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Drinking Whiskey From Teacups
Remembering my grandmothers
When I left the house I’d lived in for 11 years, I didn’t take the plates and silverware we’d gotten for our wedding or the towels I’d purchased a year before at a Macy’s after-Christmas sale. I didn’t take any of the pots and pans that had been carefully selected after weeks of research and put on our registry. The pots were Calphalon; we were told they had a lifetime guarantee.
Instead, I went to the basement and grabbed the five moldering boxes of my maternal grandmother’s china and a wooden box filled with my paternal grandmother’s silver. Ever since, I’ve been eating with the tarnished silver forks off the creamy white china with the gold edges and the pink roses. And on the nights my kids are with their father, I pour whiskey into a teacup and think about how much both my grandmothers disapproved of me.
They were both named Barbara, which isn’t helpful for the reader. And their last names also start with Bs. So I will start with my mom’s mom. This grandmother died just two months before my wedding in 2005 and her china was brought to the reception and deposited on the gift table by my aunt. “Grandma would have wanted you to have this,” she told me. I laughed.
“No she fucking wouldn’t.”
My most enduring memory of my grandmother is her sitting in front of my aunt’s house smoking, watching her grandchildren, my seven siblings, play in the red Oklahoma dirt. “I don’t know why your mother even bothered having all of you,” she said, taking a drag on her cigarette. I was in high school then and exhausted from her constant criticism.
“We can hear you when you say that, Grandma,” I told her. I don’t remember her response. But it didn’t matter. In one of the last conversations I had with her before she died, she looked at me and said, “Well, you found someone to marry you. He must be an idiot.” She was all wrinkles, polyester, nastiness, and nicotine.
The reality was that china was worthless. Some cheap knockoff of something nicer; rejected by my cousins and my older sister until it landed on that wedding-reception gift table. I took it, like a dutiful daughter. Hauling the burden to Iowa and letting it sit in my basement for 11 years until one day, I needed it to start over.
The silver set was a similar albatross. This one came from my father’s mother, and it at least came to me wrapped up in a box with a bow and a Bible verse. Why do we think like that? Why is a burden wrapped up in a bow better than a burden plunked on the table? Is it the effort that convinces our love-starved hearts someone cares? In the end, does wrapping paper around a curse make a difference?
I threw away the card, but I remember that in it, my father’s mother wished me a long marriage like hers. This too made me laugh. Was she trying to curse me? My grandfather hadn’t been kind. By the time I was born, everyone said he’d become born again and changed. But that story seems too tidy.
When I was growing up, my grandmother and my father would tell stories of my grandfather’s rages as if they were a joke. My grandmother would burn a casserole (she was a notoriously bad cook) and they’d scramble to hide it from my grandfather so he wouldn’t scream.
I never used the silver or the china until I ended my marriage. I had nothing and I couldn’t afford to buy anything. I wanted to start fresh, but all I had were these offerings from my grandmothers. So I took them and used them to build a life I knew they’d hate.
In her last lucid years before dementia set in, my father’s mother sent me birthday cards that told me she thought I was going to hell. These cards were always handmade. And for years, I’d send her presents of craft supplies and gift cards to craft stores, so she could make these cards — the cards would accuse me of straying from the lord and damning my eternal soul. My birthday is six days before Christmas, so they were my Christmas cards, too. I would dutifully participate in this cycle of gifts and curses year after year. I wish I had quit sooner.
It was always like that. When I was in eighth grade, my dad got AOL and I signed up for an email account. I sent my grandmother earnest emails about my life and my loves and spilled my middle-school heart out to her. She would reply, and I thought she was my friend. Eventually, though, she told my mother about the things I was writing and I got in trouble for saying bad things about my mom and for my “rebellious spirit.” The kindnesses were always a betrayal wrapped in a bow.
By the time I left my marriage, I was quitting everything. I no longer called my grandmother. I didn’t read her cards. I didn’t send presents. And I only spoke to her on my visits to my parents’ house. And we only talked about the kids. I cannot remember any of these conversations, only that they felt like a burden for both of us. There was never a big confrontation. No final break. Only me, exhausted, walking away from it all. Bringing with me only the things that could sustain me and feed me — some tarnished silver, some chipped china.
My father’s mother died on December 5, 2022. She was my last living grandparent, and in grieving her, I grieve every offering from her that only turned out to be a betrayal in pretty paper..
We do not all have happy families. My therapist tells me she thinks it’s more likely that most families are like mine — wounded people raising wounded people. Maybe everyone else is pretending. When I think about the gifts my grandmothers gave me — the china, the silver, the sadness — I think of what to do with them. But I still carry them, unable to let go.
Once, at a spiritual retreat, a woman grabbed my hand and said, “Who are your ancestors?” And I laughed, thinking of the generations of cigarettes and cruelty, silver and sanctimony. “With all due respect,” I told the woman, “we don’t want to invite those bitches into this conversation.”
“You can only use what you have,” she told me.
I still have those plates and I have not, despite my threats, used them as target practice. (Mostly because my little brother refuses to return my BB gun.) I run both the china and the silver through the dishwasher, so the plates are chipped and the sulfide layer on the spoons has made them dull. But I’ve used those gifts to build a home. I use the silver for cooking and for feeding myself and those I love. I set out the plates for dinner parties with friends and stack them with other estate sale plates for birthdays and holidays. And I let the dogs lick steak off them. I drink whiskey alone from those teacups. And every time I do, I think of my grandmothers and how somewhere they are furious at me. Or maybe they’re finally free.
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