by Rachel Cann
There’s many a slip between cup and lip, and so it was about this baseball, won at a silent auction for a charity last summer. I could hardly wait to give it to my grandson who dreams of becoming a pitcher. He’s such a good athlete — I’ve been cheering him on for the past four years, no matter the weather or my sciatica, or sleeping in the way I sometimes would like. It’s the chance to see my only child, the boy who, against all odds, turned out to be a yuppy. As evidence I submit: Rule #1: “Never call before 10 am.” Rule # 2: “Don’t come to our house without being invited.”
According to his latest complaints, reported to me by his wife — since he seldom speaks to me — he was raised in a slum and forced into summer visitations with all kinds of disreputable characters. And, of course, he must have told her how I once stole a Christmas tree from a supermarket parking lot, smoked pot, and never baked cookies. I stand convicted. But a “slum” he never lived in, unless he’s referring to the shack we lived in before it was torn down to build a beautiful stilt house on the bay in Florida. Certainly not the city of Brookline which we moved to, well-known for its high percentage of doctors and no overnight parking. Okay, so it was a rent-controlled one bedroom, all I could afford, but I was more than willing to sleep on the living room couch. He chose the closet, not me.
“Why did you buy anything at all?” asked my son, when I told him about my surprise baseball gift. “When my wife and I contribute to a charity, we just write a check.”
“The non-profit has been good to me,” I answered, “even paid me for some articles. All I was doing was giving back.” Too busy to listen, his voice took on an irritated tone, so I didn’t tell him how the editor of this charity’s newspaper (Spare Change) told me she would print anything I ever I wrote. Nicest compliment ever, but my son has this antipathy for my writing. Maybe it has to do with the summer I sent him for his annual visitation to my ex with a copy of Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. The biggest fight we ever had, when he returned, was in the airport, without the book and a trunk-full of comics. Now he reads only graphic novels and his collection of first edition superhero comics is probably worth more than gold.
In addition to the baseball, I also wanted to give my grandson a black leather motorcycle jacket. A little punk swagger never hurt. And the kid wanted it too. His still-spindly arms twitch in their sockets when he pitches and he continues to bite his nails unless he’s wearing this black rubber mouthguard that makes him look as if he suffers from hoof and mouth disease. He and I are very simpatico. My son had loved the plastic red Michael Jackson jacket when he was about the same age, so when I called the Harley Davidson store, the salesman told me to bring in my grandson to make sure the jacket fit.
“My son won’t let me drive my grandson in my car,” I said, complaining. “It’s full of dog hair and a bit rusty. He nags me every chance he gets to buy a new car. My 93 Toyota hugs the road like an Aston Martin. People actually shoot me high fives when I’m in traffic! It has never failed. Only 135,000 miles. 4 cylinders. With gas now so high, I think it’s worth more money than what I paid ten years ago.”
“Probably is,” said the salesman, chuckling. “Tell him a man in New Hampshire had the first Toyota to go over one million miles. Toyota gave him a new one, but he’s still driving the old.” I have no trouble talking to strangers. Sometimes when I call Comcast for DVR instructions, they tell me I’ve made their day. I’d rather rob a bank than ask my son to buy me a new car, if that’s his biggest worry. Not that I’ve ever asked for anything. Probably ashamed of what the neighbours think. Really. My son and his wife make so much money they replaced their flat screen TV with an even bigger one and instead of giving me the cast-off, they installed it in the closed-in front porch that’s so filled with toys, games and books, the kids must become claustrophobic. They never watch TV in there. I know because I asked them. In summer, it’s hot as hell and in winter, freezing.
The week before Christmas, I drove to a neighbouring town to buy a plastic case for the baseball. It was a signed baseball by a Red Sox player who had pitched a no-hitter his first time on the mound, both parents in the stands. I’d wanted to give it to my grandson during baseball season. But the rule is if you give something to one kid, the other one has to get something too. My daughter-in-law had no trouble scooping up the filigreed cross I’m allergic to as if she were a Las Vegas croupier. We were in their kitchen, walls covered with crayon art, the white of the refrigerator doors and sides, totally concealed by photos of childhood and the places they have been.
