Sunday, January 24, 2010
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.