Unread Letters

Debbie & I went to see Turandot. First time in 2 or 3 years that I’ve made it to one of the Concert Series-I enjoyed so much getting out. I horrify everyone because I say my idea of heaven is being in an elegant theater like the Stanley or the Landmark or Radio City Music Hall & listening to & watching the stage productions/musicals. The few I’m closest to think they’re going to be with someone they’ve lost or family. –excerpt from a letter my grandmother sent me in 2001

 

My grandmother sent me letters in her spidery, nearly illegible handwriting when I was in college. At the time, like most 19 year olds, I was too much of a self-involved asshole to put the Skyy vodka down & think, “Ah yes, this woman who adores me put time & effort into writing to me & I should read these.” Instead, I just put the letters aside….just like how we all put things aside, thinking we have more time to come back to them. Note to everyone who HASN’T learned this lesson: Stop doing this. You don’t have all the time in the world. You think you do, but you don’t. She ended up dying my sophomore year at college & then, brimming with guilt, I couldn’t bring myself to read her letters. I put them away—and despite a relatively nomadic lifestyle at one point & a brief period of homelessness—I managed to keep hold of them. Because it was her own thoughts in her own words–I felt like by not reading them, I was keeping her alive, that there were still bits of her for me to discover.

My paternal grandmother was a complicated person and she didn’t necessarily inspire a hemorrhage of warm affection. She could give a backhanded compliment like no other. She often voiced unpopular opinions. She wasn’t necessarily wrong—but her opinions could be conversation killers that left you feeling oddly defensive. She was often unhappy and depressive. She had lost a child. Her daughter, Robbie, was born with spina bifida and a malformed brain. For some reason, when being knit together in the womb, something went wrong. At Robbie’s birth, my grandmother was told that Robbie wouldn’t survive. But Robbie did survive. In fact, she lived to be 3. Every day for 3 years, my grandmother took care of her daughter knowing that she would die…And sooner rather than later. As a mother, I can’t imagine how excruciating that must be…caring for & loving a child that you know is a mayfly.  Robbie’s comet-like affair with life on this planet was something the family didn’t talk about. Once, in my youth, I had enough innocent curiosity to ask my grandmother what Robbie was like. She told me that Robbie was like a little living doll. She never talked, never walked & was never going to. My grandmother fed her and changed her and loved her and waited for her to die. Understandably, my grandmother never really recovered from this and it manifested itself in days of her lying prone on the couch with the heavy curtains drawn tight…

But my grandmother loved me. Just like Robbie’s life wasn’t talked about, my favored status was another un-talked about but understood thing in the family. We all knew I was her favorite grandchild. It sometimes caused grief between my wounded, jealous siblings & me…as well as my mother & me. While my mother tried to break me, my grandmother used to tell my mom to accept me as I was, that I was just “high-spirited.” My grandma thought it was a good thing I was feisty, that it would help me someday when things got tough. There is an anecdote told in my family about how one year my parents took me to JC Penney’s. In the store, I saw a white denim skirt that I coveted. My parents told me to remember that my birthday was coming….which means nothing to a small child. Instant gratification is built into us and we loathe to give it up. In response to being told to wait, I began to act out. I hid under the clothing racks & spun the circular racks around. In general, I just went on a campaign of terror in the middle of the store. My dad grabbed me and physically dragged me out of the store. As we passed the startled clerks, much to my father’s chagrin, I yelled, “HELP! HELP! HE’S CHOKING ME! HE’S GOING TO BEAT ME IN THE CAR!” To prove that the “high-spirited” thing might not behoove me in my life & that she should not encourage it, my parents told my grandmother what I had done. I accepted at that point that I had shot my shot of getting that skirt.

A few weeks later, at my birthday party my grandmother handed me my gift. I honey-badgered the wrapping paper off that sucker, shredding it with my little nails, only to see a white cardboard box with the words JC Penney written on it. I looked up at her & I remember she nodded at me with a smile. I flung the top off the box to find the white denim skirt I had wanted so badly. My mother & father’s response was one of annoyance and displeasure over their authority being undermined. My grandmother just laughed in the background at the exact moment someone snapped a picture of me realizing what was in the box.  I love the picture, even though you can’t see her whole face. You can still see her delight at finding a way to give me what I wanted, while pissing off my mother at the same time. I keep it on my fridge. 