“My granddaughter could wear the cross for her first communion,” I suggested.
“Too big,” answered my daughter-in-law. “I’ll give it to her when she’s older. You can give the baseball to my son at Christmas.”
At their wedding, the minister warned us not to interfere even if alligators were in their bathtub. Let no man tear asunder etc., etc. But after being bullied for the past ten years, I hardly recognize myself. Trying to reason with them is like talking to a Hershey bar. It’s my job to keep my mouth shut, but I’d like to know if my son tells his father-in-law how to spend his money. My son calls him “dad.” My daughter-in-law calls me by my first name.
The day before Christmas I parked my car and rang their doorbell, wearing a brand new red coat, an Evan-Picone, bought for maybe 50 cents at the Garment District where clothes piled on the floor about four feet high are sold by the pound. On Fridays it’s just a dollar a pound. A lot of it is junk, but if you work hard, the way I do, it’s more fun than a gym and I always find a treasure, a name brand like Jones of New York or Albert Nippon. Not to brag, but my eyes can detect cashmere at 100 yards. My fingers will dive into the schmuttle to find butter-soft leather, suede, fur or 100% wool. Anything polyester, I toss.
“I was going to give this coat to your wife for Christmas,“ I said to my son. “But she probably doesn’t like red. The sleeves are a bit long for me.”
“You’re right. She wouldn’t like it,” he said, looking down his nose. Every year I seem to be shrinking, but I detected a new sneer to his nostrils as he continued. “It’s got dog hair on it and it stinks of cigarettes.” Usually it’s “you’re early,” or “you’re late.” Never a welcoming smile, a hug, or “I love you.” My only compliment in all these years was at a back yard barnyard-themed birthday party, when I wore pigtails under a straw hat looking a little like a buck-toothed Sadie Hawkins. They had decorated the yard with balloons, stacks of hay for the guests to sit on and a pony. Not one pony, but two.
The baseball today is wrapped in the last of my Spiderman paper. I’d already been shown the girl’s gift they’d bought, supposedly from me: a made-in-China ratty-looking dog that needed batteries to yip or raise its leg to pee. Whatever. I thought that would cover the gift-giving rule. We were on our way to the Pompeii exhibit at the science museum, my belated birthday present. Years earlier at the MFA, I’d seen the exhibit, but the Science Museum’s was far superior: a world map on the floor with red dots indicating the still-active volcanoes and a time-lapse movie recreating the devastation at Pompeii, that showed the smart residents had plenty of time to escape before the big one blew, and interactive exhibits for the children. My daughter-in-law, gave me an exasperated “for God’s sakes,” when I commented how I thought it interesting that the Pompeiians had outdoor urine receptacles for laundering rugs. By the time I got my third “for God sakes” for not wanting lunch at the museum’s salad bar, I felt the acid in my stomach bubbling a certain death and by the time we got back to the car’s parking lot I was ready to blow my top like Vesuvius.
I decided then that it wasn’t good role-modeling for my grandchildren to see me being continuously cowed like some simpering idiot, so I tossed the baseball into the back seat for my grandson. He’s my biggest admirer and a reader (thank God). He’s told me he can let her screams go in one ear and out the other, something I haven’t learned to do yet. Last Christmas when I gave him the book The Black Stallion by my favourite childhood author, Walter Farley, he wouldn’t even open it. I was seriously crushed though I never let my disappointment show. Someone later explained that horses are too girly for boys, but the baseball was different. It would grow in value and be something he could pass down to his own children, kind of a family heirloom.
“Can I open it?” he asked from the rear of the SUV. Strapped in by a seat belt, I was unable to see his expression.
“Not until Christmas!” shouted both parents.
