This semester I’m taking a personal essay writing course. We were asked to write about a relative who “intrigues or annoys” us. This essay is about my paternal grandmother.
It was important to my father that our family visit my grandmother, Mary Jane Wilson Couzens, every summer on Cape Cod. As a child, I remember being afraid of Granny. I probably wasn’t alone, as the rest of our family steered clear of what is actually quite beautiful beachfront property for many years. With her acid tongue, Granny was the opposite of my maternal grandmother, Grandma, who is warm and affectionate as most Grandmas are. Most of the time, Granny kept to herself, reading trashy romance novels, drinking Diet Cokes and chain smoking in the yard or her chair in the corner.
My aunt and uncles sometimes tell stories about Granny and her no-nonsense approach to parenting. I can’t imagine it was easy raising seven children – six boys and one girl – while keeping up appearances as the county court judge’s wife. When Granny decided that it was time for one of my uncles to make his own sandwiches for school, she made him a special one with an added ingredient: a tissue. Problem solved. There are darker stories, too. My dad once told me that Granny served raw meat for dinner one night because she was drunk and had forgotten to turn on the oven. My grandfather died before I was born, but I’ve been told that they both were alcoholics. Nobody really talks about it.
A former english teacher, Granny was quick to correct my grammar (“‘Hey’ is for horses!”). She was also a devout Catholic. A poster declaring that “The Pill is a No-No” is still on display in our cottage. When I was about nine, I asked her what “the pill” was. “Birth control pills,” she deadpanned. I had no idea what that meant. I knew that Granny loved all of her grandchildren, but she was not the affectionate or patient type. One summer, my cousins brought their yippity new puppy to the cape. “Shut up, dog, or I’ll slit your throat!” she snapped.
Despite this remark, Granny did like animals, but she did not like all kinds of people. My dad recounted various dogs and cats the family kept while he was growing up, including one cat named Sambo. One summer, Granny had recently adopted a beautiful new Maine Coon cat named Brewster, but there was one problem. She wanted him to be an outdoor cat, and Brewster didn’t. Granny insisted that my dad lock him out of the cottage until he learned to fend for himself. Poor Brewster clung to the screens for hours trying to get inside and eventually disappeared. A day or so later, Granny was livid. She uttered the question that I can still remember evoking intense fear in me, like I had done something wrong. “Douglas,” she asked my father indignantly, “What have you done with my cat?”
When Granny told you to find her cat, you found that cat. And find Brewster he did, the next day, hunting in some bushes in our neighbor’s yard. But the Brewster my dad brought back was not the same timid indoor cat that had clung to the screens. He was a newly-minted predator, and clawed through my father’s shirt. And ever since, he was the best hunter cat we had ever seen, bringing home moles, rabbits and birds as gifts, leaving them on Granny’s doorstep.
My father died when I was 10 and it wasn’t until the summer before Granny died, the year I was 14, that I got to know her a bit better. I sat in the chair next to hers, deciding that lecturing her about her smoking habit was a lost cause, especially since she was perfectly healthy. She told me about the lobster trap she used as a coffee table, how she kept her driver’s license by memorizing the eye chart, and the day my grandfather died, how he had called her his angel. Legend has it that he was originally interested in her sister, but they sounded in love to me.
After Granny died from pneumonia the following winter, I had a sense that she was at peace. Her life had been harder than I had realized, and wondered that even though it was nearly five years later, she had somehow died of a broken heart. No mother should ever have to bury her child, my relatives said.
Brewster the cat lived for several more years after Granny’s passing and I found his death particularly devastating since he had known both Granny and my dad. Even though he was a skilled hunter, he let me hold him like a baby and would purr for hours. Granny always heckled my parents about when we were going to get a “real” pet – something that wasn’t fish or frogs, and my mom and I don’t know why we never did. We adopted a cat named Louie much later on and now I have two cats of my own.
Sometimes I wonder just how similar Granny and I are. It was certainly much different to be a woman born in 1920 (or 1921, we aren’t quite sure) and 1985. What would she have been like if she had been born today? I think she would be a lot like me. At the very least, she would have her own blog. And I think about how crazy that is, to feel that my sharp-tongued, misunderstood, alcoholic Granny and I, the unmarried, sober, one-time taker of “the pill” are kindred spirits. Every summer, I bring my cats on vacation to Granny’s house on the Cape with our family, and I read trashy novels and drink Diet Cokes in the chair in the corner, missing her.
- Family history – better than a soap opera or a dynasty novel! (mbrizz.wordpress.com)
- Post Challenge: My Family Tree (louisianefille.wordpress.com)
- Rules for Grannies (themwordmag.wordpress.com)