Sunday, June 13, 2010

Two for the Price of One

by Penny Venticinque

The only time I saw my father cry was at his mother’s funeral.  I was 12.  This was my first funeral, and the first person close to me who died.  My father’s mother lived with us.  In fact, both of my grandmothers lived with us, which I later found out, was a rarity.  Two mothers-in-law under the same roof.  It must have been difficult for both my father and my mother, having their respective mother-in-law live with them.  My brother and I didn’t really notice.  This was normal for us.  But my friends marveled at the fact that not one, but both of my grandmothers lived with me.

The thing I think I missed was visiting my grandmother’s house.  I admired my friends because they could go to grandma’s house, and I couldn’t.  Their grandmothers could cook for them and send food home with them, and I never experienced that.  My friends could stay over at their grandmothers’ houses, and I never experienced that either.  It would have been cool to go visit a grandmother, especially in another state, and have her take care of you, as grandmothers do, in her own home, with all of her stuff all around – the old photos, the antique furniture, the pots and pans that produced all those wonderful smells that only a grandmother’s house can embody.  But I did not have that either.  Both of them lived with me, and both of them were old and infirm and had long-since left behind their own homes and possessions. 

The Maternal Side
They were two very different people, my grandmothers.  My mother’s mother was a classic Victorian Lady, born in British Guiana (now Guyana).  We called her MumMum.  How British.  I remember that she was always a lady.  Always put-together, regardless of what was going on at any given time.  She wore her long white hair swept back in a bun, fastened with tortoise shell combs and “chopsticks”, neatly and strategically placed.  She always had make up and lipstick on, and she cautioned me to do the same.  You never know who you’ll run into, she said.  That man over there could be your future husband, and if you aren’t wearing makeup, he will never notice you.  Also, you never want people to know you’re feeling bad, or sad, or ill.  There’s no point to it.  There’s nothing they can do about it anyway, and if you at least make yourself up and put on a happy face, maybe you will actually begin to feel better.  I always remember that.  To this day I never go out without lipstick.  I’m not looking for a husband, but I do feel better when I think I look well.  And without lipstick, I don’t think I look well.

The extent of MumMum’s “lady-ness” really struck me one particular night.  My parents had gone out to the theater, and I was home alone with MumMum.  I was about 17, and she was probably in her 80s at the time.  She was a below-the-knee amputee, so she required help to get into and out of bed, and to perform daily duties.  I didn’t mind helping her at all.  I enjoyed her company, and I loved the times we spent together.  I would read to her - letters from family members, newspaper and magazine articles, postcards.  In fact, I got to know many members of my family by reading their letters to MumMum, and helping her to write letters to them.  One person I got to know in this way was my uncle, Albert.  Albert was an artist who had gone to live in London before I was born, so I never knew him.  Through his letters to MumMum though, I found out what Europe was like, how his painting was going, and the ups and downs of being a struggling artist.  I was in art school myself at the time, so I began to write to my uncle as well, and I was always happy to receive a letter from him.  A few times he even enclosed drawings for me, which was a real treat!  It never occurred to me that I would ever meet Albert.  He was comfortably ensconced in his bohemian lifestyle on the other side of the pond, and I was content to read his letters and hear about his gallery shows and odd-ball friends.  

This particular evening I had put MumMum to bed and was watching TV when the doorbell rang.  It was after 11PM.  Being alone in the house I was reluctant to answer the door at this hour on a Friday night.  I gingerly approached the door, thinking of how I might defend myself should this be an intruder.  There was only one lock on the front door, and it wasn’t a deadbolt.  I wondered if I should even respond.  It might be easier to just allow the person to go away, but what if they didn’t?  What if ignoring the doorbell made him think that no one was home?  That might be worse.  I approached the door and peered out through the glass.  I saw a man with graying hair and a full beard and mustache.  He was carrying a suitcase of some sort.  I thought he must have had the wrong address.  There was no car waiting and he was alone.  