 

I remember she made me watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s with her when I was about 8 years old. As a grown woman, I wonder what the fuck she was thinking showing a movie about a call girl to a child…but, even then, I loved that movie. I didn’t see a broken girl trying to get out of her situation by any means necessary, even if meant charging a man $50 to let him “take her to the powder room.” Instead, I saw a quirky woman in beautiful clothes living a glamorous life in NYC, surrounded by men who loved her & wanted to possess her. It informed a lot of my ideas about what I wanted to be as an adult. Clearly, I didn’t understand…As an adult, I have realized that I am probably closer to the character that the movie is actually about…a desperate, fragile woman who doesn’t understand her value beyond what men are willing to pay for her….A woman who wants to escape.

My grandma also made me watch Katharine Hepburn movies with her. She especially loved the African Queen. Even as young as 6, drinking tea & watching Hepburn & Bogey would be our afternoon together. I can still picture my grandmother in her blue corduroy Laz-y boy chair…dressed in a men’s button down oxford with the sleeves rolled up and her long skinny jeans. She would pull one of her long, gangly legs up and rest her head on her knee, a youthful pose for someone her age, and wistfully watch the movie. My grandma wanted to be Katharine Hepburn, I think…or at least what Hepburn represented—an untouchable strength, an untamable Yankee spirit who made her own rules. For example, I remember my grandma once telling me not to get married till I was at LEAST 35. “Use your 20s for selfishness. Get a career, financial stability. Travel. Then, when you know you won’t need to be dependent on a man, then you get married.” It was an uncommon philosophy in the kind of rural area we grew up in. People marry young here. And so, I rushed to get married at 25 and immediately knew, I should have listened to her. But, as much as my grandma wanted to be bullheaded and strong and haughty like Hepburn was, my grandma saw herself as weak, stupid and ugly. A less than. She voiced these low opinions of herself around us a lot.

Like I said…complicated.

My grandmother loved classical music. I remember her making me listen to Bach as a child. She explained that she loved Bach because of the way the melodies and harmonies intertwined & were woven together into a tapestry of sound in her ear. Later I discovered she was talking about counterpoint—but the way she explained it made it sound magical. She took me to the opera & to see famous violinists when I was a very young child. People told her all the time she was foolish for paying good money to take a young child to see artists like Itzhak Perlman. My grandmother always told them it wasn’t a waste because I would appreciate it when I was older. As an adult, I think about how she was investing in me. She didn’t live to see the return, but she was confident in where she made her deposits.

Part of the favoritism revolved around the fact that she loved that I was a violinist. She financially supported that venture as well…paying for lessons here or there…and even buying me a violin…Because she was often so depressed, she showed affection by way of ATM. I didn’t understand that supporting my education & career financially was her hug, her I love you. My youth & own mental health issues were Vaseline on the lens. I never saw clearly how much she actually really, really loved me.

I was dutiful in writing home to her when I was away at college…but often, I let numerous voicemails collect on my dorm room phone more than I should have, before calling her back. When she finally passed, I was out getting a tragus piercing. I came back to a voicemail from my parents and I knew before I even called home that she was gone…I kept thinking, “I was getting a piercing she would have hated…while she was taking her last breath.” I hated that I wasn’t home with her, that I was doing something she would have disapproved of…And, so, I boxed her letters up. Put them in their own coffin. Buried them in my closet.

In my own recent suicidal depression, I finally made the decision to read the letters she had sent me…even though it means there is nothing new left of her…that she is actually known as much as I can know her…that there’s nowhere further for me to carry her.  I thought it would be sad, and in some ways it was…but all I could think of was that one scene in Eternal Sunshine where Clementine tells Joel that this is the end of their memories together and it’s all going to be erased soon…their life together good or bad…their love…and anything they might have been…and Joel quietly tells her he knows. She asks what they should do and his response makes me weep every time, “Enjoy it.” But there’s a lesson in that answer….So that’s what I did. I just enjoyed it.

In one letter, she tells me, “We’ve been having flocks of turkeys in our back yard. We watched 2 males fighting Sunday—and a third one waiting to see who won out &, I suppose, to fight him. Anyway, the next day I saw the one was beaten and with feathers hanging out under his breast. Grandpa likes seeing them out there and is so afraid someone will hunt them.” I can see her at the back sliding glass window, leaning her arm up against the frame of the door. Her lithe body leaning on her bony arm, watching. Her teapot whistling on the stove. Committing details to memory to recount later with her cheap bic stick pen.

One of other letters starts with a lament that she couldn’t get ahold of me via telephone in my dorm room, because there was a great program featuring performances by various famous violinists on pbs that she wanted me to see. Because she couldn’t reach me, she recounts the whole special in the letter. Even now it’s almost like I’m watching it with her. She used to call me and watch specials like that over the phone with me all the time when I was a teen.

In another letter, she writes, “Got your nice newsy letter. You could be a writer. Maybe someday you will—I know you were always good at it. I hope you will find some time to do some-& some poems.”

