Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Grandmonster

I was all of four years old, milling about my curtained and dark bedroom, while listening to my playmates exult outside on a summer day.  Those familiar primeval melodies which must have echoed back and forth between Cain and Abel, drifted from the street and between the slatted blinds my grandmother had so deliberately shut.

My mother's mother, Mormor, was baby-sitting for me, and in her wisdom, she believed a boy needed a nap.  It didn't matter to her that I was simply not going to drift off into the land of Nod.  It was the way things were to be. 

I still remember the exact spot in which I stood, opening a bureau drawer as the bedroom door swung open.  She looked like a giant to me, backlit by the hall light, her white hair lit by a halo hardly befitting this non-angelic intruder. 

Her annoyed tone carried a song of shame.  Her English was void of w's, quaintly endearing to some, but grating to me. 

"Vie aren't you sleeping!!?",  she intoned.  "I wish you'd go to Hell!!", I burst out, knowing Hell was The Bad Place, but not realizing that "go to Hell" was a less than quaint colloquialism. 

Apart from a recollection of my Uncle Gene putting an ice cube down my 2 year old back, this is my first memory, quaint and endearing indeed.

What followed my outburst remains provocatively forgotten.  I doubt that I escaped unscathed, and I assume my punishment was so severe that I've blocked it for all these many years.  Of course, I deserved something for my unrestrained and bitter words.  In all likelihood, she washed my mouth out with Ivory Soap, appropriate for the crime and acceptable for the times.  And when my mother returned, no doubt I was held on her lap and my posterior regions laid into with the right hand of the law.

I wasn't diplomatic enough to explain to my grandmonster that my mother was perfectly happy to let me expend every ounce of energy I had on a summer day, or that the ancient melodies wafting up from the street were calling to my primeval heart, and that it was impossible to ward off the sirens' taunts.

This incident has been part of our family mythology for many years now, highlighting my audaciousness- a four year old telling his grandma where to go. 

She didn't go there soon enough, however, and until she grew senile in her nineties, she was present to disapprove of nearly everything I did.

She was an immovable Swede, stubborn and opinionated, solid in her faith and superstitions.  Her genuine belief that I was inherently bad was rooted in the fact that as an infant I had not been baptized.  Citing the nursery rhyme "Monday's Child", she believed that because I had been born on a Thursday, I had "far to go".  Her son Carl, born on a Wednesday and twice divorced, was indeed "full of woe". 

This was the kind of logic I was up against.

For the span of 36 years, and then some, Mormor was very plain about the disturbance I was in her life.  There was nothing I could do to please this woman.  She would often ask me, in exasperation, "Vhy can't you be like David and Ann-Elise?", my older siblings.  I used to scratch my head, wondering what I'd done to deserve her consistent chiding, but I could never quite figure it out.

"Vhy can't you do things the right vay?",  "Vat do you think Yeesus thinks of you?", and "If your father knew the vay you behaved, he'd spank you good" were all verses in her soul-less liturgy. 

She believed that I played the drums just to annoy my mother.  I remember her coming down to the basement where I played, flipping the light switch on and off, frantically trying to get my attention, a look of utter panic having overtaken her face, with hands cupped over her ears.  I'm sure she believed that I had been taken over by some demonic force, and that these syncopated rhythms I played were straight out of Satan's forbidden jungle.

Indeed, I was transfixed by rhythm and soul and by music which dripped like morning dew off of large magnolia leaves.  The South had a hold on me as if the Mississippi had reversed its muddy current, winding soulfully through the cradle of the Civil War, washing across my ancestral farmlands, and straight through Rhode Island, picking me up along the way, and dragging my heart back to Dixieland.

That my bluesboy heart could hope for understanding from this woman whose feet were rooted in frozen, unyielding Swedish soil now seems quite unreasonable.  However, it's a fair to expect one's grandmother to love her grandchild.

Thus, I played harder and louder.

Once, I remember sitting around our dining room table, Mormor, Dad, a girlfriend, and me.  Mom was away visiting Sweden, and Dad felt the obligation to do something nice for his mother-in-law, which meant doing something not-so-nice for me.  Thinking he might give her a reason to appreciate me, Dad suggested "Phil, why don't you play O Sacred Head Now Wounded for Mormor?"

I was a college student, and had taken a semester of piano, hoping to discipline my wild fingers by learning a Bach piece.  I had happily memorized a fugue and the moving Bach hymn "O Sacred Head".

"He'd only ruin it", she assured the stunned room. 

I've never played it since.

