Sucking Lemons; A short story Part II

I saw a bumper sticker that said, “If I had known grandchildren were so much fun, I would have had them first.  I could have written that. Within two months I had revived my role as chief cook, cleaner, and chauffeur of the Dupree household. I bitched a lot about it but I really kinda enjoyed it. Allison was a hell of a lot more fun than Liz ever was. That little girl knows how to have a good time, and since her mom was up to her eyeballs in work, I got to spend a lot of time with my granddaughter. I knew all her school friends, her teachers, and I was the one that did most of the mandatory volunteer hours at the school. I usually worked in the office answering the phone or stuffing envelopes. They let me smoke in there.

At first Al liked the school, but as soon as she started thinking for herself, the religious stuff began to turn her off. She always got As and Bs in all her subjects, except religion. Her essays in those classes were what the sisters called sarcastic and border line blasphemous. I would have to sign each one she scored less than a B on, so I got to read the more offensive ones. I thought they were great. Before she started the ninth grade, Allison begged her mother to let her go to the local high school, but Liz wouldn’t budge. Even Dirk couldn’t persuade her.

Even though keeping Allison in that school but a big stress on my daughter, she kept it up. It was a sacrifice she said she was willing to make so that her daughter could have a good, solid education. She kept throwing in that word “solid,” not really knowing what it meant. Who does? And that’s something Elizabeth should have looked into before giving that school all her money because as it turned out, everyone had their own special definition of “solid.” For St. Cornelius it meant strong Catholic morals, a lot of scripture readings, and a couple sets of rosary beads she’ll never use again. For Allison it meant learning how to make major life decisions on her own, and then sticking to them. I think Elizabeth was hoping that the church’s homophobic scare tactics would turn Allison away from her dad, or at least keep her loyal to her mother. From the way things all turned out, I’m surprised my daughter didn’t demand all her money back from those people.

Two hours before Allison’s graduation ceremony, my daughter tore inside the house like she was being chased by cannibals. She whisked through the living room, and dropped her work blazer, keys, and purse on the coffee table on her way to her bedroom. The look she had told me to keep quiet, so I did. My newly polished nails needed blowing, so I used my mouth to do that instead.

While she was fussing around in the bathroom, I took a look through Allison’s yearbook some more. She had left it on the kitchen table, and I glanced through it after everyone had left that morning. At first I was only interested in seeing her senior photo, but after reading one of the notes her classmates wrote, I was sucked into reading all of them. When I finished, I realized that unless all those kids were lying or playing some sort of group prank, my daughter was in for a big surprise. And not an “Oh, you shouldn’t have” type of surprise. This was more of a “How the hell can you do this to me?” type of surprise. It wasn’t going to be pretty.

After I heard Liz mutter a few curse words—most likely at her hair—I decided to tell her what I had found, thinking giving her a heads up would avoid a public scene later. Elizabeth hates those more than anything.

She opened the bathroom door just as I was about to knock. Before I could show her the yearbook, she made some smart remark about my not being ready. “I just have to change my shirt,” I said.

She acted like she didn’t hear me and kept on about how getting ready was the only thing I had to do and that it wasn’t too much to ask of me.

“I told you I was ready,” I said again, and she gave me a once-over that was more than a little bit disapproving. Before she could comment I said, “For goodness sake, it’s a graduation, not the Academy Awards, and besides, if you had just let me take Al to the stadium, you wouldn’t be rushing around and yelling at me.”

“I wasn’t yelling.” She knew I was right, but she would never admit it. She crossed her arms and said, “We’re not going to the Bingo parlor, Mother. Don’t you have a nicer pair of pants? That polyester will snag on those wooden benches.”

She loved attacking my choice of clothes. When she was a kid she said I dressed too racy. My skirts were always too short and my necklines too deep. After I hit 55, and things started to sag and jiggle too much, I switched to slacks and tops, mostly from Sears. “I’m not changing, so just get over it,” I told her. I held out the yearbook. “Besides, you have more important things to worry about right now.”

