When I was very little, I used to get letters in the mail from my grandma far away across the country. She would type them on a typewriter, and some words were printed darker or blurry because of the ink and uneven keys. These letters were short, but they always had stickers on the back, like hearts and dinosaurs. Once she sent me a card with an illustration of a little red-haired girl on the front. Inside she wrote, “There was a little girl who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very good. And when she was bad, she was horrid. You’re not horrid, Annie, but you look just like this little girl!”
Grandma called me on the phone sometimes too. She would say, “Annie, can you see the moon?” If it was nighttime and the phone was near a window, I’d say, “Yes, Grandma!” And she always sang a song that went like this:
“I see the moon, the moon sees me
Shining through the leaves of the old oak tree
Oh, let the light that shines on me
Shine on the one I love.”
Once when we were visiting her, Grandma took me out to breakfast, just the two of us. I remember ordering a ten silver dollar stack of pancakes, and since my family didn’t eat out often, I had never seen that round scoop of something that they served with it before. I decided that clearly this was ice cream (what else could it be) and ate the whole thing in one bite. Spoiler: it wasn’t ice cream. Turns out that a mouthful of butter is awful, but it made Grandma laugh! Everyone in my family still makes a big show of reminding me that it’s butter and not ice cream when we are out for breakfast. Including W.
I remember that Grandma loved to smoke. She would hold cigarettes in between her fingers like glamorous Old Hollywood stars did in the movies. Her personality was sassy and fast-talking like those old heroines, too. She would smoke outside in the backyard when we were at her house, and I would sit on the porch and turn the tiny crank on an old metal music box. It looked like a carousel, and the little horses went round and round while “You Are My Sunshine” played.
When my sisters or girl cousins would turn ten years old, Grandma would buy each of them a pretty gold ring with their first initial carved on top. When it was my turn to be ten, she offered me the same gold ring with an “A” OR an American Girl doll because she knew I really wanted one. I chose the doll, and I was so excited. Meet Josefina!
Josefina was extra special because Grandma’s name was Josephine and my mother was born in New Mexico, just like the doll’s character in the books. I loved her!
A little later in my childhood, we stopped talking to our extended family altogether. I thought she was the best Grandma, but my parents said she was a horrible person. Because I was a child, I didn’t know how to process all of the complicated history and upsetting details my parents shared with us about my mother’s terrible childhood. I just knew my mother was hurt, and at some point I remember writing in a diary that Grandma must not really love us if my mother was so sad all the time.
In the summer of 2010, Grandma got sick, and my mother flew out to spend time with her for the first time in many years. One night, I got a phone call while I was at a bachelorette party celebrating one of my closest friends, and I went outside on the sidewalk to answer it. It was my mother. She told me that Grandma was dying and that she was handing the phone to Grandma right now. She said to go ahead and say goodbye. Before I could wrap my mind around what was happening, I heard an old voice say hello for the first time since I was a little girl. It sounded like she might have been crying. I don’t really remember what was said. I think I said I love you. I think she said she loved me. It felt confused and awkward and scary. And then it was over, and I was standing on the sidewalk, holding my phone and thinking maybe my grandma really did love me after all during those years. It was like an Acme piano was dropped on my head.
As a teen and more recently as an adult, I used to feel angry that my parents didn’t make things work with our relatives. It was always just the six of us at every holiday, since my father didn’t have a good relationship with his family most of the time either. I know no family is perfect, but everyone around me after I grew up seemed to always have big family birthday parties or cousin graduation parties or teatime with Grandma well into their own adulthood. I wanted that feeling of connection, where a community of people surround you and lift you up. Quirks and baggage and all.
Once I accepted a friend request on Facebook from a cousin, and my mother told me I was stabbing her in the back. My parents made it clear that no one from that side of the family can be trusted and to be in contact with any of them is to betray our immediate family. My sisters and I still feel very wary of the prospect of someone reaching out. I don’t know what to believe anymore. Sometimes I wonder what my cousins are like and if we have anything in common, like a hair color or favorite movie. I bet they played with that metal music box from the porch too.
I’m not angry as much anymore. Mostly I think about how I wish I had sang “I see the moon” for Grandma on the phone that night. And it makes me sad.