Friday, October 15, 2010

Bad Grandma - A Primer (from Facebook Note of March 2, 2009)

My bad grandma has struck again, so I feel the overwhelming need to explain who she is and why she's so "bad". This story is a string of horrors that goes back pretty much to the depression, but definitely in the 1950s. I hasten to add that as bad as my mother's mother is, my father's mother has more than made up for it in the Grandma department. She was everything that my bad grandma was not: kinda, generous, loving, tender-hearted. But this note isn't about her; it's about my bad grandma: Wilmoth Felts Milliken Swaringim.


She was born October 25, 1925 near Joelton, TN to Andrew Jackson Felts and his wife. I never knew either of them, but the family tells wonderful stories about their beloved "Pap" and the woman my mom called "Grandmother". My theory is that Andrew Jackson Felts made only one serious mistake in the raising of his children; he allowed my grandma to become the apple of his eye. Out of about 12 children, she was certainly his darling. I have been told stories about how she would often be the one to get new clothes or shoes during the depression even though she was not the oldest daughter, let alone the oldest child. She was praised heavily for her intellect, and she graduated top of her class in the middle of WWII while all the boys were off fighting. She has remained very proud of being a Valedictorian, even though the class had no boys and ended up with 10 graduating seniors. She ended up being married off to a friend of her older brothers, Tony Milliken.

I'm not sure when everything went sour, but it can't have been long after they were married. They did manage to have my mother, but the marriage was never happy in her memory. My grandma never felt that Papa Tony ever made enough money to keep her in the lifestyle in which she felt she deserved. She also sang quite a bit with her church, even forming gospel groups trying to get a recording contract. That was the time the affairs started. She usually slept with her lead singer, although God only knows if there were others.

Her penchant for adultery resulted in a heavy price for my mother at age 7. My grandmother dropped my mom off at her sister's place so that she could run off with her lover and go "parking" along a country lane. I imagine they were probably doing it in the back seat, since I'm sure the guy was married too. Well, my grandpa got wind of it, became enraged, grabbed his rifle, and went looking for my bad grandma. Word reached my Aunt Janie (the sister looking after my mom), and she sent someone to go tell my Grandma so that she wouldn't be caught in the act. My grandma did make it back to Aunt Janie's house in time to reapply her make-up and pretend nothing was amiss. My grandpa reached the house, and when Aunt Janie wouldn't let her in, he hit her with his fist, knocking her down. He found my bad grandma in a spare bedroom with my 7 year old mother.

During the confrontation that ensued, my grandfather raised his rifle to my grandmother. Now most mothers I have known in my life would immediately think of protecting their child in this situation, likely placing themselves between the weapon and their child. Not my bad grandma! She figured that my mom was insurance that Papa Tony wouldn't pull the trigger, so she placed my 7 year old mother between the barrel of the rifle and herself. The result was that my grandfather was pointing a loaded rifle directly at the head of my 7 year old mother, his daughter. He did relent, but to this day, my mother cannot see a gun in person without almost going into a panic attack.

She continued to carry on her affairs, but with more discretion. She mostly tormented my grandfather and brought out the worst in him. He held down two jobs, but he drank a lot. They finally divorced in 1968 just as my mom was going to college at the University of TN. My grandma decided to shame and guilt my mother into dropping out of school only 6 weeks into her freshman semester to come home to Nashville and be with her while she went through the divorce. Again, most parents would be glad their child was off at school during such a difficult time, but not my bad grandma!

On my mom's wedding day, my grandmother refused to attend if my grandfather was allowed to come. My grandfather also didn't want to come if my grandmother was going to be there, so they forced her to choose. My grandma implied that if my mom chose her father, the rest of her extended family would boycott the wedding in protest. So my mom chose my bad grandma and had to have an uncle walk her down the aisle and give her away. Even on my mom's wedding day, my bad grandma made it all about her.

Next stop on her greatest hits was my birth. My grandma decided to set her wedding date just days before I was due to be born. She wanted my mother to be in the wedding, but there was no way a doctor would let my mother travel out of state so close to her due date. My grandma, however, would not budge and insisted she had to be married that very weekend before I was due. So my mom simply did not go to her mother's 2nd wedding. Don Swaringim was no prize. I vaguely remember him as this creepy old guy. My mother has stories of him flirting inappropriately with her. Of course, while my grandma was in the hospital with a hysterectomy in the late 1970s, Don moved in with his girlfriend at the time.

