Not Really Gone

By Blaire Sharpe

Biography & memoir

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554
26 mins

Prelude

Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own submerged inner resources. The trials we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths. Prudent people look beyond the incident itself and seek to form the habit of putting it to good use.
—Epictetus

In every family there is a rock—the person who is the glue that keeps things together, who is the engine that keeps the family running. In my family, that rock was my grandma.
The enormity of my grief over Grandma’s death has begun to gradually fade, and as it does, I fear that my memory of life with her will fade as well. I look around me and see nobody who shares my history. My father’s tragic death in 1976 drove a wedge into an already unstable family. We scattered like shards of glass in various directions, never to become a whole family again. It was Grandma’s love that made me whole. When she died, I lost my prime witness. And so I struggle to write all that I can remember, all that I can piece together, so that I may continue to loosen my grip on my grief without also losing my past.
This is a different kind of love story. It does not describe the romantic, “soul mate” love of most love stories, but a kind of love I have found to be truer and more lasting—love that breathes life into those it reaches, love that continues to bloom even after the death of the lover. This story is about the love my grandma gave to me, breathed into me, and taught me; love that inspired me to carry on.

Foreshadowing

And then suddenly, the hand of destiny changes everything.
—Paulo Coelho

They call it anticipatory grief—the grief you experience when you know a loss is coming. For years, my grandma’s demise hung over me like a black cloud. I played out the possible trajectories in my mind, imagining my response to each. It was clear to all concerned that Grandma was mine to take care of. I felt this responsibility in my core—not as a burden, but in a possessive sense, the way a mother takes ownership over the care of her children.
Grandma was born Eleanor Lavinia Daniels in 1914, near Kitchener, Ontario. By the time I entered Grandma’s life, she was in her late forties—the same age I was when she died. It is sometimes difficult for me to grasp that she had an entire life before me. What I experienced with Grandma in the forty-six years we were together seemed full enough to call whole, yet it was not. I was only a portion of her experience, yet she was the most significant part of mine.
I lost Grandma little by little. Once she hit her mideighties—having already lived longer than both her parents by several years—I witnessed a slow and steady deterioration of the woman who raised me. I noticed the physical impairments first. Though she was otherwise healthy, Grandma had always suffered from something similar to vertigo. She described her bouts of lightheadedness as feeling “woozy.” When doctors would ask her if she meant “dizzy,” she would protest. “It’s not dizziness! I don’t know how to describe it. I just feel woozy.”
When these spells came over her, they would last several days or even weeks. She made countless visits to specialists in an attempt to determine the source of the problem, but to no avail. During these spells, Grandma would suspend her usual, active life and sit at home. I appreciated the wisdom she displayed by not driving during these times. As the spells increased in frequency and intensity, she began to respond to social invitations with noncommittal statements like “We’ll have to wait and see how I feel.”
Grandma and I spoke almost every day. The timing of these calls morphed with the changes in my lifestyle and living arrangements. When I was single and working and attending school, I would phone Grandma from work or at lunch, whenever it was convenient for me. Wrapped up in my own world, I would sometimes miss calling for several days, resulting in an indignant message on my answering machine. I was annoyed by such attempts to make me feel guilty, though I was more deeply annoyed by the truth of my self-absorption. How long could I continue playing the toddler—the ping-pong of running away, defying, only to realize that I’d gotten too far from the security of loving arms?
Fortunately, the universe knocked the self-absorption right out of me by gifting me with children of my own. Once I was married with children and reliably sober, I was able to reciprocate by becoming a consistent, dependable presence in Grandma’s life. For years she was the first person I spoke to every morning. One of us would call the other “just to check in;” we would listen to all the mundane details of each other’s days. There was comfort for both of us in knowing someone else was keeping track. At some point before day’s end, we would check in again. And with each closing “I love you,” there was a deep note of importance in our voices, a vehemence that stressed how much each of us wanted the other to feel the magnitude of our love.
My home was a short fifteen-minute drive from Grandma’s house where I grew up, but it felt worlds apart. Our current home was in an upper-middle-class neighborhood that housed all varieties of physicians, attorneys, upper managers, and other type-A individuals. Though we had lived in this home for two years, we still weren’t utilizing all of its five bedrooms, three and a half baths, and three thousand square feet. Jacob and I had spent months looking for this home within the one square mile where he was willing to live. One evening our Realtor phoned and said, “I found your house.” We viewed the home the next day, a day before it was to go on the market officially. Stepping inside the foyer, a sense of certainty washed over Jacob and me: the home was perfect for us. Freshly painted off-white rooms and newly refinished hardwood floors created a bright, clean atmosphere. In the family room, windows spanned the length of three walls, overlooking a beautiful deck and a large backyard. Six months pregnant with Sasha, I had rubbed my expanding belly and envisioned the many hours we would share in the warmth of that family room. By the end of the day, we had negotiated terms for purchase of the home, which never officially went on the market.
