Tuesday, April 11, 2006

On My Grandmother.

My grandmother is an amazing woman. Seriously, this woman's life baffles me. It's not that she did anything overly remarkable--she didn't survive the holocaust, facilitate the Underground Railroad, or serve as the muse for the song “Layla”--she is, however, the most grounded and thorough individual I have ever come in contact with. Sure, she gives me an impossibly hard time on the infrequent occasions I see her (perhaps it's my fault I " . . . spent all that time at all those colleges and aren't doing anything with my degree and life,") and she still has the odd habit of referring to African-Americans as "colored," but there isn't a malicious nor racist bone in her body. What qualifies her for “amazing” status to me is her seemingly preternatural ability to make me feel like I’m seven years old again.

I have come to realize that as I get older my parents are more and more accepting of the concept of me being an adult. My relationship with my parents has evolved into a friendly co-existence in which neither side fully understands the other, but is at least willing to hear the other out--a notion that would have left me physically ill not but six years ago. However my grandmother still approaches me like I need to sit at the kids table at Thanksgiving dinner, and probably need to take a thank you bite of the green beans "even if they make you gag Teddy; they're good for you." And the crux of it all is that I don’t think she actively approaches me in this manner; it’s really all self-imposed.

I sat down on March 21, 2004 and scribbled out a letter to grandmother that read as follows:
Dear Grana,
Thank you for your birthday card and the $50 check you sent. Things are going well here in Greensboro. Classes are going well too. I’m sorry I used your birthday money last year to help finance a tattoo. This year I’m going to probably treat myself to a steak dinner.

That is as far as I got and I never sent it. My problem with communicating with my grandmother stems from several things that ultimately render me a perpetual child in her eyes, and each issue has its’ due turn in figuratively sweep-kicking me—sort of like the purple and gray clad “bad guys” in Kung Fu for Nintendo, I walk directly into it.

First, I feel guilty. I’ve been to my grandmother’s house in Greenville, North Carolina exactly one time since I was 14 years old. That was in July and I showed up well hung over from an ire-filled evening of drinking in Cary, NC—home of the nicest Bojangle’s I’ve ever set foot in—and smelling not unlike a distillery from profusely sweating due to both the lack of adequate air conditioning in my Ford Taurus, and the oppressive hug of eastern North Carolina’s summer humidity. In the three and a half years I lived in North Carolina I visited her one time. I am a bad grandson. Further escalating my guilt is that I had even been to Greenville on numerous occasions—albeit it was always to play shows, and I seriously doubted my grandmother’s willingness to either a) come to a noisy rock show or b) let a noisy rock band stay in her home. I have no doubt she would have thrown fresh sheets on the numerous, wood-framed beds in the many unoccupied rooms on the second floor of her house¹ and turned a blind eye to our general and utter grunginess as human beings over a delightful, and lovingly prepared breakfast. I diverge, but what I’m driving at is that I should have taken a weekend and driven the couple hours it takes to traverse the highways from Greensboro to Greenville (or “G-Vegas” if you speak in a certain jargon) but I never felt comfortable enough to do that on my own. It wasn’t until I knew my Mom would be there that I agreed to visit for a night, and for some reason I decided getting sloppy with friends the night before was the best preparation I could muster². Again, I am a bad grandson. My singular visit was actually really pleasant. In a very wholesome two hours we all assembled a jigsaw puzzle while discussing everything from the politics of the day to my Aunt Mary-Jane in San Diego who no one ever sees anymore. In a not so wholesome moment my Grandmother convinced me that my Uncle had a twin brother who died before he was ten and that his death was never explained—a story my Mom literally laughed in my face at when I questioned her about it when she returned from the bathroom. And that’s how my relationship to my Grandmother seems to unfold: I catch myself feeling like I’m gaining credibility in her eyes one moment, and then I do something (like falling for anecdotes that are obviously fabricated) that puts me on a blacktop playing four-square; in her eyes I’ll always be a little kid participating in a rousing game during emotional recess.

