The Woman With A Hundred Names, and A Thousand Stories

Carol Marchese. Virginia Mead. Miss Virginia. ‘Gin. All manner of familiar monikers, and a few curse words thrown in, too. Ma. Nana.

Let me tell you now about my grandmother, my biggest inspiration and my biggest fan. (Excepting, of course, my best friend Lakiah Clarke, who is always down for any dumb idea I might have, and the incomparable Jen Tarr, who will not only go to all my shows, but she’ll go to them twice or three times and then hold an academic discussion afterward. But I’ll talk about them some other time.)

As some of you know, I started a new job about a month and a half ago. My commute was only supposed to be about 45 minutes long, but because this is reality, it’s more like an hour and 20 one way. After the initial panic of being on time and following the GPS had faded, I started drowning the gaping silence that is being alone on the road by listening to podcasts on Soundcloud to pass the time (mostly the Cracked podcast and Adam Tod Brown’s Unpopular Opinion, which you should totally check out).

Normally, my grandmother (who I refer to as Nana) will call me or I will call her every so often. Not once a week, but more or less that. Recently, I had been so busy in my day-to-day life that I had totally lost touch with her. Every time I wanted to call her back, I had to go do something else. Before I knew it, three months had gone by with no word from me. This disconcerted me for obvious reasons. She’s not old, not really. She’s just about to turn 70, but she’s more active even than I am. It’s not like I’m worried that she’ll drop dead at any moment or anything. But I would hate to have the opportunity to call her and talk to her, and then pass it up because I was too busy, only to find out that the unthinkable had happened in the interim. The thought terrified me, but what could I do? It’s not like I could just make time appear where there was none.

So  a few days after I started my training at the new gig, I married those two fears together and, in so doing, killed them both: I call her twice a day (except on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday) and we chat over Bluetooth for about 3 hours during my commute. If you’re wondering what we could possibly talk about during all that time…well, you’ve never met my Nana.

She lives down the Cape in a house that’s been in our family for 70 years. It can get lonely because it’s so far away from everything, but she’s got her own thing going on down there. She works at Wendy’s because social security isn’t enough for her to retire on and she’s survived over a year’s worth of turnover. At the same time, she takes care of a handful of elderly women who are unable to take care of themselves, and she’s done that for most of her life. It makes me wonder who will take care of her when she’s old (which she insists she is not now and never will be). She has not been to many places, but she’s done many things. I could talk about her all day.

One of the funny things about Nana is that she never really talks about herself. Oh, she’ll tell us all about what she’s up to these days, how work was, what’s going on at church and all that. But she never really talks about herself as a person with hopes, dreams, fears, and expectations of her own. That’s the funny thing about our conversations, though. When you talk for 3 hours every day, you run out of pleasantries after awhile.

That goes both ways. I’ve accidentally almost told her about some of the more nuanced complaints in my life, which would not have gone over well, as she isn’t a big fan of politics or sexuality as discussion topics. But still. When you’re done trading anecdotes, sometimes you get into some really deep, really rewarding talk. I’d like to share with you now some of the things I’ve learned about my Nana that she hasn’t necessarily kept hidden, but that just never came up until I asked.

While her stories are many and varied, I would just like to focus on three of them: The Story of the “Gentleman,” That Time I Had to Type Up An Electronic Copy of Her Resume, and The Day Her Husband Left.

Let’s begin.

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This one came up a few weeks ago.

We were chatting about something or other, as usual, when the subject of my best friend came up. Lakiah has been around for so long that she might as well be one of the grandkids, so when Nana asks about her it’s because she genuinely cares about her and wants to know what’s going on in her life. I told her all about how she’s fine, everything’s more or less ok for her, I’m trying to get her to apply at my job, blah blah blah, and also she’s got all these health problems.

Nana jumped right on that. “Her gallbladder’s acting up again? Why doesn’t she just get it removed?”

