A Letter To My Dead Grandmother

Dear Gram,

On December 6th, you will have been dead for five years. If other people write letters to their dead relatives, they’re probably full of wistful longing or how they miss your cookies. This is not one of those letters. You see, you went crazy before I really go to speak my mind to you about everything you mean to me.

Some of those other dead letter writers probably wish they could have gotten to know their grandparents better. Not me. I knew you better than most grandchildren know their grandparents since, when my parents were still newlyweds, you “temporarily” moved in with them and just never left. You squatted in our household for nearly forty fucking years. We had decades to get to know you.

It’s only now that you’re gone that we can really see the hole you left and it’s not full of delicious cookies. It’s full of bitter resentment and manipulative control. You were, in fact, a horrible person and the older you got, the more jaded you became.

I saw it from early on. Dad and I were on to you. We saw your game. We saw you for who you really were. Dad was never good enough for you and you made him aware of it every damn day, but he had the uncanny ability to just let it roll off his back. Plus, he was an adult when you wormed your way into his house like a parasite. I wasn’t so lucky. I was just a child. You were already there before I was born. My sister and I were raised to think that your bitching, nagging, underhanded manipulation and ridiculous expectations were normal. Everyone has a grandmother who lives with them and tries to control everything they do, right?

I only saw Dad lose his temper with you once. You were picking on us as usual at the dinner table. I don’t even remember what you said since I had been working on blocking you out just like Dad, but not quite as successfully. All I know is that you said something horrible about Mom, sister or me and Dad raised his fist, banged it on the dinner table and said, “ENOUGH!” Everyone froze as gravity settled the plates and glasses into their rightful places. I still remember the look of horror and fear, yes, fear on your face. It was the only time I ever saw your façade flicker out of place. Just for a moment, you were truly unnerved. And then you straightened your napkin and with it, your face. You mumbled something like “Well, I don’t see why…” or “I was just…” and let the sentence die there in the air. Nobody said anything else for the rest of dinner, but Mom, sister and I were internally smiling and beaming with pride in Dad. That was one of the greatest moments of my childhood. He took you on and won. It didn’t last long. The next day, you were right at it again.

Sister and I were talking about you yesterday. We talk about you as people might talk about the Holocaust. A thing so imaginably evil that it seems like a nightmare, as if something that horrible and wrong couldn’t possibly have happened in the world, but it did. We speak in hushed tones out of habit. Sister is finally starting to get angry with you. Some twenty odd years after the dinner table incident, she’s finally beginning to see the reality of you and she’s very pissed off. She hasn’t fully embraced the anger yet; it comes in little waves and she instinctively tries to keep it down out of some misguided sense of self-preservation you put there.

She was the good one. She was the one who toed the line. I was on to your game from as early as I can remember. I fought back. You could never really control me and you hated me for it. You are the reason that I am so contrary. I am contrary to the point of self harm sometimes, but it’s better than following you. You are the reason that I ran away from home at the age of fifteen and moved out of the house at age eighteen while the family was on vacation without telling you where I went. Did you think I wanted to move out on my own when I was still a teenager? Did you think that I thought it was fun? It wasn’t. I’ve been struggling ever since. I just couldn’t live under the same roof as you for one more fucking day. I’m not sure that I ever told you that you are the reason I broke my mother’s heart.

Sister and I never got to do anything we wanted to do. You didn’t want me to be an artist. You didn’t want sister to be an actress. She was good at it. She got a standing ovation right in the middle of her high school play, but that wasn’t good enough for you. It wasn’t an appropriate pastime for young ladies of substance. I never took an art class because of you. I would draw in my room with the door locked and hide it. You never encouraged us in anything. It was always pick, pick, pick. You are the reason that sister and I both have poor self-esteem, she more so than me; I hide it better. You set us up to fail and then yelled at us when we did.

For the longest time, I blamed Mom. She never stood up to you. She backed whatever play you had in mind. I didn’t talk to her for almost three years because of you. Now, I realize that she had something akin to Stockholm Syndrome. She had to deal with you her entire life. You were my grandmother, but you were her mother. She never had a choice. At the time though, I was angry with her for not seeing it, for not fighting, for not standing up to you. After I got out, I tried to save Mom and sister. I would call them up and yell at them for putting up with it. They didn’t understand why I was so angry. They didn’t see it because they were still brainwashed by you. I tried to save them, but I couldn’t. You are the reason that I didn’t talk to my sister for a dozen years. You are the reason that I became an outcast from my family. It wasn’t until many years later that they finally understood.

Mom went through a complete turnaround after you died in a remarkably short amount of time. She is finally the person that she was supposed to be all along. She’s smart and funny and fun to be around. She’s doing what she wants to do. She’s an elected official. She has friends of her own and a life, a real one, not one lived in your shadow. It’s almost as if you never existed. She’s great. Dad is, as always, Dad, but he doesn’t find any reasons to be angry anymore.

Sister and I still haven’t been able to shake you entirely. We are both still living in your shadow, just in different ways. She conformed, I rebelled. I’m still rebelling even though you’re not here. That’s just silly. I’m rebelling against a ghost. Sister is still conforming, but she’s slowly making her way out of her shell. She’s thinking about taking an acting class just for fun. I’m trying not to rebel so much. I don’t paint anymore, but it’s not because of you. I’m thinking of going back to school, not because you want me to, but because I want to do it. We’re all slowly putting the pieces back in place. We’re all moving away from you. Mom has made the most progress, but the rest of us are finally realizing we’re free.

You were a terrible person. You were twisted, jaded, spiteful, opinionated, controlling, mean, hurtful and just generally no fun to be around, but you weren’t all bad. I remember a time when you would smile. I still remember your laugh from when I was a small child. I won’t throw you away entirely. I will keep your strength, your intelligence and your lifelong yen for knowledge. I will keep your tenacity and your dark sense of humor. I will keep the times that you sang me to sleep, gently brushing the hair away from my face with your wrinkled hand. I will keep the few good parts of you deep inside my heart. But to the rest of you, to the horrible, evil parts of you, I say, I’m not sad that you’re gone and I wish you had gone sooner. Good was in you, you just refused to let it out. I wish you had been a better person.

Rest in peace and leave us the hell alone.

Love (and yes, even after everything, I do still love),

Your granddaughter.

This post is part of the On Being Series.