When I was a teenager, I employed an exhausting ritual involving secret coat compartments, endless sticks of peppermint gum, and foul smelling perfume to cover up the foul stink of cigarette smoke. It was a different time. Parents couldn’t track their teenager’s location like submarines across a radar screen. I’m sure my parents suspected I smoked, but as long as they didn’t have concrete proof, they were willing to look the other way. My grandmother, however, was not.
One summer afternoon in junior year, my grandparents said goodbye after a visit and as I was rushing off to meet a friend. My grandmother leaned in for a hug and patted the hard rectangle of Marlboro Lights in my pocket. “You smoke?” she asked with a sly smile that scared me but felt more conspiratorial than accusing. I laughed nervously and went off with my friend and she lulled me into false confidence by not telling my parents. Over the summer, I visited her and she offered me a cigarette in her kitchen, lighting them on the gas burner of her stove top. I thought I’d arrived, all grown up and smoking in front of another grown up. A week or month later, her worry got the best of her and she told my parents and….I can’t remember what happened aside from a stern lecture.
Since then, I have tried to withhold all but the most neutral personal information from my grandmother. Even though I talk to her at least once a week, I try very hard to keep my own worries, resentments, and unfavorable opinions about mutual acquaintances to myself. This is really hard sometimes, especially the last one. But I have learned that anything I say can and will be used against me by my grandmother.
Sometimes, especially when I’m on a roller coaster high of life, I let my guard down and talk too much. At 92, she is still sharp enough to remember everything I say, but confused enough to misconstrue and twist words. Even so, I can never predict which troubling detail she will choose to focus on. Last week it was what floor my daughter’s dorm room will be on when she goes off to college. I shared this thoughtlessly, recklessly. It festered for two days before she called me back.
“I want you to let me talk first and finish hearing what I have to say,” she began, an effective but crappy way to start a conversation, btw.
“You told me Vanessa would be living on, well, I forget if it was the sixteenth or sixtieth floor.”
“The sixth floor,” I said.
“Okay, the sixth floor,” she said, barely pausing. “And you said there will only be one tiny window in her room.”
I never said tiny but why did I have to mention the window at all?
“Is this window big enough for someone to climb out of?” she asks.
Sometimes I don’t wait for her to finish, even when she asks me to. I just want to get in there and douse the conversation with ice water before it has a chance to smolder.
“We looked at those rooms back in November. I really can’t remember how big the windows are. But there are two sets of stairs on every floor. Even if there was a fire and she lived on the second floor, she couldn’t jump through a window without breaking both legs.”
Sometimes bringing up another disaster she hadn’t thought of is an effective strategy. I think what emboldened me was the knowledge of all the other things that weren’t on her radar that she should be worried about. Someone two generations removed should really retire from worrying. They might still be good at it, but the worries are new and complicated and they should really just leave it to those more familiar with the landscape.
By the time we were done talking, she said “I feel better now.” She often says this after difficult phone calls where my words feel defensive and churlish. But it may be less about what I said and more about the fact that we talked. Although I romanticize what it might feel like not to speak or be spoken to for an entire day, it’s hard when it’s not really a choice. My grandmother was always a very sociable person. She is not a shut in, but still there are so many hours to fill in a day and limited options when you’re 92. Her social circle must feel as tiny as a dorm room window.
My daughters and I will drive down this weekend and take her to a Lithuanian festival in the city. I have so many other things I should be doing at home, but this is mother’s day weekend and she asked us to come and she is 92. Plus the building the festival is in has a museum on the top floor with creepy dolls. I am not the praying kind, but I will ask for strength and patience to maintain a pleasant state of obliviousness. Isn’t life so much more pleasant when we are feeling pleasant? I wonder if it comes from an alchemy of combined moods, expectations, and wherever Mercury happens to be, or if it is more like a pair of glasses we could slip on whenever we remember they’ve been in our pocket the whole time.