Lakshmana and I had a long trip to reach our family. First we took TWA to St. Louis and then we had a two hour layover before we connected with a propeller jet that took us to Quincy, IL. Grandma met us at Quincy and drove us to Wayland where she and Grandpa had a log cabin behind their antique shop. Just down the street her sister, Dorothy, and brother-in-law, Wayne, had their own antique shop. On the sides of barns around the area one could see the sign “Two antique shops in Wayland.” Above my grandparents’ shop was a one bedroom apartment where my mother lived. When my mom came back from her trip to see me in L.A. she urgently needed a place to live so she ended up there. Previously my cousin Teresa and her husband lived there but they had purchased a home nearby.
Knowing that I slept on the floor my grandparents had put a mattress in the living room for our use. I put my stuff nearby and listened as Grandma started to worry about dinner.
“I just don’t know what I’m going to feed you.” This was a common refrain no matter how many years I had been a vegetarian. It never varied and always carried a subtle dig that I was a bother and that I should just be like the rest of the family.
I told her not to worry; I had brought some things and could supplement them with vegetables from their garden or pantry. I cooked for myself although I offered to share.
Grandma took one look and said, “It looks like someone already ate it.”
If I remember correctly it was a lentils-and-rice dish. No messier than her pots of beans, but since I made it and I belonged to “that crazy religion” it must be awful. I got the same negative reaction to my blackberry herb tea.
I had already heard Grandma complain about how she had nearly passed out on the plane ride to Arizona where she had to meet my mom and drive her back. Mom saw some horrible accident and just broke down emotionally after viewing a mangled body. She called Grandma and told her she couldn’t drive back. I had long been pulled between them in their ongoing war, first on one side, then on the other. I had mostly sympathized with Grandma when I was having my own problems with Mom. It took several more years for me to begin to see Grandma’s part in their tortured relationship. At this point, however, I was outraged that Grandma had to risk her health and drive Mom home from a trip I thought she should never have made in the first place.
Somewhere along the way I heard Grandma’s most common complaint.
“I just worry all the time about you and your mom and your aunt Gin.” She would go over to the Serenity prayer plaques she had collected on one wall. “I just try to remember to accept the things I can’t change,” she continued, while making it obvious to everyone concerned that she did no such thing. “I don’t know why the Lord gives me so much to bear.” Obviously we were all supposed to feel very, very bad for making her worry so much.
I used to try to argue that I was just fine but I knew that would lead to an argument about my “crazy religion.” Previously I had pointed out that because of my religion I wasn’t using drugs or alcohol, behaving promiscuously, and so on. Shouldn’t she be glad I wasn’t doing those things? But that backfired as I had to hear that by rejecting “our Lord Jesus Christ” I was going to hell. I would protest that I had nothing against Christ, but that fell on deaf ears.
Grandma knew almost nothing about my religion, but that didn’t stop her from passing judgment. She also wouldn’t let me tell her anything. “I don’t want to know nothing about that crazy religion,” she would say.
When it came to baby food I had to put my foot down.
“Lakshmana can only have fruits and vegetables,” I said. “We have a ceremony at six months to introduce grains into his diet for the first time.”
I passed that warning on to Aunt Dorothy when we went over to visit. Their home was a part of the antique shop at that time. However, while I was distracted someone gave him a cracker and he already had some in his mouth before I realized. Half the cracker was gone so obviously Lakshmana swallowed some. I was so upset that his Annaprashan ceremony was ruined. It was akin to ruining someone’s christening ceremony or baptism. No one in my family took it seriously, of course. My religion had no meaning for them and my feelings about this moved them even less. After all, I was a brainwashed zombie in their eyes so my thoughts and feelings were dismissed as meaningless.
I was already beginning to regret coming to visit.
I had a packed schedule of visits planned, and first up after Grandma’s was Aunt Gin. Of all my relatives I got along with her the best. Grandma dropped me off the next day. Aunt Gin was happy to see me and we had a good time catching up. My grandpa Glen (my biological grandpa) had passed away recently and we went to visit his grave and bring flowers. She told me all about what happened because she was working as a nurse in the emergency room when he was brought in. An ulcer he didn’t even know he had punctured and he was bleeding internally. She said she knew from his low blood pressure that he wasn’t likely to survive. It was a huge shock.
