Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Seeing Ghosts

I don't believe in ghosts. I almost wish I did. If I could dismiss what I saw as ghost it would be easier. I would know that it was just a figment of my imagination, brought about by the unfortunate combination of memory and a bit of undigested cheese (as Ebenezer could no doubt tell you). But what I saw was made all the more petrifying for being absolutely 100% flesh and blood real.

My grandmother has been dead for 10 years.

(Is your skin crawling yet? Mine still is.)

I saw her again tonight. Her hair, her clothes, her manner, carriage, bearing, demeanor, mannerisms, gestures, lipstick, shoes, all of it exactly as I remember her from when I was a girl. Everything from the little flyaway hairs around her face that escaped her soft bun to the string of pearls around her neck, the tailoring of her skirts and the T-strap, high-heeled shoes: identical.

I was at the Theatre Royal in Bath watching Patricia Routledge star as Queen Mary in Crown Matrimonial. Darlene Johnson, who played the Countess of Airlie, is the spitting image of the woman I remember has having dominated my family for the first 2 decades of my life. I couldn't take my eyes off her, not even to focus on the stunning performances of the rest of the cast.

I am, quite literally, still shaking. I actually had the feeling, during the play, of wanting to go up and talk to her. I'm not sure why. Maybe I wanted to get close enough to smell if she wore the same perfume, too. Maybe I wanted to yell at her, or hug her, or ask her questions. Maybe all of that. (Warning: unresolved issues imminent.)

The thing is, I don't miss her. I wasn't that upset when she died, and I rarely think of her. When I do it's usually to thank my lucky stars that she won't be around to ruin another Christmas. You see, my gramma wasn't a very nice person. To put it less subtly, she was selfish cow.

Selfish really is the word. She wasn't evil, or belligerent, or malicious. But was extremely petty and bitter, had an immesurable sense of entitlement, and was above all the utter center of her universe. As far as she was concerned the entire world existed to cater to her whims. Basically, all her unsavory behaviors over the years can be traced back to this single, all-consuming need to constantly be the center of attention.

I'll give you an illustration. When my mother and father got married, my grandmother (mom's mom) wore head-to-toe white lace. I should tell you at this point that gramma was a looker. Stunning figure. Even when she died at the age of 82 she still had the best legs of any woman in the family. When she was young she could have been a movie star. Mom, as it happens, inherited grampa's looks, and while a lovely woman, she never had that silver screen elegance that gramma had. So when gramma showed up at her own daughter's wedding in a floor-length, fitted, white lace sheath dress you can bet your sweet bippy it was with the subconscious (if not outright deliberate) intent to steal her daughter's thunder on her own wedding day and out-shine the bride. Justifiable homicide if you ask me.

I suppose she was a kleptomania of sorts, spending her entire life stealing other people's thunder. This need to always be in the spotlight manifested itself in other ways, notably her morbid response to grandpa's terminal illness.

When I was about 4 my grandfather was diagnosed with liver cancer. Whether the diabetes came before or after that I don't know, but I've been told that at the time he was given 3 months to live. He finally died when I was almost 20.

In the intervening 15 years a lot of considerations were, by necessity, dictated by grandpa's needs. Housing, food, travel arrangements, time and location of family gatherings, that sort of thing. I know dealing with grandpa's illness was difficult for her, and it certainly wasn't made any easier by the fact that he was just as self-centered as she was.

In my entire life I don't recall ever having a single conversation with my grandfather. I'm not certain that he ever addressed me directly. He came to everything -- band concerts, graduations, all that -- but he never spoke to me. To him I was a complete non-entity. And I suspect he felt much the same about gramma. He probably took her completely for granted and never thanked her for a thing or apologized for making everything so tough for her. Instead he shouted at her (a lot) and peed in the kitchen sink when it was too much effort for him to go upstairs where the only toilet was located.

Her response to this was to try to skim off as much attention from the rest of us as possible, and she did it by insisting that she was the one who was dying. (Never mind that she had the constitution of a horse until 30 seconds before a sudden heart attack finished her off.) Every stinking year is was (as she placed the back of her hand wearily across her forehead like a melodramic victorian heroine) "Oh, I'm sure this my last Christmas! I won't live to see another one!" or "This is the last time I'll be at your birthday" or whatever. No matter the occasion, it was sure to be the last one. (I can remember mom muttering responses under he breath like "Thank god for that" and "promise?" and "you better be right this time." Even "I can arrange that."

This constant insistence that every event was the last she would live to witness came with an interesting corollary. Just to make sure that we knew she didn't want to die (god forbid she should get something she wanted, she wouldn't be able to complain any more!) she would constantly exclaim "Oh, if only I could live long enough to see Marley (my brother) _____!" The blank could be anything: get a girlfriend, graduate grade/middle/high school, college, grad school, get married, anything. The golden grandson was her only reason for living. I was, well, a non-entity. Not once did the words "I only hope I live to see CB ________" ever escape her red lips.

