I also thought long and hard about whether to publish this next chapter. I know it's going to hurt some feelings. Noses will be bent, and feathers ruffled. So be it. This isn't anybody else's story but mine. Understand? My memories, my feelings, my words. A lot of the time they're (I really, really hope) funny. But just as often they're not. This is one of those not-really-sidesplittingly-hilarious episodes, and I feel like a pussy for ever even thinking I might leave it out. This is how shit went down in my life, and yeah, it might have happened a long time ago and I should probably be over it by now and I mostly am, but this is the process by which I am dealing with the aforementioned shit.
All that above, by the way, was mostly for me, I think. Not for you. Anyway, here's the next chapter of Making Sh*t Up: An Improvised Life, which is a memoir I wrote that has some decently funny shit in it. And this is NOT one of those chapters...
Let me be real fucking clear on this: my mom meant well. She has always meant well. She still does. She’s also a product of her upbringing, as I am a product of my lack of upbringing. In her case, she was the only child of Irish-American, East Texas parents who took pains to remind her early and often that anything which went wrong in her life was her own fault. That included a growth spurt when she was a teenager that left her a full head taller than the other girls at Round Rock High School (Go Dragons!), and so an object of derision. It also included a back injury sustained during a school basketball game that was to affect her the rest of her life. According to my MeeMaw Essie, Mom was primarily to blame for my dad’s philandering. “If you take care of business at home, Brenda, he won’t go lookin’ into anybody else’s business.”
I am not making this shit up. Can you imagine saying that to your daughter?
My mother’s response to all of this was to become a people-pleaser, a sweet-as-can-be person who would bend over backward to do anything you needed, and who would accept blame for anything and everything that was in her vicinity. By the time I was old enough to recognize this (though unable to express it in words), I hated her for it. I hated her choice in men, her drinking, her telling me she was sorry that we couldn’t afford new clothes for school, she was sorry that she stumbled in so late last night, she was sorry, sorry, sorry.
I responded like a typical teenage asshole. I was condescending, rude, and, sometimes, just plain mean to my mother. I didn’t act out by getting into trouble outside the house, though. I wasn’t that kid. I kept telling myself I was better than her, precisely because I didn’t get into trouble. I looked down on her, and my new stepfather, as I watched them go out many nights, leaving my sister and me to fend for ourselves (I was fifteen by the time they married, and my sister was eleven, so we were pretty independent, anyway), and come home shit-faced. It never occurred to me at the time that they were two people, with their own baggage, dragging around their own boulders of shame and guilt and regret, and dealing with the hand they’d been dealt the best way they knew how, a way that shut out all of the badness and sadness, at least temporarily.
It never occurred to me that Mom was also having to deal with the fallout of my father’s suicide. Not surprisingly, Ma Marie (my father’s mother) blamed Mom alone for Dad’s decision to blow his brains out. She never spoke to Mom again. The last time I saw my maternal grandmother was just a couple of years before she died. She was in the hospital in Little Rock, and my Uncle Terry had told me this might be the end. I made the five-hour drive, trying hard not to think about the fact that, except for Uncle Terry (who had settled in Texas), I hadn’t seen my dad’s side of the family since his funeral – twenty years earlier.
When I walked into the waiting room, I found myself surrounded by strangers. Who also happened to be family. “I know you,” an elderly man at the far end of the room spoke. “I knowed you soon as you walked in. ‘Cept yer a man now.” I walked to him, and accepted his outstretched hand.
“Hello, Uncle Leon.”
Aunt Margie was there. And my cousin Jeanne, and I wondered if I looked as older to them as they did to me. Nobody asked me why I hadn’t come to Arkansas in twenty years. Nobody knew I was working on a television series that, by that time, was being shown all over the world. Nobody asked me if I had kids of my own (I didn’t, then). It was all, Good you come, and You look jest like yer daddy. The waiting room was overly lit, and the television was overly loud, and I suppose that’s what stifled any real conversation. Or maybe they wanted it that way. What was there, really, to say?
“She knew you was comin’. She been askin’ fore ya.” Uncle Leon.
The ICU nurse led me through several twists and turns of hallways, bright, anti-septic, tile, squeaky shoes, and the occasional groan. We finally stopped at a large door, with a tiny piece of printed paper slipped into a plastic holder :
“NORA MARIE BRANTLEY.” Ma Marie.