The second issue at hand is my cousins Hannah and Julie. Hannah and Julie are remarkable grandkids. They both manage to keep my grandmother abreast of their lives through handwritten letters and phone conversations. I hear about these missives through my own mother, who makes sure to tell me of their existence in an effort for me to follow suite. I never do. I can’t explain why, but I think it has something to do with the fact that I have nothing to report. My cousin Julie has helped publish some form of Anthropology paper in conjunction with one of her professors (I haven’t fully wrapped my head around exactly what this paper was on, or if it was even Anthropological in nature, but she’s published a scholarly paper is the point). Furthermore she is now married and has provided the all important great-grandchild as of this fall—I’ve seen it, it’s damn adorable, but I couldn’t devote full attention to it because of the campy, joke-bearing, t-shirt her husband was wearing that said something alluding to him being a new “daddy,” which made me feel so horrible for him I couldn’t stop looking at it. Hannah, who is older than I am, also has married and has also brought a great-grandchild into my grandmother’s life. Hannah has provided one of the most colorful scenarios I have ever witnessed my grandmother in. Hannah and her husband Jonathan were married in the middle of the woods outside of Harrisonburg, Virginia in an extremely informal ceremony led by a pierced hippie friend, and I believe Jonathan was barefoot. The look of my grandmother processing all this as we walked through the woods and back to our cars, her entirely wedding-appropriate attire carrying her over dirt, tree roots, and loose rock, was one of total incomprehension, but littered with complete acceptance. Adding to this memory is her getting wine-drunk with my mother at the reception as a bearded, banjo playing fellow in Birkenstocks performed in the backyard of a communal house while the smell of marijuana smoke hung in the mountain air. Everyone, including myself, is proud of Hannah. I know the act of rearing children does not make one more qualified for the affection of one’s grandmother, but when you’re still incapable of sustaining a prolonged romantic relationship it begins to become truth.

Much like my Grandmother both Hannah and Julie are much smarter than I am. My Grandmother attended Wake Forest at a time when there were only a handful of women on campus, and during a period where women did not necessarily even go to college, and she excelled academically. As for Hannah and Julie intelligence seemed to pick my Uncle Buddy, a deer-hunting gentleman who tells dirty jokes at Christmas dinner, as the conduit through which to deliver hereditary book smarts to the grandchildren. This is not to say my brother James and me are unintelligent. But we are frequently unintelligible. While Hannah and Julie were adding sterling marks to the academic palate that is their transcripts James and I were spending our formative years at Fork Union Military Academy learning to walk in neatly ordered columns and flanks, spinning rifles, and mastering the ever tricky hospital corner while making our beds. My family tends to locate itself in the same place only once a year, kind of like The Eagles reuniting whenever they need money, and it’s very difficult being surrounded by people who are so obviously mentally sharper than you are—I generally retreat to the basement and forgo the small talk and snacks, preferring to spend time with our dog Chev’rn watching television or skate videos with James. When I have tried to involve myself in these discussions it generally turns into Hannah talking about her job as a social worker, and Julie milling over her many career options. When my Grandmother, who usually moderates these state of the union type conversations, allots me my time to address the panel all I’ve been able to contribute is a colorful update on whatever music project I’m involved in, and then close out the Q and A portion with the standard, “Yes I know I majored in English, but I really don’t want to teach.” Intelligence is relative to the situation I suppose, and in that regards I have generally been the situation’s proverbial charity case throughout my life.

My inability to weigh-in with my Grandmother intellectually aside (she routinely defeats me in Scrabble when I see her—my Mom claims she cheats, I think it’s just because she's older and has heard more words), there is another important facet of her personality to explore. Not to tinker with the mechanical innards of sentimentality, but my Grandmother has paid me some of the most genuine compliments I have ever received. One comment jumps out at me in particular, and it was special because it seemingly came out of nowhere without any premeditation on behalf of my Grandmother. The scene could be written like this:

Scene: My parent’s kitchen. Tedd enters stage right through side door after a six-hour drive home from college. Dirty laundry firmly in hand he greets, and in turn is greeted, by various immediate family members. Tedd’s well-dressed Grandmother, or “Grana” as she is referred to, enters kitchen from stage left.