“Your mom wrote him a letter a few weeks before he died, telling him off for everything he did that made her unhappy. That was the last he heard from her.” Aunt Gin sounded disappointed.
I thought to myself that after all I’d heard about his beatings, I couldn’t really blame her. It was just bad timing. How could my mom know that was going to happen?
“It’s too bad they didn’t get a chance to work it out before he died,” I said.
The conversation turned to my dad, not someone I wanted to talk about.
“So I heard from your dad that you’re going to see him while you’re here,” Aunt Gin said.
“Not exactly. I just told him that to get him off the phone.” My dad had called me after getting the phone number from my family. He saw Lakshmana’s birth announcement in the local paper. What a surprise that phone call was—first time I’d heard from him in years. Of course I felt like he only wanted to talk to me because I’d given birth to his first grandchild—a grandson. It didn’t make me feel like he cared about me at all. So I didn’t really want to see him.
“Don’t make your mother’s mistake,” Aunt Gin said. “You have a chance to see your dad while he’s still alive and you should take it.”
“It’s too late for me. He’s a stranger.” I didn’t even want to talk about him.
“I hope you don’t regret it,” she replied.
We moved on to other members of the family. But a few hours later, who should drive up but my dad, George McPherson. My heart sank. Obviously Aunt Gin was in on this. I couldn’t understand why—it’s not like he kept in touch with my family over the years. Maybe losing her own father was making her want to meddle with mine.
Feeling resigned I watched as she invited him in and he of course wanted to give me a hug like we had a relationship or something. He always did this when he saw me—acted like he always loved me and wanted to be around me, always giving me a big hug. Where this feeling was the rest of the time he was busy ignoring me, I’ll never know. It’s given me a life-long loathing for hypocrisy. I won’t so much as write “love” at the end of a letter unless I really feel it.
Having endured the awkward hug and the embarrassment of being caught in the act of ducking our proposed visit, I was pretty much forced to go home with him so he could visit with us and see Lakshmana. I don’t pretend to remember the conversation—it was so awkward that I have mercifully forgotten. Just imagine the most stilted, unnatural conversation with an incompatible stranger you’re supposed to be related to. We had a bit of a drive over the Mississippi to Hamilton, where he lived with his fourth wife. I’m ashamed to say I’ve totally forgotten her name, so let’s call her Helen. Why Helen? Because some guy on TV just mentioned Helen Mirren.
Helen turned out to be a godsend for me because we hit it off instantly and it saved me from being alone with my father. She was interested in astrology and so we launched into a conversation over dinner. My dad contented himself with paying attention to my son and that suited me just fine.
After dinner Dad was scheduled to be at a baseball game. He was very involved in the local baseball scene and had official duties of some kind—I wasn’t paying attention. He asked me if I’d like to go along and I declined, instead spending a quiet evening with my baby. Helen also had someplace to be. Obviously my visit was timed very well for them.
Later my dad got home and I drank some tea and suffered through another awkward conversation.
Suddenly he shocked me by directly addressing the elephant in the room.
“I know I haven’t been a good father,” he said.
There was a huge lump in my throat. I was trying not to cry, not in front of this stranger. I wanted to ask the question that had been haunting me for years but I couldn’t speak. My throat was still clogged with unshed tears. My brain screamed for me, “Why?” But no one heard.
The horrible moment passed when I didn’t respond, looking down at my son’s head, and my dad changed the subject. Looking back I’m surprised there wasn’t an “I’m sorry” or “I know my absence must have hurt you” or an excuse of some kind.
Soon I said I was tired and should put my son to bed and escaped to the guest room. The next morning nothing was mentioned and Helen was there to smooth it all over and take the only picture (I believe) that exists of my father and me.
Soon it was time for me to go. I said I wanted to call someone I knew locally to come and get me. I called my 8th grade science teacher, an old friend, and he came right away. Soon I had escaped the visit and was catching up with my friend, who I’ll call Felix. He drove me back to my aunt’s house where I let myself in and showed him a picture of my husband since he’d never met him. Aunt Gin wasn’t home so after Felix left I had some quiet time to think about things. What a relief to have that visit behind me.
And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home dad?
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then son
You know we’ll have a good time then
I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time
You see my new job’s a hassle and kids have the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you”
–Harry and Sandy Chapin