“She tried. Every time she goes to the hospital and someone looks at him, he’s perfectly well-behaved.” (Lakiah’s gallbladder had been such a presence in her life that she named it “Steve” and had been referring to him with male pronouns.)

“Well, honey, why don’t they just take it out anyway? She’s obviously in a lot of pain and she keeps getting herself in and out of the hospital.”

“They don’t take her seriously, just like they don’t take you or me seriously.”

“Oh, I see,” she said with a sigh. “They just tell her to lose weight and send her on her way.”

And then we talked about that.

Now, my Nana is not political. Never has been, never will be. Nor is she particularly outspoken on social issues. But she’s a big woman, and she’s been alive for a very long time. For some reason, I never put it together that people must have, at some point or another, disrespected her for her size in the last 70 years. I just never asked.

“Yeah, you know how it is, Nana. Sometimes, people make all kinds of assumptions about fat people, and they think that entitles them to talk badly to us and treat us like we’re second class citizens.”

“Oh, you ain’t kiddin’, honey. I’ve been putting up with that garbage my whole darn life, and it ain’t gonna stop anytime soon, that’s for sure.”

Huh.

“Really?”

“Oh yes. One time when I was in my early 40’s, a gentleman took one look at me, and told me to get in the car, and then drove me right back home.”

“Wait, what? Like, a stranger asked you to get in the car?”

“No, he was my date.”

Wow.

“Wait, back up. Someone agreed to go on a date with you and then backed out when he got a good look at you?” This puzzled me because my Nana is not well-versed in online dating, not to mention this event happened 30-ish years ago. This “Gentleman” either must have known her already, or it was a friend-of-a-friend. It seems strange that he didn’t know what she looked like.

“Yep. He took one look at me, told me to get into his car, and then dropped me back off at my house. Oh, but you know, I did see him some years later. He must have seen me, too, because he was looking away from me just as hard as you please.”

“He was pretending not to see you there?”

“Yep. And that was the last I saw of him.” With the tone she used to say this, she could have been reading me a grocery list. It was like it didn’t bother her at all.

“Don’t you think that’s…odd?”

“Oh no, honey. It happens all the time.”

“To you?”

“Oh, not anymore. A man hasn’t looked at me in years. But it’s happened to us big women since the beginning of time.” If I could, I would have told her that no, it hasn’t. Being fat was actually an attractive feature for some of history, but that’s obviously not what she meant so I let it go.

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“No, not really.”

“Why not?”

“Because it was his loss, not mine. I’m doing just fine without miserable people. You don’t like me? You can walk on by. I don’t need that sort of nonsense in my life.”

Damn right you don’t, Nana. Damn right you don’t.

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A few years ago, Nana retired. She had been a preschool teacher for as long as I could remember, but due to health complications, financial trouble, and retirement age rapidly approaching, she decided to try out the retired life and hoped she wouldn’t be hurting too hard for her paycheck.

After a few months, though, it became apparent that social security wasn’t going to cut it and that she was going to have to go back to work. She wasn’t super happy about that, but she’s always had an impeccable work ethic, so that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that there’s no such thing as a written application anymore and she had failed her Basic Computer and Internet Use course for the third year in a row. (Did I mention she was working on her Bachelor’s degree at 64? She was.) That, and we both thought she had finally paid her dues to society and would be allowed to just relax and do her own thing for 20 or so years before she died, but that’s neither here nor there. (I’m a wee bit upset about it. Sue me.) So she called me, her favorite millennial, to come and help her apply to jobs online.

I made the trip down to help her, but I wasn’t optimistic. The last time she had a job before she retired, she had been a preschool teacher living in Lynn, a leftover from when she relocated to take care of my Mom before she died. She quit that job at the end of the school year and then moved back to that family house I mentioned in Onset/Wareham, which is 2 hours away. It’s not like she could just get that job back. I was going to have to find her a brand new job in a place that, while she had found work in schools there for many years, was going to have to be a year-round gig somewhere close enough that she could walk (with her two replaced knees!) just in case her shitty van decided to die, or if she couldn’t afford the gas to get there that day. It was a daunting drive for me, to say the least.

