Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Party Grandma

I didn't much like my father’s mother when I was a child. I dubbed her "The Party Grandma," in contrast to my mother's mom, the dimpled and doughy "Grandma Grandma," who wore a hand-made apron and baked pecan pies. The Party Grandma had been a flapper in her youth, sporting bobbed hair and cigarettes, and to her dying day at 81 she liked make-up, music, and martinis. She loved a good joke, and when I picture her, she is laughing. But somehow, in spite of the laughter, something about the Party Grandma made me sad. Her eyes rarely smiled, and even when I was very young, I sensed that her exterior was a lie.

I know little about her life, other than that my grandfather, a heroin addict and drunk, abandoned her when my father was young, and that she had to go to work to support her two children -- a humiliation for an upper-middle-class Southern woman in the 1920s. My Great Aunt Jackie, a stable, thick-ankled, religious woman, more or less raised my dad and his sister while grandma spent her evenings out.

Two of The Party Grandma's visits to our home in Colorado became part of our family lore.

When I was four or five, grandma was leaving after a visit that to my mind had gone on far too long. I was sulking in my bedroom, and when my parents summoned me to come see her off, I marched to the door and shouted “Good bye, Good luck, and Good riddance!" I don’t remember grandma’s reaction, but my mother was highly amused, and after repeated retellings that phrase became a family mantra.

Then there was the time grandma drove into the Safeway on Main Street, which, until she got there, was not a drive-through. I suppose she was getting up in years -- the previous week she had backed into a tree when she had taken us on a picnic. On this particular morning, she was driving my older sister and me to the grocery store. As she pulled up to the curb directly in front of the store, her foot hit the gas pedal instead of the brakes, and we ended up in the frozen food section.
We weren't wearing seatbelts (I’m not even sure they existed then), and my sister, who was in the front seat, broke the windshield with her forehead. I was in the backseat and flipped over it to land in my sister's lap. We weren't hurt, although Molly had a small cut, but grandma was considerably shaken, and she cried for what seemed like days, terrified that my father would decide that she was getting too old to drive. What I remember most, however, is some old boy in a trucker hat surveying the damage. He took a long look at the cracked store window, the crumpled front end, and grandma's license plate. "Yup," he said laconically, "just like a Texan."

Grandma spent her entire life in Texas and Oklahoma. I don’t know when she moved to Odessa, but it must have been after she had remarried. My father had joined the Navy by this time, signing up at 16 by lying about his age, and he never really got to know his half-sister, born when grandma was 44. Grandma's second husband was a low-level oil man, and the family lived in a clapboard house on the edge of town. No Country for Old Men got the look of that flat and dusty West Texas town, with its hammer-shaped pumps and desolate vistas, just about right. Sometimes I wonder if Lillian Lemont was disappointed by her life, whether the no-longer-young woman with the bobbed hair ever looked out at the scraggly trees and the laundry drying in the sulfurous air and dreamed of something better.

I never met grandma's second husband; he had died before I was born. But I do have some rustic, post-card-sized watercolors he bought in Peru in 1918. My grandmother gave them to me when I was visiting her once in Odessa. I was in college, and I was fascinated by old family photographs. We went through them together, and as she told me who the people were, I penciled their names on the backs. But that was all she shared: names, birthdates, a few key places. Like my father, she never talked about the things that really mattered, and she never once mentioned my grandfather. When she died, the bulging envelope of photographs, along with her red '66 Rambler (my first car) came to me. Her two daughters took most of the antiques – the carved ebony chairs and the fine porcelain knickknacks, reminders of a more prosperous time -- which left my father feeling mutely hurt. My father was one of the least acquisitive people I've known, but I think he would have liked to have a few more things that had belonged to his ancestors.

One thing he did carry home from the funeral in Texas was a tall green and gold china vase that had long ago been promised to my mother. My parents were divorced by this time, my father happily remarried, my mother single and bitter. The vase was a focal point of her resentment. It had actually belonged to my great-grandmother, who, following our family's tradition, had willed it to my mother by writing her name on a piece of masking tape stuck to the bottom. But instead of giving it to mom, my grandmother kept the vase after her own mother passed away. It sat in a prized place on her mantle, making her living room a bit less shabby and my mother absolutely livid.

