When I talked about why we have been avoiding visiting my family on major holidays the last few years, I realized that I haven’t emphasized quite enough a positive outcome of this. When I visit before Christmas to drop off presents, I usually wind up having long and very pleasant conversations with several of the relatives. That those conversations are mostly one-on-one means that I’m never quite sure what we’ll end up talking about.
Last spring, for instance I wrote about one form of gatekeeping that sometimes happens in publishing under the guise of believability. And as an example of things that some people find unbelievable, I went on a rambling discussion of some of the reasons I referred to my late paternal grandmother as Evil: Believability isn’t just about fiction, or Let me tell you about my Evil Grandmother. During two long conversations, one with Mom, and the other with Aunt Silly, we both got onto the subject of my two grandmothers.
And I was a little bit surprised that this Aunt—who had never been the daughter-in-law of my Evil Grandma—had a relevant story to add to Evil Grandma’s saga. I shouldn’t have been, because she had still been a teen-ager and living at home when Mom and Dad had starting dating. Both Mom and Dad had been in her wedding party when Aunt Silly got married. Aunt Silly had still been living in the same tiny town until maybe six months after both I and my almost-twin cousin were born. But for some reason it had never occurred to me that Aunt Silly would have had more than a few casual interactions with my Evil Grandmother.
First, the shortish version of Aunt Silly’s story (which involves a urinary tract infection that I had when I was only two months old). Evil Grandma had been babysitting me for the day, and was certain that the only reason I wouldn’t stop crying was because my Mom coddled me too much. But when the crying reached a point she couldn’t stand, she’d taken me to Nice Grandma’s house, where Aunt Silly happened to be with her own baby.
During the conversation with Nice Grandma, among the weird things Evil Grandma said was that there was no reason to check a baby’s diaper until a certain number of hours after she’d changed it last. And when both Aunt Silly (who admittedly had only been taking care of her first child for a couple of months) and Nice Grandma had expressed disbelief, Evil Grandma insisted that since I refused to eat, there had been no reason to check the diaper. And she had repeated the assertion that the real problem was Mom’s coddling
And whether the diaper was wet or not wasn’t the issue: it was that Evil Grandma had not noticed that parts of a baby’s body that shouldn’t be were bright red, and even when confronted with the evidence (and after a visit to the doctor and trip to the pharmacy), she remained insistent that it had been perfectly reasonable to assume the problem was Mom’s coddling rather than a medical issue.
Second: Mom’s story is an addendum to the tale that I called the Second Coda in the above linked post of the phone call to me from Evil Grandma when she was in a hospital, on a respirator, and thought she was about to die. After that rather dramatic call, I tried to get hold of my younger sister, because I had no idea if anyone had called her to tell her Evil Grandma had had a stroke. The number I had for my sister turned out to be no longer connected, so I’d called Mom.
A few days later, Mom says, she was trying to get an address to send a ‘get well’ card or something to Evil Grandma, and whoever she had gotten hold of at the hospital, instead of giving her the hospital’s mailing address, had transferred the call to Grandma’s room.
Grandma was no longer on the respirator at that point, and was talking a little bit better. Mom had not expected to actually be talking to Evil Grandma. Mom says, “After I told her who I was and she replied that she was surprised to hear from me, I just blurted out that I had heard she wasn’t well and wanted to make sure she knew that I forgave her, and hoped that she could forgive me of my part in our disagreements.” Evil Grandma had replied, “Thank you. I love you.”
And in other developments: As seems to happen every time I visit Mom, she offered me a bunch of odd things that used to belong to one of my grandmothers or great-grandmothers. Which makes me wonder, once more, how so many members of Mom’s side of the family seem to have a kind of Tardis-like ability to store an apparent infinite number of things in a couple of ordinary closets. I wound up saying “yes” to a couple of the things (but also “no” to a bunch of others). So now hanging on my Christmas tree are two pairs of bells that had been crocheted by my paternal great-grandmother.