One morning when my daughter, Sasha, was two years old and my son, Zeke, was about six months, we were having breakfast in the kitchen, the bright sunlight of morning shining through the abundant windows. Sasha was using her oatmeal as fingerpaint on the child-sized table in the kitchen. Zeke was in his high chair, and I was attempting to spoon-feed him, trying to keep the cereal and applesauce in his bubbling mouth. I instinctively reached for the phone and dialed Grandma’s number, tucking the receiver between my shoulder and neck so both hands could return to the task of landing food in Zeke’s mouth. Soon Grandma and I were exchanging good mornings and information about last night’s sleep (or the lack thereof, in my case).
Then I asked Grandma a question, and there was a long pause and finally a faint, incoherent response. My heart raced. “Grandma! Grandma! Are you okay?” On the other end was more incoherent mumbling.
“Grandma? I’m going to hang up the phone and call nine-one-one.” I was trying to sound calm for her sake, but I was not doing a good job of that in my panicked state. “It’s going to be okay! Just hang on!”
Trembling, I quickly dialed 911 and relayed what had happened. The composed woman on the phone asked, “Is there someone at the house that can open the door?” Remembering that the next-door neighbor had a key, I replied, “If the door isn’t open when you arrive, break in.”
It would take me twenty minutes to get to Grandma’s house. I phoned the neighbor, and fortunately he answered. From where he stood in his kitchen, he could peer directly into Grandma’s house, through her living room to where she was sitting slumped on the floor of the dining room with the phone dangling at her side. “I’ll go right over and call you,” he said as he hung up the phone.
Oh my God! Oh my God! I was shaking so much I could barely function. All the what-ifs raced through my mind. Is this it? I wondered. Did Grandma just die? Did she pass out? Do I leave or wait for the phone call? I gathered the items needed to leave the house with a toddler and an infant: diaper bag, extra clothes, water, snacks, books, toys. Sasha began to cry, no doubt in response to the anxiety emanating from me. Not now, Sasha! Not now! I willed the phone to ring. Please tell me she’s okay. Please tell me she’s okay. When it did, my caller ID indicated the call was coming from inside Grandma’s house. I steadied my trembling hands enough to hit the “talk” button and held the phone to my ear. “Is she okay?”
“She’s talking a little, but I don’t understand what she’s saying. The ambulance is just pulling up. I’m going to go let them in. I’ll call you back.”
Exhale. And there it was: the first glimpse of the end, the first moment I considered Grandma’s death as a real possibility. Not yet. I’m not ready. Grandma was my anchor. She loved and believed in me in ways I could not do for myself. I could not foresee a world without her in it.
After Grandma endured several painstaking hours of pokes and prods by the hospital staff, they told me that she had suffered a minor stroke, adding that it was fortunate that I’d called her at the exact moment I did. A few days later, Grandma was transferred from the hospital to the Willow Lane Nursing Center for further recuperation. Willow Lane was just two miles from my home, and I visited her daily. It was during one of those visits that Grandma and I had our first serious talk about whether she should remain in her house alone. She insisted that she wanted to continue living there, as she had since the house was built in 1940. She’d raised two families there, and offered shelter to several more. She was not ready to leave. I understood, but I was also concerned about her safety, so I suggested a compromise. She agreed to wear a Lifeline bracelet with a button that she could press to alert EMS should she fall or feel ill. We also agreed to hide a house key somewhere outside so we didn’t need to rely on her neighbor to open the door for EMS. When Grandma left Willow Lane after two weeks of physical and occupational therapy, I was breathing a little easier.

Beginning

Beginnings are always messy.
—John Galsworth

Growing up in an alcoholic family is like being raised in a war zone. Life is, at best, unpredictable. Threats lurk; traps are set; people explode; survival becomes the goal. It is difficult to pinpoint the origin of the trouble because it has been present, simmering quietly, for generations. Then an event occurs that ignites full-blown chaos.
My father’s childhood looked, from the outside, idyllic. He was smart, athletic, and popular. His sister, Judy, was three years younger and equally attractive and talented. Grandma and Grandpa were admired and envied for producing two such wonderful children.
Dad was the quarterback and captain of the football team at Oakdale High School. During his senior year, he was watched carefully by many college scouts and considered a leading contender for a scholarship to Michigan State University. Toward the end of the season, while playing a game in the pouring rain, the center hiked the football. Dad caught it, backed up, and scanned the field for an open receiver. The rain obscured his vision just enough to make a successful pass unlikely, so he opted to carry the ball down the field himself. As he turned his body to the left in preparation for moving toward the sideline, his right foot stayed firmly planted in the mud, ripping the tendons and ligaments in his knee. He fell to the ground in pain.
Dad didn’t get the scholarship, and his dreams were shattered. He attended Michigan State anyway, hoping to join the football team as a walk-on. Though he was considered smart and especially good at math, the transcript from his two years at MSU told a different story. It showed no As and some Bs, but mostly it was littered with Cs, Ds, and numerous Fs. Dad left MSU after six semesters, with eighty-one earned credits and a grade point average of 1.78. He went to work as a draftsman in a local manufacturing plant.
Dad showed signs of a drinking problem early. During the summer of 1958, when he was twenty-two years old, he and his buddies spent a few weeks on the west side of Michigan, fishing and drinking. At some point during the summer, Dad returned home with my mother, announcing that they were going to get married. My grandparents were blindsided but offered their support nonetheless. Mom’s history was, and continues to be, vague. At twenty-one years of age, she had already been married and divorced. She had given birth to a baby boy who died before reaching one month, never having come home from the hospital.
