandmother (dead now for six years) is given little credit for being an influence, a maternal presence. She is seen as the bad one, the silly one, the poor housekeeper, the one that was harsh and often late to her children’s activities, the one who slept late and loved to be pampered.
My uncles may love my grandmother warts and all, or give her more credit for her life’s work; but I have heard little on the subject from them. Mostly, I see the way my aunts and my mother have carried forth the family mythology. My eldest and youngest aunt have devoted a great measure of time in caring for him in almost every way a person could hope to be. My own mother, when he visits, is distracted and completely devoted – to my view, trying to impress him, cater to him – and mostly supports or at least does not object to the irritating sexist crap that leaves his mouth. It’s thought that because we all know he loves us that these things are “harmless” or – and this always bugs me – unchangeable. You hear this about our elders – sure they’re a bit racist, or rude or a belligerent alcoholic, but that’s just how they are and they will never change, so don’t make a fuss. I loathe this concept.
A primary difficulty for me is I didn’t start seeing this unfairness towards my grandmother and unmediated adoration of my grandfather until after my grandmother was gone and, perhaps more importantly, I had spent some time in her role of mother and wife (I was, with my husband and new baby of four months, able to be there for my grandmother’s death, which I appreciate so much now). I can’t speak to my grandmother about her experiences, and I desperately wish I could now. I know I would have been able to pay more attention to her as a mother with children, than I did as a girl growing up. I loved her very much but did not take her seriously as a person – much like the impression my mother’s family leaves me with.
I don’t want to dislike my grandfather for a family legacy that bothers me. Yet I feel that instinct when he’s around. I do my best, which is to be loving (I made a pasta fazool last night and was pleased he had several helpings) but also be myself, meaning I speak up if I disagree. I walk that line of not wanting to upset a beloved elder (and I do love him), but also not wanting to give someone a blank check for bad behavior. My grandfather is A. old, very old, and B. on a tackle-box sized plethora of pills. He has an amazing brain and a forcible sense of right and wrong (which we all have benefitted from, and do respect deeply). But his mental acuity comes and goes: last night, he asked me what artichokes were. A minute later he remembered in detail an article he’d read – one that pertained to a book I was talking about.
My grandparents’ influences have likely benefitted me in larger ways than I sometimes acknowledge. On her second marriage, my mother married my father, a man who was very intelligent, had a strong sense of personal right and wrong, and respected my mother’s autonomy. To this day my father’s influence within me runs very strong, and I am grateful for both of my parents and who they are; which I must further credit to who raised them up and loved them.
The truth is I do love him, and I should not allow myself to dislike him. I have other living relatives I can talk to about the family mythology: and I do, especially my eldest aunt and my own mother. These conversations are interesting to me and bear much fruit; I hope for my family they experience the same.