She turned back to face me. “There is nothing more important than this, Mother. Allison and I have been working very hard for this day, and nothing is going to ruin it. Do you understand?”

“I’m not trying to ruin anything. I’m trying to show you something important, and you had better calm down and take a look at it.” I put the open book in her hands and told her to read what Allison’s friends had written on the pages.

She tried to give the book back to me. She said, “Mom, kids do that. It’s just their way of saying congratulations and good luck or whatever.”

“I know that, Elizabeth. I’m not stupid. It’s what they wrote I want you to read.”
Then she looked shocked. It was what I call her Scarlet O’Hara look that she had perfected when she was in the sixth grade, after watching that movie about 20 times. “Mother, are you asking me to invade Allison’s privacy?”

“Well, from what I read, it’s only private to us. Seems like everyone in Atlanta knows what that girl is up to, except us.”

“What do you mean, up to?”

She was being stubborn, so I just said it. “I mean up to her big secret plan to move to Seattle. That’s what all these kids wrote about.”

She finally took the yearbook and read. Her forehead scrunch together as her mind starting working over the stuff she was reading. When she finished, her lips puckered together so tight anyone would think she had been born that way.

“This doesn’t mean anything, she said. “They’re just a bunch of kids.”

“A bunch of kids who all wrote the same thing?” I asked her. I took the book and read some of the more obvious ones aloud:

            Allison, I’m soooo jealous! I wish I could leave this dump town. Don’t forget to write!! 

            Lucky you!! Seattle is totally awesome! We’ll miss you lots.

            Atlanta will be lonely without you, Al. Take care and send pictures soon.

After I finished that last one I looked up at my daughter and asked her if she knew. As soon as the question passed my lips, I regretted it. She knew about as much as I did, which was probably the first time we had ever been on the same side of anything. I felt sort of close to her right then and thought that, together, we could fix this. The last thing I wanted my granddaughter to do was leave me; even if it was good for her.

“We should see her before the ceremony and talk.” I checked my watch. “If we leave now we can catch her.”

I stepped around her to get to my room so I could finish changing, but she grabbed my arm just as I was beside her, and told me that we were not going to talk to anyone. She said that she would handle it—alone. I wanted to protest, but the grip she had on my arm and the look on her faced stopped me—lips puckered into the tightest ball I’ve ever seen, eyes angry and blazing right at me. My heart jumped a bit and for a second, I didn’t recognize her. She looked like she wanted to rip my head off.  We’ve had some blows in the past, but that night was definitely different.

Instead of fighting back, I just calmly reached around, place my hand on her hand and pulled her off a me. My touching her like that must have brought her back from the edge because she relaxed her shoulders a bit and unpuckered those lips. I tucked the yearbook under my arm and walked to my room. I closed the door on her telling me to hurry up.

The tension between us during the drive was as thick as spoiled milk. It even rivaled the time she was pissed at me for not speaking out about Dirk. I sat beside her as she weaved in and out of traffic, cursing at any car that dared to get in her way. I kept my mouth clamped shut. I didn’t smoke either, even though I was dying for one. Liz, I knew, had morphed into her I’m just gonna ignore everything and it will be all right style of parenting. That’s how she’s been for a long time. Allison learned that about her mom at an early age, and for most of her life I had been the go-to person whenever she needed to talk things over. I mostly just listened, and maybe told her one or two of my own stories in a cautionary tale sort of way. Another big difference between Liz and me is that I know I’ve made mistakes. Liz still thinks she’s immune to them.

While she drove, I racked my brains for some hint or clue or something that maybe I’d overlooked or had forgotten. The only thing that came to mind was the time she gave me the nicotine patches, about a month earlier. She joked about how she wanted me to be around long enough to see my great-grandchildren.

“Well, how long is that going to be?” I asked her. She laughed it off, but I thought it was a good time to talk about her plans after high school. “You got accepted into the university, but I never heard anything about you agreeing to go.”