Tedd: Hey Grana, you look good, it’s great to see you. (Hugs his Grandmother awkwardly as he is holding laundry basket of bad smells.)
Grana: It’s good to see you too Tedd. You look good. (Pauses, steps back to better size up her grandson.) You know, I love your eyebrows.
Tedd: I don’t know Grana; they’re kind of thick and unruly if you ask me.
Grana: No, no, they remind me of this actor whose name I can’t remember from the 40’s. They make you look really handsome . . ..

I can’t explain why this compliment of something as trivial as my eyebrows had the effect it did on me. In fact I’m positive my Grandmother doesn’t even remember saying anything remotely like that, but I’ve always held onto it, and it has made me smile just for a second more times than I can count—even at times when I have been debilitating unsober. My Grandmother’s ability to say something seemingly trivial—in spite of even being able to remember the name of the person that spawned the comparison—that then resonates for years afterwards is startling. Whether it’s a comment about a physical attribute, or advice on how to properly break the speed limit—use the left lane only for overtaking slower vehicles; always scan the horizon from right to left for speed traps—my Grandmother’s words repeatedly reformulate in my head with no regards to the elapsed time since I first heard them. I’ll never be able to say something that will have that impact on someone in my life, and it that’s a very formidable thought to overcome. Now maybe I’ve built this point up in my head too much, and I know that it doesn’t necessarily put pressure on me to walk around doling out grand epiphanies to everyone I love or care about, yet everything my Grandmother has done in her life—from raising my Mom to be insightful enough to marry my Dad to indirectly causing me to even write all this—is something that I will probably always feel humbled by.

So where does this leave me? Aside from guilty, mentally dwarfed, and utterly humbled I am beginning to realize that all of these seemingly negative ends are actually something worth being happy about. My Grandmother is not the least bit un-modest, and that goes for everyone else in my family as well. All the great qualities I see in my Grandmother are my perceptions of her—they’re what I see as admirable in a person; she never told me she is what an amazing person is supposed to be. When I look at this woman I am seeing the kind of human being I would like to become, and not everyone can say that about his or her Grandmother or any member of their family for that matter. I’m pretty damn fortunate. What it’s taken me 25 years to realize is that if I were able to see myself as equal to her in any way, or feel that I’ve done anything in my life that surpasses her accomplishments I would be acting totally foolish. The grandeur I surround my Grandmother with is a result of her experiences, and there is no possible way I can ever not be a bumbling seven year old in her eyes—I just don’t have the experience that comes with simply existing to be anything other than what I am. And who is that person? He is someone who will get a $50 check enclosed in a well dictioned letter that offers encouragement and love no matter how old I act in her mind.

¹ I would like to point out that one such room, the one that happened to be prepared for me on this particular visit, has a stairway leading to the house’s attic within it. As my Grandmother showed me to the room (perhaps she felt I’d forgotten where it was, the last time I was at her home I couldn’t even drive) she informed me of the raccoon problem she’d been battling in the attic for several months, and that I should not be alarmed if I here something moving around behind the door to the attic stairway. This warning was followed by the statement: “The pest control guy told me I could try blaring loud, obnoxious noises from this room to scare them away, and I called your Mom to see if I could get a copy of your band’s CD.” My family appreciates my artistic forays.

²If you are going to go see the Violent Femmes play for free, a band I actually respect despite the alarming amount of retards who were clearly only there to hear "Blister in the Sun" live (seriously, you could be a lacrosse player and know the words to that song, shut the fuck up with the "let me go outs" in my ear) only to follow it by attending a party in which you are assured, "No, my roommate is sleeping at her boyfriend's tonight. You can totally sleep on her bed," only to be awoken to the loudly queried, "what the fuck are you doing in my bed you fucking loser," you'd have been dutifully drunk as well.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home