I must’ve been 5 or 6 years old, my parents shipped my brother’s and I back to Ohio that summer to spend a few weeks with my grandmother. My awesome grandmother, the one who baked cookies, made pancakes shaped like Mickey Mouse and drank bourbon like the water supply had been tainted with lead; not my other grandma who lived near us half of the year and complained when we got dirty or wore our shoes on the white carpet. I’m pretty sure everyone gets a set of each…awesome and anal retentive, child haters. If you’re lucky, the grandparents you prefer live closest and the one’s you don’t live far enough away to only send cards on holidays or show up for a long weekend to tell you everything that’s wrong with you. I wasn’t lucky, but I relished in the summer I spent chasing fireflies, stomping around the woods up to my knees in poison ivy and getting way too close to open flames with only a marshmallow as a shield.
My uncles yelled things like “Watch your god-damned mouths” at my brothers, who at the time were 10 and 15-ish and flexing their adult vocabularies, as we camped in an area void of urban sprawl. I was perplexed by the open stretches of highway that did not have any billboards directing you to cheap attraction tickets or fresh oranges. I had never seen a creek and was suspicious when I was told that not only could you splash around in it without fear of attracting an alligator, but you could also drink the water if you got thirsty.
For the first and only time in my life, I was around children other than my brothers, who shared my DNA. My cousin Brooke was fascinated by the fact that I lived in Florida and was a dwarf’s toss away from Walt Disney World and the beach. I was envious of the fact that she was allowed to go into the gas station without her shoes on and had actually seen snow. Plus, she got my grandma, Margaret, anytime she wanted. In Margaret’s eyes, you could do no wrong and I was too young to put my finger on the warm, musky scent of absorbed alcohol. Yes, I may have been living in paradise, but I had to share it with my mother’s stepfather and mother, Eddie and Frances.
As a small child, Frances and Eddie confused the hell out of me. Even though I was told I had known them my whole life, it seemed as though I was meeting them for the first time, every time we showed up for Sunday Dinner. They didn’t seem to know anything about me, “You’re the one that likes to color, right? Draw me a picture of Dean Martin” Frances would say as she laid out a protective barrier of newspaper over anything that might come in contact with a crayon. I didn’t know who Dean Martin was, and tried to please her with poorly rendered sketches of Care Bears or whatever fictional creature I was worshiping at the moment. “That’s nice. Show your Mutha” she would say, trying to shake off the pestilence she assumed I was bringing her with every Crayola masterpiece I produced.
Sunday Dinner is a weekly tradition for those of you who were not raised in an Italian environment, where you eat copious amounts of food until you are rendered motionless, cemented to a couch and watching 60 Minutes against your will. Macaroni and meat sauce, or “gravy” as it is referred to anywhere that isn’t the operated by the Olive Garden, is served first. Then a meat dish is introduced, after that dessert and an assortment of fresh cut fruit and nuts. Sounds yummy, right? Yes, through Sunday Dinner I developed a deep appreciation for delicious, hard to pronounce food and the need to keep cooking pots clean, but I also felt like I was being judged… mostly because I was.
My father is of Scottish, Irish and a bunch of other undetermined lineage from a farm in Ohio. He doesn’t subscribe to the old world ideals that women should be in the kitchen. I spent a great deal of time as a child watching him as he cursed and worked on cars or cursed and fixed things around the house. He always encouraged me to do things for myself, do what my brothers were doing or do better than my brothers were doing. My mother is an unlikely combination of women’s liberation, Catholic guilt and Sicilian superstition from Brooklyn, New York. She didn’t know that potatoes actually grew in the ground until she met my father. With my mother’s guidance, I spent my entire childhood with unexplained fears of opening umbrellas in the house and walking under ladders, while praying to Saint Anthony to help me find things I misplaced and trying to open jars on my own. She encouraged all of us to do our best, and not to get hurt while doing it. I have no idea what cosmic power drove them together and kept them together for forty some odd years. I’m still kind of awestruck by it ‘til this day. Their union provided me an upbringing where I was fortunate enough to be uptown and down-home, simultaneously.
Everyone was uncomfortable by the time Sunday rolled around. My mother who had always been a fashionable lady, but never psychotic about it, went to great lengths to ensure that we all looked perfect. My father didn’t say much at all, which is usually a pretty good indication that he is unhappy. We all piled in to the car and drove 45 minutes to my grandparents’ home in the retirement community it was situated in. We were supposed to be there by 4:00 p.m., but we were normally late. My grandparents would meet us at the door and feign excitement that we had arrived, but I don’t think they were ever really happy to see us.