She answered that she hadn’t made up her mind yet. “There’s plenty of time,” she said. I didn’t really believe that but said nothing. So, since she mentioned children, I asked her about her social life in the most delicate way I knew how. “So, what’s with all this talk about great-grandbabies? You’re not…?”

She rolled her eyes that way teenagers do to show how stupid they think you are. “Oh, jeeze, Gram. No. Okay?”

“Well what was I supposed to think, Al? Here you come out of the blue talking about babies. What was I supposed to think?”

“Gram, I don’t even have a boyfriend. You know that.”

“Don’t need a boyfriend to get pregnant. Just a boy.” I lit a cigarette and took a deep inhale.  I said, “Look, if you need me to get you anything, you know, to protect you, just let me—”

“Know,” she cut me off. “Look, I just said grandchildren because I didn’t think you’d be so interested if I said my college graduation or something.”

That hurt. I don’t know why she and her mother think I don’t give a damn about all this schooling and stuff. I do. It was just that school that I objected to, not the entire educational system.

My feelings must have shown because she added, “Grandma, I just don’t know what’s going to happen after graduation, okay?”

“But your mom said you were going to the university. Is that not true? Does she know?”

She looked at me with the saddest face, and I thought she was confused and maybe even scared about leaving school and everything. But then she said, “No, Mom doesn’t know anything.”

She could have added, “and you don’t either,” but she didn’t. She left the house a few minutes later with some friends. At that time I just assumed the worst she was planning was passing on the university deal and maybe working somewhere. That alone would have sent Elizabeth into a full-blown fit. Me? I really didn’t care one way or another. The past 12 years with Allison had taught me that she was one resourceful girl. I knew she would land on her feet no matter what. I just didn’t think she felt she had to do it in another state.

 

When we finally pulled into the stadium parking lot, I looked at my daughter and tried to reason with her. “Let’s find Dirk and talk about this together. I’m sure the two of you can make Allison see that moving away would be a mistake right now.”

She got out of the car and started towards the stadium entrance. “I told you that I don’t want to talk about it tonight, okay?” she said. “There will be plenty of time to discuss it tomorrow, or the next day.”

“She could be gone by then,” I said, trying to keep up with her.

That stopped her and she turned and stared at me. “Don’t be so dramatic. Allison would not just leave me like that. I’m her mother and there is nothing that she can do in Seattle that she can’t do here.” She started to walk away again and then added, “What would be the point anyway? We don’t even know anyone in Seattle.”

It’s funny how sometimes you hear something and it causes your memory bank to crack open and flood your brain with all sorts of facts and names and dates you haven’t thought about in years. Her last sentence did that to me just then, and I wondered if it had been the same with her. I caught up with her and saw that she still had that same determined and stubborn look on her face. Liz can be a tough nut to crack sometimes. I looked around for a place we could go to talk and saw her ex-husband and his partner heading our way. And then I panicked. The pieces of this crazy puzzle were starting to come together and fall apart all at the same time. I held Elizabeth back with my hand on her arm and looked into her face. I wanted to warn her but I didn’t have the time or the place to break it to her gently, so I just said it: “Dirk has family there.”

* * *

I believe my daughter would have eventually made peace with Allison wanting to move away, but the kid blew any chance of that ever happening when she enlisted the help of her father and excluded her mother. She’s been gone almost six months now, and I wonder sometimes why she didn’t let me in on it. But my granddaughter is one smart girl, so I think she was trying to save her mother’s and my relationship. I’m really all my Elizabeth has, and if I had been one of Allison’s co-conspirators, Liz’s pride would have forced her to reject me too. Despite everything we’ve been through, Liz knows that I will always be there for her. Oh, I let her lay her problems at my door, say it’s all my fault because I didn’t love her enough or spend enough time with her. But she’s wrong. Problem was that I loved her too much and always gave in or just gave up when she was on one her stubborn streaks. I should have put my foot down despite her swearing she hated me and all those other mean things kids say. At least she would have learned to respect me a little bit. Now all I got is a disrespectful and angry kid.

