Introducing our guest, Rebecca Lacy!
In 3000 words or less, write about an old woman who has a secret that she has kept from everyone. Now, as she prepares for death, who does she tell her secret to? A granddaughter? A nurse? What is her secret?
Grandma’s Secret Life
It was the last day of school, and my friends and I were ready to get the party started. I finally had my driver’s license, so it was going to be the summer that I had been dreaming of since I was a little kid. Then with one sentence, my mother totally destroyed all of my plans.
“Your grandmother is ill so you’ll have to go take care of her,” Her tone left little room for argument. That didn’t stop me, though.
“Why should I go? Why don’t you go? Better yet, send Greg. He’s the only one she really likes.”
“You’ll have to take a bus. There’s one that leaves tomorrow afternoon,” she said, ignoring my suggestion.
“Hello! Did you hear anything that I just said? I don’t want to go. I have plans.”
“It wasn’t a request, Jennifer. You better go do your laundry so you can pack.”
“She’s your mother! Why don’t you go?” I demanded in my most authoritative voice, but I knew that I was wasting my breath. Francis – I always referred to my mother by her first name because it drove her crazy – hated her mother. She would never go if there was any way to get out of it.
The only good thing about being shipped off to take care of my sick grandmother was that I wouldn’t have to deal with my mother for a while. The only problem was that dear, sweet Grandma was just like Francis, only on steroids. This was going to be utter hell.
I knew that my fate was sealed, but figured that I would try one more thing to get out of it. My brother actually liked the old bat. Maybe he would go in my place.
“Yeah, I heard. It’s awful. The doctors don’t think she’ll live much longer.”
“What the…Francis didn’t tell me that part. She just said that Grandma’s sick. If she’s that bad, why isn’t she in the hospital?”
“Because she wants to die at home. She would hate being in the hospital,” Greg said shaking his head. I could tell that he was really sad about her dying, and I saw my chance.
“You should be the one to go to her. She won’t want me around. That’ll be worse than going to the hospital. She hates me!” I held my breath hoping that my ploy worked. It didn’t.
“I would go, but I have to work this summer or I won’t have money for tuition next year. Mom can’t afford to pay it, so there’s no other option. Besides, Grandma doesn’t hate you.” Yes she does.
I was desperate, so I said in my sweetest voice, “I’ll work for you all summer, and save every penny that I earn.”
“It won’t work,” he responded, destroying my summer plans. “It wouldn’t be fair to you…”
“Yes it would,” I interrupted. Greg gave me his best big brother look, and I shut up.
“As I was saying, it wouldn’t be fair to you.” Seeing that I was ready to butt in again, he held up his hand to stop me, and continued, “Besides, you couldn’t make as much money as I can, and I need all I can get for next fall. I’m sorry Jenny. I know you don’t want to go, but it’s the only option.”
“It’s not fair!” Even to my own ears, it sounded juvenile, and I didn’t want to sound like a kid. I wanted to sound grown up so that I would be taken seriously. Feeling sulky I asked, “Then why can’t Francis go? Grandma is her mother after all.”
Greg gave me a hug and told me what I already knew, “She has to work, too. Besides I think Grandma would rather have you there than Mom.”
And so it was that the next afternoon I was on some crappy bus headed to Arizona. It took me almost three days to get there. Francis had lied about my age so I could travel by myself. I seriously thought about telling them how old I really was and blowing the whole thing. She would have been so pissed if I had done that! I decided not to because I thought it would be kinda cool to be on my own for a few days.
When I arrived in Phoenix, a lady named Maxine picked me up at the bus station and drove me out to Grandma’s house. It’s a weird place where all the houses look alike and they all have yards of white rock instead of grass. Old ladies with lavender hair drive around in golf carts stopping in the middle of the road to chat with other old ladies with lavender hair.
My grandmother was asleep in her recliner when we got there. Maxine woke her up, and Grandma looked at me like I was there to rob her or something. It made me feel very uncomfortable and I silently swore at my mother and Greg for making me come. I mean, she didn’t even say hello. She just started right in: “So, Francis sent the girl to do this nasty job. I guess she is pretty busy. I wouldn’t want to interrupt her to come take care of her dying mother.” For a second, I felt like I should defend Francis, but really I had to agree with my grandmother, so I didn’t say anything.
