Smiling Faces

My grandpa holding Lakshmana

My grandpa holding Lakshmana

Aunt Gin had a serious look on her face and I thought, “Uh oh. What now?”

“I know your mom talked to you about your grandpa,” she began.

Oh no. I knew where this was going. Mom had talked to me but I had tried to forget what she’d said. I just assumed it was more of her drama. It couldn’t be true.

“Maybe you didn’t believe her,” she continued. “I know you don’t always get along. But I can tell you that everything she told you the other day is true. From the day your grandpa came to live with us he tried to get us to have sex with him.”

The ugly words came spilling out and I wanted to stop up my ears. I couldn’t match these words with the grandpa I knew. I couldn’t imagine him ever doing such a thing. He’d never done anything to me, that I knew for sure.

As if reading my mind, Aunt Gin continued, “We didn’t think he’d never do anything to you because he saw you as his granddaughter from the time you were born.”

“So then why,” I thought, “are you both telling me?” I remembered the pictures of Grandpa in the bathtub with me back when I was a toddler. Why would mom let those pictures be taken, then? Why would she chance leaving me alone with him, if all of this is true?

“Even now, if he goes to give me a kiss he tries to give me tongue,” she continued, planting that nauseating image in my head for all time. This couldn’t be happening, these things couldn’t be true. Not my grandpa!

“For years he’s told me that one day, he’s gonna get me.” Aunt Gin looked at me and frowned. “I know this must be a shock for you.”

I wanted to ask why they were telling me, and why now? There wasn’t anything I could do about it. My baby was a boy and therefore safe, right? We lived all the way in California. So why even tell me? But why did anybody in my family do anything? I was tired of trying to understand.

“We never told your grandma because it would destroy her. We’ve protected her all these years.”

In hindsight, I can’t imagine that he tried without success to molest his stepdaughters. Adults who want to do this and have that much access to children generally succeed. Since they hadn’t told, he had years to try. But that horrible thought didn’t occur to me then. I was in such shock that I wasn’t thinking clearly. I also didn’t know much about child sexual abuse back then.

I don’t remember how this conversation ended or even what I managed to say in response. I was in shock and just remember these statements, words that rocked my world. Grandpa was like a father to me. I idolized him all of my life. I followed him around on the farm, even up to the roof of the barn. We walked out to the pasture, each with our own walking sticks, to bring in the cows. I watched him build things and dig holes for the fence posts. He took me to the cattle auction and we always got a hamburger afterward. He was Grandpa. He was known to be a good man, a World War II veteran, and by this time mayor of Wayland, MO. He told funny stories and was kind to everyone he met. I don’t think he ever spoke a cross word to me.

How could this man that I knew so well do the things my mom and my aunt were telling me that he’d done? How could I imagine my grandpa talking this way—to his own stepdaughters? They were eleven and nine when he and Grandma got together.

It’s like we were talking about two different people entirely. I couldn’t bring the two images together to form one person.

But by this time, I had to believe what I was hearing because I couldn’t imagine both of them lying to me. There was no motive I could see and my aunt had never lied to me about something so serious. She might lie to keep Christmas secrets, perhaps, or tell little white lies, but not something vicious like this! And unlike my mom, she wasn’t the type of person to make up things or exaggerate things for attention.

I remember I felt nauseated when she drove me back to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house. I didn’t know how to act around him as I absorbed this information. I felt awkward and exposed. I was a nursing mother in a small cabin with nowhere private to nurse my child. Our mattress was in the living room, a few feet from Grandpa’s chair. Now I felt self-conscious nursing Lakshmana in front of Grandpa. Did he look at me differently now that I was an adult? Had he been restraining himself all of these years? I felt sad for Grandma, too, not knowing that her own girls were in danger, bravely trying to keep this secret that would blow apart her marriage. Now the secret was mine, an unwanted burden at a time when I just wanted to find joy in my beautiful little boy.

I tried my best to act normal for the next few days. I must have succeeded because no one seemed to notice anything wrong.

One evening Lakshmana developed a fever. He was fussy and the fever began to rise quickly. After talking it over we decided to take him to the hospital. Once they saw him and examined him, they told me he had an ear infection and needed to be admitted. By that time his fever was up to 103°F. Because I was breastfeeding they told me I could stay with him and they’d move a recliner into his room so I could get some rest.

Grandma got some quarters so I could use the pay phone to tell Mahasraya what was happening. Predictably, he was unhappy that I was resorting to Western or “allopathic” medicine. But even he admitted that where I was, without medicinal herbs or a “natural” doctor, I had no choice. I had emphasized what the doctor told me about a high fever being dangerous. We didn’t always agree on this subject so I was careful to state the dangers and make my case for going to the hospital.

I barely got any sleep on the recliner for the next two nights until the antibiotics kicked in. At times his fever went so high they gave him ice baths to get it down quickly. Sometimes they were reluctant to let me hold him because my body heat would reinforce his own, but they wanted me to nurse him for the benefit to his immune system. They were surprised a breast fed baby was even this sick.

He got so hot at times that it was uncomfortable to touch him and I felt the heat of his mouth like a burning ember at my breast. He was in pain and crying in a way that broke my heart. The highest his temperature went was, briefly, 105°F. The nurses told me that babies can tolerate a higher fever than adults can, though they were clearly concerned.

One morning his temperature began to go down and he even looked cheerful. I was so relieved, and happy to go call his dad to let him know. I didn’t realize how scared I was until it was over. Grandma came and we took some pictures.

In the hospital

Lakshmana in the hospital

Soon we were leaving the hospital behind and headed to Grandma’s. It was almost time to go back home, in fact. Grandma had been busy while we were at the hospital—she’d made me some long skirts and matching blouses like she knew I wore when I didn’t wear a sari. They were really nice. Not for the first time I envied her sewing ability. I’d flunked sewing in home economics class.

I’d almost put the issue with Grandpa out of my mind while I was focused on Lakshmana’s fever, but here he was, acting the same as always, and I was confronted by the surreal nature of our lives as everyone who knew this secret pretended so well not to—and Grandpa pretended so well that he could never think of such things, much less act on them. I wanted to go home.

Soon we were on our way and I tried to put as much of this awkward trip behind me as I could. I had other things to think about and I couldn’t do anything about Grandpa or Dad or my frustrating relationship with Mom. I shoved them all to the back of my mind and looked forward to seeing Mahasraya. Home seemed almost peaceful.

Smiling faces show no traces of the evil that lurks within
Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes
They don’t tell the truth
Smiling faces, smiling faces
Tell lies and I got proof

–The Undisputed Truth, in Smiling Faces Sometimes

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