So here we are; the two of us together again. She works 10-hour days, comes home to eat, sleep, and change clothes. I have my Bingo, the soaps, and a rowdy bunch of senior citizens to keep me company. I wonder if the irony of it all will ever come to her. For me? While I may not have ended up with the most perfect mother-daughter relationship, I at least had a good time and have good memories to show for it. Elizabeth? Well, she still walks around with a face that looks like it’s been sucking on lemons all day.

 

THE END

 

Thank you for reading. This is one of the first short stories I wrote and it has been through many, many drafts. The seed for this story was planted by a bit of family gossip I heard many years ago. There is one line of dialogue in Sucking Lemons that comes from a real- life conversation. The rest is completely made up.

 

Sucking Lemons; A short story, Part 1

        A letter from my granddaughter Allison came today. She updated me on her roommate situation, her classes at the university, her new part-time job at the coffee shop, and how the rain and overcast days were starting to get to her. She asked about my bingo games, how things were progressing on my Soaps, and asked if the nicotine patch was working. She signed the letter with love and wrote, “Tell Mom I said hi.” She must think I’m crazy. I lit another cigarette and hid the letter in the bottom dresser drawer along with the others.

When Allison was growing up, not a week went by that her mother didn’t remind me of how I had failed her. But over 30 years of parenting, and 18 years of grandparenting have taught me a couple of things. First, never get into an argument that starts with, “You were a lousy mother,” because there is nothing that can be said to change the mind. Second, some kids you just cannot please, no matter what, so the best thing to do is just get on with your own life and hope for the best.

            The trouble with my daughter, Elizabeth, is that she’s been so busy trying to not be like me, that she hasn’t taken any time or trouble to be herself. Whenever I dare to mention that she should go out or get a date or something, she acts like I’m asking her to abandon her daughter on the church steps. She then tells me how she doesn’t have time for “that stuff,” because working and looking after Allison takes all her time. After that it’s her speech about sacrifices and how that goes hand in hand with good parenting.

Did I do the bake sales, PTA meetings or Girl Scouts? No. Not my thing. But I did go through a morning sickness that would have made the Devil beg for mercy. And then those damn stretch marks, followed by a heartburn that kept me up all night. I don’t think I got three straight hours of sleep the whole pregnancy. Some days were so bad I thought I was going to die. And if that weren’t enough, my husband had gone off to fight the Vietnamese way on the other side of the world, and my dad was too busy telling me “I told you so” to be of any help. It was just me alone and getting fatter and sicker every day. And then that officer from the Army came one morning while I was forcing dry toast down my throat. Elizabeth popped out that same day, about six hours later. According to the calendar, she was five weeks early and of course the doctors said it was the stress of finding out about Elton that brought it on. But I wasn’t stressed. I was pissed thinking about how I was going to raise a baby all by myself. Did I sacrifice? You bet your ass I did. I had to move in with my cranky dad, give up all my social activities, and spend the best years of my life breastfeeding, changing diapers, and cleaning up vomit. Dad was about as much help as a bump on a log. He’d bounce his granddaughter on his knee once in a while, but I couldn’t even leave her with him for a bathroom break without him accusing me of dumping her on him. In my opinion, those first five years constitute the biggest sacrifice any mother should have to make for their child. After my dad died and I got the house and a nice little inheritance, I declared my sacrificing days over. And that’s when the problems with my daughter started.

            Now that she’s older and a mom herself, I can see how Elizabeth confused this idea of sacrificing with suffering and misery. So I had a little fun now and then. So I dated, had my gentlemen friends over. They weren’t all bad. One or two of them had some real potential. And this was the ’70s—everybody smoked and had an occasional cocktail back then. We never did any of that illegal stuff; that’s where I drew the line, but anything up to that point was all right, and seeing that this is a free country, and that I was a grown woman with the natural wants and tendencies of any other woman, I had a pretty good time. But every visitor would take one look at my daughter and ask what was wrong with her. Not wrong like she was retarded or something—wrong like she looked like she had been sucking on lemons all day.

