I usually tell the story of my grandmother with about as much emotion as I’d have making a grocery list. People might say, That’s so awful! (I’ll shrug.) How could you not be hurt? I’ll swear I wasn’t. How can you miss something you’ve never had?
But one day, just as an exercise, I tried to write about Ruth Rosen—my mother’s mother—and was surprised to find myself awash in angry tears. Maybe her total failure to acknowledge me, her only black grandchild, was a bigger deal than I’d thought. I wasn’t in denial of the rejection, only of the fact that it did—does—hurt.
Growing up as an only child, I never wanted for adult attention. My parents surrounded themselves with a family of friends, many of whom were older and saw me as their own grandchild. I had five Bubbies (a term of affection for a Jewish grandmother). They knitted me things, bought me fancy dresses, came to Grandparents’ day at my school, were at our home on Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Christmas, my dance recitals.
Three of my four actual grandparents—my dad’s parents and my mother’s father—were dead by the time I was born (sixteen years into my parents’ marriage). As for Ruth, she met me just once, when I was a baby.
Though my grandmother was not the least bit religious—despite running a kosher restaurant and delicatessen—she sat shiva for my mother when she married my father. It was 1950 and interracial marriage was still illegal in 30 states, though not Illinois, where they’d wed. My mother was a nice Jewish girl who had never made a wave her whole life and now this. Married a schvartze. Ultimately, my mother and her mother would resume some form of a relationship—never a good one (it never had been), just enough to be on speaking terms. So, when I was about a year old, Ruth came to visit when she knew my dad was at work. A widow at the time, she’d brought along her latest beau, a septuagenarian named Henry. Ruth had come to see my mother, but Henry was all over me:
“Ruth, you gotta come see. This is a really cute baby!”
None for me thanks, approximated Ruth’s response. She couldn’t look, let alone touch me. It was too much.
Nevertheless, I grew up happy, without giving my grandmother much thought. Who was she to me anyway? But now and then it would occur to me—as the stand-in Bubbies and Zaidas took pictures at my birthday parties, applauded my impromptu puppet shows—that my grandmother was missing out on me. If she met me, I thought, if she gave me a chance, I was sure I could win her over. I was a cute baby, a pretty cute kid as well. Who wouldn’t want to be my grandma? I didn’t say this to my parents; I knew they’d start talking about racial prejudice and other things I had no interest in as a child, so I kept the idea to myself.
My grandmother died in 1987 when I was almost twenty-one. I’d spoken to her on the telephone exactly once. She was already dying by then and my mother had flown down to Florida to visit. My father needed to speak with my mother one night when I was home visiting.
“You make the call,” Dad said, because he knew it wouldn’t do for Ruth to hear his voice.
I called. My grandmother answered. It was my mother’s voice only deeper, scratchier. I knew it, though I’d never heard it before.
“This is Lisa.” I said, sounding like a frightened ten year old. “May I please speak to my mother?” I didn’t realize I was shaking until I got off the phone. When my father hung up, I burst into tears and then screamed at him for making me do it.
To Dad, my grandmother’s rejection of me was an extension of her rejection of him, nothing personal. She’d never met either one of us, after all. To my father, racism itself wasn’t personal; it was just a fact he’d known as long as he had been walking this earth. But now, as he held his sobbing daughter, he got it.
The woman on the line with the voice like my mother’s may have been a monster, but she was still my grandmother. All my life I’d been protected from her hatred, bathed in love and praise to compensate. But at the same time, I’d been prevented from trying to reach her and make things right. My parents knew it wouldn’t have worked, but I didn’t know. Part of me still thinks I could have done it: gotten her to like me. Of all her grandchildren, I’m the only one who took to the stage. I was thin, occasionally glamorous, kind of crazy and a little narcissistic. My grandmother was all of the above (except for taking to the stage). She was even a flapper in her day: long cigarette holder, snappy Zelda Fitzgerald hair and all. Maybe she would have liked me in spite of herself.
In any case, she’s my unfinished business, the origin of many of my hang-ups. I am a tireless people pleaser; I am non-confrontational to a fault; I have a hard time standing up for myself and sometimes even for my children. I’m a therapist too. If I were my client I might surmise that these traits stem from my unresolved grandmother issues: without her elusive love, fully loving myself has been more of a challenge than it might have been otherwise.
Therapists go to therapy and I have. It’s helped. But writing has done more: transformed my feelings, replacing self-pity with self-knowledge. That’s what writers do: untangle the tangles within, and hopefully do some untangling for readers along the way.