This was, I realized later, the major source of the sibling rivalry between me and my brother. I was convinced for the better part of my life that everyone liked him better, loved him more, and felt he was in every way superior in talent and more important to the future of humanity. It took me a long time to realize that, actually, it was only gramma and grandpa who thought that.

Gramma seemed to know this, too, and made a huge point of always emphasizing how she treated us equally (with a tone of voice that suggested it was against her better judgement). Every year at Christmas and birthdays she would hold my arm firmly and tell me in no uncertain terms that she spend exactly the same amount of money on my gifts as she had on Marley's.


Who does that? Why the need to point it out? For one thing, it never occured to me think otherwise. More importantly, if it was so obviously true, why state it at all? One doesn't spend a lifetime repeating obvious statements unless there is some reason to believe the contrary.

The thing was, I didn't care a whit how much she spent on my presents or Marley's. Even after her incessant reassurances I still didn't care. But I do wonder now how many times she was lying through her teeth. I mean, I was a kid. What the fuck did I know how much anything cost?

This obsession of proclaiming equal spending on us kids (the only 2 grandkids in the family, by the way, on either side) also speaks to my grandmother's deep-seated shallowness and materialism. Balanced material spending meant equality between grandkids because material goods were the most important thing in life, so if they were equal than any other discrepancies in treatment were inconsequential. I can't really blame her for that one, though. She grew up and got married during the great depression, and the fear of ever reverting to that way of life again really scared the crap out of her. When the old bat finally died we found over $10,000 in CASH squirreled away in shoe boxes throughout her house, hidden (really well in some cases) because she never did trust the banks after 1929. The Depression definitely scarred her, as it did many of her generation.

A bizarre twist in gramma's proclaimations of equality were the instances when she would lean over my shoulder and whisper in my ear "You're your grandpa's favorite, you know." She did this several times in my life, usually after I helped my grandfather up or down a flight of steps at church or out of the car when there was ice on the ground. He never spoke to me; I was a glorified walking stick, but my reward for my efforts was to be told I was the favorite.

Again, if it's true, there's no reason to say so out loud and plenty of good reasons not to. But I was just cynical enough to think at the time "Pfft. Whatever. I bet you said the same thing to Marley 15 seconds ago." Possibly the only astute observation I ever made of my grandparents in their lifetime. The rest of this stuff I didn't think about or realize until after they were dead.

But this is all the shit that came flooding back to me when I saw that actress on stage tonight. I suppose it's no wonder I was shaking. I don't have any photos my gramma to share with you (it was years after she died that I got my first digital camera, and all the old prints are in my parents' basement), but if you see Crown Matrimonial this week (and I highly recommend that you do), take a look at Lady Airlee, and you'll have a pretty fucking accurate picture of what she looked like.


FirstNations said...

Oh my GOD how freaky. Oh my God. I wish it had been a nice ghost instead of an evil soul sucking one, though. what a horrible, horrible woman.

FirstNations said...

...jsut went over to Google UK and looked her up. Wish I hadn't!

Gordie said...

Oh my. Of all the scabs to have knocked off, that's a bad one. You better check with her agent that Darlene Johnson's not going to be anywhere near you on your wedding day.

CompuNerd said...

Well, first reaction was to say stop drinking the Hot Toddies as they are making you halucinate but....after re-reading this post about 4 times, I have come to the conclusion that your grandma and my mother-by-law have to be the same person. Line for line this describes that _itch.

Chaucer's Itch said...

FN: I'd love to know what photos you found. I couldn't find any that looked the way she did in the play last night, or i'd have posted one. i might keep looking, though. or not.

Gordie: just being on the same island is creepy enough.

C/nerd: Hi dude. You're probably the only person who will read this post who might have some memory of my grandmother hanging around band concerts and such. Unless Rick is lurking about. (You there, Rick?) As for your MIL, you have my deepest sympathies. I know exactly what you're suffering; i watched my father endure it for decades.

Don't be afraid to blow up at your MIL now and again and use your sprogs as leverage. They're your best cards. Dad had to put grandma in her place on one or two occassions, but by the end she was actually calling him "The Prince," and I think finally beginning to appreciate everything he did for her. (Mostly home-maintenance stuff, since grandpa was too ill to do any kind of DIY.)

CompuNerd said...

yeah, I do believe I remember her after the multitude of band concerts we had. I can't always say that I remember everyone I meet but that does ring a bell.

As far as the MIL goes, I have done the most simple and easiest thing I could do and that was cut her out completely. Sprogs have nothing to do with it as we have not associated with her in about 4 years at least. Makes life a whole lot easier. I don't even think the kids remember who this _itch is anymore.

Such is life though :)

Donn said...

It is a crime against Nature itself to have a narcissist for a lieu of the Norman Rockwell version that every child should have.

That would have been freaky, especially considering how awful she was. Your poor brain must have had a kniption!

Well the best way to overcome all of that sh*t is to be the best f*cking Gramma in the whole world!
HA! That sounds weird.

One step at a time of course, no rush.

llewtrah said...

I saw my nan and grandad the day grandad died, which was a couple of years after nan had died. They were in the doorway, looking into the room. I think they just wanted to us know they were okay. Odd stuff.