“But Christmas is tomorrow,” said I, the woman who didn’t wear pantyhose to the boy’s first communion, regaled for wearing what they called a “cocktail dress.” It was only a little sparkly, maroon and quite sedate, no cleavage with long sleeves. They had videotaped me in all my glory, with a close-up of my knees, guffawing like braying donkeys at my embarrassment when they showed me the video on their TV. Admittedly, they’re not what they used to be, my knees, but I haven’t worn pantyhose in some twenty years. I did not respond and tell them that I knew how to dress and that people in my day people didn’t wear flip-fops to church and wouldn’t even think of wearing blue jeans and cut-offs, muscle shirts and bare midriffs. Muteness does not become me, I swear. And all this tension and negativity is bad for the children. They can read faces and hear unspoken words in inflections as well as I can. They both know how much I love them and I’m not worried a bit about speaking my piece: “What difference does one day make when I’ve had to wait eight whole months?”
With this, stern voices came from the front, resulting in a blue and red missile thrown over my head by the kid who sometimes obeys though not often. Not a word of protest from the peanut gallery. My daughter-in-law runs a tight ship. My son just watches, the strong silent type. They don’t believe in spanking and when the boy used to misbehave at the dinner table, it was my son’s job to carry the kicking and screaming child for a “time out.” This went on for years. The kid would come back with a smirk on his face and say Sorry when I knew he wasn’t. I never dared tell them their routine didn’t seem to be working. Every time I visit, the boy sits on the arm to her favourite chair, and we hear Pavlovian ear-splitting screams. Thus far, I have been successful turning my thoughts to nuclear proliferation, economic meltdowns and how I’m chronically behind in my work, but this time, the day before Christmas, though my voice escalated to what might be considered a feverish pitch, I lost my composure.
“Why are you both so controlling? Where is the peace, love and joy?“
“You know the rules,” my daughter-in-law answered. “Everybody follows my rules. Why don’t you?”
I did not use my favorite quote about the horse and who rode in on it. According to them everything I say and do is “inappropriate.” The kids and I laugh together often about it when we’re alone. I’m fairly certain there’s one of those baby monitors in the kitchen when I’m in the living room. If I ask the kids a question, she answers. But last week, while I was babysitting, with all this focus on not making fun of people who are different, I told the kids about the Boston Globe’s article about the first pair of identical twins at the Children’s Hospital transgender clinic. My grandson had already admitted reading about Justin Bieber’s paternity suit in the supermarket check-out lane.
“How do they change a boy into a girl?” my granddaughter asked. She was only in the second grade, then, but so bright I could hardly believe she still believed in Santa Claus. She has shared her passions with me from Dora to Myley Cyrus. Still, I was more than a little shocked to see her dancing to YouTube, working those hips and lip-synching every word Lady Gaga sang. Where did her innocence go? She gets her nails polished in a salon, tea parties in some expensive American Doll lunch place where girls dress just like their dolls, which even get their hair done there. She may not have known what hormones were when I felt bound to answer her question about trans youth but I know this child almost as well as I know myself. Soon she’d be ratting me out to her mother for using the word penis. And though I knew there were no laws in the whole country securing a grandparent’s visitation rights, I didn’t give a flying fuck.
Eight months later at a Chinese Buffet, after several emails trafficked to and from, my son and his wife are aware I am dying of paraesthesia and if they aggravate me too much I could stroke. Nobody wants me to leave for a foreign country (least of all me) where I have plans to hire an editorial assistant. “We need to go slow,” my son said, meaning we were to maybe just talk about the weather. Slow is not possible as all descend upon the buffet like ravenous pirates. I have my dentures in my pocket and watch them fill their cheeks like little chipmunks as I try to gum something claiming to be lobster. My granddaughter is wearing a green spangly, tasselly thing, my grandson another backwards baseball cap that brings out his heartbreakingly turquoise eyes. Both adults are tanned and thinner, having recently covered almost all the New England states plus Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.
