I noticed sadly that Grandpa’s hair was now completely white. I hated to see this evidence that he was getting older. He was the closest thing I had had to a father, and no matter how hard things got with Grandma it always felt like I had an ally in Grandpa. He’d put on some weight too, I guess because he no longer had the farm work to keep him fit. His eating habits hadn’t changed. It used to take a lot of calories to make up for the farm work plus his day job at the factory. I guess he was used to eating that much and getting away with it.
Technically he was my step-Grandpa, but I didn’t know that until I was 10 or so. He was always just Grandpa to me.
Our meal was winding down and Grandma was offering us dessert. I was too full, though the pumpkin pie was tempting. Maybe later I’d raid the leftovers. I was startled to see Mom light up a cigarette at the table. I guess I should be used to it but I’d gotten spoiled in California, where few people smoked inside anymore. Of course at Grandma’s there were ashtrays in every room. I fanned the air in front of my face.
“Now Terilyn, don’t make a big deal out of the smoke. I’m not blowing it in your direction.” Mom said, noticing the motion.
“You know I’m allergic. If I’m anywhere near it I can’t breathe well.” I replied, annoyed that this was still an issue after all these years. You’d think they’d all know by now. I remembered one winter when I had to go outside to get fresh air in below-zero weather. I glanced out at the freezing rain—this was Missouri after all—and hoped she wouldn’t smoke too many cigarettes this evening.
“Bonnie, why haven’t you tried that hypnotist who helped me quit?” Grandma had become self-righteous now that she’d quit after over 50 years of smoking and several tries. She also never missed an opportunity to criticize Mom.
“I can’t afford to go. It costs too much.” Mom complained.
I rolled my eyes, knowing that the stage was set for another handout from Grandma. Money was what Grandma gave in lieu of love. She pretended that she had to go behind Grandpa’s back. Maybe that was true—he was probably as tired of this drama as I was, if not more.
We began to drift into the living room where we gathered for the exchange of gifts. Even though it was Christmas Eve, by family tradition this is when we celebrated. I had learned that this was the tradition in Germany, and since the Elschlager family came from Germany it made sense. Jessie gathered with our kids on the couch while I stuck my head outside briefly for some fresh, if frigid, air. As I turned around I saw that Grandma had followed me.
“Well,” she said, “I guess she isn’t too bad for a qu—“ noticing my expression she cut herself off. “Thank the Lord she’s white, at least!”
Amazed, I stared down at Grandma’s face. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised anymore at the depth of her racism—after all, we once had a heated debate over whether or not black people had souls! But this caught me by surprise. Perversely I almost wished I could turn Jessie black on the spot, just to spite Grandma. I certainly hadn’t gone out and deliberately chosen a white woman just to win Grandma’s approval. Anyway, Grandma wouldn’t have approved of any woman I brought home. I was supposed to have married one of the local boys, someone my Grandma knew and approved of. She had one in particular in mind—Maynard, a quiet man who seemed to look up to Grandma and might have let her run our lives. She’d tried to push me in his direction once again before my divorce was even final from the children’s father.
I also noted to myself that this was the first mention of the Lord on what was supposed to be the Eve of His birthday. After all the fuss years ago over my choice of religion it was ironic. But then, the fights had never really been about religion. It was always about control.
Grandma went on to say, “My babies has sure grown. It seems like just yesterday when they were learning to walk and talk. I wish you still lived back here. You know I don’t have long left to live.”
“Grandma, you’re only seventy two and it’s not like you have cancer.” Honestly, my mom and grandma always made it sound like they were going to drop dead any second. It’s one thing to share your fears about your health, in my mind. It’s another to use it to manipulate everyone around you to do your bidding.
“You know I’m on oxygen and my emphysema’s gotten worse this past year. This could be the last time I’ll see you all together. If you moved back I could see my grandbabies every day.” Grandma said plaintively, gesturing with her oxygen tube. She’d gotten her oxygen machine after my mom did—it felt like another lap of their competitive journey.
“I know your condition worries you and I’m sorry. But didn’t the doctor tell you that if you stopped smoking, like you have, and followed his directions you could live for years?” I did think she was looking so much better now that she’d stopped smoking and was on oxygen. Her lips used to be blue-tinged and now they were a normal color and she looked like she had more energy than she’d had in years.
“That’s what the doctor said, but I’ve just been feeling so down, it feels like I just can’t get my breath sometimes. I just wish you’d move back so we could be close again,” Grandma said, like a broken record stuck on one track.
“Grandma, if you didn’t want your neighbors seeing Jessie and I arrive together how do you picture us all living back here?” I tried to reason with her.
“I didn’t say she should move back here!”
“I’m not going anywhere without her. You have to get used to the idea that we’re a package deal.” I was really pissed now. My voice was loud enough that the other conversations broke off suddenly.
“I don’t want to fight on Christmas,” Grandma said. “Just think it over, will you?”
“You’re right, there’s no point in fighting about it—nothing is going to change.” Un-fucking-believable! Why did I keep putting myself in a position to listen to this?
Jessie came over and put her arm around me.
“I want to thank you, Mrs. Elschlager, for making this wonderful dinner and inviting us.” Jessie smiled as she attempted to smooth things over.
“Call me Pearl, honey. It was no trouble at all. I love to cook for my grandbabies.” Grandma acted as if she hadn’t just suggested that I dump Jessie by the roadside and move back to live near her. Amazing!
--to be continued--