My father’s parents lived in Shaker Heights on Van Aken Boulevard, a wide street with a grassy strip in the middle to accommodate the Rapid Transit tracks running down the middle. The cars were powered through a metal rod that scooted along electrical wires strung on poles along the tracks as they clickety-clicked along. Row after row of clean three-story brick apartment buildings with manicured lawns seemed to pass by as I sat in the backseat of the car. Set back from the street, they were fancy, but boring, almost all the same except that every ten buildings or so, the shutters at the windows would change from white…to green… to black…then repeat. So you wouldn’t get lost, maybe. Upper middle class Cleveland, Ohio. Alvin and the Chipmunks sang on the car radio in their helium-soaked voices:
♫ Christmas, Christmas time is near,
Time for toys and time for cheer.
We’ve been good, but we can’t last,
Hurry Christmas, Hurry fast.
Want a plane that loops the loop,
Me, I want a Hula-Hoop.
We can hardly stand the wait
Please Christmas don’t be late… ♫
I loved Alvin; he’d jump at any chance for fun or to satisfy his curiosity, the little devil. He could be naughty as he wanted, touch anything he wanted, and just had to put up with a scolding from Dave now and then. No biggie; Dave always let him sing with the group again in the end.
I’d asked Santa for an Alvin for Christmas, the little fuzzy guy with a baseball cap and gold A on his shirt; you could wind him up and he’d play the song with his little music box hidden inside. Wow.
Gram and Backee lived at ‘The Drake Apartments’, 19606, and we were heading there for Christmas. My great-grandma Nan would be there. I loved her. She’d send us little things all year that she‘d cut out of magazines or from the backs of cereal boxes, and tiny dresses she’d crocheted for our Ginny dolls. Last year she’d given me my very own can of ripe olives for Christmas; she knew how much I loved them. She had a halo of white, fluffy hair and wore wide-skirted silky dresses in dark colors, and chunky, lace-up medium heels on her feet.
My sister Linda had named my grandfather Backee (it was pronounced ‘Bah-key’), because she couldn’t say Grandpa at first, and the name stuck.
He was a tall man with silver-grey hair, parted on the side and combed into order with some kind of stuff that kept it in place. He looked just like the picture of his father in their hallway above the telephone. A stuffy-looking guy with an ugly black suit and white shirt with a Herbert Hoover collar and a watch fob; he kind of looked like he’d been carved out of wax. And he didn’t look all that nice, like the first thing out of his mouth might be A-hoom. . . .
Backee had worked in management at Republic Steel, and was a no-nonsense man who could wilt you with a look; he looked like he thought he was important, and maybe you weren’t, so much. He could smile, but it was an absent-minded sort of smile that didn’t last long. Maybe the Important Thoughts in his head crowded out the nice ones.
He had lots of cameras and lenses and light meters, and he took pictures when they traveled. He also grew loads of flowers in the rooftop garden space he rented. I never asked him how they got all that dirt up there, but I sure wonder all these years later. The only good times I remember that he and I ever spent together were in his garden. As he worked, he would tell me the names of flowers and I’d ask him questions, though I had to squeeze answers out of him in the same the way you had to press on a slightly dried up tube of toothpaste. He would sometimes pluck a snapdragon bloom for me to play with; a gentle squeeze to the part where its jaw would be, it sort of talked; wah-wah. I liked that. And sometimes it made Backee smile.
Gram was short and chubby, with watery grey eyes that held some unknowable far-away pain; a little pinch of muscles between her eyebrows made them into an upside-down V, like she was always thinking, as she sort of slumped over with her burdens and sighed, “oh… poor, poor me.” Sigh.
She had those bull-doggish deep crevices on either side of her nose that headed toward her mouth some old ladies get. Her skin smelled kind of musty and chalky: Old Lady Smell. I sure did hope I’d never smell like that!
My dad was their only child. He was smart and handsome and huge as a bear, six feet and four inches tall. Some kids were scared of him, just because he was so big. He’d graduated from college, gone to the Coast Guard Academy, and was in the service for awhile. He was company clerk, and didn’t even know how to type!
