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.
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