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?

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Fruitcake, Part 2

While I was writing my last post, “Fruitcake,” I was plotting “Fruitcake II,” intending to suggest that my grandmother was the fruitcake, making myself as snarky as the fruitcake nay-sayers. But I wasn’t sure I should do it. To write such commentary about my grandmother seemed dishonorable.

The NYT sensed my writer’s dilemma and on 1 December published a piece by Ken Budd, who told of similar misgivings and maintained that “honest writing” (his memoir) wins over “feelings of the dead” (his father’s). Helpful, but not quite a perfect parallel since he admired his father and I am, at best, ambivalent about Grandma. Also I am that private person he says his father was. Writing anything remotely personal makes me squirmy, and I know when I write about family I’m writing about me at my life’s foundation; I cringe, knowing that putting life into words — even if no one else reads them – is a way of baring it.

But that precisely is the reason to write, yes? To bare — and bear — life?

Yet enough baring already. With a cosmic chorus of self-revelation reverberating through our quivering psyches, why would I want to add my little paragraphs about my grandmother? Because I am addicted to the writing process, indebted to it, intrigued by it. It dims the din.

I do care that I’m exposing my dead grandmother — and me — to strangers. I do care about her right to rebuttal, which is inconvenient for her right now. But I care more about finding the words. Maybe I’m becoming a writer.