by Shauna Speakman
You grew up with loving parents. Not only that but, you grew up with a wonderful set of grandparents, an amazing step-grandmother, and a full set of great grandparents to give you love and attention.
You grew up in a place where people dream of living. You went on your first vacation to Florida when you were six months old. You went camping hundreds of times, on road trips constantly, and to zoos all the time. You had a house over your head that your parents built from the ground up years before. You had dogs, a cat, a bunny, goats, cows, and chickens. You were allowed to start your own garden and you had a playset with a full curly slide. You even had a blow-up pool in the backyard.
Some people might argue that you have no right to complain about anything in your situation. To that, you ought to say that those people have never met Rita Baker.
Rita is the reason you exist, or more simply put: your father’s mother.
You know of Rita’s childhood only in snippets told to you by your Mom and Dad. She still lives in the same town she grew up in. You know that since she was a child she decided that people would call her Dede and nothing else. Her parents lived through the Great Depression and that they were kind people but they learned to save everything they could get their hands on.
You know from walking into Dede’s house that she learned to keep everything as well. She has a house with two floors. In that house are five washing machines, hundreds of pounds of used clothing, and mountains of small broken kitchen appliances and food wrappers. You know how that house smells too. It is never the welcoming scent of fresh-baked cookies so often associated with grandmothers but instead the pungent scent of cat urine and cigarettes. Mom volunteered to host Thanksgiving and Christmas in order to get away from that smell.
At Thanksgiving two years ago she was assigned to bring dessert. She ended up only bringing one pie with her. Your aunt revealed to the entire family the reason: she had bought four pies. Dede had eaten three of them. By herself. In one sitting. A disgustingly impressive feat which she defended herself by saying, “It was only 2!”
The photo of three empty tins in the trash that your aunt sent to your mom later that night said otherwise.
She went to college in Boston too. She went to Boston University. She bragged to you about it. You also know that she dropped out to go and marry Grandpa Bob when she was younger than you are now. You know that he cheated on her with several women and that they hit each other. Their divorce was messy. So messy, in fact, that your father rose his voice for probably the first time ever against his own 98-year old grandmother for trying to bring it up.
Dad quit drinking when he was 17 because of what an angry drunk he was. You know that Dede was the reason he had access to the alcohol and that she is the one who taught him to smoke weed. They smoked together most of the time. You don’t tell your parents you smoke, because you know how disappointed Dad will be. You also make sure to limit yourself, in most ways, because you never want your health to go down the same road that hers has.
She is a type 2 diabetic and just had a full cardiac surgery in January to make sure her heart didn’t fail on her. She understands so little of her health that you have to wonder if she ever had a nutrition or physical education class.
You know from your Mom that it always hurt Dad to see how much more you loved your other grandparents. But, you also know that Grandma, your moms’ mom, took you to Friendlys for mac and cheese and would bring you to the pet store in the mall to see the puppies. She understood how mom was and let you talk about your feelings. She stuck up for you. You know that Grandpa, your moms’ dad, was a hoarder too. But, at least his stuff was cool. He let you play with the old scrap metal, his collection of shiny fishing lures with your cousins, and build forts with whatever you could find. And he would even let you sit in the front seat of his pick-up truck in your carseat because there was too much stuff in the back. He never smelled like cigarettes and you always laughed when you were with him. You know that even your step-grandmother- who sometimes can’t remember your name anymore because of the dementia- took you to plays to teach you the “sophistication of the theater” and told you to wear a bandana over your hair when you rode in her convertible to make sure all of your styling work didn’t go to waste.
Even when you were little you knew the difference between love and being used. Dede always had a motive around you.
You remember the first time that Dede made you really, truly mad. Blood boiling, seeing red kind of mad. You were celebrating her birthday at a restaurant. It was just you, Mom, Dad, and her. You were talking about the future, about a boy in your class who said he wanted to be a teacher.
Dede laughed, her smokey, gravelly, ugly laugh and said “Well good for him! He’s going off to be a glorified babysitter! All these teachers these days asking for so much! Don’t they know they have it made! They don’t even need a college degree”
You sit next to your mother. As the words come out of Dede’s mouth you want to leap across the table and punch her. Your mother is a teacher.
You fought with Dede until Mom told you to stop. She didn’t say it because she wanted you to stop being rude. She said it because she knew better than you did about Dede’s ignorance. She knew that ignorant people do not often want to learn.
You could feel yourself start to wish you weren’t related to her. You don’t know why Dad would be offended on behalf of his awful mother. You aren’t sure you will ever understand why Dad acts like he owes his deadbeat parents things after all this time, after all he has already done for them. After the lack of things they have done for him.
There were many times when you and your Mom sat and talked about Dede. You disliked her, so did she. Dede cheered when your Dad broke up with Mom when they were 21. You wouldn’t doubt that she cried when she heard they got back together, and then engaged six months later.
You don’t know when you stopped calling her Grandma Dede and started just saying Dede with malice in your voice. You don’t know when you began calling her your not-grandmother. You don’t know the first time you hid in your room, as silent as possible, when she had shown in hopes that Dede would not detect that you were there and would leave without a conversation. You don’t know how such an awful woman raised your Dad, someone who you look up to so greatly. You don’t know when you decided that she should never be invited to your wedding. You don’t know if you will even cry when she dies or if you would be willing to skip a class to go home for her funeral.
You do know that you can choose your family- but that you can’t choose who isn’t your family. Being born into it cements you and no matter how much you try, and try, and try to get away. Not even moving to the city can separate you. Dede is not the worst of the family you have. She doesn’t even come close to the horror of “Aunt Crazy”- a loving name coined by your Mom- or Paul- who is forty and living in a tent in his twenty year old girlfriends mothers backyard- or Leon- whose biggest success is being the mall security guard (he got fired after 2 weeks for smoking weed in the back room). But, she remains to be the biggest failure of expectations in your eyes. She will likely never change, and, somehow, you have managed to come to terms with that.
About the Author:
Shauna Speakman is a student at Emmanuel College in Boston, MA. She is a double minor in English: Writing, Editing, and Publishing as well as Communication and Media Studies. Speakman expects her degree in 2021 and hopes to pursue a career in book or magazine editing. When she is on break from studying she visits her home town on Cape Cod to say hello to family and her two boxers and to enjoy sitting by the beach reading. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on instagram as @speakman24