Ahh, fuck. You know what I just realized? I’m in real danger here of writing the whiny, bitchy, oh-feel-sorry-for-me-because-of-my-shitty-childhood memoir that I specifically said at the beginning of the book I WASN’T GOING TO WRITE. And this part isn’t even IN childhood. This part is taking place when I’m… shit, when I’m in my thirties, for god’s sake. That shit up there I just wrote in the voice of Uncle Leon? I don’t even remember if he actually TALKED that way, or if I’m just making some shit up because that’s what he sounds like in the distant, highly questionable and likely unstable parts of my brain that have to do with memory. Which, for the record: anyone who uses the analogy in their head of a film reel and a record player, or a giant file cabinet, when they think about their memory, is dead fuckin’ wrong. Memory doesn’t work like that. Back to the story…
My paternal grandmother, my father’s mom, whom I had only ever known as Ma Marie, looked unspeakably old, lying in her hospital bed, completely covered up except for her head. Her skin, though worn and stretched from decades of hardship and worry, was nevertheless deep brown in color. My grandmother was Native American, you see, a full-fledged, card-carrying member of the Choctaw Nation. A tribe that, along with the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole and Chickasaw was forcibly relocated from their ancestral homelands as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and force-marched along what would become known in American History class as “The Trail of Tears.” Ma Marie grew up poor. And I don’t mean “lower middle-income” poor. One in four Native Americans lives in poverty today, so try to wrap your head around what it was like for my grandmother in the 1930s, in Hugo, Oklahoma, just nine miles north of the Texas border, and smack dab in the middle of where the U.S. government had called The Trail of Tears to a halt 100 years before, looked out across a vast plain of absolutely nothing at all, and said, “Here’s your new home, fuckers. Have at it.”
She was married by age seventeen because she had absolutely no work skills, because she was a girl, and an Indian girl at that. The only thing she ever even had an opportunity to learn was how to keep house, which she did – from the time she was married at seventeen to an alcoholic mill-worker, until she was finally confined to a hospital bed, and left this sorrowful world for good on December 16, 2002, at the age of 78. I missed most of those years, because she cut herself off from us in 1980, blaming my mom for my father’s suicide. Twenty-two fucking years. I grew up, got married, got a career in television (not a big, celebrity career, mind you, but I’ve been on TV a lot), and Ma Marie didn’t see any of it, because the Choctaw can nurse their hurt better than any Sicilian ever born. What little sunny disposition I have is a motherfucking miracle, given that I am the ethnic progeny of two of the saddest, most tragic cultures in history.
I wasn’t thinking any of that back in 2000, which was when this particular story took place. I was looking at my grandmother, whose face was at once familiar and strange. She looked up at me, and instantly recognized me. She called me by my nickname, which I will now put down in print, possibly for the first time ever. Bubba. That’s right, dear reader. My nickname among my family was, and in some respects continues to be, the most redneck, stereotyped, backwoods, cheap- beer-swilling, tobacco-chewing, cousin-marrying nickname in the history of the South. Bubba. But since many people in my family, particularly on my father’s side, were vocally lazy, as it were, it was often shortened to “Bub.”
But Ma Marie always called me Bubba.
She couldn’t talk above a whisper, and all she could manage was, “Bubba. I’m sorry.” Then she began to cry, and I began to cry, and twenty years of being cut off from my grandmother was gone. Forgiveness is something I have never been good at, but I highly recommend it. Letting go of shit you’ve walked around with for over a generation is, in many ways, better than sex. It’s liberating, and soul-cleansing. And there’s a lot less to clean up.
When it became clear that Ma Marie was never going to have the strength to carry on a conversation, I went to a bookstore, bought one of my favorite memoirs, and sat by her bed and read out loud to her for the next couple of days. The book was Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, and some of you who have read that book are already going Dude, what the fuck? THAT’S the book you read to your ailing, poverty-stricken grandmother? A story about an Irish guy who lived a childhood of poverty and ailing health? Let me explain, okay? Ma Marie loved stories. Any stories. The parts of me that aren’t Irish are Native American, and one thing those cultures have in common (besides famine) is a tradition of oral history. Story-telling. Almost all of what I know about my family comes from stories handed down from older relatives (at least until a few years ago, when my ex-mother-in-law became an Ancestry.com expert, and started digging up statistics and shit about my family that I had no idea about. Well done, Marci!). As a general rule, the Irish and the Indian love a well-spun yarn, and Frank McCourt was a fucking master at the craft. Besides, I wanted my grandmother to hear what I could do with words.
I read aloud to her in my own voice, and during those parts of the book that were dialogue, I would adopt an Irish accent, which, not to be too immodest, I can pull off pretty well. (If you don’t believe me, buy the audiobook – assuming there is one; I still have to get THIS fucking thing published first.) The most vivid memory I have of those few days is of Ma Marie smiling at me as I read stories to her, sometimes in my voice, sometimes as a character. Eventually I was able to say the things to her I needed to say; that it hurt to be apart from her all those years, that my dad’s suicide wasn’t my mom’s fault, that I forgave her, and I hoped she could forgive me. Because at any time in the intervening years, when I’d grown into manhood (a relative term), I could have picked up the phone, or driven up to Crossett, Arkansas for a surprise reconciliation visit – but I didn’t. Because, as it turns out, I can be as petty and pouty as the next motherfucker (ask my ex-wife). Ma Marie nodded and smiled, we forgave each other, I had a grandma again (and she a grandson), and I promised to come visit her as soon as she got back home and settled.
But I never did. Two years later I got word in early December that Ma Marie was back in the hospital. But my (then) wife was in her third trimester, we were flat broke, and our house was about to go into foreclosure. I like to tell myself that I couldn’t afford to travel up to Arkansas for the funeral. But the truth is, I just don’t think I could handle it. The last memory I have of Ma Marie was one of her smiling at me, and I would much rather hold on to that, than an image of her, cold and expressionless, in an open casket. If that makes me an asshole, so be it.