Through the Fire

A memory’s an eager spark, and mine starts early. I was standing in a crib in the middle of the night. I remember the way the blue light streaked across the room from a light outside the window, revealing a mirror, and me seeing myself crying, then the outline of my grandmother as she opened the door and stood in the gold glow of an old lamp bulb. I know it was her because she always kept the same unmistakable hair, a Platinum Bob, which she kept till the day she died.

She put me to sleep, and that’s my first memory. It was my grandmother and mom who managed to keep me alive until my mother remarried, but even after that my grandmother helped me get through much of my childhood. My mom and stepfather fought a lot so I wasn’t home much. I learned to listen for the television after I’d walk home from school, and other giveaways which meant one of them was home, so I could prep myself to be annoyed.

Constant threats of being grounded or spanked for forgetting a chore, or doing some irrelevant thing wrong tuned me into an anxious kid, so I spent extended weekends with my grandmother in her yellow little apartment—she smoked so fucking much your clothes would stick to the wall if you leaned on it.

I spent most of my time outside anyway, I’ve never been able to sit still for too long, besides the minor ADD, it’s just a deep fascination with everything. My grandmother gave me old phones to tear up and never put back together. I was always captivated by her jewelry boxes, which are now in the hands of my mom. Yellow boxes of family history: antique pens, a tiny razor, medical bracelets, currency from somewhere across the ocean—all treasure to me.

My mom is bipolar or something, and could wreak an entire room in anger. She goes from docile to dangerous, very quickly. Dangerous to herself mainly, not in a suicidal way, just in an earlier death from constant stress sort of way. But she still worked her ass off everyday, even after a short split with my stepdad, she made sure I was never hungry and made it to school.

My grandmother let me keep Playboys stashed in a fort I’d built in her apartment out of pallets I found close by when I was eleven by a Whataburger dumpster. Granted, she only agreed because I lied and told her they only had pictures of topless women. She was cool with that. Then while I was out playing she dug around, flipped through a few pages of one and saw a lot more than breasts, and threw away the magazines. Then she told my mom. It’s amazing she agreed to it at all, but in all fairness she kept her vibrator next to her bed for as long as I remember.

My stepdad had no problem with me riding my bike all over town in the high crime early ’90s, about an hour outside of Mexico, at the tip of Texas. He didn’t seem to care about killing a fifth of whiskey on the daily in tandem with a few blunts, cigarettes, or an occasional line. Perhaps those are just things good award-winning journalist do. Don’t get me wrong he loves me very much, but he grew up in a very different world, one I still have trouble grasping, and one that’s totally cool with you getting lost while mom sits around all day worrying.

My grandmother, Leona, grew up through the great depression, married an alcoholic and later divorced him, but not after giving birth to my mom and her two brothers. Leona didn’t really “parent” and Frank, her husband, was always misadventuring in a drunken stupor. Family lore has it that he slit a man’s throat (not enough to kill him, because he was too drunk), and committed many other psychically traumatizing shenanigans you’d expect from one of Bukowski’s characters.

In the midst of all this, the brothers had taken it upon themselves to torment my mother in every way possible until she lost control and beat the living shit out of both of them. The family dynamic took its toll on everyone. One brother died of cirrhosis of the liver in his late thirties. The other almost died a year ago from an unchecked infection he developed while living in his own filth. My mom remains, after a three-year fight against a rare cancer, then finally losing her lower left leg—it was just the fire she needed to start living again. Before that she wasn’t really doing anything except smoking and drinking coffee.

I can’t help but wonder why my grandmother took so much care of me while letting her own kids fade away. Questions like these are the unquenchable fires a spark can create.

My mom never visited my grandmother later in her life. Living about six hours away didn’t help, but that isn’t really the issue. I think if Leona hadn’t left my mom to the whims of her brothers they’d have a much closer relationship.

Eleven was a tough year for me. One of Leona’s favorite phrases was “screwed up”, “that’s screwed up” she say at the nightly news, or the morning paper, and a variety of other things—until I started saying it. My mother wouldn’t have it. Grounding me didn’t work, threatening to spank me didn’t work. So my mother finally went over to set my grandmother straight, and Leona just smiled at her, and said OK. As soon a my mom was out the door she turned to me, a tomato-red face that shown through the cigarette smoke that veiled her. And exclaimed her utter dismay at the amount of nerve my mother had for constantly saying fuck this, and fuck that and this that and the other, then coming down on her for something that really isn’t bad at all.

There must be more there than just the phrase. This memory always stuck out because of how petty the whole thing seemed, like displaced anger. People have quite the capacity when it comes to grudges, and my mom isn’t excluded. All I could think about then was how grateful I’d not gotten in the habit of saying fuck, yet. That and a few other choice words (and conversations) were saved for friends at school. I think my mother was bitter with Leona, and I think it was compounded by the feeling of being replaced by another mother–slowly losing your child.

But I think things run deeper still than the typical bitterness so many endure–that I endure. I think my mother has a strong fear of death. She was always pushing religion on me. After my uncle died, I had to accept Jesus into my heart and read the bible. Which I did for a long time. After anyone died, after my mom almost died, there’s a strong resurgence of faith that bubbles up inside her, and I think for her it’s more specifically the concept of heaven. The hope that after having fucked up so much of your life, getting pissed on from the very start, that you can try it all in bliss, with those you love, and wanted to love—a second chance—declawing death.

My uncle, despite his endless issues, visited Leona every week until the day he called me and told me she’d passed. I still can’t believe a women who smoked everyday of her life almost made it to ninety. My mom was floored, crushed down into her porch chair as I stood and coldly delivered the news. She held that coldness against me, she found it odd I didn’t cry. I’ve cried for absolutely no reason, but I didn’t then.

It sounds Starwarsy, but she actually became more powerful to me. She was no longer mortal, no longer bound by the flesh. People don’t remember the John Lennon who beat his wives, they remember the Lennon who fought for peace. Leona was finally absolved of all guilt, rheumatoid arthritis, and minor dementia.

The last thing my grandmother told me was that she loved me. Before that she told me all she thought about was the time we’d spent together. And that’s what I remember, that’s the glow around the women with the unforgettable hair. The icon in my head who helps me through the fire.


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