They asked how was my summer. “Great,” I answered, attempting a close-lipped smile, when I have been running from pillar to post, trying to get healthy, hoping to reverse my chemo-related neuropathy, with massage, reflexology, acupuncture and chiropractic visits. The little girl is putting on a shy act for the benefit of her parents. We’re sitting about two feet apart on a bench. The music is loud and I can hardly hear. “My ears,” I said, by way of explaining. “You think she can come a little closer?”
The least of my problems is a eustachian tube dysfunction, bringing on a slight deafness in my left ear and a strange lack of balance. The chemo-related peripheral neuropathy has its tentacles everywhere. Her mother coaxes her daughter to tell me about the summer’s gymnastics at a camp where she had a bad fall. She is painstakingly sucking on a piece of watermelon, to avoid talking to me and she doesn’t move an inch. I offer her a pretty paper bracelet, wrapped around my wrist on an elastic. It was a party favour from my support group for Mothers with Married Sons. She shakes her head no, eyes straight ahead. Her own wrist is adorned with silver beads.
My grandson is all over his mother, so she will understand she’s his favourite and not my son. “Get away from me,” she says. On the third pass at the buffet, my grandson and I meet for a secretive hug and kiss. “I’ve missed you so much,” I say. He’s almost as tall as I am. So much time has gone by. He knows I’m not done with the lie he told them, that visiting grandma’s place is “boring.” I’ve been called a lot of things but “boring” has never been one of them. Back at the table he shows me his new phone. He’ll be going to middle school soon and walking home alone. The phone is for his safety. I would have brought along this huge Bible for him to swear on that he never called my place boring, but my grandson has already told me he doesn’t believe in God!
My choice at the buffet was some tiny clams, but both adults tout some kind of cheese-covered razor-necked clam. I do not dare deny their hospitable stab at niceness. I scrape off the cheese and claim joy, but when I try to eat the clam, it’s as rubbery as the lobster ball. My gums do their best, so I try to swallow it whole and it doesn’t go down. They are now passing around what my grandson didn’t like after a taste: coconut ice cream. His mother chastises him for filling the cup instead of just sampling a taste. The disrobed clam is halfway down my throat and won’t get swallowed. I’m choking and nobody notices, so I reach in with two fingers and as delicately as possible pull out something that seems to have two legs. Then I drink a sip of my lemon water, drop the shellfish, legs and all, into its original container, and flip it over onto my dish.
“The stuffed mushrooms are my favourite,” I say. My grandson looks interested, but my granddaughter not. She opens instead one of the fortune cookies and reads something that possibly isn’t there, something about how whatever decision is made today will affect the rest of her life. This is the child of my heart, the one I held on her first day of life, the one who mirrors her mother’s enmity. Last year while in the bleachers watching the second-graders learn to dribble, I was amazed at their skill but my daughter-in-law claimed it was “like watching paint dry.” My son was at another school that day coaching the boys. The grandmother sitting haunch to haunch next to me says she has 14 grandchildren. Her granddaughter comes over to give her a big smack on the lips. “She calls me all the time on the telephone,” the woman says.
I complained again to this stranger. So shoot me. “My granddaughter never calls me.” My suggestion for Skype was roundly put down. “That’s only for grandparents who live out of state. You can’t force a relationship.” I wanted to stomp that smugness off her face with my boot but I’d been told she had a difficult family life growing up. I must be compassionate, no matter the cost. My own childhood wasn’t exactly a piece of cake. My granddaughter and I have a swell time together when I babysit. Even though I refused to play Chutes and Ladders, she seems to have forgiven. I will tickle her feet and snuggle under a blanket. The boy is older now and she has taken his place under the blanket. We watch Harry Potter movies and when snakes appear on screen, I scream: YUK! My daughter-in-law has read all the Potter books. I want nothing to do with ogres and snakes. I let them occasionally leave for the kitchen where they sneak candy from their stash. Once I was even yelled at for snitching a piece of chocolate. “Get your own!”
