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            My grandmother lived with us for a little while when I was a kid. I wish I could say that, as a child, I loved my grandmother; I wish I could say that I have memories of how she bestowed upon me the archetypal love that a grandparent lavishes upon her grandchild; I wish I could say that she taught me valuable lessons in a way that only a parent of a parent can; I wish I could say that having her live with my mother, father, twin brother and I, was a good experience. But I can’t. Not without lying.
            My grandmother, or Nonny as she was often called, was senile and physically disabled for the majority of my childhood. Or at least, I don’t remember her any other way. She was more than two handfuls for my mother to take care of. Nonny demanded a tremendous amount of my mother’s attention and energy. She would scream a lot at my mother and my father in Italian (she didn’t know any english). She couldn’t dress herself, or move around very well, or go to the bathroom herself, or do much of anything herself, really. She was like a child that way.
            My grandmother was a hugely disruptive element in my household growing up. My mother didn’t have much left, emotionally or mentally, to give me after taking care of her mother. My dad, who worked his ass off, would come home from twelve hour days at the office to an old, senile woman who screamed at him and his wife. An old, senile woman who he was paying to feed and house and clothe and support. An old senile woman who was making his home life very difficult.
            It was a bad situation, for everybody. My grandmother needed professional care from a staff of people. She didn’t belong in a home with young twin boys and a couple in their mid fifties trying to make a life for their family.
            I grew up not liking my grandmother. She was nothing but a horribly disruptive force in an already tense home. She added nothing but mayhem. It wasn’t her fault. She was senile. She couldn’t help it. I understand that now.
            But as a ten year old, I was resentful and angry at her. For taking my mother out of my life so much. For being so mean to my parents. For not knowing who the hell I was. For causing nothing but turmoil in the only home I knew. Truth be told, I was angry at my parents, especially my mother, for allowing this maniac into our home. But you couldn’t get angry as a kid in my house. I was told countless times that I had no right to be angry at my grandmother, or even my parents, for anything. And that’s a real mind fuck for a kid, because some amount of anger towards elders is natural, especially considering the circumstances.
            What I’ve come to realize is that, as disruptive as that situation was, it wasn’t the situation itself that caused the most damage to my relationship with myself. It was how we, as a family, handled it. Or more precisely, how we didn’t handle it.
            We never talked about what was happening, or why. We never talked about how it felt to live under this roof with this very sick, disruptive, screaming, crazy woman. In fact, not only did we not talk about it, I was shamed for feeling the way I felt. Everybody was. It’s how we “dealt” with feelings.
            What this did for me was create the ultimate emotional dead end when it came to how I felt. I wasn’t allowed to express, or even to have, normal feelings, even in response to such extremely abnormal situations. So as a kid, to feel resentment towards your grandmother for screaming at your mother was normal. But then I’m shamed into oblivion just for having those feelings, so I learned not to trust how I felt. And I didn’t learn how to let go of the resentment. I didn’t learn anything about how to deal with how I feel. In fact, I learned to hate having feelings at all, because they created so much shame inside of me. And then, feelings usually created turmoil between me and others if I ever dared express them. Eventually, I developed an attitude of “Fuck that. Just don’t feel. And if you do, fuckin’ hide it.”
            In much the same way dealing with a mentally challenged sibling can either rip families apart or bring them together, my senile grandmother created the same dynamic. If we had been able to talk openly about this as a family; if we could have all been able to express how we felt; if we were allowed to have feelings without attaching truck loads of shame to them, we could have all grown so much from this experience; individually, and in our relationships with each other. The situation sucked, but lots of families deal with much worse. It’s not what happens so much as it is how you deal with it and what you learn in the process. There’s opportunity for personal growth, and for growth in your relationships, at any age, for anybody, especially in such adversity.
            I’ve learned to try and apply that axiom to the rest of my life. Not always with success, but I know that that’s the path of greater enlightenment. It’s an attitude I constantly shoot for.
            My parents did the best they could. They didn’t know any other way. The situation was very difficult, and unfortunately, how they chose to deal with it made it exponentially worse. As an adult, I have a responsibility to myself to unlearn all the bad lessons I learned through the whole ordeal. I’m responsible for it now. There’s no anger towards my parents. Or my grandmother. Just sadness that I never really knew her.
            But there is an incident that still haunts me today. In fact, it’s impossible for me to to even think about it without getting emotional.
            I had this latex gorilla mask. One night, I put it on and peeked around the corner so all my grandmother could see was the mask. It scared her.
            I can still hear my grandmother, the sound of her voice frozen inside of me, as she called out my mother’s name, “Angie”, in a heavy Italian accent, her voice thick with fear. When I think of that moment, if I stay there any more than a few seconds, I burst out crying. Every time. The thought that I could scare my helpless old grandmother like that fills me with a sadness and a guilt that almost no other memory of my life does. It happened almost forty years ago, I was just a kid, and yet it still hurts me to know that I could do such a thing.
            I’ve had dreams about my Nonny since then. In some of those dreams, I apologize to her for what I did. She always forgives me. I guess I need to learn to forgive myself.
            When I’m awake and think of that night and can get past the pain and the tears, I fantasize that’s she still alive, she’s lucid, she knows me, and that she can understand me. Then I imagine a scene with my grandmother that I never had. It goes like this:
            I tell my Nonny how sorry I am for scaring her. I see her smile. She doesn’t say anything. She just smiles and holds out her big, fat, beautiful arms, and wiggles her fingers, motioning me to come towards her. I run to her and jump into her heavenly soft embrace that I never knew as a child. I say to her, sobbing hysterically, “I’m sorry grandma. I love you so much Nonny”. She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t have to, so perfect is her hug. I can literally feel the love coming off of her and wrapping itself around me like a blanket, just like her body does. She keeps smiling, closes her eyes, and hums a lullaby, rocking me back and forth, until I fall asleep. Then she opens her eyes and watches me sleep. My Nonny adores me with loving eyes, and wipes away my tears. I am at peace with all the universe.
            In those moments, I forgive the child who acted out of pain and anger. And all I feel is love. For the boy. For my parents. And for Nonny.

    ©2009 Clint Piatelli. All Rights Reserved.

    Reader Comments (1)

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    Very good interesting article.

    September 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdrm

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