Then some kind of recognition came over me.  This man wasn’t entirely a stranger, although I had never seen him in my life.  I opened the door, and the man said hello and I immediately knew who he was.  It was my uncle.  A man I had never met, but had known through his letters to MumMum

"Uncle Albert?", I said, as I opened the door fully, knowing full well who he was!

"YES", he said, and of course he knew me immediately as well.  We hugged and looked at each other as people do when they haven’t seen each other for a long time (or ever).  How must I have looked growing up?  How had I changed?  He would never know.  Here I was almost an adult and he had never seen his only niece.  He came in and of course, immediately asked for MumMum.  I had just put her to bed, and said so, but I knew she would want to see him immediately, no mater what time it was.  I told him to stay right there, while I went to wake her up.  He did.  He stood right outside her bedroom door, waiting for me to signal him in.  I imagined him there with his ear to the door, listening to his mother, whom he had not seen in over 30 years, scream with excitement at the surprise she was about to experience, and expecting tears of joy and reunion!

Not wanting to scare her, I gently touched her shoulder to wake her up.  She opened her eyes without moving and asked me what was the matter.  

“MumMum, I don’t know how to tell you this but…Uncle Albert is outside.  He’s HERE.  He’s here to visit you!”  

“My SON Albert?  It can’t be.  Are you sure it’s him?  You never met him…are you SURE???”  

“Yes MumMum, I am absolutely certain.  Let me get him.”

It was then, at this moment, that I realized what a true lady is.  Both my uncle and I expected that she would shriek with pleasure and want to see him immediately.  Not MumMum.  She simply said, “please help me get dressed.  I don’t want to greet him in my nightgown.”

I knew what that simple statement meant.  It meant at least a half hour, probably more – getting her back up, getting her out of bed and back into her chair, picking out something to wear, and re-combing her hair, etc.  I went back outside of the room to tell my uncle that MumMum wanted to get dressed before she saw him, and that he should make himself comfortable.  All three of us were anxious with anticipation.  But MumMum was in control, and she would not see her son, even after 30 years, until she was “presentable”.  We got her up, washed her up again, got her dressed, combed and twisted her hair, dusted with talcum and sprayed a pinch of cologne…and put on her full makeup, including, of course, lipstick.

It always strikes me when I think of this.  The importance of presentation.  I suppose that not seeing someone in 30 years makes it all the more important to look as good as possible, not less so.  The pride of MumMum wanting her son to see her at her best, after a lifetime of separation, even under these circumstances – her with only one leg, and sick with cancer (she also had a colostomy bag which needed to be emptied and changed).  As a result, I try never to complain, and I try to always look as good as I can at any given moment.  You never know when you will meet your future husband, or your long-lost uncle.

The Paternal Side
My father’s mother was another story.  She was a bulldog of a woman.  Built like a brick house, and had a look on her face that would make Idi Amin blush.   She had had a stroke when I was very young, so I never knew her to be fully in her “right” mind.  By the time she moved in with us, she was already not functioning well physically or mentally, as a result of the stroke.  She dragged one foot when she walked, and had trouble holding on to glasses and cups.  She was also diabetic.  In our refrigerator, there were always vials of insulin, and glass syringes that had to be boiled and sterilized.

We called this grandmother, Grandma.  She seemed to be more trouble than she was worth, at least to us kids.  We didn’t understand her when she talked, because not only did she slur her speech and confuse her words, but she spoke with a thick Jamaican accent.  And, more often than not, diabetes notwithstanding, she almost always had a hard candy in her mouth.  

“Grandma, are you eating candy?”  

“Noumgghhh…norogudjlksad candipisadny.”  

“Look, I know you are eating candy, I can see it in your cheek.  Spit it out and give it to me.”

“No.”  Well at least I understood that.