And while I was hanging them up, I realized that while I have memories of both of my Great-grandmother’s Christmas trees, as well as Nice Grandma’s eclectic ornament collection, I can’t remember what Evil Grandma’s Christmas trees looked like. I have memories of looking through the presents under her tree, sometimes by myself, but also sometimes with Grandpa or Dad. Both of them were world champions at the art of carefully turning a package over and and around to try to figure out what was inside. Please note that I didn’t say shake—shaking is what amatuers do. You tilt is slowly this way and that, your fingers spread wide over the surface, so you can feel how whatever is inside moves. You can identify bits that are heavier. And especially if the package is big enough in comparison to the contents, you can hear the sound it makes as it slides when you tilt it.
Anyway, I know what corner of her living room that Evil Grandma put her tree every year, but I don’t recall what kinds of ornaments she had and so on. Which seems weird given both my life long obsession with Christmas decorations, and that almost ever single Christmas before my parents’ divorce was final (when I was 15 years old), was spent at her house.
But I can’t remember what her trees looked like. I realize that for Great-grandma SJ, Great-grandma I, and my Nice Grandma I happen to have photos of some of their Christmas trees—usually with me standing in front of the tree at various ages. I also own a couple of decorations that originally were owned by one of those three. So I’ve had something to refresh my memory for them.
Finally: my Nice Grandma liked to have all the family get together to celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. And once she had moved back to southwest Washington, where a whole lot of extended family members lived nearby, she’d host this big get-together where relatives, in-laws, ex-in-laws, and friends would show up. You never knew who you would run into at Grandma’s Christmas Eve, because she collected strays her whole life.
There was a point when her health started making it difficult to handle all the cooking and such, so we’d shifted to most of the Christmas Eve get-togethers happened at my Aunt Silly’s house. Then Aunt Silly sold her house and moved into a much smaller place, so the next few years a cousin who had a big house hosted instead.
The first Christmas after Grandma died was… odd. Everyone said they wanted to get together for Christmas Eve but it wasn’t clear who would host it. The cousin who had hosted the last few years wanted someone else to do it. Apparently a couple of other cousins weren’t sure they wanted to make the drive. There was a point during the discussion when Aunt Silly apparently angrily said to one of her kids, “…now that Mother’s gone, I’m the matriarch of the family and I’m in charge!” Which eventually led to Aunt Silly inviting folks to her place—but not many showing up.
It happened to be one of the years that Michael and I spent Thanksgiving with Mom but stayed in Seattle for Christmas. So we didn’t show up at anybody’s get-together.
Since then no one has felt the need to make a concerted effort to get all of the cousins together for Christmas. And I get it. Most of my cousins are grandparents themselves, now. Just trying to spend time with most of their own kids and kids-in-law and grandkids is hard enough. When Grandma was alive she actually was the matriarch of this branch of the family, and it wasn’t that she ordered people to get together for Christmas Eve, it’s that at least down to my generation, we all wanted to stop in to see her and get one of her signature hugs. If you wanted to know where most of the family could be found on Christmas Eve, you called to ask Grandma where she was going to be.
I usually call her my Nice Grandma because, certainly by comparison to Evil Grandma, she was. But she was also stubborn and opinionated. Traits I inherited from her in abundance, by the way. Her stubbornness wasn’t about being inflexible—I’ve said before that if you presented a case for why you disagreed with her, she would sometimes change her mind, and even if she didn’t she would acknowledge that you had the right to make your own decisions. She wasn’t focused on always proving that she was right, her priority was simply never to give up on those that she loved.
She would explain why she was giving the advice, and what she thought would go wrong if you did it differently. She wasn’t always right. And she wasn’t always pleasant. But there she didn’t believe in treating anyone with disrespect. She was always trying to be kind. It would never have occurred to Grandma to tell other people that they were supposed to do what she said because she was “the matriarch of the family.”
I mean, if you have to pull rank? You’ve already lost the argument.