According to my grandmother’s self-published autobiography, she and her fourth husband, Anthony, found jobs at the Montgomery Ward department store in Phoenix in the winter of 1941. Anthony was the window dresser; my grandmother, the store detective. They struggled to make ends meet while living in a motel room with two children, my mother and her brother.
My grandmother wasn’t store detective for long because she never recovered enough stolen merchandise to meet the store’s four-hundred-dollar-a-month quota. In her book she describes herself as “too compassionate” with shoplifters. She stopped poor Mexican children inside the store and whispered for them to drop the lifted goods and run home as fast as they could.
Although she stood at the door each evening and checked the salesladies’ pocketbooks before they left work, she failed to notice the store’s number-one shoplifter. As window dresser, Anthony pulled items from every department, theoretically to use for display. Instead he smuggled many of them out of the store under his clothing. My grandmother writes, “I thought he was just getting fat,” but nothing I know about my grandmother could make me believe that. She most likely kept whatever merchandise pleased her or fit the kids, then pawned the rest and got drunk for days. Who knows if Anthony was even her legal husband? Just the title of my grandmother’s autobiography, The Lady, is proof enough of her unreliability.
I’ve tried to talk to my mother about my grandmother’s autobiography, but the subject aggravates her. “That fucking book!” she says.
I can understand my mother’s revulsion. My grandmother writes of the time she left my mother and her brother in a boardinghouse for six weeks while she was in the hospital with an ectopic pregnancy. My mother was nine; her brother was five. The boardinghouse owner didn’t know what to do with the kids and called Ives, my grandmother’s lover, thinking he was their father. Ives’s wife answered the phone and learned of her husband’s infidelity. Furious, she went to my grandmother’s hospital bed with a gun. Seeing my grandmother already so close to death, she put the gun away and left her to die on her own. My grandmother writes about her miraculous recovery and coming home to find her children in the boardinghouse, dirty and hungry, with nothing to eat but cold, spoiled cabbage.
My mother told me about how my grandmother would often take her and her brother to bars to pick up a man to buy drinks for her and hamburgers for her kids. My mother also remembers long bus rides across the country, as my grandmother chased down some new man or rumors of a job. When my mother was fourteen, my grandmother gave her a one-way bus ticket to New York City and told her, “Go become a star!” My mother sent home a portion of her first paycheck as an elevator operator in the Empire State Building, and she continued to help support my grandmother for the next fifty years.
I’d like to say I listened to my mother’s stories with compassion, but I never liked hearing them. She usually told them to me when she was weeping about how she had failed me as a mother, like the time she left me home alone during my ninth-grade Christmas break while she went on a Caribbean cruise with my stepfather. “I didn’t learn how to be a normal mother,” she’d preface one of the tales from her Dickensian childhood. Her stories made me cringe; they sounded like excuses.
My mother is beautiful, and she married well, twice. She was reading in her Fifth Avenue living room when she received the call about the trailer: My grandmother wanted to buy a trailer in Palm Desert, California, but didn’t have the money. She pleaded, “Just buy me this one thing, and I’ll never bother you again.” My mother knew my grandmother would bother her again, but she sat uneasily upon her good fortune. She looked out her window at the art deco towers illuminated across Central Park and down at the diamond ring on her finger. The poor woman is only asking for a trailer, she thought. Having undergone Freudian psychoanalysis in the sixties only to become a therapist herself in the seventies, my mother diagnosed herself with survivor’s guilt and wrote a check.
Six months later, my grandmother sold the trailer at half its cost and used the money to publish her autobiography with a vanity press. She sent us a signed copy, which my mother threw across the room. The next day I picked it up and shelved it among other family heirlooms, next to my father’s volume of the Masonic Morals and Dogma and the antique opera glasses my bipolar uncle swore Ulysses S. Grant had been looking through when Lincoln was shot.
I remember little about my grandmother, because when I was eight years old my mother forbade her to visit us ever again. I do remember sitting at the beach with her one day when I was six, eating a cream-cheese-and-grape-jelly sandwich, staring at the purple varicose veins on her fleshy white legs. I remember how my grandmother and my mother screamed at one another in the foyer of our apartment after my father died. I can still taste the homemade fudge my grandmother sent us — salty, grainy, and too sweet even for a child. One Christmas, when she worked for the U.S. merchant marine, my grandmother sent me a basketful of black-faced, cotton rag dolls from Africa. She ended up losing that job when she was caught stealing tins of sardines from the ship to feed the street cats of Rome. Mostly I remember the moods that overcame my mother whenever news of my grandmother’s latest crisis reached our home. My stepfather would say in exasperation, “Just send her some money and forget about it.” He never met his mother-in-law.
