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Monday, March 7, 2016


Many of you who have been with me for a while know that I have a deep and abiding love and respect for the woman I refer to as Gram. Although she was not in fact related to us, she took in both Liz and I and counted us among her grandchildren. Gram never beat me like her daughter Alice did or told my teachers to be wary of the mental illness I had surely inherited from my father, but she had a tongue that could cut like a knife. She was also a champion at swearing when angry. She would start with a string of profanity, raising her hand from a position in which it was hanging loosely by her side, bending her elbow until her hand rose to the region of her shoulder. When the hand reached its apex, so had the cursing. As she lowered her hand, the cursing would taper off. And when I learned to curse because I heard it from her every day, she would comment that she couldn't understand why I had such a dirty mouth. Oh, well.

Something about Gram that was rather uncharming was her firm belief that her genetic strain was far superior to most others'. This became obvious when Gram would get irritated at us for fairly little things. Keep in mind that when I went to live with Gram I was nine years old and Liz was fifteen. After I had been there for a few years, I heard her get disgusted over the fingerprints we left behind on various surfaces. 

I am convinced to this day that the reason we left more fingerprints on these various surfaces than she did was fairly simple. We were at the age when our faces were churning out more oil because, well, they do at that age. We would unknowingly touch our oily skin and then touch something else, leaving evidence of our presence behind. Gram was in her sixties by then, and her face didn't leave oil on her fingertips when she leaned her head on her hand, for example. But that was definitely not the way that Gram saw the situation.

She would stop in her tracks and comment about all of the fingerprints Liz and I left behind. "You and your sister always leave so many fingerprints behind. It's because you're from a lower class of people so your fingers are more greasy." Obviously, she thought that her Irish-English heritage was genetically far superior to our Hungarian stock. When I was a University student taking an Irish History course, I was excited to find out about Gram's high-class background. When I asked Professor Ring about the areas that Gram's ancestors had come from, he frowned and shook his head slightly. He told me that the areas her forebears came from were not the superior areas she seemed to think that they were. In fact, he referred to them as being lower-class areas. Of course, this lower-class Hungarian never told her that her area of origin was no better than mine. Why should I pay back her insults with more insults? If thinking that she had descended from superior stock made her happy, I wasn't going to burst her gossamer bubble.

While the repeated fingerprint comments were just annoying and misguided, there were other insults that still make me angry to this day. Any young person may have a tendency from time to time to be messy or to do things that irritate the daylights out of their caregivers. It's something that they're very good at. The fact that children survive adolescence at all is a testament to the forgiving and forgetting nature of adults everywhere.

When Gram got irritated at us for being messy or having those teenager moments it meant something very specific to her, however. She would go on for a minute or two about how we hadn't put away our clothes or folded our bath towels or left a dirty dish in the sink. Then the judgement would be delivered, "It just goes to show you that you can take the girl out of the slum, but you can't take the slum out of the girl." She had decided that because we had lived in Chicago that we were living in poverty and filth. No, our family didn't have much money, but we lived in a duplex in a decent neighborhood. I don't remember the house ever being messy or dirty. Mama was always doing laundry or cooking or cleaning.

The first time that I heard Gram make this comment, I wasn't fully aware of what it meant, but I knew that it meant that she thought we came from somewhere bad and inferior and that she thought that made us bad and inferior. I remember one time when she made the comment using her most disgusted and superior tone. Liz had had enough. "We are not from a slum. We lived in a house in a nice neighborhood!" I'm sure that Gram was surprised that Liz responded so vehemently to her proclamation of The Way Things Are.

I'll never know why Gram always considered herself to be so superior to us at the same time that she also loved us. Maybe she felt that we were inferior because of the terrible things our father did. Perhaps the teachings she grew up with, that those who experienced bad things deserved them, was stuck somewhere in the recesses of her mind. Whatever the cause, these moments and others like them were quite a contrast to her more tender and kind times. We are all a mix of ideas and emotions, and some are perhaps noble while others are not. If we're fortunate, those we leave behind will remember the noble moments the most. Although I sometimes recall the unkind words and beliefs, it's Gram's nobler moments that I remember the most. They are the ones that I cherish.


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