sharp things

This entry is part 3 of 19 in the series Memoir

There is a green chair in the family room, a battered old upholstered thing where I sit most evenings sewing and watching television. Anybody who has ever been in this house knows not to sit in that chair. I tend to use the arms for a pincushion, you see, and needles tend to go wandering around in the upholstery, only to lunge up and make themselves known at odd moments. I regularly go on a needle hunt and extract what I find, but there are always a few in there. I get caught out now and then.

I’m here to talk about my mother, or to try to talk about my mother, so what’s with the furniture and the needles? I’ve got that same cautious feeling I get when I’m about to sit down in that chair. Trying to reconstruct the story of my childhood and more, to understand it, is asking to get stuck. A dozen memories that are neutral in most ways, and then wham, you’re standing there sucking a bleeding thumb.

So I’m going to approach this sideways, and start with my grandmother instead. My mother’s mother, born in 1900, sent to be raised by her grandparents when her own mother died; brought back home at about age five to be raised by her oldest sister, my Great Aunt Lillian, who kept house for all the kids and an alcoholic father.

My grandmother left Chicago and moved to California in the late fifties, so I saw her very rarely. In fact, I remember only one visit, but I do remember it clearly. Summer, the year I turned six. She came walking up Larchmont, stopped and then sat down next to me on the stoop. I didn’t know who she was and I wasn’t sure how to ask, but she was nice and she had something for me, a small sewing basket. We sat there for a while and she taught me how to thread a needle and do a basic running stitch. At some point she told me she was my grandmother.

Which changed everything, of course. I kept waiting for her to get up and go into the house, but she seemed content to sit there with me, something I couldn’t quite parse. I was left to my own devices in the summer, day in and day out. An adult who was spending time with me, who seemed to want to spend time with me, that was odd and maybe even a little unsettling.

In retrospect, I imagine that she was reluctant to go up to the apartment because she dreaded coming face to face with my mother, her oldest daughter. My mother’s alcoholism was so advanced at that point that nobody could pretend anymore. So we sat there, a six year old and a sixty-two year old, both of us thinking of the woman in the third floor apartment while we talked about needles and knotting thread..

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I could really imagine what that must have been like for her. She had come from California and now she had to walk up the three flights of stairs, open a door, and see for herself what her daughter had become. To look at the evidence, and not have any choice but to see it. Because my mother wouldn’t have it any other way. Even at six, I knew what was coming. My grandmother must have known too.

In the early afternoon my mother would be drunk enough to be combative. At that stage she would stand in the middle of the kitchen in her nightgown and sway as though she were being buffeted by a strong wind. The flesh around her eyes dark, almost bruised looking. She dyed her hair black, and it would have been standing up in tufts. A small woman, five foot, two inches tall — exactly as tall as her mother. As she talked — as she argued, she would poke the air in the direction of her mother’s face. She might have fallen. She might have laughed when her mother tried to help her up, or pushed her away.

All these years later I can finally understand what it must have been like for her to face the reality of her daughter’s life. The pain of that, the guilt, the bone-deep anger. The embarrassment.

Or maybe, just maybe my mother was sober that day. I try to see the two of them sitting at the kitchen table over coffee chatting about relatives, weather, the cost of a gallon of milk. I can try to imagine that, but it’s hard. If I can sell myself a quiet hour in the kitchen, the rattle of the fan, a stilted conversation about nothing at all, then there’s room to believe that my grandmother didn’t knowingly walk away from two little kids in a bad situation. Because she couldn’t stand to watch, or didn’t know how to help; because she had raised three kids and didn’t want to take on another two. Because she was feeling her age. Because she had grown up in an alcoholic household, and believed that adversity was good for small children. Because she just couldn’t face the truth.

She wasn’t in the house for very long. I was still sitting there on the stoop when she left and I was still sitting there when my father came home from work. That’s when I got up. I got up because when he walked up the stairs, I could walk behind him.

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