by Katie Durant
I never knew my grandmother Rosemary. We lived no more than two hours away, but we never visited. I only saw her once at a May Day party at someone’s house. Kids were dancing around the maypole, so my sister and I grabbed ribbons and skipped and wove ourselves between first and second cousins whom we had never met. We didn’t know we were related, and I don’t think we ever saw any of them again. No one asked us who we were, and we didn’t know anyone there except Uncle John. Rosemary gave us cookies and soda cans in the kitchen. She was only an old lady in a sweater, skirt, and chunky black shoes. As we were leaving, she came to our car.
She bent to peer into the back seat of my mother’s car, her pearl necklace falling away from her chest. All buckled up with the straps rubbing against our necks, we looked back at her. She said, “Nice kids,” without smiling and walked away.
My mother was the oldest of Rosemary’s eight children. When she was young, my mother had to get her brothers and sisters ready for school and into bed at night. Uncle John didn’t sleep easily as a baby. My mother said she would slap him so he would cry himself to sleep; she said nothing else worked. Later, when he would climb out of his crib, Rosemary tied John in with a harness and then two harnesses tied back and front.
I have heard the story of Uncle John, at three years old, being found four blocks away in the center of town, naked. To stop his wandering, Rosemary fixed him to the tree in the front yard with a leash and his double harness. In the winter, she hooked him up inside the garage. After telling the story to me from his perspective, Uncle John shrugged and said, “What are you gonna do?”
At Rosemary’s dinner table, children could be strapped to their chairs and forced to finish their food. Dropping a fork on the floor was a punishable offence. I have heard that at Thanksgiving she would make a monstrous amount of food and force the family to finish it all. My mother says Rosemary fed her until she had to vomit.
When my grandfather came home from work, he had to punish the children for everything they had done wrong during the day. Rosemary would tell her husband what they had done. My mother said Rosemary made things up too. My grandfather held the belt and beat the kids, but he largely escaped blame, particularly from my mother. She forgave him when he apologized on his deathbed.
My mother never forgave Rosemary. Instead, she kept us from her. This was at least as much to spite Rosemary as it was to protect us. Rosemary sent no cards and never tried to contact us, nor did she ever see her great-grandchildren. We didn’t send anything to her because my mother said she was evil, and, without any other experience of her, that’s what she became for us. We couldn’t see her any other way. Of course, had we known who she was on that May Day, we still would have eaten the cookies.
When Rosemary was dying, my mother and I made a plan to visit her in hospice. Perhaps we didn’t really want to go; we took forever to dress, to eat, to get into the car. We looked up directions at the last minute. We were struggling with my two small children, then three and four years old, dressing them nicely, and strapping them into the car when Uncle John called to ask if we were almost there. We became lost on the way. We took the wrong exit. We had to double back.
Twenty minutes before we arrived and more than thirty minutes after we should have been there, Uncle John called again. Rosemary had died. The nurses suspected that she had passed on a half-hour before, but the machine was picking up John’s pulse and broadcasting it as Rosemary’s. Instead of sounding like his mother had just died, over the line Uncle John’s tone was elevated, fresh. As though he had completed a heavy task.
He said to still come, and when we arrived, he and his girlfriend Karen hugged us, and brought us to a nearby candy store where a jovial Great-Uncle John bought chocolates, lollypops, and stuffed animals for my children.
Leaving the store, Uncle John presented my mother and me with fudge and oversized mugs covered in pastel peace signs he had bought while we were not looking. My mother teared up, and we thanked him profusely and guiltily because he had just lost his mother, too, and we hadn’t thought to buy him anything.
Rosemary was cremated, and at the funeral, this seemed to be a relief to her children. She was reduced to a small marble box that Uncle John held on one hand. He lowered her down into a one-foot square hole with his arm sinking into the earth until the shoulder of his dress shirt was swallowed up.
After the funeral had passed, my father said he would have liked to have gone. I didn’t even think to tell him that Rosemary had died. I could not imagine he wanted anything to do with her. But he said, “Not everyone thought she was as bad as your mother did.” I don’t pretend to understand.