I just wanted to eat my sandwich.
Picture this: a turkey club with Swiss, crispy bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, and mayo, between two slices of ciabatta bread, heated until the cheese just begins to melt. It was beautiful and well worth the fifteen-minute wait. The cafe was jumping in the middle of the day as hordes of zombie-eyed college students descended from the lecture halls into the basement for feeding time. I was no different. If freshman year taught me anything, I knew that I was better off spending fifteen minutes at the cafe than going anywhere else on campus. Plus, the club rivaled the euphoria of losing my virginity but lasted longer. The stress of college was getting to me and I found solace in my brief moments of solitude. In the ten minutes that I carved out to eat, I felt lighter. Focused. Free.
I threw my backpack on the chair beside me. It shifted, nearly tipping over, but I didn’t care. My rear-end barely touched the seat before the first bite circumvented my mouth and made its way to my soul. I licked my lips, while my eyes rolled back. It was excessive, but it was the beginning of October and our first round of exams was here. After my lunch break, I would head back to my room to recite notes made in chicken scratch on worn index cards; an anxious pre-exam ritual. I took another bite and a sip of my sweet and over-caffeinated beverage of choice. That’s when the call came.
I rarely answered unknown numbers, but having a parent just hours away with health issues, teaches you to always be on the ready. When I was sixteen, my mother had a heart attack. Ironically enough, she was on her way to the doctor, when she collapsed outside of the hospital. Her heart was overwhelmed, no doubt from the years of overworking to make sure that we were never on the streets again. No doubt from the stress of being a single parent who was determined to get her only child into the best college that she could, even if it meant moving mountains through hell or high water. I’ve received that call before; the one that makes your heart skip a beat because you know that you could easily lose the person you love the most. But, this wasn’t that call.
“Jay? It’s grandma,” she said, her voice sounding more fragile than I ever recalled.
The line fell silent. I could hear the paint drying on walls above us, as Cornell engaged in yet another rehabilitation project. One of several reasons that I seldom donate and if I do, I ensure that it’s going to help a student pay for their education. I’m Black and all too familiar with the never-ending “building-fund” often deployed by our churches.
“Hi, grandma. How — ”
“You don’t call anymore. You’re too busy for me?” she continued, with a little more heft to her voice.
“No, I was going to call — I just have a lot going on with school.” I wasn’t going to call. Weeks before, my mom encouraged me to. She damn near demanded it, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not then.
“What, you don’t care about me?”
There went the silence again. On the Mount Rushmore of loaded questions, that was numbers two through four, only to be outdone by “Does this make me look fat?” What’s a twenty-year-old supposed to say to that?
After all that we’ve been through, what did she expect? What did she want and why now?
“Next time on Dragon Ball Z!”
The dining room of my grandmother’s apartment was the spot for Saturday morning cartoons. We lived in a multi-family home with one or two apartments on each floor. Grandma lived on the second floor, while my mom and I split the first floor with my cousin and her parents; at least, initially. My other cousins and uncle occupied the basement, while my mother’s younger brother claimed the attic as his man cave.
It was always hard for me to understand some of my favorite cartoon characters. In retrospect, they all seemed one-dimensional. Batman never killed the Joker, nor did Superman ever take it too far in his battles against Lex Luthor. I don’t know what I expected from children’s television programs, but I never felt like I knew them. Then came my introduction to Goku and the Dragon Ball Saga. Goku, the protagonist, and ultimate defender of the earth was initially sent to the planet to destroy all of its inhabitants. Fortunately, he bumped his head and transformed from a murderous alien child soldier into a benevolent hero. But, he still had a dark side that pushed him and made him relatable. He and several of the other characters on that show taught me something that I already believed: no one is either all good or all bad. That seemed to be a constant theme and one that I loved exploring on Saturday mornings. I’d wait for the show to come on, wide-eyed and wondering if we were going to get one or two episodes on that day.