There was a small civil ceremony. Neither Mom’s parents, who were divorced, nor her two brothers were present. The following February, my sister, Darlene, was born. My parents bought a small bi-level home in Utica, Michigan. A small town on the edge of farmland in Macomb County, Utica was struggling to find its footing as an urban, rather than rural, area. The Cold War brought purpose to the region, as Chrysler’s Packard Proving Grounds was used for tank testing, and the Utica Nike Site was established to shoot down enemy aircraft in the event that the United States went to war with the Soviet Union. These projects attracted jobs and people and spurred on new residential construction.
When Darlene was sixteen months old, my brother, Rusty, was born. He was named Gerald, after my father, but had acquired the nickname ‘Rusty’ long before I had any idea that it was not his given name. Mom worked nights as a bartender. She and Dad often handed off kids through a babysitter rather than to each other. With their differing schedules, the marriage became more and more estranged. Dad was drinking heavily, Mom was returning home long after her shifts were over, and they blamed each other for their misbehavior. Even so, Mom became pregnant once again, and I was born sixteen months after my brother. By that time, the marriage was virtually over. Mom filed for divorce, and a legal battle ensued during which time Darlene, Rusty, and I spent half the week with Dad at our paternal grandparents’ and the other half with our mother in Utica.
Throughout the divorce process, Dad and Mom accused each other of being poor parents. Dad was rebuked for his alcohol abuse; Mom was chided for her relationship with a mysterious man identified as “X” in the divorce documents. In the end, the court determined that they were both unfit parents and awarded legal custody of their three children to the Oakland County Court. Physical custody was granted to my father with the stipulation that we reside in his parents’ home and that Grandma would commit to being home full-time to care for us.
Grandma had just hit her stride as an empty nester and was working as a receptionist in the beauty salon at a department store in downtown Oakdale. Her friends told her she was crazy to consider quitting her job to take on the task of mothering three small children. Grandma could not imagine choosing otherwise. Without looking back, she welcomed us into her home, raising us as though we were not her grandchildren, but offspring from her own womb.
Grandma and Grandpa lived in a red brick bungalow in Oakdale. The 1,100-square-foot home was built in 1940, when they paid four thousand dollars to purchase it. Over the years they kept the house meticulously maintained, inside and out. Darlene and I shared the bedroom across the hall from my grandparents. Dad and Rusty slept upstairs, which was a large room with a smaller attached room designed to serve as an office or library. The smaller room became Rusty’s bedroom. The house had one bathroom, which never seemed to be an issue until the teenage years hit.
Life was cozy in the small bungalow. Grandpa and Dad left for work every morning, and Dad hired help for Grandma a few days a week—an African American woman named Pearl. Pearl was the spitting image of Aunt Jemima. She helped clean, cook, and care for us as Grandma went grocery shopping or ran errands. I didn’t understand that Pearl was hired help; I thought that she and Grandma were friends. I loved Pearl. She had these strong, cushy hugs as she squeezed me into her ample bosom. She also made the world’s best homemade biscuits—they were famous among my young friends—that left our house smelling like a bakery. I didn’t understand why, when visitors came to our home or if she was over for special occasions, Pearl would fade into the background. I would tug at her arm to join the fun, and she would shake her head no and tell me, “It’s not my place.”
My early years were full of the things that make childhood fun: preschool, pony rides, trips to the zoo and the farm, swimming pools, and birthday parties. There were plenty of kids on our street, making softball, kickball, and games of capture the flag regular events. We attended church every Sunday morning and participated in all sorts of social functions there; neither Dad nor Grandpa ever went with us. Grandma found solace in religion. She regularly attended the Episcopal church in downtown Oakdale before our arrival. Dad, however, wanted his children to attend the Congregational church that our neighbors, the Carltons, attended. Dad chose Mr. and Mrs. Carlton, his best friend’s parents, to be our godparents. And so Grandma left the church she had grown to love and feel at home within and joined the Congregational church in Oakdale, where she remained committed and active the rest of her life. I have warm memories of Saturday evenings when Grandma would give me a bath, wash my hair, and wrap me in nice, warm flannel pajamas that she had just taken out of the dryer. Then she’d roll my hair in spongy pink curlers that I would wear to bed; my curls would be brushed out the next morning as I dressed for church. Every Easter I got a pretty new dress and white patent leather shoes (which I, without fail, managed to scuff up, leaving brown streaks along the sides before church was over). On Christmas Eve we dressed in red and green and attended the candlelight service. As we grew older, Grandma joined the church choir, her beautiful voice recognizable from among the crowd of choral members.
On Sunday afternoons we saw Mom, per her court-ordered visitation rights. My predominant memory of those Sundays was that she was always late—a half-hour, an hour, sometimes even longer. Occasionally she wouldn’t show up at all. Grandma would have us dressed in clean clothes and waiting in the living room while our friends ran around outside, a place that was temporarily off-limits to us. We often spent those afternoons with Mom driving through nice neighborhoods and walking through Realtor open houses, looking at homes she would never live in. A frequent stop was the mall, where Mom would shop for herself and leave us bored and frustrated. Sometimes she would give us a few dollars and send us off in the direction of the toy store. On the way back to her apartment, we would pick up Taco Bell or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Then she would sit us in front of the TV while she tended to other things until it was time to take us home, late as usual. Never did my mother truly interact with us during these visits.
