Sunday, January 13, 2008


I usually come by my New Year's resolutions in strange, maybe backward ways. For example: During grad school someone I didn't like very much accused me of being a sucky person, of being a gossip, of telling all sorts of tales behind people's backs. This person said I was a big fake, that I pretended I was such a goody-goody but then would turn right around and be catty. I didn't argue with this person's first point--I am a gossip, and I do tell all sorts of tales behind people's backs, but, really, who doesn't? (After all, the person talking about me clearly does.) The thing that irritated me was the fact that this person said I was being fake. She was somehow under the assumption that I wanted to pass myself off as someone who didn't gossip, but that's just not right. I think anyone who knows me well understands I would never try to pass myself off as non-gossiper. I'm a writer. I like to tell stories--mine and others--wherever I can hog the stage. To think I'm not going to log those embarrassing incidents, strange flukes, uncomfortable moments, and drunk nights in my brain is just silly. If I can find reason to, I'm probably going to tell people about them. If I can find the occasion, I'm probably going to write it in a story.

I've never said otherwise. I've never pretended otherwise.

Still, this person's remark gave me pause. I started thinking about how much I hated people talking about me (yes, I realize this is an inconvenient position for someone who likes to gossip as much as I do), and I started thinking about how many times I'd been hurt by someone who said mean things about me behind my back. I wondered how many times something I'd said had hurt the person I was talking about. I didn't want to be that girl--the girl whose remarks cut deep wounds that were slow to heal--and that's how I arrived at one of my New Year's Resolutions: I was going to gossip less.

Some of this year's resolution came about in similar fashion. One of them came about because someone else--my grandfather, to be exact--said and did something that prompted me to do some hard thinking about myself, where I come from, and where I am going.

A few days before Christmas, I had a typical moment with my grandfather. I spent a few hours turning that over in my head, irritating myself by replaying the event and wondering why he can't be nice to everyone for just one holiday season. Just one. But I had other things to busy myself with for the next few days, and so I did, and I'd almost forgotten how angry I was at my grandfather, but then he showed up to Christmas dinner at my mother's house and reminded me.

He was two hours late to dinner. My mother held dinner, juggled the food's temperature and readiness, for those hours because she had no idea where her father was, what he was doing, or when he was going to get there. He stumbled in the door late, late, late, but never said a word about it really--and we all just shrugged our shoulders and went along with things, which is what we've taken to doing with him since his stroke. We ignore his forgetfulness, his shaking, his stumbling, his inability to see things right in front of him, his insistence on driving even when it's so, so clear he shouldn't. (He recently ran into a picnic bench outside the diner where he eats his breakfast and lunch. He deflected the fact that he couldn't see the picnic bench that was so clearly right in front of him by raising royal hell in the parking lot, yelling about how the owners were stupid, were moronic, were foolish for putting a picnic bench in front of their restaurant. What purpose could it possibly serve? He demanded to know what use a restaurant would ever have for a picnic bench. By running into it, he'd crippled the front end of his new Jeep. So he went out and got another new one, and that one has since been hit three separate times--all of which, of course, were not his fault.)

After our late dinner, we moved the party into the living room so we could watch a movie. Before the movie, though, we got sucked into a standup marathon on Comedy Central, which my grandfather slept through--thank God--but he snuffled awake just as a commercial featuring Tom Cruise flashed across the screen.

"Goddamnit," my grandfather grumbled. "Tom Cruise. I hate that faggot cupcake. What a fruity princess."

And I suppose that's not all that shocking. There are worse things my grandfather could've said--and I've heard those worse things before--but the actual words weren't what really bothered me in the moment. It was my grandfather's tone that bothered me. His voice dripped with hatred--real hatred. It was clear he'd devoted some serious time to thinking about Tom Cruise, to hating Tom Cruise, to thinking up mean names to call Tom Cruise. (My grandfather has had a similar life-long hatred for Rosie O'Donnell. He knew Rosie was a lesbian ten years before anyone else did. He was the first person to ever use the word dyke in my presence--as in, I don't know why you waste your time watching that loud-mouthed fat dyke!) That someone can develop that kind of real anger and ill-will toward someone they will never know, someone who has no bearing on his life, someone who is a celebrity, is shocking. How many minutes must my grandfather have spent cataloguing hate over the course of his life?