Music, a common thread which ran through the tapestries of both my parents' families, was something that my Grandmother believed I was defiling.  I think she had genuine concern for my soul and bewilderment for how to rescue me, but her grand error was believing that the attempt to control me was the solution.  If anything solidified my insistence on clinging to who I wanted to be and steering my ship a destination of my choosing, it was my mother and grandmother's desire to take the tiller out of my hands.

We never found our common ground, and any attempts on her part to be pleasant were usually thinly masked stragegies to make me acceptable.  She even wrote me a letter when I was in college, kindly suggesting that I would be so much happier if I would give my heart to a more civilized expression.  Yet, as my story reveals, the thought of my attempting to play a Bach hymn was akin to sacrilege to her.  It was shameful to her that she had a blasphemer for a grandson.

If only I had been born and baptized on a Sunday.

So, what of my profane declaration to my mother's mother?  Some people find this story peculiar and disturbing, while I see it as a gasp for air, a demand for recognition. 

I don't want to bask in the warmth of my rudeness, but it probably saved me from going in a direction which life never intended for me.  Years later, my father told me I should be grateful for his mother-in-law's inability to accept me for who I was, believing that she taught me early on that you'll never be satisfied if you follow anyone else's call but your own.


  1. Goodness gracious! Now I'm waiting anxiously for the next installment......!


  2. Thanks for reading, Julie.

  3. Phil, this really resonated with me.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Phil. Despite her intentions, she sure seemed to fuel your desire to break out beyond staid expectation. Brings back memories of my stern Grandfather who was hyper-judgmental. I honestly only ever remember him smiling once. I've tried to steer in an opposite direction partially because of his poor example.

  5. What did she know? I think you play real perty, Phil.

  6. God gives us people like that to direct us and make us stronger, in my case, my mother. Only she was much more subtle about me not being perfect in that "Christian" way that only she can be. I always wanted to please. It took me years to shake it off, and I'm still struggling with it. But it makes me a better person, and I let God lead me now instead of her.

    You are so blessed, Phil. Thanks for writing.

  7. Thanks for each of these responses.

    Tom, aw shucks.

    Kurt, your remark of this resonating with you- I think everyone has someone in their lives whose negative presence can either empower you or disable you.

    Mark, your rigid, unsmiling grandfather and my similar grandmother are probably more common than not.

    Following "Mormor's" funeral, an event occured, which I'll write about later. It was a simple moment, but one in which I was able to see her from the perspective of eyes that can forgive. Stay tuned...

    And as always, I am so appreciative of my little band of readers, and particularly those who venture a comment.

  8. Phil,
    Wow! I,too, never measured up in my grandmother's eyes/mind/heart....and it has taken me 56 years to shake the grasp it has had on me. I am joining your little band of readers.

  9. Jan, so great to hear from you.

    "Over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house we go" apparently needs a new and less cheerful melody! ;)

  10. Missed this post, until today when I started digging deeper. I think Mormor must have been a major player in making you who you have become. If she weren't, you wouldn't be ruminating on it 20 years after she passed (unless my math is wrong). You learned to push back at an early age (age of 4, apparently), and to be comfortable in your own skin. Mormor informed your sense of (darkish) humor, art and perspective on life and its challenges. Yeesus! Cheers for Mormor.

  11. Biff/AM Coffee- My father used to say the same thing about her with the exception of "cheers for Mormor". I have a feeling my personality wouldn't be much different had she been the typical fun-loving grandmother, as her daughter was overbearing and demanding as well.

    But I'm pretty damned happy the way things turned out. Cheers for, er..... me! ;)

  12. I’m sorry for the pain this caused you but good for you for pressing ahead and pursuing your dreams. I fear that for many the story does not work out as yours does. I wonder just how many people give up who they are and what they want to do in their life in the face of such opposition. It is so sad that parents/grandparents hinder their children from discovering their identity and being the person who God created them to be. This stunting of their children’s inner growth can have lifelong, tragic consequences. Yet it sounds like your father gave you good support. Do you think that helped make the difference? I think fathers are so important in the psyche of their sons—daughters too for that matter.

  13. Thanks, Jacqueline. I think children need to feel advocated and defended, in situations like the one I've described.

    You're right about my father. And I think he gave me advocacy, defense, and humor nonetheless.

    My grandmother provided me with a great story, rife with conflict. I was fortunate to have a personality which was quite buoyant, and a low tolerance for anyone who wanted to change me. Thanks for writing. And yes, daughters need strong dads!


Your comments are welcome, and I will try answer any questions, if possible. Thanks for reading! pkm