Our mom said Gram and Backee were always cruel to him, and that during the Depression, Gram and Backee owned seven cars, but my dad only had one pair of jeans with a hole in the knee to wear to school. That must have been awful, but they were mean to him in other ways, too, like they didn’t know how to love anybody. She told us lots of bad stories that made me cry. Isn’t there a rule that parents are supposed to love their children?
They didn’t really like me, either, and I didn’t know why. My mom thought maybe it was just because Linda was born first, and maybe there just wasn’t any room for me. Or something. They gave her lots more presents, and it didn’t feel right. My sister must have been embarrassed, because my mom said she had tried to give me one of her presents once, but over time she got used to it, and seemed to think she deserved more. They thought I wasn’t as smart as my sister, so Gram wouldn’t even teach me how to knit or anything like that. Other kids had grandparents who loved them; I knew that much.
Backee called my sister Princess, so once in a while he’d call me Kitten, (Eww.) right out of Father Knows Best.
I was sort of a tomboy, and always had skinned knees and bruises and dirt-stained feet from going barefoot so often in summer. Well, sure my dad had wanted a boy, but I liked baseball and fishing and everything. And anyway, when the summer families came back to our island, it was great to have more friends than snotty Peggy Dallen next door; her cranky father was some big-wig at Standard Oil. If I wanted to play with the boys, I had to be ready for rowdy boy-games and adventures. We were allowed to roam the entire Catawba Island on bikes, and we did. We’d make the rounds most days, and had favorite spots: this tree, that stone wall to walk atop, this long hill to ride up repeatedly, so that we coast down fast, our feet off the pedals, allowing them to spin as fast as they would.
We’d take graham cracker lunches into the woods and hunt for fossils, and make forts under huge fallen trees, their roots coated with earthy smells. We carried our marbles in purple velveteen Seagram’s bags, and played string-circle marbles with puries (the best) and cat’s eyes… for keeps.
Gram and Backee didn’t like my tomboy ways, but at least by then there was something concrete they could grouse about. They were always telling me to wash my feet, as if the dirt weren’t permanent; jeez. And to be a lady. And you had to wear gloves to church!
So there was all that tension with the Grands, but the larger problem lay beyond me: they really didn’t like my mother. Mom said they thought my dad had married beneath him, and blamed her for it. They really meant she wasn’t good enough for him.
My mom’s mother had been killed in an auto accident when my mother was twelve; she became the mother to her little brother and sister, and ran the house. It must have been hard, and it had made her pretty bossy, even for a mother. My cousins called her Auntie Alice, the Camp Director. One snap of her fingers got your attention fast.
When we finally got to Gram and Backee’s, we went into the little room we always slept in. Backee had left a copy of Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus on the dresser for us to read. Hmmm. Here was old Francis Pharcellus Church giving Virginia a load of happy crap. The way my parents and sister looked at each other whenever they mentioned Santa made me know he wasn’t real. (When we got back home, I looked him up in our encyclopedia: Santa Claus, an imaginary being…) But it was sort of hard to disappoint them all, so I pretended to believe again, just for this one last time.
Later I made a snowman (my sister didn’t want to help) outside in the courtyard of the apartments, and Backee gave me one of the corncob pipes we always gave him for Christmas to stick in its mouth. We knew he didn’t really smoke them, but it was sort of a tradition by now to give him one. His real ones were nicer.
It was hard to sleep that night with the noise from the Rapid Transit trains, and the light from the streetlights that leaked around the curtains. The time dragged.
But finally it was Christmas morning, and Santa had been there in the night, and he’d brought me an Alvin. And a Deluxe Pillsbury Baking Set with its own light-bulb stove. (I think it was a hint.)
A lot of sort of mean things were said that morning, mainly about gifts. Thank you for the pretty beads, Virginia. Beads? Beads? Those are the finest pearls money can buy…, like that. Poor Grandma Nan. She was so kind, and Gram was so mean to her; you could see it confused her. Was this her daughter? How did this happen? And Gram and Backee never liked the things my mom picked out for them, so their forced smiles said it a lot, and the fakey way they said ‘thanks said a lot’. My dad sort of tried to pretend he was there, but really wanted to flee to the teevee room. So it didn’t seem all that Christmasy, if you know what I mean.
