Thursday, January 10, 2013

Donnie Dear

My grandfather could be a mean man. An unloved child of a California party girl, he lied about his age and joined the army at 15. He made something of himself, found a girl he loved, and started a family. A Colonel in the army is a tough kind of parent to have. Especially this Colonel. As a grandchild, I was protected from Harold’s tyrannical rule over his children. It was worse for them.The adults in my life had the sense to shelter me from that to a degree. I am so thankful for that, because, as I get older, stories come out (obviously), and it is heartbreaking to hear what they all went through at his hand. By the time he got to me, he had made it in life. He was retired my whole lifetime; he traveled the world; learned languages; got his PhD; became morbidly obese. He softened a little. His physically abusive days were over, but he swapped it out for verbal abuse. We were his little soldiers. We honored to him. We were terrified of him, and he demanded 100% compliance.

Why am I telling you this? I’m writing this because to know my grandmother, you must know my grandfather. She waited on him in his armchair from sun up to sun down. Every morning, she woke him up with a full body massage. He dragged her all over the world when she was happier to stay home. He broke her pretty early, and she slaved for him. She took blows to protect others from him. I realize I don't know a lot about my Grandma's past. I do know that as a young woman, she had a job in a jewelry store that she loved, but she quit when she got married. At that point, she became his punching bag. This didn't end until the last few years of his life when her dementia and deafness overtook her.

As children, my brother and I spent a lot of time with them. My mother and biological father’s tumultuous relationship made them reliant on his parents. Even though my grandfather could be short-fused and intolerant, he had a soft spot for us. He played with us. Looking back, I find “The Obedience Game” he invented problematic, but he shouted orders and we did tricks for him for pennies and M&Ms. “Stand on one leg!” “Sing a song!” “Touch your nose and stick out your tongue ” We showed him our good manners and passed his tests. He taught us how to shake hands; how to speak to people; and to respect authority. We loved to please him and cowered when we didn't  But we were just kids. Like a king he would wave us away, and Grandma would make us disappear, ushered to the basement that she kept stocked with fresh Playdoh, action figures for my brother, coloring and ponies for me. When he hurt our hearts, she was there to mend them. When he yelled at us, she was there with a soft touch. When he humiliated us, her hugs soaked up our tears. When we got too loud and broke things, when he called out our failures, there she was. Arms always open. Growing up would have been a much different experience without her.

I wasn't surprised to get the news that my grandmother had passed. She died in her sleep, in her own comfy bed. I hope I’m as lucky. My half-sister said something interesting when she broke the news to me: “I wish Grandma could have enjoyed these last few years free of Grandpa.” Now that she’s gone, I realize that I don’t know as much about her life as I should. I know next to nothing, in fact. Grandpa was so loud and controlling; there was rarely room for anyone else to shine. We never got to hear Grandma’s voice, and her dementia hit so early that the roles between she and Grandpa eventually switched. He had to take over if he didn't want salsa on his PB&Js anymore. To see that man making his own coffee in his 70s, was an image to behold. He took pretty good care of her until his death two years ago.

I have to let go of my regret that I didn't know my Grandma better. Even in her last days, when she recognized no one, she was singing to herself and jamming out to a song only she could hear and smooching all over anyone who hugged her. She loved my tattoos, and she kissed my husband’s hand the last time we saw her. If there are angels among us, she was one. She was a sweet, loving soul and that’s really all I need to know.

RIP Donna Grady (1.9.2013). May your heart and patient spirit live on through us.

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