Galt California. It sounded like an affliction involving pain and inflammation, but instead it was a sleepy little cow boyish town with a small golf course and one main road. I thought Fresno was nowhere. One thing is certain, amazing things do happen off the beaten path in these nowhere towns you didn’t ever think about before.
Driving to Golden Living to meet our grandmother produced all kinds of feelings I’d never before sat with. The warmth of the sun was comforting. There was a flicker of teasing panic prickling my skin, a mix of anticipation and nausea. Mainly it was radiating from Candice…My cousin, she was a bundle of nerves sitting in the passenger seat next to me. Would this spontaneous calling lead to a dry well much the way Philomena had ended her search for her son? Part of me even hoped that she was busy or out to lunch, but I was fully anchored with the mantra “whatever shall be shall be.”
It’s funny how fearlessly I usually delve into life. No fear, like a journalist, intrigued and excited to talk to strangers, uninhibited like its a job, I’m on assignment. So much of my life after twenty is devoid of that precious spontaneous “you;” those unspoken urges, families with kids allows little unstructured freedoms. I had blown out my hair, taken special care to look pretty, lips summer red, bronzed my skin with powder,put on a mostly clean shirt, muted my 43 year old dark under eye circles. These were as prominent one of my features as the nose on my face. The same nose I blew when we had driven and compared notes as to whose father was a worse role model of what not to be, even in the absence, they somehow affected us. We shared tears simply because finally someone could relate to our abondoment as our fathers were brother and indeed played the same card, they took off on us as babes. Hence there were nowhere and everywhere to us.
As we pulled into the nursing home facility our stomachs dropped like on the upside down corkscrew part of that roller coaster, you know the one. What a rare emotionally indescribable treat; and remember not one drop of alcohol was consumed on this trip, we took it all in and felt it all, as it was. We, two cousins, grown women, our whole likes the walking wounded with a bandaid over our toddler hearts placed there by our father’s hand before he took off, forever. We were piecing it all into place, finally, the real deal, in the flesh, about to meet the mother of our deadbeat Fathers-and annnouce with pride, we indeed very much exist. Despite nary a birthday card nor a child support check from anyone. Still we came to California all the way from Washington to see an old lady…. several miles of extreme heat intense scenery, wild fire smoke, rest stop beatings, sweaty firefighters, Mt. Shasta at Twilight. We practiced our toothy smiles and all for Lucille, our grandmother to see all that radiates from these “girls” she never knew. To say that we felt courageous speaking to this woman is an understatement. This older woman, this stranger was so important to us, a grandmother, our grandmother- the importance of this visit is only finds meaning after the fact. It just hits you as it did us…..the power of it all. For me gripping the steering wheel turning out of the old folks facility I found myself shouting in the hot car as we were driving away from Golden Living Nursing care. “WE did it, we are so f Fucking brave, we did it! My cousin Candice was fully engulfed in tears, we both sobbed as we drove away.
Right, perhaps you wonder what DID happen inside? Initially wehad walked in holding our breath and our pee….we took about ten minutes after we announced ourselves as visitors for Lucille Johnson. We did some stalling, looking for the bathroom to make sure we were prepared to sit a half hour uninterrupted. We promised not to stay more than a half hour. We had to mentally prepare to be known, to be witnessed for a first time. To be outed as people-finally. We were ready to turn over stones, heavy ones, but age had made us strong enough to muscle those stones that blocked our way; stones that had so long ago been turned for us. We were like toddlers taking first steps. It would surely open up avenues for more treasure seeking. To find answers to questions we wish we didn’t have inside gave us our lost voice. Our faces tried to hold in the truth…..how dare your lack of inquiry about us reinforce our lack of self worth, that lack of words pretty much spoke loudly that we don’t matter. “Well we’re here and we matter, a lot!” We genuinely heard and listened to this woman’s stories. Sometimes distracted by the several shades of violet purple hues in her hair, an apparent frilly service at Golden living, hence the name I guess. The purple was oddly soothing, she was “wild,” like us and old…like in that Maya Angelou poem unafraid to wearing purple as you grew old.
