It’s the early 1990s. I’m a teenager sitting in the back seat of my mom’s Toyota Corolla. My Grandma Ruby’s in the front passenger seat, faintly humming along to STP’s ‘Creep’ coming from the radio. She doesn’t know this tune of course, but being ever the little songbird, she’d always try to sing along with whatever was playing. It could’ve been anything- from “That Old Black Magic” to “Dirty Black Summer”- Grams was all about it.
This was the usual scene for Saturday mornings when we’d go and pick up Grandma for the day, to run errands or shop, or do whatever. She just enjoyed going along for the ride; she enjoyed having some company.
Sitting in the car for what seems like hours waiting for my mom to come out of the bank, we begin idly chatting to catch up on our events from the past few days. I’m only halfway paying attention as I flip through the pages of a Hit Parader. Grammy starts off the way she usually does by asking me about my week, and how my friends are doing, and this time she goes on to tell me about her new couch. I’m more interested in reading the magazine’s “This Year In Metal” cover story. (What can I say, I’m a teen girl whose life revolves around music.. and lead singers).
G’ma Ruby is the kind of woman who feels the need to always be talking amidst any sort of quiet time. Even if she was just randomly mumbling to herself about her grocery list for the week, there NEEDED to be some talking swirling around her, or else she’d get uncomfortable with the looming sound of silence in the air. (Totally drove my mom crazy [that my Grams never shut up]. It would crack me up so friggin bad, dude- My mom, her big eyes wide open [trying to use her stare on me as an S.O.S. call to rescue] with her mouth puckered, ready to explode, and Grams just softly blah blah blah-ing to herself, or telling us the same story OVER and OVER- oh, and over again two minutes later. She would either forget she had already told it, or she didn’t give a crap and wanted to repeat it anyway just so there’d be some noise. I’d be in the back seat with my hand over my mouth, tears running down my face from the amusement and laughter I’m desperately trying to hold inside. Mom glancing in the rearview mirror and upon seeing me, she’d either get more pissed off, or with much resistance she’d end up laughing. Ahh, memories. Okay okay, back to the point…)
I’d always chalked it up as something folks her age had to do; God forbid there be silence. So, since Grandma Ruby loved to talk, I’d ask her questions. All the time.
As these weekend in-person chats would progress, I’d sometimes ask her things I knew were gonna make her blush. Things that were, shall we say, slightly uncomfortable for someone from her era to speak about. You see, Ruby is also the kind of woman who wouldn’t dare ever verbalize intimate details about herself (I mean, shit, the woman died from digestive tract complications- which could’ve been avoided had it not been neglected- because your bowels and poop problems just weren’t something you were supposed to talk about. It wouldn’t be proper, not even to her doctor).
But it was fun to get a rise out of her. We both got a kick out of it- a sort of inside joke kind of thing between the two of us. Most times completely hilarious; sometimes very interesting.
He’d make her partake whether she wanted to or not.
What I didn’t know, as I woke up that morning and got ready for us to go pick up Grandma, was that I’d soon find out more than I bargained for.
This particular day in the car, I found out that never once in her life had she experienced what it meant to have passion with another person, or true lovemaking. Passionate anything, really. She’d never even had a real kiss. Like, a REAL kiss. She’d never had an orgasm. I especially remember this part of the conversation vividly because I had to explain to her what an orgasm was, and what one felt like (not that I’d ever had one). Strange, I know. (No, not the part about her not experiencing that stuff, but the mere fact that this kind of talk was shared between us, grandma and granddaughter. What can I say, it’s just how we rolled).
I don’t remember how it started exactly or who brought it up, but G’ma had decided to spill to me that the only time she and John (her husband, my grandfather) ever used to have sex was when he’d come home from the Elks lodge, drunk off his ass. He would make her partake whether she wanted to or not. He’d take off his shoes, undo his belt and zipper, take what he needed, and leave her again, alone in the bedroom. He’d then go downstairs to his office where he’d end up staying to sleep.
Grams said the entire process took only a few minutes, and pretty much each time it happened she ended up pregnant. She then proceeded to say that she probably had sex a total of twenty times in her entire life. Her wedding night, and once for each of the kids. (And a few more I’m guessing she threw in for good measure.)
The topic led to Grandma telling the story of when she first realized John was having an affair. Though she never says those specific words “my husband was having an affair”(remember, she was from a time where you don’t come right out and say certain things or talk about your feelings), it wasn’t difficult to catch the gist.
His arm isn’t where it ought to be…
She stares straight ahead out the window as if she can see it happening, playing out right in front of her across the windshield like a movie screen, and she starts telling a tale about a camping trip the family went on one year, back when most of her children were still very little. Herself, John, and some of the kids (who were old enough to enjoy camping) were in the car. The younger ones stayed home with her mother. For some reason, for this specific trip, John insisted that this woman, Patsy, come along with them. (Yep).