Eventually my grandmother became too crippled by arthritis, obesity, and alcoholism to care for herself. One afternoon a motel manager in Desert Hot Springs found her naked and unconscious in her room, which was strewn with bottles, soiled clothing, and the urine and feces of eleven stray cats she’d taken in. My mother got on the phone with the local Department of Social Services and had my grandmother placed in a rest home. A few months later she was turned out for disorderly behavior. Over the years my grandmother must have been expelled from every nursing home in southern California, usually after she’d managed to bribe one of the attendants to buy her whiskey. From one retirement home, my grandmother called the local animal shelter, reporting that nurses were capturing stray cats and dogs, tying them to trees, and shooting them. As word spread, a small group of animal-rights activists protested outside the home. My mother flew out to California and transferred my grandmother to another facility, where security was high and the staff knew not to provide residents with alcohol.
A year later I moved to Los Angeles. Though I was aware that my grandmother lived there, I never asked my mother for her address. I recalled the screaming from my childhood and my mother’s tears. I was afraid.
“She’s a very self-destructive woman!” my mother often said. “And she’s not your problem.” That was my mother’s gift to my stepfather and me — shielding us from the biggest burden in her life.
When my grandmother died, my mother flew to LA. We drove to the nursing home, a dreary building in a rough section of town. Inside, I breathed through my mouth to avoid the stench of urine that pervaded the linoleum-floored hallways. In the office, my mother signed forms. There was a cardboard box of my grandmother’s personal possessions. “Please give them away,” my mother said to the middle-aged woman who directed the facility.
“She loved spicy food,” the director said, as if my grandmother had been a naughty child. “We couldn’t keep her off the Tabasco sauce. She used to take it from the dining room, squirrel it away in her bedclothes. The nurses said she drank it straight from the bottle. She burned a hole right through her esophagus.” My mother shook her head, as if to say, Incorrigible. I turned my face toward the window so my mother wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes.
We stopped by a funeral home to arrange for my grandmother’s cremation. Her ashes would be scattered at sea, and a plaque in her memory would be placed in the funeral home, on the same wall as Marilyn Monroe’s name. My grandmother would have liked that, my mother and I agreed.
Though my grandmother’s brother was too feeble to travel from Detroit, his wife called, saying she would fly to California the next day for the memorial service. My mother and I looked at each other. We hadn’t even thought about having a service. “Aunt Sharon’s flying in for a service?” my mother said, incredulous. “Where the hell was she when my brother and I were starving?” My mother’s brother had committed suicide ten years earlier. My mother shook her head and reserved a small room at the funeral home.
I asked my friend Connie, who facilitated women’s writing classes and sometimes led groups into Topanga Canyon for full-moon ceremonies, to lead the funeral. “A minister would be inappropriate. And I’m desperate,” I said.
“Oh, Jesus Christ!” Connie said. I was silent. “OK,” she relented. “I’ll read something from Rilke.”
The next day brought a torrential downpour. I’d begged a few other friends to come. We sat in a circle, stiff and polite, until Connie invited each of us to share our thoughts. Great-aunt Sharon said, “She was the worst sister-in-law anyone could ever have!”
Later that night at my house, my mother said, “Let’s go somewhere.” She booked rooms at a spa for the next day. “We’d like massages,” she told the reservationist. “No dieting. No exercise.”
It rained two more days while we stayed at the spa, dressed in white terry-cloth robes with towels on our heads. We detoxified our bodies by day, ate steak and French fries by night. When the weather cleared, we walked around the flooded golf course. I picked up a dead fish about a foot and a half long on the seventeenth green. My mother snapped a photo of me holding it by the tail like a trophy. Down near the ocean in La Jolla, we watched chipmunks scurrying over a sea wall. A silver-haired man walked up to us. “Those chipmunks dig the mortar out from between the rocks,” he said. “Ruin the wall. Someone ought to shoot them.” He strolled away.
My mother faced me, furious. “You know what my mother would have told him? She would have said, ‘Someone should shoot you, mister!’ ”
We drove back to LA, and the next morning, my mother left for New York.
A few weeks later I was riding through Hollywood with a friend. I asked him to take a quick detour by the nursing home. “My grandmother lived in there for five years,” I said. “She was an alcoholic, but she couldn’t get any liquor. She drank herself to death on Tabasco sauce.
“I never went to see her,” I continued. “She was my grandmother, but I know very little about her.”
That night, after dinner, I came home and found my grandmother’s autobiography. I thought about how much effort it takes to write a book, no matter how awful the story is, or how badly written. I sat down on my couch and wrapped a blanket around my shoulders. I opened the book and started to read.