My grandmother used to tell me a a story about how Uncle Stan sent her 110 red roses on her 50th birthday and a card saying he hoped she lived to 110 (she made it to 95, so, not bad). She would show me the card, even. And then she would ask me what happened. How did a boy like that go from sending his mother 110 red roses to not talking to her?
She would show me the letter my father sent her–the letter that started it all–and ask me what was she supposed to do? What did they (she and Harry) do that gave my father such a horrible childhood? That letter…
My father didn’t tell her he never wanted to speak with her again. He didn’t tell her he didn’t love her anymore. He didn’t tell her to get out of his life. He *did* tell her if she wanted to be a part of his life, things needed to change. She needed to respect his rules when visiting his home. She needed to treat my mother with respect and refrain from criticizing her. She needed to refrain from criticizing him. He asked her to change, to meet him part way. He could have been a hell of a lot more tactful, but he never told her to get out of his life.
She didn’t see that. To her, it was flat out rejection. She wrote him back, disowning him. Whenever my dad tells me about this, he always notes that she hit the typewriter keys so hard, every “o” cut through the paper, leaving empty circles.
The greatest tragedy of my grandmother’s life wasn’t that her sons stopped speaking to her. It wasn’t that her daughter died young. It was that she could never accept responsibility. For anything. Every story, it was someone else’s fault. It was her mother’s fault, or her brother’s fault, or Harry’s fault, or my dad’s fault, or Uncle Stan’s fault, or my fault.
She would ask me why I hadn’t written to her when I was a child. Why hadn’t I called? Why didn’t I try to write?
The first time she asked that, it flabbergasted me. I had no answer. And ever afterward, it was something she would use to guilt-trip me. Even though I did figure out the answer in time, it still worked on me.
I didn’t write her because I was the child. She was the adult.
I was a child who had been told her grandmother opted out of her life. Which was true. If anyone was to change that, it should have been the adult. It should have been the 65 year old, not the 5 year old. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my responsibility. But if it wasn’t her responsibility–which it couldn’t be in her world–it had to belong to someone. So she burdened me with guilt I’d never earned.
She had excuses for why she didn’t try to contact me. “Oh, your father would never have given you the letter.” Except, he would have. And she could have tried, even so.
If she had ever written such a letter during my childhood… I’m fairly certain my father would have tried to reconcile. Because he still wanted to, then. He just needed her to make a gesture. Or she could have given the letter to Kathy, my aunt. Kathy wrote to me. She came to visit. It would have been oh-so-easy for my grandmother to reach out to me through her.
She showed me the telegram Uncle Stan sent her, a few years after my father’s letter. It was only a few lines and, again, it didn’t ask her to get out of his life. Instead it said that he couldn’t talk with her by phone at that time and asked her to write him instead.
She never wrote. Instead she sat back and waited for him to write to her.
You can’t change anything if you never accept responsibility for your own actions. She gave up her sons rather than admit she was responsible for raising them and she’d made mistakes. Lord knows Fang made much worse mistakes in raising her than she did in raising my dad and Uncle Stan. She gave up her sons so she didn’t have to admit the ways she failed them. Was it worth it? Was living the next 40 years of her life without her sons worth being able to throw up her hands and say she didn’t do anything wrong?
My mother told me a story last week, about my uncle and my grandmother. She told me about the time Uncle Stan sent his mother 110 red roses for her birthday. Instead of thanking him for the roses, she complained. She complained that the roses wouldn’t last, they’d all die. She went through all 110 roses picking out the ones that didn’t bloom and went back to the florist, demanding a refund for the unopened buds, so she could get a houseplant.
(More to come)