Over the next few days I fell into a routine that wasn’t as bad as I had thought it would be. Grandma spent most of her time asleep in her chair. She snored so loud that I just hung out in my bedroom and watched TV to drown out the sound. My chores were easy: cleaning house, doing laundry, watering her one plant, and fixing our meals. Sometimes I would help her to the bathroom, and that kind of freaked me out at first, but after a while I got used to it.
One day, when she was being particularly bitchy, I asked her the question that I had wanted to since I was about six years old. “Grandma, why do you hate me so much?”
You should have seen the look on her face! It was like I had called her a whore or something. She was shocked and for once she didn’t have anything to say – she just stared at me with her mouth hanging open looking sorta dumb.
“It’s ok Grandma. I don’t mind, I guess. I mean it’s something that I’ve always known just like you and Francis know that you don’t like each other. I just want to know why.”
She swallowed hard and just kept staring at me. I was starting to worry that she had had a stroke or something. Finally, she said in a voice that sounded strange, “I don’t hate you or your mother. I love you both. Why would you say such a thing?”
“Well, because of how you always have treated me. I mean, with Greg, you hug him and laugh when he tells you a story even if it isn’t all that funny. Mom told me that when he was little you took care of him and you always gave him presents, but you never did that stuff for me. Then when she got pregnant with me, you told her that it wasn’t fair to Greg, and you were mad at her for a long time. She told me that you never forgave her for having me. That sounds to me like you don’t like me.” When I had said my piece, I stood with my arms folded, looking at her as if to say, “Well, what do you have to say to that, old lady?”
“What nonsense!” she exclaimed, the anger evident in her voice. “The only reason that I was close to Greg and not you was that Francis made certain that I never had the chance. She wasn’t about to make the same mistake that she had with Greg. She was jealous of the relationship that he and I had, and frankly, I can’t say that I blame her.”
After several seconds she continued her voice calmer than before, “It’s true that I told her that it was irresponsible for her to get pregnant. That was because she and your father weren’t getting along, and I figured that she would end up having to raise you kids alone. Having Greg would have been difficult enough, but having a new baby as well was more than I thought she could handle. When I told her that, she was so angry that thought she would never speak to me again.”
“But you were right about her and dad. They broke up right after I was born. I always thought it was because he didn’t want me.”
“Nope. They were on the ropes long before you entered the picture. I shouldn’t say this since he’s your father, but he’s a worthless SOB.” That was certainly no secret.
“When I told your mother what I thought of him, she couldn’t say enough in his defense. I should have kept my big mouth shut. If I had, she probably wouldn’t have married him. ‘Course, he did do one thing right – he fathered you kids.”
She closed her eyes and I thought she must have gone to sleep, but then out of the blue she said, “I never liked for people to get too close to me. Francis included. I thought that if people knew too much about me, they wouldn’t like me. Francis tried to love me, but I didn’t make it easy for her. Try to understand her, Jenny. She hasn’t had it easy.”
After that, she did go to sleep and I spent the afternoon thinking about our conversation. It was hard for me to think of my mom as a kid feeling unloved and unwanted. Up until then I had never considered that Francis was raising me just like Grandma had raised her, doing the best that she knew how. It made me feel a little sorry for her.
Over dinner that night, Grandma totally surprised me when she said, “I’m sorry that I made you think that I don’t love you because I do. Just don’t expect me to say it too often.” Then she started laughing so hard that I thought she had lost it. “Oh, you poor child!” she said “How awful to get shipped off to spend the summer helping some old woman to the bathroom who you think hates you. You must have been so mad at your mother!” It sounded funny when she said it and I started laughing too. It was the first time I remember laughing with my grandmother.
After that, we began to build a relationship that should have started when I was a kid. Don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t all ice cream and cookies. We are both stubborn, and she could be a cantankerous bitch. At least, I knew it wasn’t because she disliked me. Actually, we laughed way more than we argued. She told me stories about Grandpa and showed me her old photo albums. I told her about my friends and showed her the pictures on my phone.
The weeks went by fast, and I could see her getting sicker every day. Hospice came in to help her, and Maxine was there often, but we were alone at night. That was the hardest time for us both because neither of us could sleep – Grandma said it was her memories that kept her awake at night. I couldn’t sleep because I was afraid that if I did she might die all alone.