Of course I understand that lots of people have those prickly feelings for certain celebrities, that they will often throw barbs when that celebrity comes on the television or radio. Me, I have the habit of doing that when I am exposed to Fergie. I've been known to say I hate Fergie, mainly for her song Big Girls Don't Cry, which haunted me all last summer. It's a ridiculous song with atrocious lyrics and grammar (I'm going to miss you like a child misses their blanket??--Come on, Ferg!), but do I really hate Fergie because of it? No. No, I do not. I don't wish her ill, don't wish her harm or death, but I do wish she'd stop singing and showing up on my television screen looking like a half-naked drag queen.

Last summer when I, in a moment of exasperation after hearing that awful song for the eighteenth time that day, said, I hate Fergie! in front of everyone at the restaurant, it was in a spirit very much different than my grandfather's. No one at the restaurant was startled by my tone. No one thought I really did hate Fergie, that I wanted her dead and buried, that I wanted to be the one to kill her myself. When my grandfather proclaims hate, there is no question about its intensity. If you prodded him further about Tom Cruise, I know for certain that my grandfather would say that the world would be a far better place if Tom Cruise were dead, and he would tell you if you gave him a gun and the chance he would do it himself because nothing would give him more pleasure than to put a bullet between that faggot cupcake's eyes. I guarantee that's what he would say. And I guarantee he really, really believes it.

My grandfather is serious in his hate. His seriousness worries me because I'm half afraid his hate is catching. I worry mostly about my brother, about him catching it--not my grandfather's racism and homophobia but the anger, the rage my grandfather has exhibited over the years. I sometimes see it when Adam gets worked up--he raises his voice and bellows things like Jeeee-sus Christ! Goddamnit! This is all bullshit! Complete bullshit! and his intonation is a pitch-perfect mimic of our grandfather's. When he goes on his rants, I am instantly transported back to dozens of holiday dinners when my grandfather found reason to scold my grandmother for any number of things. Jeeee-sus Christ, Dorothy! he'd yell. Goddamnit, Dorothy! And all we could do was sit there and stare into our mashed potatoes.

And he hasn't stopped or mellowed in his old age. A few days before I left New York to come back to Maine, I stopped over at my uncle's house and found my aunt fuming mad at my grandfather. She told me that the day before my mother had called their house and left them a message. She was trying to get a hold of them to invite them for dinner at her house, and after she left a message with them she called my grandfather. While inviting my grandfather to the same dinner, she must have casually mentioned she had tried to call her brother but couldn't find him, which prompted my grandfather to take matters into his own hands. He agreed to come to dinner and then hung up the phone. He picked it back up and dialed his son. When his son didn't answer, my grandfather left a message.

"Goddamnit, you lazy son of a bitch!" he shouted into the machine. "Get off your goddamned lazy ass and pick up the goddamned phone! Your goddamned sister is trying to get in touch with you!"

And then he hung up.

Needless to say, my aunt was not too thrilled about coming home to a blinking light on her machine and a stream of curse words that poured from the speaker when she pressed play. She told me she was so mad she was doing some serious thinking about not going over to his house and cleaning up--something she'd planned on doing since she went over a few days earlier and found his house, which she'd cleaned from top to bottom when he was in the hospital for his stroke, to be a sty. There was garbage everywhere, she said. There was cat puke on the couch and old food wrappers on the floor. There was a suspicious bucket of liquid in the living room--she wasn't sure what it was, but it smelled like urine. ("That makes sense," my father told me later as I shared the story. "Your great-grandfather used to keep a bucket next to his bed so he didn't have to get up in the night to go to the bathroom. He would only empty it every few days, so the whole house reeked of urine. It wouldn't surprise me if your grandfather has taken up that habit.")

My aunt had planned on going over there and whipping things into shape again, even though my grandfather is more than capable of doing it himself. He is not an invalid. He is mobile. He has enough control of his faculties to putter around and keep a clean house. He certainly has enough know-how to make it down the hall to use the toilet instead of a bucket in the living room. But he's lazy. He's complacent. He knows someone will eventually come by and clean up all his messes, just like they always do. And he can treat them just as badly as he wants to--they'll still come. That's the way it's always been, and I suppose that's the way it will always be.

My aunt was mad--she was hopping mad--but after a few days she would calm down and she would go over there and empty the bucket, pick up the wrappers, scrub off the cat puke. We constantly reward the man for his foul mouth, bad disposition, his anger, his hate.

