I know that this story may sound too bizarre to be real, but I swear that it is true. I do believe that truth is stranger than fiction. It is not a pretty story and in my family we have very strange ways of bonding.
I have loved my father unconditionally.. This is misplaced loyalty I know but it is just the tip of the iceberg. The only people that I loved as a child more than my father and brother and sister was my grandmother. I do believe that if my cousin, brother and I didn’t have her in our lives, we would have been totally insane, not only half there. This is assuming that my brother and I survived at all.
My grandmother was Old Order Mennonite, and had about a sixth grade education. She was everyone’s idea of the perfect grandmother back in my day. I am fifty- seven years old, so grandmas have changed. I loved her dearly. Each one of us grandchildren thought that she loved us best. I of course knew that I was really her favorite. I am sure we all would have the same firm story. She baked cookies, canned, and cooked like only the Amish can. She held me on her lap, rocked me and told me stories until; as she would say,” My mouth is going to drop off.” I remember them all.
This is the anniversary of her death. The month of December has never meant the same to me since I lost my grandmother. She made everything special. She made black walnut cream candy, which most people I know never have even heard of. She made pies every Saturday morning. I would wake up hearing her sing hymns at the top of her lungs. She had a beautiful untrained soprano voice. She and I would sing and watch “Sing along with Mitch” every Friday night. I spent every other night with her after my grandfather died. She lived three houses from us and her home was always a refuge. I think we gave her life meaning as much as she gave us security. She couldn’t stop the pain or torment, but she was safe for us when we were with her. I loved her passionately. I miss her every day of my life.
She was overly religious and God fearing more than God loving, but if it weren’t for her I would have had no religious beliefs at all. I got my love for hymns from her. I got my love for singing and story telling from her. I got my sense of modesty from her. I got my love of nature from her. I got my desire to take care of people from her, in a healthy way. I got my love for gardens from her and my grandpa.
Grandpa started suffering from cancer when I was seven, or at least that is when I knew about it. My mother had taken off with us to Rochester Indiana, which may as well have been Mars for all I knew. I can only imagine my grandmother’s grief over having us stolen away in the summer when she was gone. I don’t know where she was, I just remember thinking, Grandma is going to be so mad at you when she sees what you have done! My father, my mother’s husband, who I found out later, wasn’t my real dad, was gone. He would travel during the week selling his invention. When he came back we were gone lock stock and barrel. We were told nothing.
I asked my mother when we were going home. She told me to shut up, that we weren’t going home, that we were moving! I felt the bottom fall out of my stomach. I cannot describe the horror that I felt. I was angry and terrified. My father told me as an adult that he asked his employee why he helped her move with us. He told him he was afraid to let us go alone with us. She was drunk and he didn’t feel it was safe for her to go alone. Oh, and it was safe for her to move with us and to be left alone with a drunk insane mother?
My father had been recuperating from a serious fall. He should have died and much to my mother’s disappointment he lived. She had to nurse him back to health, or it would look bad.
My real father had to go to the service. He was not married and had no dependents, so he was drafted. My mother could not live without her boy toy so she left. She manipulated her husband into divorcing her to safe face. She said after the stink blew over they would get back together. She had already concocted a story about him deserting her and their two children. My real father then married her and adopted us and took care of us. If that wasn’t a joke!
My first father said that he spent the next four years drinking himself to sleep every night. I didn’t know this until I was an adult and reconnected with him. I was told that he hated me and tried to kill me and would kill me if he got the chance. Since he never came back I believed her. It was an ugly time. Not like the rest of it was a picnic.
My mother was into witchcraft, and I do not believe it was what some people would call white witchcraft. Because of her past behavior I think that she felt she had been cursed. When we came back to see my grandfather who was in the hospital, our house was struck by lightening. It struck right through my bed, in my attic bedroom. If we would have been home, I would have been toast. I think now my mother wishes I would have been. Then I couldn’t tell the truth about our lives.
So even though my mother swore that she would never, never, in a million years, move back to our town, we not only moved back, we moved into the same house I grew up in. It was weird, because now I came back with a new father and a new name. I went back to school and felt that no one knew me. I was extremely insecure and introverted. I had severe migraines, which I realized later, I suffered since I was under school age. I believe now I was repressing memories and God -awful pain. My mother would have to come and get me at school at least once a week. I would have her stop the car, I would get out and puke and go home and sleep it off. When I got up I would have vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup. So it wasn’t all bad.
My mother told me in the first grade, that she thought it was horrible that a little girl like me had to go to school for twelve long years. I remember having no concept of how long twelve years was. It was like a life sentence. It was even worse, because it was longer than I had been alive. She was extremely needy and needed me to take care of her. I would have anxiety attacks and run back from the bus screaming. My mother then would laugh and call me a big fat baby calf. She gloated over my needing her. Actually I realize now that she needed me to need her. I would make her promise to visit me at noon recess, and when she would come I would be busy playing and want her to go away.
Life only got progressively worse. I can look back now with some compassion for my mother and aunt. Not a whole lot, but some. It had to be really hard for them. They grew up with three of their four grandparents living with them in various stages of dying. My great grandmother was laid out in their house in the bedroom. I know that was not that uncommon, but it had to be really creepy. They had one grandfather that leered at them and gloated over getting their bedroom. They had to sleep in the sun parlor, dressing under his lecherous eyes.
