If you asked somebody else’s grandmother to bring something to a Midwestern mid-summer picnic, she would probably make potato salad. Or tuck wildflowers into a Mason jar. But my maternal grandmother always smuggled in something less predictable. Like the time she walked straight up to the picnic table and laid down fireworks. Not firecrackers, mind you, but big fat illegal fireworks. Blow a kids finger to bits fireworks. Darkly dangerous, in stark contrast to the brightly set Fiesta ware-clad table. It’s not a picnic until there’s fireworks, folks! It’s not a party until somebody loses a limb!
My grandmother grew up on a farm, one of six children. But it’s easier to picture her as a young girl not on a farm but in a city, as a flapper, at a speakeasy, rolling cigarettes as easily as she rolled down her stockings. She was petite, slim, stylish and loved to smoke and drink. She was outgoing, funny, flirtatious and often tipsy. She was everything my mother was not.
I think one of the greatest gifts a grandparent can give a grandchild is not being like their parents. Who needs duplicates? One person to say “brush your teeth and do your homework” is truly enough. But maybe I feel that way because my mother was especially neurotic and overprotective: she forbade us to chew gum, and my grandmother stuffed my pockets with it. She didn’t let us light matches, and our grandmother let us light firecrackers. She wouldn’t allow me to roller skate, and my grandmother bought me a skateboard to keep at her house.
As a mother myself, this idea is beyond horrifying. But as a child, having a grandparent like this was as magical as having a fairy godmother. We did not bake cookies together. We did not learn needlepoint. We stayed up till midnight playing poker with her friends, dancing in our nightgowns to her Roger Miller and Tijuana Brass records. And when I couldn’t sleep, she did not give me warm milk. She gave me two inches of beer in a Flintstones jelly glass and told me not to tell my mother.
This propensity for secrets between grandmother and granddaughter led me to wonder, much later, what secrets my own grandmother held. It was only after her death that I realized she’d probably been an alcoholic, like my grandfather, and like one of her brothers. And that she’d married two men and possibly never really loved either of them. And that from what I knew of her first abusive marriage, and hard working life, that she’d never really parented my mother, an only child, in any maternal sense, leaving her largely to her own devices, feeling lonely and unsafe her entire life. My grandmother’s thrilling, nervy, alcohol-fueled sense of adventure had left my mother fear-filled, and agoraphobic for much of her life. They were opposites not by destiny perhaps, but by necessity.
One of the last parties I remember at my grandmother’s townhouse, where she’d downsized after retirement, was a large potluck with dozens of family members, a casual affair really, but my mother, always a stickler for details, made me change my clothes twice because she thought I wasn’t appropriately attired. When we finally arrived, ironed and color-coordinated, we were late and everyone was politely sitting on the patio nibbling cheese.
“Kelly,” my grandmother whispered in her smoky voice, “this party is a real snooze. I think you and I need to liven things up.” I smiled at the mischief in her voice as she pressed five dollars into my hand, told me to run down to the store and buy a bunch of balloons. I did as she requested, thinking we were going to blow them up for decorations. No. She told me to fill them with ice cold water, tie them up and hurl them at the guests from behind the stone wall.
“And honey,” she said conspiratorially, “make sure you hit your mother’s linen shorts first.”
I laughed and told her I’d try. But even as my bright jiggling missiles sailed over the wall, I hoped they landed on the kids. Or the pavement. Or the macramé basket of crackers. And not on my mother, who would have no logical or emotional choice but to blame the assassin, and not the arms dealer.
Did your grandparents’ defy your parents’ training or wishes?
Kelly Simmons is a former journalist and the author of the critically acclaimed Simon & Schuster novel Standing Still. Her new novel about a grandmother and granddaughter sharing family secrets, The Bird House, debuts February 1.