In some letters, she is lost in the past, her youth: I remember Sally Healey & I went to the Beeches for a luncheon that Bobby Kennedy was going to be at—one of his stops when he was campaigning for senator from NY. They called him a carpetbagger then, too. I still think of touching his 2 very cold fingers. I’ll never forget it. I was so thrilled. It was a little cold, wet, nasty day & he was half frozen. I’ve always wondered how things might have been if he had not been assassinated—he would have surely been president.

But from each letter addressed to Roxannie, her affectionate name for me….to the contents & sign off…the only thing I felt was how much she fucking loved me. Even in the minutiae, I saw how hard she was trying to find content so she could send me a letter, even though her world was shrinking with the increasingly common deaths of her oldest friends, her depression, my grandpa’s Alzheimer & her role as a caregiver…

Gram, I’m not ready to slip into the seat beside you in the velvet light trap yet…but I hope you’re enjoying your never-ending show…Clap loudly when they get the Bach just right & I will see you at intermission. I’ll be wearing my best dress & a dark lipstick you’re going to hate…but that won’t matter. We have so much to talk about, it’s been so long.

Log in to write a note
August 15, 2019

This was a wonderful story. I truly enjoyed reading it. Brought back memories of my grandmother. Thank you for sharing.

August 18, 2019

@thespiritwithinme thank you. It was nice to remember my own…she believed in me as a child, when my home life was very corrosive to my self esteem…as an adult, I realize what a gift that was.

August 15, 2019

This was a very good entry, I enjoyed reading it. I wish I had more to say. I hope you don’t still feel guilt over not writing or talking to her enough before she passed away.

August 18, 2019

@heffay thank you. I still wish I had written and called more, but also know I was barely hanging on those years. My mental health was in an extremely bad place and I found it difficult to function. Had I been feeling better,  maybe I would have been better at keeping in touch…I’m grateful for the time I had though…it has to be enough…

August 17, 2019

I daresay that your grandmother did invest in you — and it paid off. While you are of course your own dynamic person, reading this entry gave me a great sense of how your grandmother helped influence you into becoming the eloquent writer and discerning appreciator of literature/art/music that you are today.

Her defiance of your parents’ wishes via surprising you with the JCPenny gift was hilariously righteous (a classic trolling!) — and how sweet that the very moment of the gift’s reveal was captured on camera!

Those letters to you at college were unquestionably sent with much love, but it also sounds like she missed you dearly and was happy for any excuse to keep in touch (even if it involved a startling account of turkey on turkey violence). Then you are oh so right about time being the scarcest commodity when it comes to our elderly relatives. My paternal grandmother passed away in 2009, and I still regret how — despite my parents frequently urging me to go visit and spend quality time with her — I did not see a great deal of my grandmother in her last couple years. I took it for granted that she’d stick around for the indefinite future. Yet then one day she died and, just like, she’s been gone for 10 years now.

August 18, 2019

@drbajahi overall, it was a good experience. I feel like I may have more letters around, though…bc I remember reading one (or, rather, starting to)….and she was criticizing a friend of mine she had heard bragging about shoplifting at my grad party. I got the old, “be careful who you associate with” spiel….which pissed me off, so I stopped reading. She was right though…my friend ended up getting caught and was sent to live with an aunt. (She did ultimately straighten herself out and is a mother and teacher and wonderful law abiding citizen now, but my grandma was right. Had I gotten mixed up with all that, I risked getting in trouble.  Anyway, that letter wasn’t in the pile, so there may be more letters elsewhere.

My grandpa was sick with Alzheimer’s…just never imagined he’d outlive her, I guess.

Yes, my grandma undermining my parents to encourage my bad behavior still makes me smile. Although, heaven help my mom if she tries that with my kids. (Actually she has on a few occasions and my response has been to express my displeasure and leave immediately with the kids.) Although she did address our bad behavior, and in ways not recommended any more. Due to issues I’ve written about, when I was 5, I became quite feral. I once bit her. Her response was to bite me back, hard, on the arm….suffice it to say, I never bit anyone else again. She also washed my older sister’s mouth out with soap for repeating a racial slur she had heard at school. Lol. My sister married a racist jerk, so gram should have lathered, rinsed and REPEATED. Lol.

 

August 18, 2019

Wow, this entry got some tears out of me, which is not uncommon with your diary. I know I’ve said this before, but she was right that your writing is a true gift. I call myself a writer (not because I think I’m good at it, but because I enjoy doing it, and want to do more of it), and I think your style is so unique. I’ve never seen anything like it.

