Pleasantville

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.

23 thoughts on “Pleasantville

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  1. Love this bit: “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.”

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  2. That was a great memory. And grandma anecdote. I am in love with the phrase “alchemy of combined mood”. This post reminded me of how I used to go to my grandma’s for lunch and steal her cigarettes. She was a great woman, very stubborn. Never confined herself to the restraints of the 1950s housewife.

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  3. My grandmother sent my dad off to college with a rope ladder. I found it, in its nylon carry bag, in a closet years later. My dad said he hid it under his bed to avoid mockery, but his dorm actually was an antique firetrap, with working fireplaces, and all the extinguishers were always empty from the kids spraying them at parties. My senior dorm was also ancient, and had been gutted twice by fires. I was in converted attic space – – most weeks, I’d smell smoke coming up the stairwell, and would go down to the basement kitchen, take the snow shovel, use it to throw the microwave, toaster oven, whatever was on fire that day, out the door. Usually someone had put in popcorn or whatever, set the timer to infinity, and then gone to get their nails done.
    This is great writing, really enjoyed it, despite the creepy dolls.

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  4. I could have had this exact same conversation with my 90 year old mother. I can’t believe the worrying that goes on at that age. I guess there is nothing else to think about. Bravo to you for taking your grandmother out this weekend. And, you’re braver than me. I couldn’t stand those creepy dolls. xo

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    1. I think you’re exactly right about there not being much else to think about at that age. Watching the news makes it worse. We’re both lucky to have a couple of ninety-somethings in our lives.

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  5. I loved this piece, as I do all your others, particularly the ones about your grandmother. Can I just add, though, that like beauty, evidently “creepy” is also in the eye of the beholder? I find those dolls charming.

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  6. My 94 year old grandmother worries as well, and you reminded me that I need to call her. In the spirit of giving kids fire ropes for dorms, my mother gave me an axe to keep in the attic of my one story house, in case of rising flood waters from hurricanes here in Florida. So that I could climb into my attic (no standing room) and chop my way through the roof and crawl out on top of the roof to be rescued, apparently. I don’t know if her idea is genius or nutty, but the axe is still there after a decade and I know she cares. I love your stories, keep them coming.

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  7. When I was 30, my best friend, who was also 30 and who I had known since kindergarten, passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack. That was almost 25 years ago. In the time since, I have tried to maintain contact with his father, particularly after my friend’s mother passed away around 20 years ago.

    It’s a really difficult thing to do. He’s 94 this year. He continued to live on his own up until about a year ago — on the nine rural acres he had lived on for decades. He finally gave into the ravages of age and downsized. But he still lives on his own.

    Conversations with him are a trip back in time. They are also a convoluted journey through rambling thoughts and sudden ends when he realizes he has rambled too far away from the path he meant to go down.

    But we do these things — take our mothers to festivals, have lunch with friend’s fathers — because it’s who we are. There is some intrinsic value in these things, aren’t there?

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    1. I didn’t realize they were from different countries. I just saw them again at the festival/museum and saw how much bigger the doll that’s sitting is from all the others. They’re in great shape…probably never played with.

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  8. My nana lived into her 90s but was a lovely funny person to interact with right up to the end.
    My mother in law has always been my bette noire. She says the right things at times but then there’s the snidey comment the put downs etc. All directed at my wife and daughter who do so much for her. She has dementia now so we have to cut her some slack but I still find it hard.

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  9. I completely sympathize with having a family member that you regret telling things to but not even knowing which thing it is that they’ll latch onto and worry needlessly about until it’s too late.

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