I call my 83-year-old grandmother back in Michigan a couple times a month. I feel like a turd admitting it, but I don’t always make these calls out of enjoyment. Talking with grandma can be challenging in the same way that trying to get a fussy and petulant child to sit still will vex one’s patience: you so badly want them to be reasonable and they so inherently cannot, and try as you might to keep your cool sometimes it’s impossible.
When I spoke with her earlier this week she was griping about her life, which unfortunately is nothing unusual for her. I have trouble imagining something more depressing than spending your sunset years complaining about your car, the cable service, politicians, the price of oil, teenagers, the economy, tax rates, the overly large size of an entree at the local Chinese restaurant… in short—EVERYTHING!, but so it goes.
Betty has her positive and negative traits, but it’s fair to say that consistently applied analytical thought has never been one of her strengths. Like our most recent President Bush, Grandma shoots from the hip, fumbling haphazardly from topic to topic with snarling, angry pronouncements that brook no contradiction.
Though her family is from Belgium, a people more renowned for their thriftiness than their fire, Grandma frequently behaves as if she were the red-haired Irish heiress of some vital economic undertaking, the questioning of whom on the grounds of logical consistency or rational thought would be beyond the pale.
Grandma also suffers from the brusque lack of general humaneness of the sort one frequently hears voiced on conservative talk radio, to which she unfortunately regularly listens. Like those scaly and blathering blowhards who seem incapable of acknowledging that life can often be full of overwhelming challenges, the solution(s) to which is often more involved than the foolishly reductionistic axiom, Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, Grandma can be a little insensitive.
I don’t mean insensitive in the sense of outdated or politically incorrect, as in, Grandma’s insensitive because she calls black people “coloreds” or Asian people “Orientals” (though she sometimes does both). Rather I mean it in a more literal sense, as in, Sometimes I wonder if grandma isn’t deficient in basic human feeling or sensitivity.
And when you combine that insensitivity with her irrationality you get interactions such as the following.
This past summer I spent a couple months in Guatemala. I had a lovely trip: the country is beautiful and the people were warm and welcoming. The only negative aspect was un-missable: the daily violence. Guatemala currently has one of the highest murder rates in the world—you’re more likely to get killed in the capitol, Guatemala City, than in Baghdad—and it seemed not a day passed without some horrible act occurring.
Though there are many factors involved most of the violence can be traced directly to drug-trafficking. The long-and-short is that illegal drugs come up the isthmus of Central America into the US, at which point our monies go back down the isthmus, and because the sums of money involved are so large (hundreds of Billions of $$) often there is violence as the interested parties protect their means of survival.
A terrible act occurred when I was there this past May: a cartel decapitated 27-people, leaving their severed bodies strewn about a field and writing threats in human blood upon nearby walls. It was truly barbaric, and since newspapers and televisions in other parts of the world are often far less restrained than their American counterparts in reporting gory details, gruesome footage of the crime scene was everywhere.
I relayed this story to my grandma. I commented not only on how tragic it was but that I believed it was a good reason to pause and consider how our national drug policies and actions impact others. I was not arguing for anything beyond reflection, but my grandma’s response was to snap,
Well, those people learned their lesson!
Grandma—27 people were beheaded. They’re all dead. What lessons could they possibly learn?
Well they’ll never do that again, will they?!
And that is a logic at once so thoughtless and inhumane that I simply could not argue.
Often when I talk with my grandma I find myself cringing, not only at the nonsense she spews but more so when I realize, as I inevitably do, the terrifying fact that my genome is partially spawned from hers. Further, because my mom worked a lot when I was young my grandma largely raised me, so her crazy’s got the inside track on me not only with nature but nurture as well.
I realize that some people find solace and even confidence in pondering their family tree. More often I only feel terror, as in, Oh dear god am I bound to become like that?!? And even though I know I’m not like my grandmother, I also know that I can be impulsive, thoughtlessly inconsiderate and overly judgmental, and seeing those traits mirrored in her behaviors only seems to magnify their significance in my own self-reflection.
I’d love to wrap this up with some inspiring Oprah-esque life-lesson but I’m grabbing at sand on this one, and anything useful seems to be slipping away. Perhaps for some people family is a good mirror; for the rest of us, maybe it’s best to turn our focus elsewhere.