Dad dated a woman named Denise for several years. Denise had two children, and we often played together. One Saturday, Dad and Denise took all five kids and drove to Harsens Island, a sparsely populated island in Lake St. Clair, reached via a short ferry ride. There was a two-lane road around the perimeter of the island, and Dad drove very fast, bouncing us all up and down on the bumpy road. It was like a roller coaster ride. Everyone was giggling and laughing except me—I was frightened. It was April Fool’s Day, and Denise had schemed to put pepper in a piece of Dentyne gum to give to Dad. We arrived home to a dinner Grandma had prepared for us. As we sat down to eat, I overheard Grandma in the kitchen scolding Dad about “driving with the kids in that condition.” After dinner, Denise offered everyone a piece of Dentyne. There were smirks around the table as Dad bit into his piece and a horrible look came across his face. Everyone laughed except for me—and Dad. He was likely still brooding over Grandma having called him out about drinking and driving, but I thought he was angry about the gum. My heart ached for him. At five years old, I already knew I didn’t like practical jokes.
Dad hoped to marry Denise, and he was getting ready to pop the question when she unexpectedly broke up with him. Unbeknownst to Dad, Denise had been seeing another man, a neighbor and a high school friend of his, and she had decided to marry him. For the second time, Dad’s dream of the happily-ever-after family was crushed. He went into a tailspin and began drinking more frequently and heavily. He would come home drunk in the wee hours of the night and wake Darlene, Rusty, and me to make homemade pizza. Darlene and Rusty thought it was great fun; they would eat pizza and sleep in Dad’s bed. I developed “tummy aches” and begged out of the festivities. I didn’t understand drunkenness at the time, but I did understand that there was something strange about Dad that left me feeling distressed and unsafe. One evening, Dad was smoking in bed with Rusty asleep next to him when he nodded off, dropping his cigarette and setting the mattress on fire. He stumbled to the top of the stairs and yelled down, “Ma! The mattress is on fire!” Grandma came running up the stairs, jug of water in hand, to find Rusty huddled up against the wall, asleep. In his drunkenness, Dad had not noticed or remembered that Rusty was there.
Dad began coming and going, leaving for days or even weeks at a time. In July 1967, he was admitted to Oakdale General Hospital for a “mental breakdown.” Hospital records indicate that he had a depressive reaction and chronic alcoholism. He spent four days in the hospital drying out and then was prescribed Antabuse and discharged. There would be four such admissions over the period of one year. Each time the doctors would stabilize him, explain the consequences of continued excessive alcohol consumption, and send him on his way. But pressure from both the family and his employer only seemed to exacerbate his drinking. Eventually he lost his job and stopped contributing to our financial support. My grandparents had been using their savings—money they had earmarked for traveling during retirement—to support us. When they reached the end of their savings, Grandma turned to welfare. She applied for Aid to Dependent Children and was told that she would need to evict my father from her home in order to receive monies. Lacking options, she evicted her son.
Grandma and Grandpa did everything they could to provide us a stable, nurturing environment. To do so, Grandpa worked a sixty-hour week at a small tool and die shop not far from our home.
Grandpa was born in 1911, the eldest of five children. He was in his fifties during my first decade of life. He had black hair that always looked shiny from the Brylcreem he combed through it each morning, and his skin was tan from the sun. He loved to work in the yard, resting off and on in an aluminum chair with woven straps for the seat and back. He would place the chair in the middle of the sunniest part of the patio, close his eyes, and let the sun bake him in warmth. The heat never seemed to bother him. I would observe the content look on his face and wonder if he was imagining himself on a tropical island beach, waves rolling rhythmically in and out.
Grandpa smelled of smoke, aftershave, and whiskey. There was usually a cigarette propped in one corner of his mouth, and his eyes would squint as the trail of smoke off the lit end floated upward, daring to blur his vision. He smoked unfiltered Camels until he was in his sixties and his health deteriorated. When doctors told him to quit smoking, he switched to a pipe. Then his scent shifted to that of the cherry-flavored tobacco he stuffed into the pipe. In his shirt pocket he carried a silver lighter with a flip-open top that he maneuvered one-handed, like a magician. The lighter was engraved with his initials, EPP: Edward Phillip Phillips. I never understood why his parents did that—gave him a middle name virtually identical to his last name. I concluded that they lacked imagination.
