"She had beady eyes!", my brother kept exclaiming. "Beady eyes that glared at me, bored into me!" I hoped he would elaborate on this fascinating memory, but he seemed permanently stuck on beadiness. His intense reaction to my mention of the only grandparent whose life had overlapped ours, interested me greatly. She was our mother's mother, and forty years had elapsed since our only interchange with her. He and I had never talked about her effect on our very young lives, but obviously he hadn't forgotten it.
It had been a seemingly common family event: visiting grandma insists parents have a holiday together while she cares for the cherished kiddies. Well, yes, but there was something else going on: she didn't like the way her flibberty-gibbet daughter was raising us, and this was to be her chance to straighten us out. To my preschool-aged intuition, the issue was clear: she was against my mother, so I was implacably against her.
I don't know whether I remember her or am influenced by the family picture, taken when my mother was about five years old. There, she and her five siblings have the melancholy, over-strained look common in studio poses of the early years of our century, but grandma is positively grim. Her mouth is one long thin line, with a definite turn down on each side. The eyes are very dark and----I can't deny it----they're beady. Her youngest child, my Uncle George, stands between his parents, a hand on each of their shoulders. No babies in the lap for her, thank you!
What I do recall very clearly is the feeling that I would war against her to the death. I'm pretty much a mild person, really; I may have used up most of my derring-do on her. Exact details are hazy, but the poor woman must have been very kind and forbearing, as we simply would not do anything she wanted, and did everything we could to upset her. She was a diminutive person, although we didn't know that. Glaring down at us, she ordered, lectured, explained; nothing succeeded. She would stand in the dining room doorway, alternately cajoling and threatening, but we didn't eat her meals. We stole from the icebox; we made lots of noise and woke our baby brother, we took no naps but she never punished us.
My mother would have made short shrift of us! She had a way of pointing at the floor in front of her and saying softly, steelily, "Stand on this spot"; we did just that, and quickly. Later, raising six children of my own, I was to long for that power, but never mastered the secret of her control. Grandma didn't know that secret either, and we gloried in her puzzlement and what must have been despair. Besides being resistant, we were pretty creative: at one point, my brother chased me with a knife; I defended myself with a shaker of Bon Ami cleanser, showering it in his general direction. It was probably a dull table knife, and I'm sure the Bon Ami missed the target, but provided Grandma with frustration and a cleanup job, in the days before electric vacuum cleaners.
I'm sure I had put that adventure pretty well out of my mind, until it surfaced when I visited my brother so many years later. Grandma had died without visiting us again, but in bits and pieces, I had learned about her life. She wasn't always just a beady-eyed little grandma. Growing up in Ireland of the Troubles, she had seen an older half-brother kicked to death by the Black and Tans, the British occupying force. Her other two half-brothers reached America and sent for the younger sisters. At sixteen, my grandmother set out from Ireland with her 20 year old half-sister. As grandma set foot on the gangplank, the chain was run across behind her. A rough seaman shouted, "Ship's full. Move on to the next ship." That next ship went to Australia, with her sister on it; the family never heard from her again. My grandmother made the harrowing trip to America on her own, listed as "Servant."
Of ten children, she lost four to diphtheria and accidents. Widowed, she homesteaded on the Colorado prairie while two of her children were still young. I can picture the grit that took. Now I do wish we knew more about her life and how she coped with the staggering things that made it up. I wish I'd had a chance to know her better. I don't brood about our cavalier treatment of her; after all, we were just kids and devoted to our Mom. I do think of her with great respect and admiration, wondering if any of us, her descendants, with our comfortable lives, will ever rise to the occasion as she did consistently all her life.
Jeanne Menconi, 2002
Last changed 08/9/03.
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