I arrived. We had lunch and caught up a bit. Then she took out her brand new laptop that she had hoped to be able to master and just couldn’t get the knack for. I was caught somewhere between pity that she wasn’t “in on” how great technology has made my life, and minor annoyance that I couldn’t figure out a way to teach her how to open the browser and look for a job. As my teacher friends tell me, it’s hardly ever the fault of the student if the teacher can’t figure out how to teach.

The first thing I did when I got on the computer was search for teaching jobs. That’s the only thing she’d ever done, to my knowledge. She didn’t want to sit next to me while she did it because her feet were acting up, so she was pacing around the kitchen as we talked. Every job I called out, she said no. Instead of asking why not, I just refined my search with what I thought the problem was. Closer to home, different hours, farther south, different requirements. She didn’t care for any of it. So finally, exasperatedly, I said “What do you want to do, then?”

“Anything but teaching,” she said. “I’m done with that.”

“Oh.”

I never imagined that she didn’t like teaching. In my mind, she’d never done anything else. I imagined that she wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t her calling. This was a whole new Nana I was talking to.

“You don’t want to teach anymore?”

“No, not really.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m kind of over that now. Besides, I’m too old. I don’t have to do that stuff anymore.”

I didn’t catch that the first time she said it, but I remembered it later. I moved on.

I started looking into receptionist work, working from home, entry level this or that, but there was just nothing I could find that would satisfy her. She conceded to apply to a few places, though, because, as she told me, she knew she shouldn’t be picky. The only problem was, they needed an electronic copy of her résumé and she didn’t have one yet. Not only was her computer brand new, but she had never needed an electronic copy before. I offered to type it up for her.

She kept it in a folder in a safe in her bedroom, and I momentarily wondered how many other people had been taught to do that in their job prep at school. I took it into the kitchen, and I began to type.

At first, it was easy. Times New Roman, size 12. Name. Address. Etc. The first surprise came when I was putting in her educational history.

“You got your high school diploma in 1977?”

“Yes.”

“Wasn’t Mom born in 1964?”

“She was.”

“You didn’t finish high school?”

“Not right away, honey. You see, when my mother died, my father told me that I was going to have to be the mother now, and that it was my job to take care of my brothers and sisters, and that it was his job to make the money.”

“Your dad told you to drop out of school?”

“Not in so many words. But yeah, I guess so.”

“Why didn’t he just take care of you guys? You know, like a parent?”

“Oh, you know men, honey.” Unnecessary gendering, but whatever. “He would have had no idea what he was doing. Besides, he told me that that’s all I’d be good for, so I’d better start now.”

“Wait, back up. Your father told you that you would raise children all your life and that’s it?”

“No, honey. He told me that I should take care of other people because that’s what I was good for. So I did.”

And she did. All her life, that’s what she did.

I kept typing. She finished her high school diploma well after her last child was born. She was finishing her associates degree in the 80’s, not long before I was born. As the kind of person who finished high school, went right to college, and finished college in 4 years, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.

I kept typing. It wasn’t really until I got into the early work history that I realized I didn’t know a single thing about my Nana as a person.

“Is this a typo?” The dates looked like they were overlapping. The end date of one job was well after the start of another by a measure of years, and that was true of the entire résumé. I assumed she just typed the dates in wrong.

“Nope.”

“This says you took care of Mrs. Cooke for 4 years, and worked at the factory at the same time.”

“Yes, I did that. And then Mrs. Cooke died in ’76, so I found someone else to do, and I did him until ”78. But of course by then I was teaching.”

“And you were taking care of…Mr. Hess while you were teaching?”

“Yes. Until he died in ’78.”

“Are you telling me that you’ve never worked fewer than 2 jobs at a time…ever?”

“I guess so, yeah. I never really thought about it like that. ”

I couldn’t believe it. I’d never asked before. It had never come up. But this woman has been taking care of her brothers and sisters, her own children, her grandchildren, her preschool kids, and her elderly patients pretty much non-stop for literally her entire life. And at no point was that what she actually wanted to do with that life.