Every morning, Grandpa would open the mirrored medicine cabinet and take out a white mug with the Old Spice name and familiar blue ship printed on the side. In the mug was a shaving cream cake and a brush with soft, brown bristles. Grandpa would run the brush under the water and then place it inside the cup, swishing it around to create scented foam. He then brushed the foam along his face from the left temple down to the chin, from the right temple down, and across the mustache line, and then fill in the cheeks. Then he would lift his chin toward the ceiling and spread the foam across his neck, returning to the cup for more foam as needed. Rinsing off the brush, he would place it on the edge of the sink and pick up a straight razor, proceeding to stretch and distort his face in various directions as he harvested the prior day’s growth of whiskers. When finished, he would rinse off the straight razor and return it to its designated spot in the medicine cabinet. Leaning over the sink, he would splash water on his face and neck, reaching without looking for the towel hanging on the bar next to the sink, and wipe his face. Finally, he would reach for the top shelf above the toilet, where various pretty perfume bottles were on display, and locate the familiar white, narrow-necked bottle of Old Spice aftershave. He would turn the bottle upright and shake it several times, letting the aftershave splash into his left hand. Setting down the bottle, he would share the aftershave with his right hand, and then slap both hands on his cheeks and neck. I was mesmerized watching this ritual, which I did as often as possible. There was something so manly about it, and when I watched, I felt grounded.
Evenings with Grandpa brought an entirely different feeling. After a ten-hour day standing on his feet working a machine that cut specialized bevel gears, he would return home tired, cranky, and feeling the pain of his arthritic hip. He would enter the house through the back door, never the front, in order to go directly to the basement. This was his haven. There was a living room of sorts, with a recliner, a salmon-colored vinyl couch, and a few other scattered tables and chairs. Ten feet from where his legs would rest when the recliner was in its fully recumbent position was a black-and-white television set. Off to the left of this seating area was Grandpa’s pride and joy—the bar. And it wasn’t just any bar; it was a section from the old Book Cadillac Hotel in downtown Detroit. Grandpa had covered the front of the bar with burgundy leather, carefully placing silver studs in the center to form a large cursive P. After descending the stairs at the end of his workday, he would go immediately to the bar, pushing through its swinging half-door as though he were a real bartender. He would place a tall beverage glass on the black shiny countertop, pour it full of whiskey, and drink the first glass as though it were water, quenching his deep thirst. Then he would refill the glass, walk out from behind the bar, turn on the television to channel fifty to watch the news, and settle into his recliner.
Grandpa would stay on his throne for about an hour and a half, and then he would stagger up the stairs and sit at the head of the dinner table to eat. By this time, Darlene, Rusty, and I had long finished eating, as had Grandma, but she would sit at the table with him—quiet, icy, teeth clenched and nostrils flared—while he ate, all the while grumbling and complaining about work. At best she was tolerating him, though I sensed her feelings toward him were much darker. During his belligerent monologues, we kids were usually nearby in the living room, watching TV or reading. I tried earnestly to block his voice from my thoughts, but it managed to seep into my psyche anyway. Once Grandpa finished dinner, he would move to his chair in the living room. (I call it “his chair” because if he was home, nobody else sat in it.) There he would light a cigarette and complain to and at us. We sat quietly and took it. We knew it would only be a short time before he went to bed—asleep by 7:30 p.m. so he could wake up at 5:00 a.m. and start the routine all over again.
When I was old enough to understand or at least ask the questions, Grandma explained their marriage. Grandma’s parents had tried to discourage their relationship after observing Grandpa’s chronic alcohol consumption. Against the wishes of her parents, and with a hint of deliberate rebellion, Grandma married him when she was just nineteen years old. On a 104-degree-day in June 1934, Grandma placed her lithe frame in a beautiful, white-lace dress, and surrounded by a small group of family and friends, she married the only man she would ever know intimately. She knew then that Grandpa was a drinker, but at nineteen she could not foresee what that fact meant for her future.
Grandma possessed a natural beauty. At every age she looked ten years younger than she was, and she moved with grace and purpose. Grandma was trim in a motherly-curvy way, without any deliberate effort, her constant motion being enough exercise. It wasn’t until later in life that her body rounded out and her belly gave way to the lost elasticity of childbirth. Her wavy brown hair briefly turned gray and then, in her sixties, a shimmery silver.
Grandma relied on church and Al-Anon to soothe the pain and isolation caused by living with an alcoholic husband. There were many fights over the years. “Don’t ever ask me to choose between you and booze,” my grandfather would warn her, “because I’ll choose booze.” And he did, on a daily basis, exacerbating the divide between them. When Grandma was in her early fifties, she was diagnosed with vulvar cancer and underwent a complete vulvectomy. Despite their extinct sex life, they continued to share the same bed until Grandpa’s death.
When I think about my grandfather, the words hardworking and loyal come to mind. Yes, his greatest loyalty was to alcohol, which some might consider an act of selfishness; but beyond that, his entire existence was about everybody else. He may have grumbled about work, but he didn’t grumble that he worked. He never once made me feel obligated for the many sacrifices he made to raise me.
During the last year of Grandpa’s life, his health deteriorated to the point that he could not work. Suffering from emphysema, he was under doctor’s orders to avoid alcohol, coffee, smoking, and sodium. Grandma dutifully prepared sodium-free meals and was pleasantly quiet while Grandpa grumbled about the pointlessness of living without his favorite vices. Grandma softened in her feelings toward Grandpa, and she later told me that, in the end, she realized she had loved him all along.
Grandma did all the things a mother of her generation would do, and she did so without a hint of grumbling. There were always clean clothes, meals on the table, lunches packed, choir practices, Sunday school sessions, ballet classes, Brownies, Cub Scouts, birthday parties complete with homemade cakes, Halloween costumes, doctor and dentist appointments, Band-Aids, and kisses. It was clear to me at a young age that my feelings about the words mother, father, grandma, and grandpa were different than those of most people. At times a classmate would say to me, “You live with your grandma? Does she bake cookies for you all the time?” because this was their notion of what a grandma did.