As we chatted well beyond our half hour promise, one comment stood out for us. “I thought about moving to Washington but I never did” she told us. “Kids should know their grandparents” she said, she showed us her sisters kids- hmm a sister-an aunt? She clearly liked kids. Her grandmother status was clearly validated in these moments of sharing. Then tone changed without warning like monsoon of emotions swooped in. After just a few minutes of speaking to each other it hit us. How shitty it was…….the hand we had been dealt. It stood to attention before us all like a uniformed soldier holding a gun. We told her who we were, words were replaced by gasps trying to suck back tears. It did take a soldiers bravery I realize after we met. Who would want to fully go there, confront fact-her two sons had feared parenting us as much as they feared putting down the bottle. We weren’t chosen. Does she feel nothing raising sons that could be so cowardly? They had histories colored with alcohol abuse, too busy numbing to confront what was missing, too busy to know their own mother. I wondered how much she imbibed, I had knew only her recklessness to be picking up a new life with the neighbor and leaving her old life behind. I asked her point blank about her own history with drinking? He fondest memories were of wine country and the music scene of that bands that played that she had loved. She showed us pictures she opened up about her own dealings with her own horrors as if she knew us or wanted to shock us with her honesty ; tales of fetish obsessions in her own marriage to a man who was not whom she thought him to be. I’m pretty sure she had shown us some male suitors that helped her through some rough times, music producers in California she has said. She loved attention and from the old pictures we found her looks clearly won her a lot of attention. Out off fear, she revealed that her good looking husband, our grandpa would leave her first, she took off with the neighbor man to make sure that she still got all the attention as she was a smart man, but a man that looked much like Elmer Fudd, a man she recently witnessed bleeding out from his head, dying before her eyes.
She told stories about his pool cleaning business and their luxurious trips to Vegas. Upon return after many years of his refusing to go back, she learned that her friend, caught her husband at the Goodwill trying on a shiny sequined wedding dresses. It was then She pointed to the musician in the picture on her wall, “he was a good, good friend to me. “She sang she said, so we now fit that the voice to person the need to sing, the need to be on stage. She worked closely with the Country Singers “She asked me do you know that song“mama Tried” Irony overcame me. I too had a thing for old school country. Id just been to see Merle Haggard in Washington at our Winery. I had bought a shirt that said “mama tried” and here she was asking me about this song. She spoke of, Buck Owens whom I just played on the record player with my sister. She spoke of fun singing Karoke. Ah ha. We were kindred souls. The outlandish expressive hair, the love of singing and music, how she loved dressed and to be the belle of the ball. My cousin and I both agreed I’d just met my twin, just add 40 years!
After we talked without pause a huge question mark hovered over us. Where did the disconnect happen? Their new wives. It hung in the air before us like smoke and choked the three of us with real, very unexpected tears. We shared a moment, a sad hot, dripping, stinging moment of regret. The wives of our fathers had refused to let us or even Lucille into their lives.
Candice and I are both in our forties we have rich life tales with nuggets of survival, escapes of close death, near drowning, seizures, blood transfusions, comas, car accidents, chronic illnesses, we were, and are anything but bland people. But we listened for a ½ hour that turned into two and oddly we felt whole again.
Karma was right out front with us as sure as the hood of our car, as sure as the belly of the Buddha, big spiritual presence at our heels as sure as the earthquake that was to happen hours after our visit. We drove three hours in front of it, pressing at twilight to get to Medford, our halfway point back home safe to Seattle. The oddest part was I had been sober a few years now but the day before the earthquake in Napa Valley, I had helped Candice pick a nice bottle of red wine for her cat sitter back home. Wine…..which is for me, poison. Since I had done so much personal research on wine I stood in the wine section at the store helping her pick the perfect bottle.
The next morning when I awoke at the Best Western to hear the news of the Napa earthquake I winked upward at the sky with my coffee in hand, the only drug I imbibe, caffeine. Like my father I too consider myself an alcoholic. Just then an anorexic girl walked by me to get her coffee. Yes, bones showing, way too skinny. I looked up again to the sky, Okay already. Food is my cousins poison, she struggles with avoiding anorexia. “Yes God, I muttered to myself, I hear you.”
On the long ride home I fixated on the word forgiveness as it truly is a transfusion for spiritual growth. Lucille had ultimately paired up with a neighbor when our fathers were teenagers she outright modeled abandonment to our fathers. As hard as that is to put out there, tis true-what comes around goes around. But how could I hate her, how could we hate her, she was our grandmother. This woman, we had just met, was the putty in the gaping hole in me, that I didn’t know I had.