My mother had never liked her mother-in-law. One of her favorite resentments was how grandma had tricked her into spoiling dad's favorite meal. Dad loved beef stroganoff, and as a young newlywed, mom asked her mother-in-law for her recipe. Grandma complied, but she craftily altered a key ingredient, substituting water for milk. In this way, she insured that mom's beef stroganoff could never compete with her own. The vase only added fuel to the flame. And when mom learned that dad—and thus, his second wife Betty—had taken possession of the coveted vase, she seethed with indignant anger.

This green vase, my dad's new wife, and Grandma were all tangled together in my mother's mind. Mom never felt accepted by dad's family; even as I child, I could see that she was an outsider when grandma and dad's sister were around. The three of them shared the same sense of humor and bon vivant good times, and my mother was always on the periphery of their laughter. And, after she and dad separated, mom was hurt and humiliated when dad took Betty to Texas to meet his mother, even before telling his own wife that he was seeing another woman. Mom simply could not tolerate the idea that Betty now owned her vase, and for years almost every time I saw or spoke to my mother, that prized piece of porcelain inevitably found its way into the conversation.

Finally, whether to bring peace to the family or to save myself from listening to her complaints, I asked dad for the vase. I drove to his house, in a town a few hours away, wrapped it in an old towel, and took it to my mother. Although it clashed with her décor, she put it in prominent spot on her mantel, where it sat until the day she died.

And, just as my father did after his mother died, when mom succumbed to cancer, I returned home with that green vase in my arms. It doesn’t go with anything I own, but I will always keep it, a gilded symbol of the complex dynamics that make a family.


  1. "Then there was the time grandma drove into the Safeway on Main Street, which, until she got there, was not a drive-through."

    I laughed at that line, but your story is poignant and bittersweet in the way of so many family histories. Beautifully told.

    I'm glad you've kept that vase - I wonder what its future will be?

  2. Thank you. The vase will go to one of my nieces or my nephew--hopefully one of them will want it someday.

  3. Wow what a history. Thank you for sharing it.

    You can write reviews at Librarything, Goodreads and Shelfari. Seeing a review at LibraryThing is a bit tough (more on that when I review the website in a few days' time) but at Goodreads and Shelfari, it's easy to find the reviews people have written.

    I didn't see your visitors' meter anywhere here. Actually the annoying thing about aNobii's IP# knowledge is that they keep taking you only to the regional website and give you book search results only from that region. Besides it's eerie when they suddenly show an ad for something in your very city. I really don't like being watched.

  4. Hi ReNu -- the visitor's meter doesn't show. But anyone can add one to a site, and most websites (as opposed to blogs) have one. I agree--it's a little disturbing. When I check my email on Gmail, I not only get ads for things in my city, but for things semi-related to the text of my messages! The same happens when I visit some blogs that have adsense...the ads are localized to my area. Big Brother is watching!

    I'm looking forward to your reviews of the other websites. I'm definitely going to join one of them; I'll await your wise words before I choose!

  5. As always, a great piece of writing. Your style makes it effortless to tag along on your trips down memory lane. It's interesting to note that some things seem to be universal. They may not be the same things, but I'm willing to bet more people than not can relate to at least one experience you have chosen to share with us. Peace, Grant.

  6. Frankie, I've linked up this story in the post about my own grandmother. Hope it's all right. I found that some of the bloggers I read had written about their grandmothers too and I've linked up those stories as well.

  7. Sujatha--Of course it's all right; what a neat idea. I'm going over to check out all the grandmothers right now.

  8. I very much enjoyed your story of your Grandmother. Very well written and I love the honesty of it.

  9. I love this post. This is my most favorite blogpost I've ever read. It really moved me. I never realized how many stories can be in things people own. You should write a book called "The Green Vase".

  10. Tina--Thank you so much! What a compliment, especially coming from such a good writer. I like your title idea...the book could follow the five owners of the vase...Great-grandma, The Party Grandma, Dad & Betty, Mom, me. Cool idea!