Nasty Day by Kelly Froh
They can be sweet, wise, generous, funny, kind, OR
angry, stingy, ignorant, closed off, or brutally cruel.
They are senior citizens and they are. just. like. us.
My grandma died of emphysema, FINALLY, after being in and out of nursing and hospice care. She was down to 62 pounds at one point, while my mom cared for her with no help from her sister Debbie or my grandpa. Grandma was a terrible patient. She refused to even drink one bottle of Ensure per day (which is supposedly one day’s full nutrients), wanting instead to extend one over several days. Once when my mom tried to wash her hair for her in the kitchen sink, she cried, “Look at all the water you are wasting!” Her cheapness ruled, even as she was dying.
I did not go to the funeral, but I sent flowers -
“Send the gaudiest, most out-of-date colors you can possibly imagine.” That was my tribute to her.
My dad described the funeral to me a month later, “It was a nasty day, Kel”, he said. “It rained so hard, it just pelted you, we were all soaked just running from car to the funeral home.” Grandpa didn’t wear his hearing aide; my parents believe this was on purpose.
So there he was, just nodding ignorantly, as relatives gave their heartfelt condolences; he didn’t hear a word.
As the small town life insurance agent walked down the aisle to pay his respects, my grandpa popped up and met him in front of grandma’s open coffin. “Oh, I’m glad you are here. When can I get that check?” The people in the pews looked aghast, and my mom ran to get in the middle of them, “Dad, now is not the time!” My grandpa dismissively told the man, “She gets like this sometimes.” My mom dragged my grandpa back to his seat.
Grandpa didn’t get up to say anything at the service though he was married to grandma 62 years, and he was the first to leave the reception, no matter that his own extended family traveled from far away to be there for him. They asked my mom why he would leave and all she could say was, “That’s how he is.”
My mom said she saw one slightly emotional moment, when my grandpa saw my grandma revealed in her coffin for the first time. For over 6 years she hadn’t wore make-up, had sparse hair, and her body was wasted and ravaged with illness. But when he looked down at her body then, plumped up, made up, it must have made him remember how nice she used to look. My mom said that my grandma used to be quite a looker, always with red lips and jet black hair, a regular Priscilla Presley.
When my grandma first started coughing and using oxygen, my grandpa asked my mom if he had to call 911 if anything happened or if it was ok to just drop her off at the hospital entrance. He was always looking ahead at how to save more money. He was also determined to not have to use his own money for my grandma’s healthcare. He felt that “the state” should have to pay, and he started gifting out his money to my mom and her sister, and transferring his house into their names. He was rich, but wanted to look poor on paper. I not so subtly reminded my mom about my student loan debt.
My grandparents didn’t want to pay for electricity, so at night they would sit in their separate reclining chairs in the living room in the dark and do nothing. No radio, no TV.
Just sit in the dark.
Me to my mom, “They just sit there? They don’t even watch TV anymore?”
In 2007, I made a mini-comic exposing the insane cheapness of my grandparents, mostly for the amusement of me and my family. It’s called “The Cheapest S.O.B’s”. The introduction proclaimed that my grandparents had not suffered through the Great Depression, or the Holocaust, nor had they been diagnosed with mental illness, that this was just a cultivated cheapness that really took hold and became their reason for living. I followed it up two years later with “Debbie’s Story”, a sort-of Part Two that focussed on the squashed dreams and terrible small town reality of my mom’s younger sister Debbie.
In early 2013, my Dad told me some things I hadn’t known about grandpa; that he actually had a very hard childhood; he was the youngest of 7 kids with a stony, abusive father. His sister told my dad that when my grandpa was a very small child, if he found a penny on the road, he would still have it 10 years later.
This was all hard on my mom. This was her side of the family. I’m sure she didn’t want to be the parent responsible for these terrible grandparents. They were the “bad ones”, the ones we never wanted to visit. Their house smelled funny, like cigarettes, watered down pine cleaner and my grandpa’s potato starch farts.
I didn’t like them as much as I knew not to like Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammie Fay, The 700 Club, and all the other tear-streaked, sweaty, spray-tan televangelism that was always on their TV. They promoted the prosperity gospel, about the good fortune that is due to Christians. One day in 1981 my grandparents sent $50 to an address in Texas, bought 2 tickets to Heaven and called it a day.
I disowned them both. It wasn’t because they were cheap, selfish, or uncaring — they were all those things and worse but something happened to me when I was in my late 20’s. I was living alone in my one bedroom apartment on Boren Avenue and I woke up from a nap with a creepy feeling and I suddenly felt very cold. I remembered a moment in the basement of my grandparent’s house, when I was about 5 years old.
