I had one of my epiphanies the other night…in reviewing my last post—the one about closure—I found myself lingering on the paragraph about why my mother moved in with Nana to take care of her. I was surprised when this happened because my mother never liked her mother and was not shy about admitting it. She never stopped resenting her parents for not letting her run wild when she was a teenager and despite the fact that she snuck out regularly and finally eloped with a guy she had known less than a month, she blamed their strictness for those choices of hers, choices that ended up with my birth and the subsequent ruination of her life.
She never grew up enough, emotionally, to accede to the simple fact that during her adolescence, the social mores of the time included more restrictions for girls than boys and much different expectations. According to NM’s older brother, my Uncle Gary, my grandparents were no more strict than the parents of her peers, the girls she went to high school with, but to hear her tell it, they all but chained her to the house, they were so old fashioned and restrictive. But in reality, it was my mother who was different from the norm, not her parents. Where other girls complied with their parents’ wishes and restrictions, my mother did not. Where other girls stayed home in their beds and slept at night, my mother climbed out her bedroom window and went out and partied in places normally off-limits to the under-aged (she was 15 and 16 when doing this). In typical N fashion, however, she blamed her parents, particularly her immigrant father, for “forcing” her to such extremes in pursuing her happiness—“…if he had let me go out, I wouldn’t have had to sneak…” (An interesting aside: two generations later my daughter, beginning at the age of 14, was doing the exact same thing—without knowing about her her grandmother's antics—and also making it the fault of her parents!)
My mother never outgrew that resentment. When I spent summers with her parents and expressed a wish to stay there full time she told me that they were “different” during the summers and that if I lived there full time I would see that and I would regret it. But my grandparents were somewhat strict with me anyway and I didn’t mind because I interpreted it as a sign they cared about me. But my mother, while happy to dump me in their laps every summer, never stayed even overnight at their house. She was different when she was around them—like she was a kid again and compelled to obey…or dissemble… She had never truly grown up but remained a resentful, spiteful child, hiding her normal bold, brassy, bossy self from them the same way my daughter, at 14, hid the fact that she was wearing makeup from her adoptive parents.
When my grandmother was 69, my grandfather died in his sleep—they had been married for 53 years. For many years, my grandparents had been friends with a couple, Rob and Frances, with whom they liked to play cards and to go travelling in their Airstream trailers. Not too long after my grandfather died, Rob’s wife also died. Before long, Rob and Nana’s friendship went to the next level and soon they were married.
My mother was livid. Rob was a man of very modest means and NM was positive his only interest in Nana was her money. He had an Army pension and some income from his late wife’s estate so he could pay his own way, but that didn’t stop my mother’s projections. On each of my annual visits to my father’s farm, I would stop in and spend some time with Nana and after she married Rob, Nana introduced us. I liked him: I found Rob to be a gentleman who truly admired my grandmother—it was easy to tell by the way his eyes followed her when she walked around the room. I liked him and I was glad she found some companionship in her waning years.
When my grandmother was in her early 80s she fell and broke her hip. The surgeons botched the job, leaving her with one leg shorter than the other and her foot turned outward. The surgery had to be done again and during the second surgery, Nana had a stroke.
In the 1960s Nana and Grandpa built a large 2-story house where, after they were married, Nana and Rob lived together. But disabled by her stoke, the house wasn’t the best place for them, so they moved into a retirement village while Nana recovered from her stroke and her surgery. My mother, suspicious as ever, took it upon herself to divest herself of all of her meagre holdings in the Nevada desert and high-tailed it to Oregon, moving into Nana’s house to “take care of it” while Nana was in the assisted living facility. And that is when the real smear campaign began.
I am 70 years old—a couple of years ago I began seeing spots crop up on my skin, particularly on my forearms—that looked like purple-and-red bruises. They weren’t painful like a bruise but they were vivid and took longer than a bruise to clear up. These marks are called “purpura” and they are a normal part of aging. In older people who have sun-damaged skin (and Nana was an avid gardener in the days before the invention of sun screen), there is a thing called “solar purpura,” bruise-like spots that can be as much as 5cms (2 inches) across.1 These are perfectly normal on aging skin and when I first saw them crop up on my own arms, I remembered seeing them on Nana’s forearms and on the arms of other elderly people.