We are not the only ones. Others cater to him, too.

Ever since my grandmother died, my grandfather has taken to driving up to a small diner in town for both his breakfast and lunch. My grandmother died in 2003, so my grandfather has been at this for a considerable amount of time. He knows the drill. He knows exactly when this diner stops serving breakfast and switches to lunch. He knows because he's witnessed it for four and a half years.

Still, that didn't stop him from raising holy hell a few weeks ago when he came to the diner about half an hour after they'd stopped serving breakfast. My grandfather had a taste for pancakes, and when his waitress--just some young thing, a skinny little high school girl--told him she was sorry, that they'd stopped serving breakfast half an hour ago, my grandfather let loose on her. He told that little girl the rules were stupid, that no restaurant should have timelines for serving different types of food. "No restaurant that does that will have my business!" he yelled. He thrashed about. He caused a scene. He made everyone in the restaurant uncomfortable. He made that little high school girl upset, and she probably went home and cried because she hates her job, she hates customers like my grandfather, she hates how they make her feel so small.

My grandfather stormed out of the restaurant after telling the owner he was never coming back, not ever, not if they were going to keep up this ridiculous scheduling of meals.

He came back the very next day, though, and parked in his usual spot. He walked into the restaurant, and I imagine everyone there held their breaths, just like our family does in similar situations. We've mastered the art of breathing so slow, so quiet you'd never guess we were actually doing it. We've learned to make ourselves very still, very small, as not to attract any attention.

But someone at the restaurant was going to get attention, that much was sure. I imagine the waitresses all turned their backs, all scurried to parts of the restaurant where they could look busy and engaged, where they woudn't have to tend to my grandfather's needs. And, thankfully, someone saved them. As my grandfather settled down at the counter, the cook turned around and gave him a small smile. Both she and he knew it was long past breakfast but he'd be wanting it anyway. "George," she said, "how about I make you some potato pancakes for breakfast?" And my grandfather smiled, tented his fingers behind his head, and said that would be just lovely. He told the cook his wife used to make them for him, and he'd sure loved them. He told the cook he would be happy--so happy--if she made a batch just for him.

And just like that, my grandfather was rewarded for his bad behavior. He got exactly what he wanted. He walked out of that restaurant with his head held high. He owned them. He controlled them. And he always would.

I'm tired of that. I'm tired of him spewing hate and anger at us. I'm tired of everyone doing that. And it's not that I'm saying I'm innocent of similar things--because I'm not--but still, I am tired of throwing around hate, throwing around distaste for the rest of the world. I'm going to shape up. I'm really going to. Starting now, in 2008, I am going to be much more conscious about the way I present myself, about what I say, about how I talk. I'm going to be more positive. I'm going to abandon hate, shed it layer by small layer. It won't be easy, and I won't be perfect at it, but I'm certainly going to try my best. I am going to make a very big, very serious effort at leaving that kind of negativity in the dust. There's too much of it out there as it is, and I don't need to be contributing more when I don't even mean it. I'm not going to make the people I love, the people I am closest to, feel small and insignificant. I'm going to tell them I love them, that they are good and kind. I will never stand over them and treat them like dirt because I know they will take it.

I'm going to really think before I speak. I'm going to bite back every time I feel the urge to say something as false and unnecessary as I hate Fergie! or I hate straight leg pants! I'm not going to waste any more precious words on things so silly. I refuse to contribute to the already raging attitude this world has. I'm going to listen, think, and be just a generally better person. I don't want to pass along any more of the quiet strain that has been built into our family. I'm done with it. I really am.

And I realize that if I am going to try to hate less, if I am going to try to let go of some of the anger inside, I probably need to let go of some of the bad blood I have with my grandfather. I realize that, and I also realize it might be my hardest task. Ever since my grandfather and I had our fight on Christmas Eve so many years ago, I've found it difficult to look at him, to sit next to him, to even be in the same room as him. I always want to put as much physical distance between us as possible, mostly because I know what he's thinking when he looks at me. I know what he wants to do, and what he wants to do is make sure I know he is right and powerful and bigger than I am.

And I will try to let go, and I will try to forget, but there are just some things that can't ever be fixed--and I'm going to try to make myself a better person before I become the thing that can't be fixed.

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