Nearly every weekend we saw Grandma’s parents, usually at our house. Great-Grandma Ruby and Great-Grandpa Everett would drive from their home in Detroit to our home for Sunday dinner, which usually consisted of roast beef, potatoes, salad, a green vegetable, and yorkshire pudding. We would dribble Lyle’s Golden Syrup over the warm, fluffy yorkshire pudding—what a treat!
Holidays during my elementary and junior high school years were festive. We rotated Thanksgiving and Christmas between our house and Grandpa’s sister’s house. Aunt Judy would fly in from New Jersey with my two cousins, and Grandma’s sister, Mildred, and her husband would fly in from Florida. The dining room became the serving area, and folding tables were set up in the basement, where we all ate. Dad became a rare guest at these holiday celebrations.
Intermittently, a representative from the County Friend of the Court would visit the house to check on how we were doing. Though she had no reason to be, Grandma was clearly anxious about these visits, but they always turned out the same: the representative would leave, and we would remain with Grandma. When I was nine or ten years old, my mother attempted to gain custody of the three of us. There was what seemed like a long legal battle, the culmination of which was that Darlene, Rusty, and I each met individually with the judge. I was terrified that the judge would take me away from Grandma; I had no desire to live with Mom, and I told the judge so. When he asked me why, I said, “Because she smokes.”
In the end, my grandparents were awarded custody of Rusty and me, while my sister was given to my mother. In truth, Darlene bounced back and forth to whoever suited her rebellious lifestyle. She spent most of her time with Mom, who imposed minimal constraints on her; however their equally volatile temperaments would eventually explode, causing Darlene to run back to Grandma’s ever-welcoming arms. Soon afterward, Darlene would snub Grandma’s love and generosity, citing hurtful untruths, and flee back to Mom.
The second outcome of the custody battle was the dictate that Rusty and I spend four weeks each year with Mom, who was living with husband number four in Paris, Kentucky. I thought I would die. When the custody hearing adjourned, Mom told Grandma she wanted to take Rusty and me to lunch. Grandma reluctantly agreed, asked when she would bring us home, and left us with her. As soon as we were alone, Mom turned to me, got right in my face, and in a threatening tone said, “What did you say to that judge?” When I tried to move away from her, she grabbed my upper arm and squeezed so tightly that it hurt. I wouldn’t answer.
The day we left Michigan to fly to Kentucky, I was hysterical. I sobbed and begged Grandma not to make me go, but she had no choice. Mom’s then-husband, Norm, owned a very small airport in an equally small town. They lived onsite. My sister’s bed was in the radio room, and I shared her room during our visit. My brother was in an even smaller room adjacent to ours, with Norm’s son, Brent. We spent our days watching the small planes come and go, driving tractors up and down the runway, helping ourselves to bottles of Sprite and Dr. Pepper from the lobby vending machine, and occasionally going into town to shop and eat corndogs.
Mom didn’t interact with me often except for almost daily interrogations and accusations about the outcome of the custody battle. She would scream at me, telling me that Grandma was a bitch and didn’t really love me. She claimed Grandma used me as a means of hurting her, as if my love was all a big contest between the two of them. I knew this wasn’t true. How could it be? Grandma was the only sure thing in my life. She was the only person I trusted. She represented everything I knew love to be. Why was Mom trying to take this away from me?
During one such confrontation, Mom was gripping my upper arm so tightly that I finally shouted, “Stop it! You’re hurting me! Stop!”
Darlene, who had been sitting in the room ignoring Mom’s abusiveness, jumped in uncharacteristically and shouted, “Can’t you see you’re hurting her?”
Mom turned to Darlene, relaxing her grip just enough for me to break loose. I ran out of the room, through a swinging door, and down a long hallway to my brother’s room. Hearing the scuffle, Rusty emerged from his room just in time to see my mother on my heels, yelling, “How dare you run away from me!”
She grabbed the back of my shirt and yanked, sending me sideways into the wall. I wailed, more from shock than from pain.
Rusty became enraged, and with me off to the side, he was now face-to-face with Mom. “Don’t you ever hurt my sister!” he commanded. He placed both hands on her shoulders and shoved her, knocking her to the ground.
Mom was shocked and embarrassed. She pulled herself to standing and retreated to her room, shrieking, “I’ll show you! You don’t want me? I’ll just kill myself!”
My mood instinctively shifted from anger and fear to a desire to protect her. I ran down the hall after her, pausing long enough to avoid being hit by the doors swinging back and forth from the force of Mom’s push. When I stepped through the doors, I scanned the room and saw Mom standing with her back to me, shuffling through her dresser drawer. I had almost reached her when she turned around. I stopped in my tracks at the sight of a gun pointed at me. “Get out of here or I’ll kill you too!”
I ran as fast as I could out the doors, yelling for Norm. A minute or two passed between when I left the room to retrieve Norm and when he disappeared beyond the swinging doors to where Mom was. My mother had plenty of time to pull the trigger had she really wanted to. She didn’t. I don’t even know if the gun was actually loaded or if this was yet another dramatic effort on her part to place the responsibility for her life in my hands.