Later, when the adults were in the kitchen getting dinner ready to serve, tension oozed out into the living room; maybe the tones of the raised voices alerted me. I peeked in, but I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Gram and my mom were drinking, the men, too, in the den, and probably more than was good for them. Old Fashioneds; you could tell by the colors, the orange sections, and the shape of the glasses. Finally dinner was served.
We all sat at the big mahogany table covered in white linen and trays of food and candlesticks and flowers.
Maybe someone said a blessing, or maybe someone poured some wine; I forget. Had Backee carved the turkey? I don’t know. Nor do I remember what or who started the cascade of events that followed. There must have been cross words, and louder voices, but suddenly my grandmother hit my mother in the face. My grandfather stood up; my father stood up, and everyone was yelling. Backee hit my dad. And it must have been when my one of them stood up, the movement lifted the edge of the dining room table up and tipped it over. Food and drink and china and silver and crystal crashed to the floor. Our German shepherd, Q squealed; she was trapped beneath, but finally wriggled out. Poor Nan was against the wall under the window, looking frail and frightened and unbelieving amidst the pandemonium, her mouth in the shape on an O. I panicked. I didn’t know what to do, but we clearly needed help.
So I ran to the telephone in the hall, and picked up the receiver to call the police. Television, I guess, was my only point of reference for violence: surely this fight met the standards of police help, didn’t it? But then I realized I didn’t know how to call the police; I called for my sister’s help, but she didn’t come; probably thought I was an idiot… My mother came, though. She put the phone receiver back in the cradle and held me, and said it would be okay. Okay. Soon it would be okay.
I remember nothing more about the aftermath, or the gathering of our belongings and getting ready to leave. Someone had rescued Grandma Nan, and she sat in her favorite needlepoint chair, looking so tiny and fragile and wounded.
When we got to the door, my father told us to go out and wait by the car; I wouldn’t go. I was terrified that the two of them might hurt my father again, and I wanted to help him, and begged him to come with us now, or let me stay. No, he wanted to stay to talk to his father. I finally let myself be sent to the street, carrying my little suitcase and new toys; I dumped my Pillsbury Bake Set all over the sidewalk, crying and shivering. How had this happened to my family? We weren’t like this. When at last my father emerged from the apartment door, I melted with relief. He looked so far away.
Backee was with him, and before my pop turned toward us: they shook hands. Shook hands? His face was waxen and he had tears on his face when he got to the car and saw us, he shook his body a little, and straightened up, attempting to move on, take charge…something. I don’t remember the ride home, or much discussion about the hideous events, though there must have been some, musn’t there?. Maybe my parents talked softly; probably I slept, Alvin clutched tightly against me… Me, I want a hula-hoop…
It was good to be going home.
We wouldn’t see them again for more than a year.
Not long afterward, we moved away from the island to North Royalton, a Cleveland suburb, and left no forwarding address for the Grands. (More like ‘Royal Hellhole’) Perhaps ‘making up’ was a useless proposition. A couple years later, on a Sunday, my sister and I were sitting in the sunroom watching television. On one wall was an enormous lithograph of the Grand Tetons; the Big Breasts, we’d giggle. The glass wall to the south looked out onto an overly-sunny concrete patio and a neighbor’s fence behind an expanse of dry grass; ye gods, it was ugly, and we never went out there.
I must have sensed movement, and looked out the window. Like a chimera, my grandfather shimmered out of the trembling air off the patio concrete and took shape. He stood still and looked right at me, not smiling, and once I began to believe he was real, I panicked, but let him in. It turned out that he had hired a private investigator to find us. I went and got my parents, who were napping in their room. Uh-oh.
Somehow relations were re-established, some form of detente; some accord must have been reached, but my parents never explained things fully to us. Whatever rules were made only operated on the surface; the underlying themes never changed, and they were a-holes until they died. Both of them outlived my parents, oddly enough; he of his third or fourth heart attack at 47, she of suicide at 49.
(cross-posted at caucus99percent.com)