I was sitting on the floor and my grandpa put a Playboy magazine in my lap. He turned the pages for me and encouraged me to look. I remember his smile. Then the memory turns completely black, like a heavy blanket being thrown over it abruptly. I was planning a visit home but I felt I needed to tell my parents what I remembered before I got there. I called my dad first (my parents were divorced at this time) and he was silent as he listened, and then asked a lot of questions that I couldn’t answer. He said, “I wonder if he did anything to your brother” and I somehow knew that he hadn’t, that this happened because I was a little girl. Dad said that he would call my mom for me. Originally I thought I did not want anything to be done, just that I wanted my parents to know and then never discuss it again. My mom, of course, immediately drove over to their house and confronted them.
They laughed at her and denied it completely. My grandpa said, “I didn’t even have Playboy’s in that house, I had thrown them all away.” Like he’d throw away something that he paid for, right? When my mom reported this back to me, I vowed I would never be in the same room with either of them ever again.
I missed the remarriage of my divorced parents [another story, some other day] because of them, and I convinced my mom to not allow them to attend my brother’s wedding so that I could go. She was fine with it; she said, “They’d just come for the free food anyway.”
I made the planned trip home, though dread weighed me down. I had been there a few days already before my mom said, “I guess we need to talk about this”. We sat on her front steps; this issue needed air. She asked me if I would consider hypnosis to try to regain memory of that time when I was five. I told her that although I only remember that tiny piece, that I had felt strange around grandpa for my entire life after that but never understood why. I felt that he looked at me wrong and that I never wanted to be alone with him. I knew deep-down that not remembering was the best thing that could have happened to me.
There have always been “what if’s?”. What if my relationship with my grandpa instilled in me an aversion to porn? What if he’s the reason that I wasn’t interested in sex when all my teenage friends were, or why I was a virgin until I was 20? What about that one time when a lover asked me to lay on my stomach across his lap? Why did I leap up and start crying when he touched me a certain way? Why the fascination with “Law & Order: SVU”, it couldn’t be because it’s actually a good show, right?
On a different visit home one summer, I put the laundry out on the line like my mom told me to, and just sat down to some daytime TV. I heard a car pull up and looked out the window. It was THEM. The grandparents that were told to stay away. And I was home alone.
I quickly looked over and saw that only the screen door was closed. I had to get across the kitchen and close the main door and lock it or they would just walk right in. I dropped to the ground and crawled on my belly across the room. I heard their voices coming close. I scurried and reached my arm out to slowly close the door and I just turned the lock in the doorknob when I heard my grandma just outside of it, and the knob turned. I sat there on the floor, my back against the door, shaking and pouring with sweat. My grandma said, “I heard something” and my grandpa said, “Just forget it, let’s go” and grandma said, “No, I really heard something”. She rattled the door a bit more, there were some muffled sounds, and then I heard them leave. Sitting there on the floor, I felt like I had just defended my life.
Another time grandpa came by unannounced to fetch a bebe gun my parents had borrowed. I hid in the spare room and I heard my dad and grandpa in the basement below me. I put my hand into my mouth to keep from making a noise, because I wanted to cry or scream. Though muffled, the familiar tone of his voice came up through the floor and creeped around me like fog. When he left my dad asked me if I was ok. I saw in his eyes that deep hurt that dads feel when they can’t solve our problems.
So we went on. I lived in Seattle, after all, about as far west on the continent that I could go to be away from them. My parents lived in a city next to them, not too far for most people, but way too far for people who don’t want to pay for gas. The instances of seeing grandpa for me were over, and for them, minimized.
My mom once said to me, “We are just so lucky that nothing bad has ever happened to our family…except for your brother’s car accident,” and I looked at her surprised and she quickly added, “And that thing with grandpa.”
She had to move on because she still had to see him, to take care of him sometimes, to invite him to the Thanksgiving meal. And I don’t know what really happened anyway, all I have is one tiny memory and 36 years of creepy feelings.
My brother and I have exchanged terrible text messages. When my grandma died he typed, “Ding Dong the witch is dead”; and when my grandpa fell off a ladder and got right up and was fine, and then shortly after suffered a stroke, and miraculously fully recovered within weeks, I wrote to him, “What do I have to do? Fly there and hold a pillow over his face?!”
My family and I have collectively made some of the worst jokes, and have shared stories about these people as if we are not related to them, as if we are telling each other about some poorly produced but addictive reality show. My parents suggest what would be good to include in the next mini-comic, though they hide the issues away when my dad’s side of the family comes around. These jokes are not for everybody.
So when will Grandpa walk towards the light? I think he’s going to hang on until I decide to stop counting the days. So, today is the day. I will not wish harm upon him and I will just plug away at those minimum payments on my student loan, and he can keep being an awful person and maybe I am awful too, or maybe I’m doing what I have to do to get us all through this.
This story was originally performed at On the Boards Open Studios, 2015. Also self-published as a mini-comic.