We still had another two weeks before our sentence with Mom was served. She stopped the daily brainwashing sessions, however, and she actually seemed sedate, even vacant at times. One day at breakfast, Mom told me that a plane would be landing in a few hours. “Why don’t you go greet it?” she suggested.
There was little to do at the airport on a daily basis. I found it very lonely; my days missing Grandma and wishing I were home dragged by slowly. So I welcomed the excitement of watching the planes coming and going, and talking to the people who stopped inside for coffee while their planes refueled. Acting on Mom’s suggestion, I sat near the radio, waiting to hear the expected plane request landing clearance. When I heard the pilot’s voice, I went outside to watch for it. I noticed a man in a suit standing next to a shiny black station wagon. On the side of the car was printed the name of a funeral home. The man and I were apparently waiting for the same flight, which, as it turns out, was not a plane but a helicopter—a military helicopter painted camouflage green. The helicopter blades kicked up a wind so strong it practically blew me over. I waited as the blades steadily slowed but never fully stopped. When the man in the suit approached the helicopter, I followed him, ducking for fear of losing my head, although the blades were clearly too high to touch me. The man looked at me curiously, and I explained that I was living at the airport and my mother had sent me out to help.
As we reached the helicopter, the pilot opened the door and handed the man a folded American flag. The man turned to me and asked if I wanted to hold it, warning me, “Be careful not to drop it!” He exchanged some paperwork with the pilot and then went to his car and retrieved a heavy metal stretcher. Together the men transferred a body from the helicopter onto the stretcher and then removed the body from the military body bag, zipping it into a different bag brought by the man from the funeral home. In the process, the sheet in which the body was wrapped caught the blowing wind and flipped up just far enough for me to view a man’s naked thigh and buttocks and part of his torso. The skin was pale and yellowish, and there were several wounds that I presumed to be from bullets or maybe shrapnel. I gasped but stood still, now comprehending the importance of the flag in my hands. I wanted to run but felt frozen in place. Once the second body bag was zipped shut, the man took the flag from my outstretched arms and placed it on top of the stretcher, thanking me for my help. I ran, breathless, back to the house, where my mother sat staring at the television. I did not have an understanding or much knowledge of the Vietnam War at that time. What I did understand, though, was that my mother knew what was on that helicopter and had sent me out there anyway.
Later that week, Darlene confided to me that she planned to run away. “Don’t do it!” I pleaded, more for my sake than for hers. I had felt abandoned by Darlene before, when she left Grandma’s to live with Mom, and I didn’t want her to do that to me again. But she was determined. That night, as I made my last-ditch plea for her to stay, Darlene slipped out the window of the radio room.
The next morning, Mom noticed Darlene’s absence and demanded that I tell her what I knew. As she was screaming, Darlene walked in, having changed her mind or perhaps discovered that she had nowhere else to go. Grabbing Darlene by the hair, Mom yanked her into the outer room. When I heard Darlene screaming, I went to check on her. Mom was whipping her with a leather belt—the buckle end. I screamed at Mom to stop, and she turned to me, yelling, “You get out of here or I’ll do the same thing to you!”
Darlene yelled for me to leave, and feeling helpless, I retreated from the room. Hours later, sitting with Darlene in the radio room, I commented on the buckle-shaped welts on her body. She shrugged and said, “It wasn’t that bad.”
When the day finally arrived for Norm to fly Rusty and me back to Michigan, Mom sobbed desperately, pleading with me not to leave her. My heart ached for her—or maybe it ached with the pain of hating her so much. I pitied her. There was not a single instant when I didn’t know that my home was with Grandma. As the wheels of the twin-engine plane lifted off the runway, relief swept over me. There was so much I didn’t understand. During the entire time we were in Kentucky, my mother never once approached my brother to beg him to stay. Why me? And more important, what if she had gotten custody of us? What then? We flew home and never again spent our court-ordered four weeks with Mom. She and Norm divorced shortly afterward, and Mom and Darlene moved back to Michigan, where we returned to our Sunday afternoon visitations.
As my father’s drinking worsened, his disappearances became more frequent and longer in duration. I don’t recall ever receiving an explanation for the changes occurring about me. I knew that I was seeing my father less and less. When I asked Grandma where he was, she wouldn’t answer. In those days, it seemed divorced parents were a rarity. In our middle-class neighborhood, families were largely intact. My classmates, being kids and cruel, would tease me about living with my grandparents and taunt me about my father’s absence. I felt ashamed of being different, which seeded my belief that I was somehow defective, damaged.
At a young age I developed a keen sense of observation. I studied everyone. I studied my Grandma, who seemed to suffer from chronic angst in her efforts to control the chaos. I studied my grandfather’s sullen demeanor and monotonous routine. The tension between Grandma and Grandpa was palpable. At the time I interpreted their tension as anger, but I later realized it was also exhaustion and stress. I studied my mother, who was completely disconnected from the needs of anyone around her. I studied my father, who never seemed to smile. I could not comprehend why these two people, my mother and father, could not or would not be my parents. I studied other families, other parents, moms and dads together with their children, absorbed in their children, fascinated by their children. I studied my brother and sister, wondering if they felt as lost as I did. I knew there was something wrong with my family and, consequently, something inherently wrong with me.