I can’t begin to tell you how angry that made me, and still makes me. My grandmother is a human, with a calling. A “destiny,” if you’re into that. She never even had a chance to explore or realize that part of her life, because man after man, starting with her father, told her that caring for children is all she would ever be good for. I couldn’t control myself. I needed to know.

“So…if you never wanted to teach or take care of people, what is it you want to do?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s really that much out there for me right now.” But she was lying.

“No, forget that. Forget all of that. If there were no rules, if money were no object, what would you rather be doing right now? What is your dream job?”

She didn’t hesitate, not even for a moment.

“I want to open a bakery.”

Halleluia.

“Not a big one, mind you. Just a small one. I’ve thought about running it out of my kitchen, if I thought the Board of Health wouldn’t have a heart attack…”

She talked about her bakery for another hour or so, stopping only to answer a question or two, and then continuing again. She had clearly thought about this for some time.

“Why haven’t we talked about this before?” I asked.

“I don’t bring it up too much, so that’s probably why.”

“Yes, obviously. But why not?”

“Because I haven’t got the money, honey. Or any idea of what I’m doing. Oh, I wish I would win the lottery! I would spread that wealth around like I don’t even know what…” and suddenly she was onto another topic, and we didn’t talk about it again that day.

I wish I could say that I helped her start up that bakery, and truthfully I tried, but starting a business is not something I am the least bit versed in. I was afraid that we would get taken in, or that she would get financially shafted, or that she would fail and lose everything. I stopped looking into it. Maybe one day, I’ll look again. In the mean time, I’ve encouraged her to work on her menu by inviting her to sell refreshments at my shows whenever I have a say in that. She likes making people happy, just like I do. Her particular brand of happy happens to be baked goods. Mine happens to be performing (and the occasional actual service role). Putting them together seems to make sense.

I still really hope she gets her bakery one day, though. She deserves it.

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This entry is already much longer than I intended, and I’m sorry for that, but this story is just too good to pass up. It came up earlier this week on the way to work.

My grandfather died before I was born. I never knew anything about him. In fact, I still know very little about him. I know his name was Frederick Mead, and that he was Irish. I also know that he drank, smoked, that he was less than courteous to the women in his life, and, as my Nana always phrases it, “decided one day that he’d had enough” of their marriage.

That phrasing is very important.

Now, I’ve heard some pretty shady things about this man, but I really can’t stress enough that no one ever talks about him. I assumed it was because no one quite remembers him well enough because he walked out or because they weren’t old enough to have had a relationship with him.  Also, I never asked.

So I was driving to work and I got trapped on The Awful Street (my title for Lowell Street in Peabody, which always has traffic for the high school and if I get stuck on it for more than a minute, I lose reception). Honestly, I can’t even really remember what we were talking about, but whenever I get caught on that street, we prepare ourselves for just in case we get disconnected by talking about something that isn’t very important. In this case, she apologized for talking about something personal, which I don’t actually recall. But in response, I said “That’s ok, Nana. I always appreciate it when you tell me stuff about you that I didn’t know.”

“Really?” She asked. “Why’s that?”

“Because I feel like I barely know you, even though I’ve known you for almost 25 years. I like when you bring up more of the personal stuff about your life. It makes me feel like a grown up.”

She thought that was pretty funny, but she didn’t know what I meant.

“You know, like the stuff that just never came up when I was a kid. Dating, health, drinking, work, that sort of thing. We’ve just never really talked about it before.”

“Oh, yes, that’s probably because I wasn’t dating anyone when you were growing up. Why, I haven’t been sexually active in almost 25 years…” and she started to talk freely and openly.  Apparently, I just needed to ask, and the floodgates would open.

