How to Avoid Fights with Your Grandma (Hint: Don’t Take Her Money)
Resentment is such a powerful sentiment. It’s a feeling that anyone who has experienced addiction or lived with addicts is familiar with. It can be used for a lifetime, as powerful as drugs and alcohol itself. My grandmother is 95 years old and was married to my grandfather, an alcoholic, for 25 years until, fed up, tired and having brought up the five children she birthed for him, finally divorced him. After they divorced, my grandfather eventually hit rock bottom and decided to get sober. He got healthy, made amends for his wayward past, tried to make it up to his children, and generally lived out the rest of his life clean and serene.
But my grandmother wasn’t able to harness healing in the same way and has held onto much of her anger and resentment from her early life. She brings up things that happened 50 years ago, with a crystal clear recollection, mentioning details that most people could never remember. I don’t know how she remembers details of time, place and location: I can barely remember what I had for breakfast yesterday and I’m 60 years her junior. She expects her children, who are now all in their 60s, to remember the idiotic things they did in their teens so she can polish her resentments, gleaming trophies of misunderstood pain and sadness.
Earlier this year, in the winter of our pandemic, my grandmother sent me $60 with a note that read: ‘Take your cousin out for lunch.’ I chose not to because I wasn’t partial to sitting in a man-made bubble on a New York street in sub-zero weather. I told her that I didn’t want to go out to lunch because I didn’t feel it was COVID safe, and she replied saying ‘You better tell your father to stop telling me you are out with friends!’ Presumably, the idea was that she was catching me in a lie. Which is only half true. I visited New York for over a month in January, stranded there due to a lockdown in the UK, where I usually live. In that entire time, I ate out at one restaurant. I am on immunosuppressant medication and I exercised caution when it came to COVID. But the predominant reason I refused to go to lunch with my cousin is that I didn’t want to sit in the freezing cold on a New York City sidewalk, shivering over soup and cold sweet potato fries, which would inevitably ice up as soon as they were set on the table.
When I offered the reasoning as to why I wouldn’t be attending lunch with my cousin, my grandmother replied to my email and said ‘If you think you have 2 [sic] wait until the virus is over then sent me back the $, it was a crazy idea anyway. If you 2 want to get together I didn’t have to bribe u. Have a nice day. Love, Grandma’
The email isn’t particularly mean, but it is a bit comical to ask for money back that you’ve sent someone completely unsolicited if they don’t spend it in the way that you want them to. I didn’t send the money back, because I was leaving New York soon after our email exchange, and asked my dad to hand it back to her the next time he saw her. I knew from the experience of other perceived faux pas from myself and her other grandchildren that this fobbed lunch plan would be fuel for a longstanding resentment towards me, and could even result in the silent treatment (for which she is famous).
To be sure, when her birthday rolled around in March I sent her an email to wish her a Happy Birthday and asked how she was doing. She never replied, which is unlike her. It seemed I had been blacklisted, which has happened before, though this time I found it ridiculous. She famously sent me a poison pen letter when I was an 8-month old for reasons that remain mysterious to this day. The letter was most likely a thinly veiled message for my mother, who has never played my grandma’s game and therefore received lots of poison pen letters and had years-long stints of the silent treatment. My mother has almost always given her mother-in-law a wide berth, so most of the time she was completely oblivious to it.
Of course, I don’t want my grandma to be angry with me and I wish that we didn’t have such a tenuous relationship. The truth is that it’s very difficult to have any sort of relationship with her because it is so often transactional. If she gives you a gift, there is usually a follow-up email as to how I should wear said gift and when. And if, god forbid, she finds out you didn’t follow through emailing the second cousin of someone in her church congregation who has something to do with a vague career direction you had ten years ago, you best believe you’ll be hearing about it. Mostly, she’s not really interested in me as a person, but rather how I reflect on her and whether my actions and life choices can be used as fodder for her friends and acquaintances. I’ve never once been asked by my grandma what my hopes, dreams and fears are, but I don’t know whether she even considers what her hopes, dreams and fears are. In her day, that wasn’t an option.
That resentment is such a familiar state of mind for her really does make sense. I’ve inherited this illness of resentment. I latch on to perceived wrongdoings by the ones I love the most. I am in a continual process of trying to undo that reflex within myself and understand why I feel so attracted to holding on to feelings of resentment, cradling them like precious playthings. All I can do is ask for help when I pick up resentments and try not to give them too much energy. If I had it my way, everybody would owe me an apology because everybody has wronged me at one point or another. Does my grandmother owe me an apology for her bad behaviour over email? Maybe, though I think a 94-year-old being so au fait with email does give her license to do whatever the hell she wants most of the time, though I sometimes wish that didn’t include alternately haranguing and icing out her family. But she also had a hard life, and I understand why she is the way she is.
The work of being one of her descendants is to root out that same behaviour that lives in me and try to do it differently. I don’t want to throw my loved ones into the imaginary prison in my head repeatedly because they didn’t act the way I wanted them to. I would much rather continuously forgive the people I love even when no apology comes. And when the apologies do come, I hope to always accept them with love and avoid leaning into resentment that may still live somewhere in the recesses of my psyche (and sometimes top of mind). Is any apology coming from my grandmother? Unlikely. I sent her another email recently, a summer check-in if you will, to test the waters. I am yet to receive a reply so I think she may still be keeping receipts from our winter exchange. I hope she’ll meet me for lunch sometime soon, even if COVID isn’t over.