In search of story

Fruitcake, Part 3


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.

Fruitcake, anyone?

4 thoughts on “Fruitcake, Part 3

  1. Wow. But that tells so much about your mother and what a truly admirable life she built under this volcano. It also says a lot about your own emotional fortitude. And it takes me back to wondering if people who thrive on destruction and chronic stress are born with a strange form of chronic depression or another form of mental illness. It’s the usual thing to blame a traumatic childhood as the cause of all ills but is it? Is this simply due to the existence of an evil heart?

    This is wonderful writing. And in describing someone else you’ve written a beautiful tribute to your mother.

  2. The family patterns hold such a powerful dictate to our own memories and lives. I often wonder what my life would be like had my father’s mother lived. She died at 52, a year younger than I am now. Everything changed when she passed away, and I had not even been born. And yet so many of our traditions come from her. And so many of the terrible family conflicts. It is a heavy burden for the children to bear. And part of the legacy, good or bad. Thank you for sharing, Maureen. I believe our burdens grow lighter in telling the stories.

    • So good to read your thoughts, Tamara! I certainly agree about the lasting power of family patterns, and there is real insight in your phrase about “heavy burden for the children.” I sense a world of what-if’s in your wondering about how your life would be if your father’s mother had lived longer.

      I don’t know yet if writing lightens our burdens or just shifts them around so we carry them with less strain. Either way, the writing is a beast, and it’s wonderfully helpful to know that others wrestle the beast too. Thanks!

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