My grandmother put a television in the dining room parallel to the table. We rarely sat there. It was a large wooden monstrosity, with ornate carvings and too many details to remember. I came to think of it as the Thanksgiving or Christmas table because that was the only time that all twelve of its seats were filled. My favorite spot was underneath the Thanksgiving table, right in front of the TV. My cousins and I often set up camp, made it our fort, and hid toys in the crevices for safekeeping. For me, it was a makeshift clubhouse; a substitute for the treehouse that we never had.
“Jay, turn that down,” she asked.
I did while noticing that we had a visitor. A white man, in a grey suit and dark tie. His glasses were attached to a string and hung from his neck. He slicked the few strands of hair on his head back and proceeded to sit at the table. I knew that this was my cue. Children are to be seen and not heard, in West Indian families. I respectfully greeted our visitor and made my way down the hall.
I could hear their voices echoing through the wall of the adjacent room. I imagined that was how fish felt, taking in the sounds of onlookers. But, I wasn’t on display; not yet. I gathered that this man was a banker and Grandma was refinancing the house. I turned on my Sega Genesis, a gift from my grandmother that my mom protested.
“Wait until his birthday to give it to him. He doesn’t need it now,” I recall my mother saying.
“Let the child be happy. He can play with it” my grandmother replied. I was her favorite grandchild and this was how she showed my cousins.
Nearly an hour passed, and Dragon Ball Z ended at least thirty minutes prior. Annoyed that I never got to see the second episode, I shut off the game and pulled out a book to occupy my time. At that point, I read nearly every Baby-Sitter’s Club story and had moved on to The Hardy Boys. I was in the fourth grade and still wanted to be a cop, so mysteries were necessary for good detective work. I was halfway through the story when I was summoned.
“Jay!” In West Indian households, you come when you hear your name. There’s never an explanation until you arrive. I made my way down the hall and I could hear my grandmother in hushed tones continue, “Yes, he’s a little slow. His mother doesn’t have him learning anything. He can’t even read yet.”
I’m not sure why I was part of their conversation or why she believed that I couldn’t read, but I knew better than to challenge her.
“Here, read this.” The word on the page was simple and apropos given the social climate. I’d read it several times in the newspaper and Scholastic Magazine. I heard it almost every night on the local news.
“E. Coli,” I said without hesitation.
“Oh, you can read that? You know what it is?” Her eyebrows rose to her forehead, causing rolls of skin to ripple towards her greying hair. The white man, now with his glasses perched on his nose, nodded as if to say, “Good job, kid.” His approval hurt more than the impromptu IQ test.
I explained the term and went into detail regarding the current news cycle. The shock on their faces wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped. If anything, it confirmed that she thought that I was stupid, a trending theme that I grew to hate. To this day, nothing irks me more than having my intelligence questioned. It eats away at me, just as it did on that day.
After being dismissed, for exceeding expectations, I went back into the other room and turned the game back on. I questioned why she wanted to embarrass me and why she was being so mean. I questioned why she would be so nice in some moments and in others seem like she hated everyone. I was supposed to be her favorite, but that wasn’t the first time that she did something like that. Nor was it the last.
I never really knew how bad things had gotten between my mom and my grandmother. Sure, they argued on and off, but my mom always seemed beholden to her. No matter what Grandma did, it always felt like my mother would do whatever she could to take care of her mom. That included working until she reached her brink. For years, my grandmother took on as many home health aide jobs as she could, many of them at the same time. While she did a few hours here, she had my mother pick up the majority of her shifts elsewhere. Because they have similar names, only separated by a hyphen, Grandma got away with it. Within a few years, my grandmother was able to purchase a three-story multiple-family home, a feat that was unheard of for immigrants in such a short time. The wages that my mother made went into purchasing the home and repairs, thereafter. It was more of the same when my mother went to the military; sending her pay home to support her mother who didn’t need the financial assistance. Still, my grandmother insisted and applied Caribbean parental guilt, rivaled only by that of the Catholic Church. I knew this, which is why our sudden housing crisis felt like a phantom punch to the gut.