But today, with me on my way to somewhere else, we are all on our best behaviour. My daughter-in-law leaves to go to the restroom and my granddaughter comes out of her chorea, shrieking and laughing so that my son has to hush her. “She’s happy,” I say to him, “because she’s missed me.” To this remark she is in full acquiescence. I can feel my heart aching with joy. She jumps up quickly, unsure of whether it’s okay, to give my son a reassuring hug, slipping and falling flat on the floor with a resounding thump and screaming. Then she comes up behind her brother’s chair, face red and flushed, no tears. “I’m okay,” she says, and comes back to sit beside me. A little bit closer.
“I was going to bring my neighbor’s chihuahua in a big pocketbook…” My grandson’s eyes bug out in warning, but I’m on a roll. “But I knew it would be inappropriate!” The storm clouds quickly appear on my son’s face, until both children explode in raucous laughter. His normal face returns as I continue. “His name is Pookie and he’s in love with my cat.” I explain how my neighbour lets Pookie and my cat carry on nose- to- nose through the screen window in my living room, how they both mewl from desire and cry like babies.
My Maine Coon is a feral who has had a hard life. The local groomer refused to touch him even after they hung him up on some kind of sling. He hates being groomed, but it’s a necessity for long-hairs. When I got him, five years ago, after my friend found him lost on the street, I paid 150 dollars to have him fixed at the vet. Another 40 for a microchip at Petco. The dermatologist told me it will take a year applying Vitamin E before the scars on my legs resolve. I can’t take the attacks any longer. He’s always waiting under the bed to bite my legs when I walk by. I worry a lot that he’ll creep up and bite my nose when I’m sleeping. Maybe I’ll have to have his teeth taken out. Both of us toothless, slurping our food. What a picture.
There is just enough time left to ask my son a question. I had planned never to speak to him again. The second I saw his face, my venomous nature turned to mush, but I want to know why I was not allowed to come to their house after my grandson’s first communion three years earlier. It was Mother’s Day, and the whole family was there. Instead what comes out is a compromise: “How are the Red Sox doing?” Father and son both respond: “They’re last.”
My daughter-in-law returns and pays the check, but my little granddaughter, gets it into her head to test the waters, like throwing chum for sharks. She stands for her soliloquy, smiling, teasing, all eyes upon her, and enunciating slowly, the little rat fink that she is: “A- n- d once grandma babysat us and said something inappropriate….”
“Zip-it,” her mother says, giving her the evil eye. “We’ve agreed to let bygones be bygones.” Now the child, my little drama queen, tightens her lips so that only the cupid bow shows. The boy is practically jumping up and down he’s so happy the war is over. In the restaurant’s lobby, I stop him, kremmel through my wallet for my business card. “Call me.” I say. “Now that you have your own phone.” The adults say nothing and when we’re out in the sunlight, I expect them to make him return the card, but they don’t. I can see I’m moving too fast for them, when this was supposed to be slow. God only knows what that’s supposed to mean. I’m dying, remember? They both notice the black toe I’m wearing in the flip-flops I bought when we lived in Florida some twenty years ago. A bottle had fallen on my foot.
“What’s that?” the parents ask in unison, these two adults that have been putting a nail in my casket every time they cause my blood to boil. There’s nothing I like better than closing a deal and there’s a bit of the perversity in me too.
“That?” I say, looking down at my foot. “Oh, that. That goes along with my condition. It has to do with circulation.” I swear I did not mention the word gangrene, but that’s what actually happens if I don’t find a solution to this neuropathy. The toes are the first things to get chopped off.
Rachel Cann has complaints about almost every doctor or lawyer she has ever had. She’s a cancer survivor even though her primary doctor of 7 years was teaching at Harvard instead of listening to her ailments for six separate visits. Luckily, all she lost was a kidney and now suffers from Chemo Brain. Her M.F.A. was granted from Emerson College in 1991, but she didn’t pay her student loan because the short story teacher who taught at Harvard was a poet! During the Covid quarantine she was able to make presentable a memoir called CONNECTED (LOVE in the Time of the Mafia). Read more at https://rachelcannwoburn.blogspot.com.