Anyway, I was born while my grandma was honeymooning in Hot Springs, AR. For my dad's parents, the second my mom's water broke, they called into work, and hit the road for Lexington, KY to be there for my birth. My bad grandma couldn't be bothered to come see her first (and turns out, only) born grandchild until sometime in mid-July when I was 6 weeks old.

Starting from my earliest memories, my bad Grandma (who's nickname was Snookie... don't ask, I don't know) would tell me how stupid my mother was. She went on and on about how she didn't know how her daughter could be so dumb when she had been so smart. She was valedictorian of her high school class after all. My mother, on the other hand, was lucky to get out of algebra with a D. She did well in language arts and history, but none of that matter to my grandma. She also would rave about how lucky my mom was to have landed a man such as my father. A man with a good job and brains.

When it appeared that I too might be gifted in the classroom, my grandmother was thrilled. She said it was obviously due to HER GENES and my father's. As if my mother had nothing to do with it. As if my mother was not a stay-at-home-mom, giving her her nursing career to be able to raise me at home and instill a love of learning that continues to this day. My mother never got credit for any of that, just the humiliation of having her mother tell her child IN HER PRESENCE how stupid she was.

She also had a little trick to play on my grandpa. Seeing how close my mother and I were, my grandma once told me that as a child, my grandpa had beaten my mother. Now you have to understand that I kind of found Papa Tony to be a creepy old guy. His father had beaten his mother while she was pregnant with him in 1912, leaving him with a speech impediment. Since my dad's parents were so young (they were 42 and 44 when I was born), I thought all old people were like my Papa Tony. I couldn't understand him, and he scared me as a result. Hearing that he used to beat my mom as a little girl made me hate him. Finally, when I was about 9, my mother pulled me aside and asked why I was being so hateful and rude to my grandfather. I told her that I knew he had beaten her as a child, and she was dumbstruck. She said that was a lie, he had done no such thing! Where would I have heard such a thing. When I told her it was my bad grandma, it all made sense. My mother later told me how angry her dad got when she told him what my grandma had done. He muttered something about her secrets, but never clarified. I kinda wish he had.

So after Don and my bad grandma divorced, she had a run of pretty bad credit problems. I remember having to go to Nashville at least every 6 months to move my grandma so that she could stay one step ahead of HUD. At one point, she started dating men who were willing to give her money. It wasn't strictly a business arrangement, but she'd only go out with men who were willing to help pay her bills. She had a car repossessed. She even embezzled $25,000 from her own brother's garbage business. Of course, blood being thicker than water, he forgave her and did not press charges.

After my grandmother got on her feet, her self-centered nature continued to express itself. The summer between my senior year of high school and first semester of college, she had to have a quadruple bypass. My dad was with his dad in Alaska on an extended road trip. I was working every day at IBM as part of a scholarship I had received. Mom had never left me alone overnight with no adult around at all. I was 18, so I didn't think it was a big deal, but for her, it was. Nevertheless, she went to Nashville to be with her mom and I happily stayed at home alone, enjoying honest-to-God adulthood for the first time.

My mom stayed about a week and then returned to Lexington after making sure my grandma had her rehab lined up. For my grandma, this wasn't enough. During the fall of my freshman year in college, she wrote me a letter whose main purpose was to tell me what a horrible daughter my mother was. Why was my mother such a horrible daughter? Well, despite having spent over a week with her during and after the surgery, my mother did not drop everything and move in with her for the duration of her 3 month recovery. I'm not sure why she thought this would impress me, but I immediately picked up the phone and read the letter to my parents.

Later, after another heart surgery, my mother had a breast cancer scare. She was unsure what to tell my bad grandma, if anything, because the surgery had left her weak. Eventually, the doctor told my mom to go ahead and tell her because she could handle it. Well, my poor mom had the misfortune of telling my grandma about her possible breast cancer on the same day that her dog Mitzi died. My grandmother's response to my mom's news? I was there. She said, "Oh you'll be fine. But my Mitzi is gone forever!" I love my dogs, but I hope if I had a child of mine tell me that he/she might have cancer, that the loss of my beloved pet would take immediate 2nd place. Not so with my bad grandma.