But that wasn’t what my mother wanted to hear—even after I explained to her that this was normal (I worked in a nursing home when I was in my early twenties—I have seen plenty of elderly skin!) she wasn’t having it. My mother insisted they were bruises because Rob was abusing Nana and she couldn't speak up because of her stroke. Of course Nana could nod her head “yes” and shake her head “no,” so she could have been asked if Rob gave her those marks but my mother wrote that off saying “she’s been confused since her stoke,” and insisted Nana had to come out of that assisted living facility immediately. Rob could stay there, as far as she was concerned, just as long as he paid for it out of his own money, and not Nana’s. And there was my first clue to what was going on with this uncharacteristic “dutiful daughter” mask my mother had inexplicably donned.
She succeeded in getting Nana back to her house and she hired a home care aide to come a couple of times each week to give Nana a bath and a few other heavy-lifting type jobs. During this time NM wrote to me occasionally but wrote frequently to my daughter. The information I got was that Rob had been beating up on Nana, leaving bruises on her (the purpura), and that he was after her money but she (NM) had put a stop to it. Rob wouldn’t dare lay a hand on Nana while she was around to protect her!
Anybody who ever met the diminutive Rob would have had a laugh over this—he was a small man to begin with, and now shrunken with advanced age. He had severe emphysema and literally could not walk across a room without his oxygen tank, a little green cylinder on wheels that he towed behind him everywhere. If he had exerted the kind of energy necessary for assaulting my grandmother, he would have collapsed of oxygen starvation—the man barely had the energy—or air—to walk to the other side of the room!
But the accusations didn’t stop there. Mother scoured the house looking for Nana’s jewellery and other valuables, certain that Rob had a hand in the disappearance of anything she couldn’t find. His list of character flaws ran from marrying a rich widow and expecting her to make his final years luxurious to being a Catholic to being a wife beater to being a thief. And his whole family were no better, in her estimation.
And my mother wasn’t covert or even bashful about her voicing her suspicions and unkind thoughts. Knowing how confrontational and contentious she was, it would not surprise me to learn that she had even said some of these things to Rob’s face. After all, Nana’s stroke had rendered her speechless, so she could not silence her daughter’s poisonous tongue or lay her suspicions to rest.
This was very much in keeping with my mother’s modus operandi. In the past, my mother liked to create a crisis out of whole cloth, then swoop in as the rescuer, garnering appreciation and accolades from those who thought themselves rescued, and admiration from observers. These campaigns were invariably kicked off with a smear campaign, a series of lies that had known or observable kernels of truth but which could not be disproven. Nana’s purpura—having been robbed of speech, Nana could not refute NM’s accusations that Rob had injured her in a violent altercation. And nobody bothered to ask Rob if my mother was telling the truth: they could see the purple marks on Nana’s skin, and Nana’s daughter indignantly accusing him—not to his face, mind you—and people just believed her.
This tactic had worked for my mother on numerous occasions, as far back as the mid-Fifties when she ran a woman out of our neighbourhood by stirring up the neighbours against her. She also used the same tactics to turn the FOO against me in her campaign to take my children to give to her younger brother to adopt. It was a tried-and-true approach and she didn’t waste any time putting the accusations, inferences and innuendo to work for her.
My mother used her accusations of Rob’s abuse to justify removing Nana from the assisted-living facility so she could “keep an eye on things,” the staff’s lack of diligence, according to her, was the only reason that Rob had not been caught abusing Nana. But the only thing she was really keeping an eye on was Nana’s bank account. NM had spent the previous few years of her life living a hand-to-mouth existence in a run-down trailer in a dusty hamlet in the Nevada desert and suddenly she had a cosy, up-market roof over her head, access to endless supplies of cash, and an unprecedented opportunity for NSupply. The situation was tailor-made for her trademark MO, and she wasted no time setting the wheels in motion. She had found herself a comfy berth that was going to eventually pan out as her nest egg for the future, provided she could keep Rob’s fingers out of it.