Immediately upon entering, we all had to take our shoes off and were instructed not to touch anything. Everything in their house was white and costly. It was like walking into an expensive version of the Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange. They had white silk couches in the living room and a coffee table full of Asian themed knick knacks that screamed “touch me, I break”. My brothers and I were not allowed in the living room; instead we had to sit on the off-white couches in the family room…and not touch anything. About the time we started to look like we may put our hands on something worth more than parents’ house, we were sent outside to play. Playing got old after the 18th condo commando approached us and demanded to know which home was harboring people who still had color in their hair and control of their own bladders. When we came inside, we’d all sit back on the off-white couch and wait for dinner while my grandmother would scream “Look at you, you’re all perspired! And you got dirt on your dungarees. Don’t sit under the fan!” Until, I was about 13, I thought dungarees was an Italian word for knees, I’m not sure what triggered the realization that it was an antiquated word for pants.
When dinner was served, it was on the white table-cloth, while seated at chairs covered with white silk, over the white carpet. I tried in vain to keep the red, gelatinous, stain-inducing gravy firmly on my fork. This, as you know is an exercise in futility for even the most gifted macaroni connoisseur. I would watch in horror as gravity took hold of my ziti and sent it bouncing off the table-cloth, chair and came to a final messy resting place on the carpet. I was usually suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder by the time the second course rolled out of the kitchen. During this break in the food action, my grandfather would try to make conversation with me. He’d usually start off by telling me that I was ungrateful, and remind me of all the things he had purchased for me since birth; or bore me to tears with a story about his long deceased dog, Duke. I’m pretty sure Duke committed suicide. Even the most loyal of canines could not endure the emotional torture doled out by this man. My grandfather was not a man who was astute in caring for the well-being of any life forms. He often told a story about how he purchased a friend for Duke, a rabbit, and the hilarity that ensued when he left Duke and the rabbit alone, all day. “Imagine my surprise when I came home to find that the rabbit had been eaten in its entirety, except for his left foot. It was like Duke made his own lucky rabbits foot” he would chortle. I always tried to convince myself that Duke was a humanitarian or at least a rabbitarian, and was saving the bunny from a life of unrequited love.
Eddie was always quietly threatening to take something away; his threats were almost always a punishment involving me not doing the dishes the last time I was subjected to Sunday Dinner. Never mind the fact that for the majority of this institution I wasn’t tall enough to reach the sink and had two older brothers that could probably have done a fantastic job in the dish department. Because I was female, in his mind, I was put on this Earth to scrub pots. This logic totally went against everything my parents were trying to teach me at home, where shitty chores were shared.
My grandmother would alternately order us to eat and tell us we were getting fat. “Eat. You look thin” she would direct from the head of the table. “Oooh, not so much! You don’t want to get heavy” she’d say out of the other side of her mouth, while actively trying to remember our names. I’m not sure why Frances even had children in the first place; don’t get me wrong, I’m glad she did. But, I am under the impression that she, if children didn’t subsist on sugary treats and cookies and were therefore fattening, would have eaten her own young.
Everything in their lives was about keeping up appearances. Eddie once built me a dollhouse. It was a tri-level Victorian mansion, every little girls dream. He painstakingly laid out a shingled roof, painted the exterior a charming taupe and brown motif and decorated all the rooms in miniature extravagance. I watched for months as it was constructed and even jumped for joy when he installed a mailbox with a little flag that could be raised and lowered as if a tiny mailman had stopped by to deliver little postmarked envelopes. Upon its completion, he told me that it was all mine, but I wasn’t allowed to play with it. He then spent the next few years schlepping it from craft show to craft show, bragging about how he’d built it for me. Strangers congratulated him for making his grand-daughter so happy; I don’t think I ever thanked him for his efforts, because, after all…it wasn’t my dollhouse. Frances often purchased me clothes I wasn’t allowed to wear and had to save for special events, while stating that she should have bought a size smaller, so “I’d lose some of that baby weight”.
My grandfather expired right at about my eighth month of pregnancy. When my family cleaned out the house that my grandparents had shared and moved my grandmother into an assisted living facility, my middle brother claimed the white, silk couches. He and his wife defiantly sit on them all the time, in the comfort of their own home. I gave the dollhouse to a friend of the family and instructed their pre-school aged daughter to play with it like a rock star, I’m sure it looks like a tiny flop house by now, but at least it got some use.
My grandmother’s body has far exceeded her brain’s ability power it; she has a lovely nurse that takes care of her on a 24 hour basis, whom she probably would scold for being “too heavy”…if she could get her mouth to work. I don’t relish in the fact that she is getting old, half of me wishes, for my mother’s sake, that she was still spry enough to chastise me for eating. My father has never allowed my grandfather’s ashes to be stored under the comfort of air-conditioning. He is kept on a shelf in the garage, next to the dog bones, to remind his spirit of Duke, the wonder-dog.
To this day whenever I go over a size 4, my face starts to twitch uncontrollably as I mentally prepare a list of all things I can’t eat. The sight of a doll house makes me angry. But, I have never once saved an outfit for my son for a special occasion or made him feel the slightest bit guilty for sloppily sucking down spaghetti. Frances and Eddie taught me a lot of things, all of them were quite by accident.