Elizabeth was a child who absolutely refused to have a good time. Her dad was the same way, a real stick-in-the-mud.

            She moved out of my house when she was 20 years old, right after she got married. She had graduated with good grades but not good enough to get a free ride at the university, so she stuck it out at the community college for two years and ended up with a piece of paper that landed her a decent job at the local bank. And then she met Dirk. She had reluctantly tagged along with me to the Bingo hall one night, and after about three rounds she got bored and went outside. He was there too, taking a break from his job at the bookstore across the street. The first time I saw them together I knew she was hooked. Just like her daddy had hooked me, so I figured all I could do was just sit back and let the little romance unfold. A few hours before their wedding, I asked Liz what she loved most about Dirk. She answered, all dreamy like, “He doesn’t mind shopping with me. He enjoys it.” The bridesmaids sighed like that was the most romantic thing they had ever heard. I had a different reaction.

            Maybe that’s where I messed up. I knew something was fishy about that guy, but I didn’t say a word. I kept telling myself I knew how she’d react, so I kept quiet and stayed quiet through it all—the courtship, the wedding, everything. But then she came to me one August in tears, telling me how he just confessed to her.

            “He told me that he’s really a gay man,” she cried. When I didn’t answer, she turned on me. “Did you know? Could you tell?”

            I told her no, which was not completely true. Besides, Allison was almost two by then, so what was the point? As far as I was concerned it was a lot more tolerable to have a man run off with another man than with another woman. I’ve had that happen to me more than once, and it sucks. I told her, “Look, at least now you know. He could have kept this secret for years, and you would have just suffered through it, not knowing.”

            “What do you mean suffer? Dirk and I were happy. I was happy.”

            Now she was the one lying. “Oh, please, Liz. The sex couldn’t have been that great with him not being into women and all.”

            She lost it then and screamed at me about how sex wasn’t everything (which confirmed my first thought) and how she and Dirk respected and loved each other on what she called a “deeper level.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I assumed it was a fancy way of saying that something was definitely lacking in the bedroom department.

            “Look,” I told her, “just get a quick divorce and move on. You’ll get the better end of the stick, I guarantee you that. There’s not a judge in Atlanta who won’t sympathize with you.”

            I felt real sorry for my daughter then. She had dreams just like most girls her age, and when they fell apart—when she realized that she wasn’t going to get the white picket fence with all the trimmings—she was at a loss. Luckily, she still had her job at the bank, and she poured most of her energy into that. I got to watch Allison a bit more too, which was nice.

A few years later Liz decided that the public schools weren’t good enough for her daughter, so she made up her mind to send Allison to St. Cornelius, the local Catholic school. But in order to do that she needed my help, and one Sunday afternoon they came over. Allison was decked out in one of those cute, little Navy-type dresses. She had on black patent leather shoes with white frilly socks, and her hat was white with a big navy-blue ribbon hanging down her back. Liz stood there, holding on to her daughter’s hand, and asked me if they could move back home. She said that was the only way she could afford the tuition at St. Cornelius.

            “What’s wrong with the schools you went to?” I asked her. “You turned out all right, didn’t you?”

            “Allison’s too smart for those schools, Mother. I want her to be challenged.”

            I couldn’t help laughing. “Challenged? She’s four years old. What kinda challenging does she need?”

 “She’s almost five but I wouldn’t expect you to understand, Mother. Today’s women need to know how to do more than mix highballs before dinner.”

            “What about Dirk? Is he not paying enough?” I knew he was paying the court-ordered amount but asked anyway.

“This is not about him, and it’s completely my decision anyway.” Allison had been trying to wrench her hand away from her mother to get to me, and Elizabeth finally let her go. I suspect it was a calculated move on her part, including the cute outfit and all. What grandmother could resist? I picked Al up and let her play with the beads on my necklace. They moved in with me three weeks later.

* * *