I stayed on the perimeter of life, observing it from the outside, never wanting to draw attention to myself. I slept little and had recurring stomachaches and dark circles under my eyes. There was a constant gnawing feeling in my gut—chronic insecurity. I longed for something different, but I wasn’t quite sure what that was. I imagined it was a space where I would feel loved, wanted, and protected, a place where I would feel safe.
There was a deep hole inside me that needed filling, and I wanted to know its source so I could fix it. My father was a great big question mark. Where was he disappearing to? Why was nobody talking? There came a stretch of an entire year when I did not see my father and had no idea why. My birthday arrived, and a dozen roses were delivered to the house with a card saying, “Happy Birthday. Love, Daddy.” The card was clearly signed by my father, his beautiful, font-like print easily recognizable. It was the eeriest feeling, knowing he was alive and out there somewhere. I was relieved and enraged all at once.
Then one afternoon, I was doing a jigsaw puzzle in the living room when I glanced out the window and saw a taxi stop in front of our house. I watched curiously as the back door opened and out stepped my father. My heart stopped. It was like a dream come true! I pushed open the front door, jumped the three steps down to the sidewalk, and ran to him, yelling, “Daddy!”
I jumped into his arms, and he held me tightly. I was afraid to pull away for fear that this moment was not really happening. I could not look at his face—the intimacy was too overwhelming. I sensed Dad looking up at the house, so I loosened my grip and followed his eyes. Grandma had come outside and was standing on the porch. I would be hard-pressed to guess what she was feeling at that moment, but it didn’t register as happiness, joy, or even relief, as I would have expected. She was not surprised. I later learned that Dad had been living within a mile of our home during most of his yearlong absence. Not only did Grandma know this, but she had been seeing him on a regular basis—taking groceries to his flat, cleaning, and otherwise helping out in ways that did not involve giving him money, which she knew he would spend on alcohol.
I tugged on Dad’s hand to lead him inside, but he hesitated and turned toward the street, and I realized that there was someone else, a woman, in the backseat. “Ma, I’ve brought someone I want you to meet,” he said. “Can we come inside?”
“Of course,” answered Grandma, but I could see she was shaking.
Dad introduced Joan as his wife. They wore matching gold bands with one blue sapphire in the center. I was crushed. I felt betrayed. Here I thought my Daddy was coming home to me, and instead he was just visiting—there to tell me that he’d been having a life while I went through my days wondering if he was even alive.
Dad and Joan became frequent visitors to our home. Joan worked as a bartender at the Dragonfly, a local watering hole in Oakdale. Dad spent his time hanging out at the bar, playing cards or shooting pool (he was quite skilled at both). However, what money he won at cards and pool he swiftly lost at the horse races. Dad’s gambling was as out of control as his drinking.
I recall sitting on our front porch with him once when a stranger got into his car and drove off. “Daddy! That man is taking your car!” I exclaimed.
He flatly replied, “No, honey. That’s his car now.” We didn’t say another word.
On another occasion I was sitting next to Dad at Rusty’s swim meet (which he had, incidentally, bet on). He handed me a stack of scratch-off lottery tickets, already scratched. I looked through them to find that each ticket was a winner: there were one-dollar, five-dollar, ten-dollar winners, and even a fifty-dollar winner. I counted the number of tickets I had in my hand and was astounded. “Dad! You bought eighteen lottery tickets?”
“No” he replied. “I had eighteen winners.”
Dad’s health was deteriorating as a result of his constant heavy drinking. He looked drawn, yet puffy. His eyes were bloodshot and his skin yellowed. His teeth were rotting. He wore the same heavy rubber boots and green parka with orange lining and fake fur around the edge of the hood no matter what the temperature was outside. He was always cold.
My junior high school was kitty-corner across the street from the Dragonfly. One fall weekday afternoon, I was watching a junior varsity football game with some friends. We were sitting on metal bleachers along the sideline; the sun was shining brightly and a gentle breeze was blowing. I heard some snickers and disparaging remarks being made. One of the kids in my group pointed across the field and laughingly told us all to look. When I did, I saw my father walking toward us in his usual parka and boots. I was horrified, and uncertain who I was more embarrassed for, Dad or me. A feeling of deep shame ran through me. I got up from my seat and, without a glance or a word to my friends, walked over to my dad. I did not want him to come any closer to the crowd. He was clearly thrilled to see me. He had called home, and Grandma told him where I was, so he thought he would surprise me and come watch the game with me. I told him I wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to stay any longer. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“My stomach feels upset,” I said. Dad reached into his pocket, pulled out a pack of gum, and offered me a piece. I accepted, removed the wrapper, and placed the gum in my mouth, my lower lip quivering. “Thanks.”
“Can we go watch some of the game now?” he asked.
“I really don’t feel like it. I want to go home.”
“Okay. I’ll walk you home, then.”
I did feel sick. Sick because I’d lied to him. Sick because I was ashamed of him and I was afraid of what the other kids were saying. When we got home, I went to my room and shut the door. Later, I told Grandma what had happened, and I sobbed. She told me that what I did was okay, but it didn’t feel okay to me.


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