It felt abrupt when my grandmother moved us from our apartment on the first floor to a single room on the second floor. My mom had to leave her job with the Metropolitan Transit Authority because her back was giving out. She explained that her spinal issues started at a young age when she was made to pick fruits and vegetables in the fields of Grenada. She was eight years old and carrying hundred-pound bags of potatoes in sacks, while her peers and siblings were in school. She asked for an explanation and my grandmother never granted one. My mother suffered her first hernia at the same age and was given a day to recover, post-surgery. Grandma had her back in the fields the very next day with sweat drenching her clothes and blood dripping from her stitches. That was the 1960s and in a country that hadn’t yet received its independence. She didn’t dare complain because her parents were both unafraid to dole out punishments with their hands. She did what she had to do to survive.
For years, I shook my head in disbelief. How could my grandmother be so cruel? Why was she like this? And still, I sympathized. It was no secret that my grandfather used his hands on her and the tales of horror that my mother told of black eyes, broken bones, and tearful nights left little to the imagination. “Hurt people hurt people,” as the saying goes and trauma is a four-letter word in West Indian circles. But at the time, feeling displaced was all that my young mind could comprehend.
We stayed in the single room on the second floor for close to two years, cycling between sleeping there and my uncle’s new home. Our frequent absences seemed to cool tempers for short stints. That was until my grandmother told us to leave and forbid anyone in the house from sheltering us. I was halfway through the fifth grade when it became too much to bear. My mom couldn’t find suitable employment and my grandmother constantly raised the rent. We were out on the street and I didn’t speak to my grandmother or my aunt and uncles for two years.
We lived in shelters for three years and as angry as I was, I couldn’t help but think back to some of the good times. I missed my grandmother’s hugs and her lessons about agriculture. She taught me how to garden and on occasion, we watched soap operas together. My mother and I loved General Hospital, but Days of Our Lives was for Grandma and me. I was young, but I knew too much. I knew about the abuse to my mother and others; I knew about the wrongdoings, the deceit, and the lies. I knew it all and for years I asked myself, “How can I love and hate her? How is that possible?”
We reconciled as much as we could, but things were never the same. Throughout my high school years and into college, I can count the times that I spent with my grandmother on one hand. There was the time in the eighth grade that she saw my sagging pants, a phase that I succumbed to, and called me a “thug.” There was the time that she questioned if I would graduate high school and was shocked that I wasn’t left-back. And, there was the time that I visited her in the hospital following our last phone call.
My visit shouldn’t have come as a surprise. My mother let her know that I was coming and yet the reception was not what I expected. My uncles and aunt fell silent when I entered. I greeted everyone and received blank stares in exchange. And then there was my grandmother, lying in the hospital bed and staring out the window as if the whole world was just beyond the glass. Perhaps, for her it was.
“Hi, Grandma,” I said with genuine elation, as I approached. She continued to stare out the window as if my words were unheard.
“How are you?” I continued.
“Fine,” she replied as coldly as the wind cuts your cheek on a winter morning.
The conversation went on that way for less than five minutes before I called it quits. She didn’t want to speak to me, let alone look at me, and I wasn’t mature enough to process how I felt. That was the last time that I saw her.
By the time I got the call, the cancer had spread rendering her bedridden. It was a cold Sunday morning when the phone rang. My mother told me that Grandma passed her in sleep, but I wasn’t shocked. We knew for some time that it would happen soon. I wasn’t sad and I wasn’t happy either. I was numb. I hung up the phone and stared at the white tiles of the ceiling for what felt like hours. The water damage was getting worse and we could see rot towards the east side of the room. I contemplated calling someone about it, but my mind consistently brought me back to the present.
“What now?” I thought.