One night when I was reading to her, she stopped me and said that she had a secret to tell me. I closed the book and bent forward so that I could hear her better. Her voice had gotten much weaker in the previous few days. She said it was God getting her ready to come to him.
“Jenny,” she began, “there’s something that I’ve never told anyone, but I think you need to know so that you can tell your mother. Perhaps it will help her to understand me, and then maybe she won’t hate me so much.” I started to protest, but she just waved me off saying, “Don’t argue. I don’t have the strength for it.”
“People are a lot more open these days than they used to be,” she began, but I didn’t know what she was talking about. Seeing this, she added, “Folks now aren’t so quick to judge others for being different, but it wasn’t always that way. When I was young, there were prohibitions against so many things. A woman who had a child out of wedlock disgraced not only herself, but her whole family. Now it’s commonplace. People even go on television and argue about who the father is. Imagine that!” She paused for a bit, and I expected her to reveal that she had been pregnant when she and Grandpa married. I could just see how a secret like that would have been a real scandal back in Grandma’s day even though it’s no big deal anymore.
However, she went on, “Did you know that it was illegal for a black person and a white person to marry?” I nodded, and she continued, “What was even worse was for two men or two women to love one another.” I held my breath waiting for what she would say next. “Your grandfather was a fine man, and we loved each other dearly – just not in the way that husbands and wives are supposed to love one another. Both of us knew from the time that we were kids that we were different, but we understood each other. So, we decided that we would get married, and hide who we really were behind a curtain of respectability. It was the only way we knew of back then. Our families would have disowned us if we had been honest, and Gordon would never have been able to get a decent job if people knew the truth.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! “Grandma, are you telling me that you and Grandpa are gay?”
“That’s what I’m saying. Queer as a three dollar bill as they used to say.” This tickled her and she laughed until she lost her breath.
After resting for a few minutes, she continued, “Your mother will shit when you tell her this. Luckily I’ll be dead by then.”
“Grandma, how did you…?” I couldn’t quite find the words to ask the question that I wanted to.
“There was so much pressure on us, and we thought some people suspected the truth. So, we needed a kid to get everybody off our backs. We did what we had to do, and your mother is the result.”
She paused, deep in thought, and then said. “Poor little Francis! I didn't want a baby. That was never the plan for my life. She was only a part of the cover I needed to hide who I really am. After she was born, I loved her more than I could have thought possible. But she would look at me with her big brown eyes, as though she could see into my soul, and I was afraid she would learn the truth. So, I pushed her away, and she never knew why.”
“Why haven’t you told her?”
“I couldn’t. I lived the lie too long.”
I could see that she was sad, and I didn’t want her to spend the last of her life feeling bad, so I suggested as cheerfully as I could, “Let’s call her now and you can tell her.”
“No, please don’t tell her until I’m gone then you can tell her everything, especially that I loved her and that I’m sorry that she never knew it. Right now I need you to call Maxine. She has offered her love to me for years and I was a foolish old woman and ignored her. I need to tell her that I love her too before it’s too late.”
Maxine and I were by Grandma’s side every minute for the remaining hours of her life, and we cried together as she slipped away. After the mortuary people came and got Grandma, Maxine opened a bottle of champagne and poured some for each of us to toast Grandma. It was my very first taste of champagne.
“Here’s to Mattie Farber!” Maxine said. “You were a feisty woman, but I loved you. Godspeed, Mattie.” I lifted my glass, but the lump in my throat made it difficult to swallow the champagne.
My mom and Greg arrived the next day and Maxine took me to the airport to meet them. When I saw my mother, I ran to her and threw my arms around her and cried, “I miss her so much!”
“You miss your grandmother?” That news totally bewildered her.
“Of course,” I replied, wiping my nose on the tissue she had handed me. “We have a lot to talk about, Mom.”
My grandmother gave me a wonderful gift this summer. Mom and I are learning to like each other, and I don’t think that would have happened without Grandma sharing her secret. Then last night, I saw my mom smiling as she sat on her bed looking at an old photo album. That’s something she never used to do. I hope that means that she has forgiven Grandma.
I missed out on a lot of fun with my friends this summer, but I’m not unhappy about it. We can do all that stuff next year, but I’ll never have another opportunity to spend time with my grandmother, who taught me a little something about love.
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