During the time my NM lived with Nana—after Nana’s stroke—NM got Nana to make some changes to her will. Since NM is the one who told me about those changes, I will never know what exactly was changed, but at one time Nana asked me what, from her house, I would like to have as a memento of her—she wanted to put it into her will. But when her will was probated, I received no bequests. Uncle Pete also said that Nana had promised him something in the house but when the will was probated, that item was missing from the will.
My mother also told me that she had seen to it that Nana bequeathed her the house, its contents, and the money in Nana’s bank account, and that the investments and cars would go to my uncles. I have no idea what Nana’s will was before, but I know that neither Rob nor I received anything.
Like Grandpa, Rob died in his sleep one night. Fifteen hours later, Nana was also gone. When I came north for the funeral I was shocked to learn that Rob would not be buried near Nana—he wasn’t even buried in the same cemetery—that his funeral had already been held and no one from our family attended, and that his children were coming to collect his personal belongings and all they were getting was a single small cardboard box with his Missal, a Bible, his Rosary, some papers—like his military discharge papers—and a few bits of clothing. Everything else NM had already discarded or was keeping. She wasn’t even going to let them into the house—the box was on the front porch for their collection. I had liked Rob and I found it very sad that my mother treated him so shabbily but I was still a few years from the breakdown that pushed me into meaningful therapy so I was simultaneously loathing my mother, afraid of her, and yearning for signs that she might someday love me.
For the few years that my grandmother was married to Rob, my mother bad-mouthed him daily. By the time he was dead, nobody spoke his name at my grandmother’s wake. Nana had spent her last years with him, but it was as if he had never existed in her life. Nana’s funeral was well-attended with many people coming to the funeral home, the burial, and later to the church hall where each attendee had brought something to eat and a pot-luck supper was laid out for us. It was as if Rob had never existed, as if my grandmother had remained a widow until her own death. My mother had erased him for posterity, not even giving him a final resting place next to his wife. He ended up buried next to his first wife, which I can appreciate his children probably preferred, but that doesn’t undo my mother’s small-mindedness in essentially cutting him out of our family’s history like a cancer and assassinating his character from the day she found out he had booked himself and Nana into an assisted living facility when my grandmother became disabled from the stroke. He did the right thing—he was older than Nana and tethered to that oxygen bottle: he could not take care of her alone, and this way she would be comfortable with her own furnishings and possessions, but safe and professionally cared for.
But all my mother saw was the money going out of the account every month, her inheritance dwindling with each check. Better that money should go to her, but she couldn’t be satisfied with just saying “Hey, let’s put Mother back in her own home and I will take one of the guest bedrooms and be there 24/7 when you need me.” No, that would be too humble, too ordinary, lacking in NSupply—and some people might actually suspect what she was really up to. No, vilifying Rob and making him look like a decrepit version of Bluebeard gave her a plausible reason to yank Nana out of the assisted care facility, killing two birds with one stone: stopping the haemorrhage of funds that was diminishing her inheritance and covering her real motive for the move.
Smear campaigns are done for a reason. Often the reason is no more than to gain NSupply from listeners, but many times they have a much more sinister purpose behind them. I am sorry to say I did not suspect my mother’s character assassination of Rob for what it was until long afterwards. I thought it was just her nasty suspicious character in action rather than a deliberate way to discredit him in case Nana died first and she had to fight him for the estate. But through the clarity of hindsight, I can see now just what was going on, what she did it, and how well it succeeded: there is no doubt in my mind that if Nana had died before Rob, the very next day my mother would have put that little old man out on the gravel road in front of the house, a small box of possessions in one hand, his little oxygen bottle trolley in the other, and shut and locked the door.
I am sorry, Rob, that I didn’t stick up for you back then—but neither of us really knew, at that time, what she was really up to or to what lengths she would go to achieve what she wanted, which was as much of Nana’s assets as she could get her hands on. I am sorry she assassinated your character and created a bed of lies upon which she could rest a court case against you in the future, if necessary. She did the same to me, but I literally did not see what she was doing to you until it was long over—Nana has been gone more than twenty years and only today am I seeing what went down. I wish I had done more…