She continued to talk as I was stuck in 10 more minutes worth of traffic. I wish I could remember this conversation more clearly, but it was still pretty early for me, I hadn’t had my coffee yet, and I occasionally zone out when I’m stuck in traffic because I’m so annoyed that it’s happening. At some point, though, she went way back into talking about her husband. I was glad she did, because she doesn’t usually bring him up, but she was mostly just saying the stuff I already knew.

“And then of course he decided he’d had enough. I’d already had two kids and was pregnant with another, and he’d decided he’d had enough with our marriage. Of course, he would always want the bedroom part, but when it came to everything else? He couldn’t be bothered.”

I don’t know why I asked this, but I’m glad I did.

“So what was it that actually made him leave? I don’t actually know.”

And, boy, did she give him a good reason. This is what happened, as she tells it:

She married him when she was very young, because back in “those days,” if you weren’t married by 18, everyone thought there must be something wrong with you. So she married this man, though it’s still not clear why it was this man specifically, and she got pregnant with my aunt. At first, he was apparently just fine, but as soon as the children got involved, he wasn’t interested in being home with them, or with her. He still wanted “the bedroom part,” but he simply wasn’t part of their marriage after that.

At this point, she says, he started hitting her. She said she didn’t think too much of it because he “wasn’t really hurting her,” but she didn’t try to cover it up or lie about it either. (Which, in my opinion, is good, because many women who are domestically abused don’t feel safe coming forward about it, and that doesn’t usually end well.) One day, her father, a decorated sailor with the US Navy, noticed the bruises and asked her where they came from. When she told him that “Freddie” had been hitting her, he didn’t ask why. He didn’t ask for how long.

He just said, “I’d like to kill him.”

As she tells it, that is the first time she really saw what her husband was doing as a problem. Of course, by then, it was a bit late. She was stuck with him, by the standards of the time. So she asked her friends for some advice. One of her friends who lived in Maine suggested she come up for a visit, maybe a few days, to clear her head a bit. Naturally, she took her up on it.

Her friend gave her a shotgun. She said “If no one’s going to protect you, you’ve got to protect yourself.” Nana almost didn’t take it. Almost.

She spent the whole drive back down to Massachusetts hoping to God that no one stopped her on the highway, since the gun was just sitting there in the backseat. She didn’t go into it too much, but I imagine her drive was filled with thoughts like “I don’t even know how to use one of these things,” “What happens if it turns out I need it?” “What will my kids think?”

It turns out, it wasn’t long before she needed it.

My grandfather, who I can’t emphasize enough contributed to my genetic makeup, had been out drinking every night that week. He would stumble home, yell and scream and demand things, start swinging at some point, and then pass out. One of those nights, Nana was waiting up after the kids had been put to bed. As soon as it got to be a certain hour, she went into their room, got the kids, and stuffed them into their closet, telling them not to come out. Then she continued to wait.

A few minutes later, she heard him coming up the front stairs. She grabbed the shotgun and waited behind the slightly-ajar front door. As he came up the stairs, she pulled the door open and pointed the gun at his head.

“You just turn around right now and go back where you came from,” she said very quietly. “I don’t want you coming near me again.”

He apparently stood there momentarily, in disbelief. Then he got angry.

“You wouldn’t dare,” he said, laughing a little. “You’re too much of a coward.”

She cocked the gun. He ran. To hear her tell it, he practically fell down the stairs to get out of his own way. Nana says he went away forever that night, and she never saw him or heard from him again, at least until he died some years later.

“And if he had known there weren’t any bullets in the gun, this story would have probably ended a lot differently.”

I burst out laughing. I laughed because she had great comic timing, but I also laughed because that’s what I do when I’m nervous. If he had called her on the fact that she didn’t load the gun, he would have killed her. That is a fact. My Nana, who I love very dearly, would have been no more way back in 1965, when she was still pregnant with one of my aunts. Who knows what he would have done with the already-born children he never wanted. These are facts I have to live with now. And if I have to, then by God, so do you.

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I don’t quite know how to end this entry, other than thanking you for sticking with me for 4550 words. Thank you for reading. Keep in touch. Tell me your stories. Love one another.

A presto,

JW