This Patsy was a member of their polka club, and she has also recently started working as a temporary helper for John’s Elks Lodge. Grandma Ruby is sort of acquainted with the woman, though not much. She’d seen her around the club and been passerby-ish friendly and cordial, but nothing that would grant this woman access to their family camping trip. I honestly don’t believe my Grandma even asked John why he had invited Patsy. He told her “Patsy was coming with them”, and that was the end of it. Being the altogether submissive 1950s housewife that G’ma Ruby was, she goes along with it (as if she had a choice, right?).
There they all are, riding along in the big ole’ station wagon; John driving, Grandma Rubes in the passenger seat, Patsy seated in the middle seat the next row back, and five of their nine children behind that. G’ma tells me that as she’s talking to the carload of kids, out of the corner of her eye, she notices John’s arm. Only, his arm isn’t where it ought to be.
Instead, his arm is reaching back through the front seat center opening. On the sly, my grandma pretends to be digging for something in her purse, all the while sneaking a peek at where the other half of her husband’s arm is.
It disappears under the hem of Patsy’s skirt. His hand is… you can only imagine where.
Grandma Ruby pretends she doesn’t see this happening, and they continue the long road trip.
She goes on to say some things about the rest of the trip; how she was sick to her stomach and throwing up the remainder of the time (gee, I wonder why), and heartbroken, I’m sure. She tells me how John and Patsy disappeared for hours on end a few times throughout the trip, to “get a better view” of the mountain, and so on. You get the point.
So apparently, her husband John was capable of love, intimacy, and passion- he just didn’t use any of them on his wife.
She wandered the hallway drunk, mumbling to herself…
My poor grandma. She was with one man in her life. ONE. She met him when she was a teenager, fell in love with him, waited two years for him to return from the war, and married him. She gave him nine children. (Her doctor told her to stop childbearing after the sixth kid- said it would be too dangerous for her- but John wanted more kids). She stayed home and played the happy homemaker. She waited on him hand and foot. She revolved around him.
He messed around on her. He left her for the woman with whom he had the affair. He kicked her and all of their kids out of the big family house in which they grew up, at the end of the perfect family-run cul-de-sac.
John initially put them up in a tiny two-bedroom cockroach-infested apartment, and then took off for good, leaving them with nothing. No money. No home. Grams had no work experience. So what did she end up doing?
She stayed in bed. For two years, minimum, according to her kids’ recounts.
She wandered the hallway at night drunk, mumbling to herself, which would traumatize her younger kids in the long run.
Eventually, the kids who were old enough got whatever jobs they could and took care of their mom, and their siblings. Most of them never spoke to their dad again, nor did they want to. I’ve never met the man.
Grandma eventually got a bit better, and by the time I was born in 1981, she was the best grandmother. Though she never did try to treat her alcoholism, she narrowed it down to right before bedtime, when she’d down her few plastic cups of wine, or eight.
Throughout my entire life, my mom always hated spending the night at my grandmother’s house, because she still roamed her hallway in the middle of the night talking to herself.
Grammy Ruby lived a pretty happy rest of her life, spending time around her big family, including tons of grandkids. She loved doing anything and everything, and would enjoy doing just about anything, so long as it was around people. Grandma loved people.
She never got to experience being with someone who treated her well.
It still hurts my heart to this day when I think about the fact that my grandmother never had a chance to experience real intimacy, or romance. She never knew what it was like to be fully and truly LOVED by a man; to be cherished the way she deserved. She never had the opportunity to feel that kind of pleasure, or to know the feeling of being satisfied.
Bottom line: She never got to experience being with someone who treated her well.
But, she did have the love of us. My grandma was the sunshine of our family. The grandma who I knew was always cheerful and positive. She was seriously the sweetest lady you’d ever meet, and there was a smile on her face, always. She loved her family, and that was enough for her- just to be with us.
I can’t wait to tell you more about her.
Editor’s Note: It’s a very special feeling to have known the actual woman behind our grandma. I love her. She has always been my favorite person in the world, apart from my own mother. As far back as I can remember being a little girl I wanted to know things about her: events throughout her life; what her parents were like, her childhood, her marriage, what it was like having nine children, her thoughts, and her feelings. I asked funny questions, intimate questions; things I knew she’d never admit to… and then she would. But only to me, and it was the ultimate privilege and gift. The older I grew, I learned that when a grandparent speaks, you should listen. Really listen. It’s like finding gold. I enjoyed and treasured getting to know her on a level that nobody else knew, or ever even bothered to try. She’d been through some heavy stuff and was still the jolliest person I’ve ever known. I will probably be writing about her pretty often.