When my grandpa finally died after a series of really bad strokes and 10 yrs in a nursing home, my grandma's response was to show up at our hotel to gloat that she had outlived her ex-husband. She wanted to come to the funeral too, to play the supportive mother, but my mom had the sense to refuse her.

At my college graduation, my Aunt Janie, Cricket, and bad grandma came to Virginia Tech to see me on the big day. My grandma bitched and moaned the whole time. She drove my Aunt Janie so nuts that she vowed never to travel with her again. Aunt Janie had a the patience of a saint. She loved all her nieces and nephews as if we were her own. She treated us like we were hers too. Even family members who ended up stealing from her to support drug habits never had Aunt Janie completely turn her back on them. She could give tough love when needed, but family was everything to her. Even my bad grandma pushed her to the limit to a point that she cut her out of her life. I don't know how Aunt Janie lasted as long as she did.

When Aunt Janie died a few years ago, all my grandma could do at her baby sister's funeral was bad mouth Aunt Janie about how well she took care of herself. Then she'd turn the story back to her and how "badly" Aunt Janie had treated her. This...at the woman's funeral!! She's lucky no one in the family punched her lights out.

Another fun story of my grandmother's unmitigated gal and selfishness is from a time that most of my immediate family, especially on my dad's side, met at a Cracker Barrel to eat. During this breakfast, my bad grandma decided to tell my GOOD grandma in front of everyone that the only reason my parents and I preferred to stay with my good grandma is because she cooked for us. Can you imagine the lack of MANNERS that would lead a person to make such a declaration in such a setting??? My good grandma took it with a grain of salt, but my mother was humiliated.

The stories of my bad grandma's meanness, pettiness, and selfishness could go on and on. I think I have made my point with these stories, though. My bad grandma is now 83 years old, and she has systemically driven away anyone and everyone who cared for her or even loved her. Yet, she thinks the fault lies with everyone else. She cannot understand that it is HER PERSONALITY and ACTIONS that have driven everyone away from her in the sunset of her life.

This past weekend, my bad grandma struck again! Turns out, three cousins died this weekend within one hour of each other. One died of cancer, and within an hour, two more died in a bad car accident. So the family is having a triple funeral this week. These are all people my mom played with as a child.

My mom had been visiting me, and when she got home, she received a call from the Tennessee Division of Adult Protective Services about my bad grandma. I have no idea who turned her in, but they were calling to say my bad grandma could no longer live alone. She also refused assisted living because after she would pay her fee, she’d only have $2 to her name a month. Not enough to exactly eat. The guy asked if there was anyone who could help her financially, or if she could live with my mom. Now my mom is worried she won’t be able to afford HER rent, let alone take in her mother. Besides, it would take less than a week before my mom would likely kill my bad grandma. She told him that everyone in her family was about as old as she was, and there wasn’t anyone to take her in. My grandma is such a horrible person that she has driven away anyone and everyone who has ever cared about her. She is reaping the bitterness she has sown throughout her life. Who knows what will happen to her now?

It gets better. At 11:15pm, my bad grandma calls my mom. My mom goes to bed at 9pm most nights. She called to bitch about the family and how no one calls her. She then told my mom that the reason she never called to tell my mom that her favorite aunt (my grandmother’s sister) had died was because my Aunt Janie had not returned any of her previous 11 phone calls. So she didn’t tell my mother that the woman died out of a snit over not having HER phone calls to Aunt Janie returned! How narcissistic can you be? She then complained about the person who was going to take her to the funeral because they weren’t going to the visitation or the burial site. She also shared this gem… the cousin that died of cancer had fought it for 5 yrs, and she said she was sorry that Sarah had suffered as much as she did, but that it must have been God’s will for her. WHO says shit like that?!?! It’s frightening to think she’s blood.

1 comment:

Karla said...

Wow! That almost makes me feel better about my family.