The first sentence that got me was, “just like how we all put things aside, thinking we have more time to come back to them.” My biggest struggle for the past few years has been my procrastination. I haven’t solved it yet. There are these things that I really, truly want to do, and I just feel like I have fear that debilitates my doing of them. Fear of not being good enough? I’m crying as I write this too. I feel incapable of getting certain things done, and a lot of them are the things I want to do the most. It’s a problem that probably has a solution, like I feel like some of yours might, but it seems to me as impossible to figure out as some of your stuff probably does for you. And that’s the thing, as much as I fully agree with you on, “Stop doing this,” it’s just not that simple. Humans are complex as fuck. And I know you know this, maybe more than me, even. I guess we just can’t give up trying.

As far as your grandma goes, I have the belief that she’s at peace with any you not giving her much time when she was around issues, and most likely lives on in spirit around you. But I don’t like to talk about my views that much, because I respect everybody else’s. I would venture to guess, though, that even the things she might not have liked for you (i.e. a piercing), that she was always impressed anyway, because anything you did that was different showed the strong personality she admired in you so much.

In reading about her, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my last living grandparent, my mother’s mom, whom I just saw in NC. She lost a sister at a young age, and her marriage with my grandpa was apparently terrible, because she has nothing good to say about him, even though my mom and her other kids tell a different story, that she was just as bad as him in the fighting, and that she tends to play the victim and exaggerate/slightly change events to fit the victim narrative. But this isn’t what your grams reminded me of, but her sharp tongue, and the things that she says that are like little knives that you don’t see coming sometimes. She’s a scorpio, and my astrologer mom describes her like a scorpion, striking when you least expect it, which is so true. But I thought of this whole “you don’t have all of the time in the world” thing while I was just there, and took myself out of my comfort zone to spend quality time with her, assist her with things, and I saw our bond grow. I know that, even though she’s beat two cancers (breast and ovarian), she’s not gonna be here forever, so it was priceless to get that time with her.

Also, and sorry, I’m almost done haha, this entry reminded me of my grandpa, and how he also had things that made our relationship complex (talked about my weight, contributing to the peak of my bulimia without knowing it), and he was so conservative with some views (didn’t like my tattoos), yet, we were so freaking similar, in so many ways. I wrote him a huge letter, and I believe it was one or two years before he passed, about how much I wish he knew how much I loved him. I (and was told that he had felt that way before too) often felt that I used him for things he would get me, but I remember that doing that was also my way of connecting with him, because he was hard to get close to. Giving people things was his way of expressing feelings that he couldn’t otherwise (like your grams paying for things for you). I wrote about how sometimes I felt like I was a sort of black sheep to him, and that I wish he knew how much he inspired me to be a better person. He did and still does. My last memory with him is introducing my husband (when he was my boyfriend) to him, a super tattooed man that he actually absolutely loved, because he could tell how happy I was. And we had pizza and cognac, and were smiling, and he said he loved me so many times that night. It’s a good memory to have, and now, every time I hear Frank Sinatra (his favorite – his funeral played My Way which is so him), I think of him, and I often talk to him. I talk to him when I’m scared in planes, and I prayed and asked him to help my family stop fighting when we had our most recent explosion. I can’t explain to you, but I know that he is there. We really did make peace, shortly after I talked to him, and didn’t fight for the rest of the trip. I feel him, almost see him in my mind, and can almost smell him.

Ok, this became the size of an entry. I’m sorry about that, but as you can see, this entry provoked all types of feelings for me. It’s beautiful! And I hope I am right that your grams is around you, doing little things to help get you out of depression, because as much as she wants to be with you again one day, she definitely wants you here right now. <3

August 18, 2019

@free_spirit_gal I am not that spiritual of a person. I have my weird little code I live by. However, I do think my grandma finds little ways to show me she’s still around. I began to always catch the time at 1:11 or 11:11 after she passed. She visits in dreams very, very rarely…usually when I’m at a juncture in life…and I always feel lighter after one of the dreams. So I do feel like she’s around in her own way…or at least I feel her because I carry her. I am glad you feel your grandpa around…I know how important it can be to feel that presence when we need it.

I agree that it is way more complicated than just to “stop” taking people for granted….if I had to do it all again, I would probably end up doing the same damn thing–because that is life. We get busy. We make choices. I think, as humans, we are unable to face how short time is for some of us. I don’t hold it against myself anymore. I did for a while. But  *shrugs* If she didn’t hold it against me (judging by her letters, she didn’t–she missed me but loved me)–then why should I?

Thank you for your kind comments on my writing. I don’t always see a lot of value in myself, but I do feel like if I’m going to contribute anything to this world (besides my most amazing little ones who make this world a kinder, more colorful, better place), it will be in my writing somehow.

Saw you posted! Will have to catch up!

August 22, 2019

@thecriticsdarling 🙂 💛