I wish I could remember what it was like to have Grandmother staying in our small house with us during this time. I can’t roam around inside of myself and find a single memory or a solitary clue. I was nearly six years old. It seems I should be able to remember something. A glimpse? The look of Grandmother’s face or the sound of her voice? The fights between those two women? Why nothing?
Was there anything besides competition? Did we children vie for attention from Grandmother? Certainly we could not have taken her presence among us for granted. Certainly nobody ignored anyone.
Did Grandmother surreptitiously try to manipulate our behavior so that Mildred would not notice our actions as they could have caused inevitable eruptions to happen in our mother? Did Grandmother often speak to us in hurried whispers when our mother wasn’t in the room or was barely watching?
“Quick now, Sharon. Come over here. Let me button the back of your dress and brush your pretty hair.”
“Linda. Leave your sister alone now. Come on, honey. Pick up those toys over there so Mommy won’t have to ask you to do it.”
“Johnny, be a gentleman and put the cereal box away.”
“Come, girls.” Patting the couch beside her what did she say? “Mommy has so much on her mind. Come sit here next to me and I’ll read you a little story.”
Did we even have a couch?
Was our life as we tried to live it anything more than a reactive cauldron of chances we had to upset our mother? Did we know how to be alive at 2, 4, nearly 6 and 7 without attracting attention to ourselves – accidentally? Did we attract attention – on purpose? Whose attention? For doing what?
Was Mother always on the verge of hysteria? Was Grandmother always trying to smooth everybody’s feathers? Come. Go. Sit. Stand. Where was there room for us in the midst of tension and drama and reconstructions from the past as these two women battled between one another to assert themselves continually over the other?
Was there ever a truly calm moment? A truly safe and happy one? In the eddies and currents of this river we were swept around in was there ever quiet? Ever normal? Did rocks, gravel, even boulders fall from the sky in the midst of us so we turned to flee – as if we could have – under the furniture for cover?
Certainly these two women would not have guarded their speech around us as words became daggers and clubs, hissing and spitting to a roar between them as we stood frozen in place not knowing if we could move in any direction without being seen.
Grandmother. With her pretense of sweetness. Mother. With her continual arousal. No Daddy to open a door and walk into any room bringing with him his quiet words that could settle these two squawking hens down.
No. The pecking order. Always pecking. Until SQUAWK! “I told you to leave your sisters alone!”
John. Looking sheepish. Looking down at his shoes. Standing straight as a soldier. Peeking up again when the last blast of wind had passed him by.
And I? Where did I stand in this cacophony of madness? Was I always watching to see where my Grandma was so I could judge whether or not it was safe for me to come or go? Where was 4-year-old Cindy, little legs stretching below the hem of her gathered skirt? Was she watching, too? Did we prance in the air when Grandmother walked in our door, a weight of worry off of our little shoulders onto Grandmother’s bigger ones?
Something. Always. On the move between these two women. Never a rest. Never any chance to simply be a family all cozy together because everything was simply OK. Nothing was ever OK. Nothing. Ever. Was OK.
Like water sloshing over the edge of a too-full pail. Whomever was too close to the top was thrown over with nowhere else to go. Mommy with her lipstick on, swishing her skirt. Moving like lightning sideways or forward. With her big hands, her big feet, her big voice. Why couldn’t she have taken all her noise and walked out the front door leaving us there with our Grandma to take a breath, sift through the times of our day and our night in something like a reasonable fashion?
But. No. It was Grandma who Mommy chased out the front door. Her legs all stiff like broomsticks. Her black shoes. Forward they went with Grandma in them, her head sharply pointing ahead because she had nowhere left to go.
This was Mommy’s house. Because she said so.
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