Maybe it’s wrong to blame the arrival of Grandma Moore for much of the worst hurt in my family, but I do. Before, our lives had been closed to outsiders. The noise of my parents’ fights might leak out through the screens at night, and I might guess at the neighbours’ scorn, but nobody inquired about our Trouble, about Mother’s being Nervous. We didn’t go to church. No one came to visit. We probably seemed as blurry to the rest of the neighbourhood as bad television. Suddenly Grandma was staring at us with laser-blue eyes from behind horn-rims, saying Can I make a suggestion? or beginning every sentence with Why don’t you … ? She bustled around as if she had some earnest agenda, but God knows what it was. She carried an enormous black alligator doctor’s bag, which held, along with the regular lady stuff in there–cosmetics and little peony-embroidered hankies–the kind of honest-to-God hacksaw used by criminals in B-movies to saw through jail bars. My sister Lecia and I had a standing joke that we were keeping Grandma prisoner, and she was planning to bust out.
I had always thought what I lacked in my family was some attentive, brownie-baking female to keep my hair curled and generally Donna-Reed over me. But my behaviour got worse with Grandma’s new order. I became a nail-biter. My tantrums escalated to the point where even Daddy didn’t think they were funny. I tore down the new drapes they’d hung at the dining-room windows and clawed scratch marks down both of Lecia’s cheeks. Beating me didn’t work. Though I was a world-famous crybaby, I refused to cry during spankings. I still can recall Daddy holding his belt, my calves striped with its imprint and stinging and me saying, ‘Go on and hit me then, if it makes you feel like a man to beat on a little girl like me.’ End of spanking.
In fairness to Grandma, she was dying of cancer at fifty, which can’t do much for your disposition. Still, I remember not one tender feeling for or from her. Her cheek was withered like a bad apple and smelled of hyacinth. I had to be physically forced to kiss this cheek, even though I was prone to throwing my arms around the neck of any vaguely friendly grown-up–vacuum-cleaner salesmen, mechanics, checkout ladies.