What’s Left?

My mother used to lecture my grandmother about wearing a seat belt when we were in the car together.  I found this fascinating.  Usually mom would be driving; though, on the occasions my father allowed himself to be browbeaten into some lacklustre family outing, he became the driver by default.  My grandmother would always be up front.  I would always be in back, listening, carrying on my side of the conversation in my head.

Mom would cite statistics, deaths that could have been easily prevented, grisly anecdotes from last week’s Union-Tribune on who’d recently catapulted through a windshield and how they died or, worse, lived on forever disfigured, unworthy of love, and incapable of joy.  It was all because of their stubborn refusal to wear a seat belt.  Over time, I came to suspect my mother was lecturing me as much as grandma, even though I was too young to have a license and always did wear my seat belt.

Grandma, one of the hardest, meanest, bitterest women I have ever met, would stare straight ahead, cut from marble, holding the seat belt across her body, the only concession she was willing to make.  If you didn’t see that the belt wasn’t clicked into the lock, you might wonder about all the tension.  But there she was, often in parity with my father, two stone-cold sufferers obligated to participate in a pantomime of family.  Pent up together in that car, I often felt like we couldn’t be further apart.

What I didn’t understand as a young teenager was that my mom was the only adult present.  She’d take issue with my father’s unsafe driving, at which point, he’d yank the car into a turn without looking—far more dangerous and impulsive than doing 80 in the slow lane.  She’d tell me that if I let my hand dangle out the window, I could lose it.  How’d I like to go through life with a hook for a hand?  She’d remind my grandmother of the latter’s horrific wreck in which her little white Datsun crumpled like tin.  And grandma would simply look out the window.  Nobody likes the voice of the superego when it’s coming out of someone else’s mouth.

After the Datsun accident, grandma spent time in the hospital and did a little physical therapy (before she got fed up and quit).  Mom and I were with her every day, helping out, cooking, cleaning, carrying things, making sure she could keep running her cleaners and laundry without losing business.  But I think grandma stopped caring about life after a certain point.  My mother constantly lobbied for her to quit smoking.  I asked grandma why she didn’t, and I remember her looking at me the way one looks a broken toilet, saying, “What’s left, then?”  At the time, I was too young to understand what she meant.  All I knew was that my mom took care of everyone, and it was usually a thankless job.

The lonely and the angry have their comforts, small respites from the unhappiness of their lives.  And many of us have an inner refuge overlaid on liminal spaces—a certain pond that freezes green in winter, an old chain swing in the park, a type of alcohol we drink when we’re alone and the house is quiet, a sandwich at a little table in the deli.  Such things matter more than we care to admit, keeping us sane, keeping us going, helping us endure.

A Shakespeare professor of mine once called it “thinking past the problem.”  He said whenever there was an immovable obstacle, an intractable personality, a wicked problem that stopped him short, he’d go for a walk and smoke his pipe.  Some people open a bottle at midnight.  Some get their surfboards out at dawn.  But take their pipes, scotch, and surfboards away and they might ask, “What’s left?”

After getting abandoned by a dissolute husband in an era when the blame for that nearly always fell on the wife; putting three daughters through college; and running a small business ten hours a day, six days a week, grandma developed a certain flinty resistance to the emerging safetyism of the 1970s.  She laughed loudest when others were suffering the consequences of their own bad decisions.  And she didn’t like men very much at all.

But visiting grandma every summer with my mom throughout the ’80s, I began to notice a growing quietness in her.  Sometime mid-decade, she got robbed by knife-wielding junkies and spent a day locked in the store’s bathroom.  That changed her.  The hard-edged entrepreneur, who’d mocked her customers’ vanities and seemed ready to fight about anything, slowly gave way to a person who no longer seemed involved in life and didn’t like to talk. 

Once a year, she took the Greyhound to Lake Tahoe for a weekend to put quarters in slot machines—her solitary vacation amid the sort people she used to refer to as idiots.  She watched more and more TV.  And, in the end, after retiring, what got her wasn’t smoking, crazed junkies, driving, or drinking.  It was household carbon monoxide poisoning.

I believe there’s a song lyric about life having a sick sense of humor, but the line only became a fixture in my head after watching grandma slowly lose her mind in a way nobody at the time (not even her doctor) could understand.  She just went crazy and her health rapidly declined.  Sometimes, I think she didn’t deserve the hand she was dealt.  Other times, I think of how I’m here because of her.  And I wonder if that changes anything.