Ten years after the first time I saw my mother cry
, I finally saw her cry again when I was fifteen years old. And it was the last time I was to see her cry.
Both of my parents worked, and while I was at school, my maternal grandmother would look after my younger brother who was three years old at the time. Of all my extended family, my grandmother Roxie was probably my favorite. She was a rotund woman, rather shapeless in the large dresses she wore, with copper-hued skin and thin straight black hair that was always pomaded tightly to her scalp (I didn’t learn till later that she was half Indian).
We didn’t have your typical grandmother-grandson relationship. My grandmother didn’t really talk very much most of the time. She had grown up in rural Alabama and hadn’t gotten further than the fifth grade. She could sign her name, but anything else she wrote was in a tentative block print. She initiated few conversations and they were always practical. My love for her came from the fact that in our quirky, detached family, when I was with her I felt like she acknowledged my presence in a way that didn’t leave me feeling like a virtual ghost sitting in the same room with the adults.
I have three strong memories of my grandmother from childhood. The first was of spending weekday afternoons after grade school watching soap operas with my grandmother. I would lie on her couch trying to untangle the complicated (and frankly, boring) interactions on the black and white screen. My favorite part of the soaps were the opening credits. The Secret Storm had a picture of waves breaking on a shore at dusk with organ music wailing mournfully in the background. I was fascinated by that image. I didn’t see a real beach until I was well into adulthood. Likewise, The Guiding Light showed a lighthouse with breakers crashing at its rocky base.
Our daily ritual started with my grandmother getting out a bag of those orange marshmallow “circus peanuts” and giving me three or four. She would then retire to her easy chair and put a fresh pinch of Three Thistles snuff in her cheek and fell into the imaginary lives of the TV actors—lives that could not be more different than her life as the wife of a retired coal miner. Every once in a while she would spit into an empty coffee can she kept next to her chair. It was gross, but as a child I found it mysterious and fascinating (why would you want to put tobacco in your mouth?). When I think of my grandmother I remember the pungent smell of snuff.
The second memory is of watching my grandmother tend her vegetable garden. She never seemed happier than when she was in her garden. She would occasionally let me hoe a little row and I can still remember the sunflowers we planted once. It was a city plot, and whenever I got bored I would pick through the soil looking for unusual stones. I remember imagining that broken pieces of colored glass were rare gems.
The third memory is sketchier, but the most powerful. My grandmother and I walked what seemed an interminable distance to a little kid to a vacant lot next to the only synagogue in town. Along one side of the lot was a row of cone-shaped trees that seemed from my vantage point to touch the blue sky. Our mission? To pick dandelion greens.
What I am trying to convey is that my grandmother was in her own way a typical grandmother.
Anyway, when I was fifteen, one day after school I walked into our house (we still didn’t lock our doors) and heard a funny moaning sound coming from the back of the house. It wasn’t a frightening sound and it actually sounded somewhat familiar. As I walked towards the back of the house I realized that the sound was coming from the bathroom.
When I walked into the bathroom I was confronted with the sight of my grandmother fully clothed and sprawled out in the empty bathtub. By this time my grandmother was quite overweight, and she was having a hell of a time getting out. When I asked her if she was OK, with slurred speech she said she was and to help her get out of the tub. A familiar smell, one that I associated with my uncle Lefty and his stopping by our house—ostensibly to say hello but actually to get a shot of the Segrams Seven from the bottle that my parents kept in the kitchen cabinet above the stove--wafted up from the tub. My grandmother was drunk! Being fifteen, this struck me as very funny and actually somewhat endearing.
Just as I was bracing myself to help my grandmother get out of the tub, I heard my mother come in the front door. I went out to meet her, thinking she could help me get Grandma Roxie out of the tub. I thought she would find the situation amusing too, but when she walked into the bathroom, rather than immediately helping her mother out of the tub, she started screaming at her. She was crying at the same time and asking my grandmother why she had gotten drunk, yelling at her that she had promised to not get drunk again. My grandmother tried to respond, but coherent speech was a bit beyond her reach.
Stunned and embarrassed for my grandmother, I backed out of the bathroom and went in search of my three-year-old brother whom my grandmother had left alone in our bedroom.
I can’t remember if my mother tried to explain any part of her reaction to me at the time. She might have given me a partial cover story, I don’t know. But many, many years ago when I was prying into our family history, in particular what it had been like for my mother growing up, my mother finally revealed the secret behind her reaction that day (and possibly the first time I saw her cry).
According to my mother, both my grandmother and grandfather were active alcoholics during her childhood (Everyone had known about my grandfather’s drinking. He continued to drink heavily until he had a stroke at the kitchen table doing what he loved best—enjoying a shot of whiskey while picking his daily numbers). Some of her worst memories involved watching her parents argue drunkenly in the middle of the street. At least once she and her brother and sister were left alone for several days as their mother went from bar to bar searching for their father. Around the time that I was born (the first grandchild), either on her own, or because of my mother’s confrontation, my grandmother stopped drinking excessively.
After that day, I never saw my grandmother inebriated again or my mother cry in my presence.