The funeral was a whirlwind of family, strangers, performance, and grand gestures. I can’t remember who did the eulogy, where I was sitting, or anything that happened after they lowered the casket. However, I do remember person after person gracing the podium and sharing kind words. It didn’t feel real and it didn’t feel genuine.
Someone asked, “Would any of the family care to say something?” Eyes darted in all directions and some settled on me.
Care. There goes that word again. I couldn’t decide if I cared too much or too little. I couldn’t decide if I should say something nice or tell the complete truth. I couldn’t decide what kind of person my grandmother was and if she even deserved such adulation. But, that wasn’t for me to decide. No one is either all good or all bad and my questions about who my grandmother was weren’t going to be answered on that day. I looked down and waited for them to proceed.
Through it all, my mother was there by my side and by hers. She was the one who traveled back and forth from work to the hospital to stay with Grandma, sometimes not reaching home for days. She was the one who fed her, changed her, and held her hand in her final weeks. She was the last person that my grandmother spoke to, the night before her passing. And, she was the one that my grandmother apologized to when she knew that her time was coming to an end. My grandmother told my mother that she was sorry for the abuse and mistreatment, for kicking us out, and for the lack of support. She told my mother that she was sorry for all of it and through it all, my mother held her hand.
I thought about that, as the casket lowered. I thought about what those final moments must have felt like for my mother. Was a weight lifted or was it too late? Did it feel authentic or was it simply the fearful revelations of the dying? I thought that if I could understand how it felt, then I could rid myself of whatever burdensome feelings I held onto. The hurt, the anger, and even the love seemed so intertwined that there was no separating them or letting them go. Like her body, I could only bury my emotions for a time when I would be able to process them. And, part of me prayed that day would never come. Either way, her funeral felt like a rebirth — a time to start anew. I wanted so badly to move on and in some ways I did.
“Alright Mr. Jones, as mentioned on the phone, we have a few accounts that we’d like for you to view and make some decisions on.”
He was a white man with glasses that hung from a string and had wisps of hair that he slicked back. He reminded me of the banker that I once came across, but his trade was different. He was a life insurance salesman and policy representative; the one that was assigned to me.
“So, I wasn’t too clear on what you meant over the phone. My mother explained that there were some outstanding policies, but I’ve never taken out life insurance.” I was twenty-one and confused. Just months before, my grandmother was put to rest in the ground, as I thought all other matters regarding her estate were, as well.
“No, these policies were taken out by your late grandmother. There are several…” He went on to list the dates, amounts paid, and what I would receive for liquidating the accounts. It turns out that my grandmother forged my mom’s signature on several documents. It wasn’t difficult considering that she raised the woman and had both of our social security numbers. There were six accounts in total, and each one started a few months before or after kicking us out.
I shook my head in disbelief, realizing the magnitude of what the string-glasses-wearing salesman was telling me. If I died, my grandmother stood to make several thousands of dollars. And, given the circumstances, she was banking on it.
A looked up from my stupor and gave him the best answer that I could. I decided to liquidate the accounts and despite his obligation to convince me otherwise, I made up my mind. I waited a few weeks for the funds to hit my account, confirmation of the reality of what happened. I thought to myself, “That was it. Now it’s done.” Long gone were the questions that I struggled with:
How could my grandmother be so cruel? Why was she like this?
How can I love and hate her? How is that possible?
It took me years to contend that duality is part of all of us and it’s not only possible but realistic, to have competing emotions about someone so influential in your life. I put too much pressure on myself to answer questions that needed time to develop and address thoughts that I couldn’t immediately put away.
Twelve years after her passing, I still think about our last phone call. I think about where I was and how I felt. I think about the words that we exchanged and how much emotion went into what was never said. I take the story in its entirety for what it is and never dwell on what it could have been.
Most of all, I think about what kind of person my grandmother was.
She wasn’t one-dimensional. That’s for sure.