Separate vacations

August 21, 1996|By Linda DeMers Hummel

MY GRANDMOTHER cried on Sundays. Late in the afternoon, it would be a brisk walk down the hall to the bathroom, the door not quite slammed, some muffled sobs, then the water running.

A few moments later she would emerge, red-eyed but composed, and the afternoon would proceed. The dinner dishes would be cleared, after which games of cards and dominoes took their place. At precisely 8 p.m., she and my grandfather would kiss us goodbye with smiles and perhaps a quick recap of who had been lucky playing rummy that day.

My earliest memories originate at that table, in the hour or so that always preceded my grandmother's huffy march down the hall. The end of dessert had already signaled the male diaspora to other parts of the house, for reading and naps and walks.

My mother, grandmother and I would remain at the table, and I would sit transfixed, as the two women inexorably connected to me would begin their weekly talk that would center on politics and then ultimately build to crescendo and explode.

Focus on FDR

For years I believed these wranglings focused solely on Franklin Roosevelt. For on Sunday afternoon, my grandmother would put aside her fervent Democratic leanings in light of his transgressions against Eleanor. Decades before Doris Kearns Goodwin delivered the details, my grandmother had the goods on FDR. She spat on the New Deal, with "Tell me what kind of deal Eleanor got!"

My mother would, by rules of debate, take the opposing view. I would be an adult before I realized it wasn't purely politics that caused the deep sigh that signaled my grandmother's broad body heaving toward the bathroom.

It was also the vacations we had taken or were about to embark on -- from each other -- my mother from her mother, me from mine. Transient, but often loud and malevolent sabbaticals. Necessary trips, I take refuge in thinking now, but as a matter of family history, these vacations were as real as any we ever packed for and traveled.

Chronologically, my vacation from my mother came fairly late. I traversed my high school years during the 1960s not only intact, but as a shining example of what most Long Island mothers might have bragged, "a nice young lady."

When I arrived at college in upstate New York, I came equipped with knee socks, my thesaurus, and my virginity. When I dropped out two years later, I would be minus all. I was officially on vacation. From the pursuit of grades, against the war, casting aside the whole bourgeois middle class trip, I told anyone who would listen. But mostly, I know now, from my mother.

Some women my age had mothers who were overbearing, cynical and critical at every turn. Others had mothers who sat in the living room in cotton housedresses with their legs open, alcoholics who never read a book. The woman who gave birth to me was smart and funny, had a career and could charm a roomful of people who were intent on having a bad time. It was only natural I would want to ditch her.

It was all-out secession from that point -- a necessary departure -- from the union that had meant the most to me until then. These days I'm partial to the euphemism, "forging my own identity." In truth, it was painful and spiteful, and I became an expert sniper almost overnight. It lasted too long.

Then my grandmother died.

The grieving family we were, we talked about her constantly in the days following the funeral.

My mother talked about her own childhood later at night over wine, told stories I'd never heard, when I thought I'd heard them all.

And then, one evening when it was almost time for me to leave for the airport and resume that identity I'd forged so carefully, my mother told me about her own vacation. How at 13, she had rebelled full tilt against being the designated "good girl" of the family. She smoked, cut school, stayed out late. Then, in full view of my grandmother, she reveled in it. And it had lasted too long.

"How did Grandma do?" I asked. I knew from my mother's absent stare at the wallpaper there would be no answer.

I attempted a slight change of subject, the conversation having edged a bit too close to me and the emotional ambushes of my past. "I'll never forget the way she used to cry about Roosevelt."

My mother would have none of my subterfuge. "Sometimes I thought she was still sad about me or maybe still mad at me," she said, "that your grandmother was still crying about what I'd done. But then you began, and I realized we all get over it."

"I wouldn't be so sure," I countered. "Obviously she never forgave FDR."

My mother laughed in that shallow, cough-like sound that suffices for the real thing when we're grieving.

"But we always forgive our daughters," she said.

In the mirror

People tell me that my daughter looks just like me. I never fail to smile graciously and pretend that is an accomplishment, because since her birth there have been fleeting, almost terrifying moments when I found it impossible to separate her from me.

She is young, straddling the border between keeping me at her side and running free. One day she nostalgically looks through her baby book. The next day she tells me I have a phony "telephone voice." Today she decides she'll walk down the street and play with the children half her age, whose requests for attention she has denied for a solid month.

I watch her long tanned legs stride down the sidewalk. Her blonde hair sways definitively with her sharp steps. She does not turn and wave. I wonder if upstairs in her room I would find her bags packed. But I don't go and look.

Linda DeMers Hummel writes from Timonium.

Pub Date: 8/21/96

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