After growing up and marrying, they spent all of their children’s childhood dealing with their parents’ illnesses. Of course their children did too. When we came back to town, my grandfather spent a couple of years in and out of the hospital. They thought he was superhuman, suffering the way he did with cancer. Little did we know how long my grandmother would suffer. I remember my mother telling the stories about my grandfather begging them to bring his gun to the hospital. He wanted them to put it in the closet so he could shoot himself. He also pulled my mother down close to his mouth. He told her that if he knew he was going to end up this way he would have “eat” more pie.
When he was in his coffin, my brother and I willed him to breathe. We would watch his rigid chest, in a suit, so unfamiliar, as he always wore railroad overalls. I thought for a long time he worked on the railroad because he wore them. He would out of desperate boredom and depression, sit in his rocking chair and count the railroad cars on the railroad tracks. Needless to say, our willing him to live didn’t work I remember we touched him too, and how hard his hand felt.
He had been a hard drinking man before my time. But I remember him cutting up pears for us, the same knife that he used to pick his false teeth. He would get us candy and Pepsi at the gas station across the street. He would yell at us for bulldozing through his garden, but he would also stick his false teeth out for us and make faces for us. I loved him and miss him too, just not as much as grandma.
My nostalgia has gotten me off track. We didn’t know that during the time my grandpa was dying from cancer, my grandmother discovered a lump in her breast. She took care of her own mother and father and father in law who all had cancer and saw the results. She saw how surgery affected my grandpa and decided against telling anyone about the lump. She nursed my grandpa, who would only eat her noodle soup. They called in rively soup. She was not about to have surgery. Instead she decided to handle it the same way she handled many shameful (to her) things. She kept quiet.
When she continued to progress, my aunt and mother would whisper about the big C word. They didn’t want to confront her because that meant taking action. They saw what happened to their daddy too so they didn’t want to be responsible for the outcome. They kept quiet. I don’t remember the sequence of everything but I remember as a child praying to God for someone to do something. Anything !
Grandma used her own healing techniques. She was padding her breast. It continued to get larger. What we didn’t realize until later was that it was oozing. Still no one did anything. My brother and I were horrified, and continued to spend the night with her every other night, imagining how horrible it must look inside that bandage, but we still didn’t want her to be alone.
To my mother’s credit, she told us we didn’t have to stay with our grandma. We fought tooth and nail for that right.
In the meantime whenever my aunt or mother had her over to eat, or cooked for her, they marked her dishes on the bottom with red nail polish. So we wouldn’t use her plates, cups, bowls, or glasses. I guess the silverware was too hard to mess with. Nobody wanted to take the chance that it was contagious I guess. Seems to me the silverware would be more of a contaminate than the other tableware. I was horrified that Grandma would discover the markings.
Grandma spent every Saturday night with us, accept the nights that we spent with her. When she was feeling better she would go to church with my brother and I on a Sunday School bus. She feared for our souls. My mother of course wasn’t scared for us .She was too stubborn to take us two or three blocks away to the church. It was her way of rebelling against her mother’s rigid religious beliefs. Grandma, who had cancer and arthritis so bad that she could hardly walk, road a bumpy, bus for miles with us to go to a church only blocks away. When Grandma was unable to go anymore, I quit. They were very loving kind people and I have fond memories of them. I remember the humiliation though of not having parents to go with us like all the other families. I also remember the bitterness I felt toward a God that didn’t hear a little girls’ prayer to heal her grandmother.
In the meantime my mother had another child, that added to the dysfunctional mix. My dad worked a lot, and I think chose to stay away a lot. My brother says he was drinking at the time. Wouldn’t surprise me. I think he was beginning to wonder what he got himself into. He was a rageaholic. He was terrifying in his fits of anger. My mother always brought out the worst in him. Since she was more of a mother to him than a wife, I am sure that that added fuel to his uncontrollable rage. He never acted up when Grandma was there though. The meals we had when she was there were calm and secure.
Bear with me. I was a picky eater, as most kids are when they are young and traumatized. So whenever I whined about having to eat something, such as a fried egg, my mother would say, “Just put some ketchup on it.”
So needless to say I eat a lot of things with ketchup on it, even today.
One night we were eating dinner. By this time Grandma’s breast had grown to massive proportions. Since cotton rags were no longer able to contain, what was in there, she started using saran wrap to hold in the oozing. I was sitting next to my mother, and my father was across from me. My grandmother was sitting pleasantly next to him. We were having meatloaf that night, which I didn’t like under the best of circumstances. I looked over at my grandma, smiling sweetly. Her dress front under her breast was leaking blood. My stomach clutched.
“May I be excused? I asked whitely. I don’t like meatloaf.”
“Just put some ketchup on it.” My mother innocently suggested.
My face blanched. I looked at my dad, and gave him a discreet look. Grandma innocently kept eating. My father saw the blood and said that I could be excused. He smiled in a bonding moment with me. I am sure the “just put ketchup on it,” was what got him to smiling. We were a macabre lot. I was eternally grateful.
It was about that time that Grandma stopped sharing my bed. She was leaking blood on my sheets. My mother had to tell her she would be more comfortable in the other bedroom. She felt betrayed. I felt guilty. Still no one dealt with the situation. It wasn’t until they had to deal with a major disaster that fate took it out of their hands.
I will be forever grateful for my father for his sensitivity in that situation, and even though he didn’t do anything either, he helped me out of that horrible experience