We lived downstairs in a two-flat, my mother’s parents upstairs, so I learned about Grandma early on. When her mother died, Grandma went into months of hysteria, night-time screaming included. One day she hissed into my face “I hope it happens to you! I hope your mother dies!” I was six.
A few years later, Grandpa collapsed and died while shaving. Again, months of loud laments. To me, hollow mourning. How could I not think of the times she’d screamed at Grandpa “I hope you drop dead!”
Early every December Grandma would find some pretense to be furious with Mom and then spend weeks slamming doors and drawers to maintain the tension. On Christmas morning I’d be sent upstairs to invite her down to open presents. That was the beginning of my lifelong hatred of those stairs.
Grandma would be sugarplum sweet Christmas morning and her presents to us were lavish. Later she and I ate fruitcake and sipped eggnog and pretended that everything was fine.
Those Christmases told the story of our life with Grandma: she lived to hurt Mom; the rest of us were collateral damage. Her rages alternated with charm and expensive gifts, interludes of artifical peace. Our stress level was everything she hoped for.
Some would say Grandma had spunk. She was a gifted seamstress and cook. She did everyday things artfully and made the most of everything she had. She could be cordial, fun.
Yet she could never speak a kind word to or about her daughter. Mom did everything she could to earn it but it never came. Mom’s need for that kind word and Grandma’s need to withhold it was the air we breathed.