When we weren’t chasing after Grandma trying to wrench the candy from her clenched hand, we were wondering what the hell she was talking about.  Us kids got very good at mimicking a West Indian accent, even though we had no idea what we were saying.  My father seemed to understand her, but he didn’t seem to have much patience with her either.  He was the one who gave her her insulin injections, and he used to get angry that she would sneak candy, after everything he was doing to try to keep her healthy.  And he must have resented this responsibility, since he had a sister who lived not far from us, but did not get along with their mother at all.  The children all seemed to be disconnected from her, and the only reason they associated with this woman was because she was their mother.  I think that is the reason that my father called his mother Mrs. V.  Never Mom, or Mother.  I don’t remember him ever calling her anything other than Mrs. V.  

“Mrs. V. are you eating candy?”

“Noumgghhh…norogudjlksad candipisadny.”  

“Shit.  I know you are eating candy, I can see it in your cheek.  Do you think I’m stupid?”


And so it would go.  Grandma eating, or not eating candy, speaking in odd sentences, dragging her foot, and sitting quietly on the couch all day long.  She really never initiated a conversation.  If you said hello she would answer, but you were never quite sure she knew who you were, or what had just happened.  Sometimes we’d say, “Grandma, do you know who I am”?  And she would say, “Yes suh.”  “Well, who am I?”  No answer.  She did, however, know what belonged to her.  Or what she had claimed in the house.  She always sat in the same chair.  If anyone else sat there, she would say, in pretty plain English, “That Mrs. V. chair.”  Okaaaay.  And she knew when dinner was ready.  She would push you out of the way to get to the table.  And sit in Mrs. V. chair.  My father would say grace, and Grandma would start eating before he finished.  We’d all roll our eyes, but we had patience, because we knew she didn’t really understand what was going on.  Why did we have to have this lecture before dinner?  Aren’t we here to eat? 

She and MumMum would sit next to each other at the dinner table.  MumMum, the consummate lady, and Grandma, the bulldozer.  Everyone talked, except Grandma, who just ate.  She chewed very loudly.  My father had to cut her meat and sometimes he had to point out the food on her plate, as if she didn’t recognize that it was edible.  She never complained though, and ate everything that was put in front of her.  MumMum was more discerning.  There were things she didn’t like, and she would not eat them.  MumMum was a pretty good cook, and even though she was an invalid, she still could wheel herself up to the stove or the table, and help to prepare dinner.  Grandma sat in silence as all this was going on, waiting for the call to the table, so she could dive in before grace.  

As a result of the difference between my grandmothers, people responded to them differently.  Everyone talked to MumMum, hardly anyone talked to Mrs. V.  They would say hello to Grandma, and then spend the rest of their time chatting with MumMum.  MumMum always sat at the door in her wheelchair, while Grandma sat on the couch in the living room.  MumMum did crossword puzzles.  Grandma did not.  MumMum sang and played games.  Grandma did not.  When we went out, we had to carry MumMum to the car and put her wheelchair into the trunk.  Grandma just shuffled behind us, pushing us out of the way so she could get into the back seat.  MumMum was older and more frail.  We always thought that she would die long before Grandma, who was built stronger and more solid, and seemed to be invincible, in spite of her mental status.  But this was not the case.  In fact, MumMum outlived Grandma by about 12 years.  

At Grandma’s funeral, my father sobbed into his hat.  He covered his face with his fedora, and I could hear him sobbing and see his shoulders moving as they do when you cry very hard.  I had never seen my father cry.  It seemed odd to me that the death of this woman, who was largely a nuisance to all of us, could make a grown man, my father, cry like a baby.  Had we missed something?  Even though my father often lost his patience with her, and probably secretly bemoaned his lot to take car of her, he clearly cared for her very much, and we didn’t even think of that.  His reaction seemed to come out of the blue.  She was a human being, a mother, a daughter, a wife, a friend, a sister, a grandmother, and a pain in the neck.  I think I might have even seen MumMum shed a tear.  For all their differences, they were in the same boat.  And so were we.

Photo Credit: Stock Xchng - "Memories" by Mr. Wojciech Wolak, Poland

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