I never thought my grandmother was the type of person who would kill herself. She was too self-absorbed, too spirited, and much too selfish to take herself willingly out of the game. Or at least that’s what I thought.
I had always seen my grandmother as someone who was both cunning and artistic; not unlike a spider. I do know that she spent a lifetime spinning a web that while beautiful, had a soul purpose of trapping prey. But I didn’t know how many fell victim to her silky ambush until I was much older.
As a child, I considered her a larger than life sort of character. She wasn’t like my friend’s grandmothers; there was no grey bun or dowdy clothes. In fact, we couldn’t even call her grandmother; we had to call her “Gogo” which was originally my sister’s attempt at saying her first name Dorothy.
My grandmother considered herself quite fetching, and loved to dress the part. She was a Cracker Jack seamstress, certainly the best I’ve ever seen. Not only did she make all of her own dresses, but mine and my siblings as well. She rarely needed a pattern. She would lay the fabric on the floor, and like a mad artist clutching a pair of scissors, she would quickly snip out the sections she would need for her creation, take them to her sewing machine, and hours later would present the most beautiful creations. Perfect tailored suits for the boys, custom fitted dresses for the girls. She herself always looked stunning. She preferred tight dresses, sometimes backless. With a perfect hat and gloves to match, and her rather tallish frame, she would make quite an entrance into any room. She thought her long slender legs were her most valuable asset, and she loved to hike up her dresses as high as possible whenever she had the chance, and would revel in the attention she received for her striking gams.
When I got older, she’d make regular shopping trips to Europe and would buy clothes for me. She’d bring me back the tightest pants and skimpiest of halter tops to wear. “Show it off, Duckie,” she’d tell me. “Show the world just how fetching you are. Be a heartbreaker.”
My grandmother came from England. With her thick cockney accent, and the gift of story-telling, I could listen to her for hours. Some days, she might regale me with tales about World War II in England. “Yes, there were strict rations. But I bought me butter and me eggs from the black market. I wasn’t having any of that nonsense. I had a husband I wanted to keep happy.”
Other days, she’d tell me about the poltergeists she believed lived amongst us. “Don’t be frightened,” she’d tell me when something mysterious and peculiar would happen, which was a regular occurrence whenever I was with her. Things would disappear and reappear; cigarettes would go out cold, and once her dress flew up. “They’re just having a bit of fun with you. Be grateful that their existence proves that there’s a world beyond the one we know.”
She also believed in ghosts. Deceased members of her family would often visit her, even more so as she grew old. “Duckie, come quick,” she’d yell at me as I lay asleep in bed. “Look at this imprint on the bed. My brother was just sitting here, real as life he was. He was welcoming me to the other side. I couldn’t make up that imprint, now could I? Do you see it? Feel it, it’s still warm.”
One day she told me about a flying saucer that flew right over head. “Big as life it was, Duckie. As real as you standing there. It was a total eclipse of the sun. I could smell it.”
My grandmother was on a steady diet of methamphetamines. Although the medication was prescription, we all knew that what she was taking was speed. “Oooh, I love my tablets, Duckie. I get so depressed sometimes, you know. So sad. And all I need do is take one of my tablets and the world is right again.” When she took her tablets, she was full of piss and vinegar, and had boundless energy. She would do hours and hours of yoga, an activity few people had ever heard of back then. She would play the piano and sing. She would paint landscapes and flirt with young men.
When I was younger, she would usually make me a cup of English tea to sip while she told me her stories. When she put the kettle on the stove, I knew she was in the mood to talk. “You must SHOCK the tea bag,” she’d tell me as she’d pour the boiling water into the cup. “Otherwise the tea will be just dreadful.” But when I got a little older, her choice of beverage changed. “Vodka Orange?” she’d ask me, when I was only 15. I would never say no. “Let’s have ourselves a chat then, shall we?” she’d say as she poured me my drink over the rocks.
Over cocktails, she’d often talk to me about sex. “I believe in enjoying sex to the fullest,” she’d tell me, almost getting teary-eyed just thinking about it. She was always very dramatic. “Me Grand Mum couldn’t enjoy sex at all. Her and my grandfather’s sleeping costumes had holes cut into each of them, in the strategic place, so they could have relations without touching or seeing each other, do you understand?” she’d ask me and I’d nod. “And it wasn’t just me Grand Mum. Me own Mum thought it a rather dirty activity herself. When I was going through puberty, she talked to me about sex, told me how disgusting it was. She advised me just to lie there and think of the Queen,” Gogo told me. “But I wasn’t going to have any of that nonsense. I enjoy the passion, do you understand Duckie?”
My grandmother left her husband, my mother’s father, when my mother was only a little girl. They met in the 1920’s when my grandmother played piano in a tavern, and he was hired to sing. “He was a lovely man,” she’d tell me, “but he was too proper English for my taste. I have always been a bit daring, if you understand,” she’d say with a lift of her eyebrows. But she didn’t just leave him, she left him for another man. “But when I first laid eyes on Spishek, oh Duckie, I could have fainted dead on the spot. He was so dashing; he nearly took my breath away.”
My grandmother met Spishek, a Polish air force pilot, during World War 11. A good 22 years her junior, she immediately lied about her own age when she met him. She went so far as to lie about my mother to him as well; she didn’t want him to know she was old enough to have a daughter my mother’s age. Whenever Spishek was around, she forced my mother to say that they were cousins. She would do anything to have him; she would do anything to keep him. She would tell any lie as long as it supported the fantasy she was trying to create.
Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive. The spider was dropping down her web at an alarming speed. The silk was unraveling out of her abdomen faster than I could imagine. But my grandmother’s silk was so sticky, that Spishek never had a chance.
In their wedding photo, you can hardly tell the difference in their ages. My grandmother stands tall, wearing a slim-fitting dark dress; I have always wondered what color it was. Although the picture is black and white, I have always imagined that the dress was red. Wearing red on her wedding day would be something my grandmother would do.
The dress hugs her figure tightly until just below the knee than flounces in a frilly skirt at the bottom. Her legs are still visible in very high heels. She has an explosion of white flowers which dance over her left breast, and atop her curly hair she wears a wide brim hat, with a jungle of white flowers around the lip. Her painted mouth is smiling widely, and her expression is just like a spider that snagged an unsuspecting fly into her web.
"Will you walk into my parlor?" said the spider to the fly;
"'Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you may spy.
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many curious things
to show when you are there."
But Spishek looks a tad more innocent in the photograph. He has a dazed expression on his face, and he is looking off camera somewhere, as if he’s thinking, “What have I done?” He wears a loose fitting suit with a white flower and a white kerchief peaking from the breast pocket. He holds the fingers of my grandmother’s arm with his left hand, which she has tucked underneath his right arm.
"Oh no, no," said the little fly; "to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair
can ne'er come down again."
We called Spishek “Beba”, and to me, he was my grandfather. To the children in the house, we thought Gogo and Beba looked like Ricky and Lucy Ricardo from the “I love Lucy” show. Gogo, like Lucy, had the same curly hair-do, and they seemed to dress in similar styles, with the most dramatic of hats. And Beba, with his thick accent and handsome swarthy looks, could be a dead ringer for Ricky.
In front of the children, my grandparents were just like Lucy and Ricky, affable, tender and funny. But their marriage more resembled that of Lucy and Desi Arnez; it was passionate, volatile, and explosive. I could never understand what the dark cloud was that seemed to follow them around. But that is because I didn’t know the truth. That they had put a burden on their marriage that few couples could withstand; they shared a secret. But more importantly, they shared a lie.
My grandmother had coerced my mother into giving her a child.
My grandmother would have done anything for her young husband. He eventually forgave her for lying about her age, but he never gave up on the idea of having children. My grandmother, in her 40’s, tried and tried to conceive, but she never could get pregnant. She feared her young husband would leave her, and find a younger woman who could bare his children.
She was desperate. She asked my Mom for her only child, her daughter, Chris. My older sister.
“You can have loads more children,” my grandmother told my mother, trying to convince her. “Just give me Christine. Spishek and I cannot conceive and he wants children so badly. Please.”
My mother refused. My grandmother begged. She fainted. She pleaded. My mother would not relent.
“Then have another one for me, Duckie. Have a child and I’ll raise him. We’ll never tell a soul. The child will be known as mine and Spishek’s. Please.”
My grandmother eventually wore her down, and my mother became a surrogate for her own mother. And the day she gave birth to my brother George, she immediately relinquished him. My mother never even held him. The doctor handed over her first born son directly into her own mother’s arms. My father had not wanted this surrogacy, and even as my mother was in labor begged her not to give their son away. He left my mother after that; he couldn’t live with the lies. But he didn’t leave until he impregnated my mother with me. Then he was gone for good.
I was told my brother was my Uncle, and he was told his Mother was his sister. We all lived in one big house where they had to be reminded of their deceit every single day. From that day on, our family home, became a house of cards. Our foundation was no more solid than a floor of Jack’s, Queens and Aces. Our family was based on a falsehood, and thus everything that went on in our home was a sham.
We were in a web of lies. And in the center of that magnificent web, was a spider. A black widow.
She had spun a silken masterpiece, a symmetrical tour de force, with threads that were nearly transparent, save for their sliminess, which glistened in the morning sun. Which gland had my grandmother used this time? Was she merely spinning thread to make a safety line, or was she making sticky silk for trapping prey. Or today might she be producing the finest of her threads to completely wrap and envelop the fly?
I’m still trying to understand the web that she wove over time. She created netting so complicated and coarse, that she was ultimately trapped in her own trap, and she became her own prey. She was strangled by the complex maze of threads that she herself created. She had become the fly.
It was truth which was the real super hero in this story. At first, the truth only barely seeped out; it was a trickle, if that. But soon thereafter the trickle became a flow, and that flow grew in strength and magnitude, and it became a river, which overtook the banks of our reality. The truth has a way of doing that. You can suppress it for a time, but it has a strange way of wriggling out; it is a little like a Houdini. And this truth was eventually set free, and one by one we learned the facts about who my brother really was.
Eventually, we all knew. But we didn’t let onto my grandmother that we knew. We grew up in a house of lies, so it was easy for us to protect her delusions for a time. Besides, my mother begged us not to let her know that we had learned the truth.
My brother was still living alone with her, that winter that she died. He came home one day from college to find her sobbing. “Mum, what’s wrong?” he asked her, scrambling to his knees and grabbing both her hands in his. But he knew what was wrong. He had known what was wrong ever since he learned himself about the truth of his identity. He knew that she cried nearly every single day because of the secret she held inside; because of the lifetime of lies.
It was the same pain I had seen in my mother’s eyes my entire life.
It was that day that the final bits of truth at last came out. Spontaneously, my brother confessed that he knew. “Mummy, I know. I know. I know the truth. And I love you.”
My grandmother’s tears stopped and her gray eyes glanced upwards to his face. A look of recognition took over her expression. Perhaps there was just a flicker of relief, as if she’d been unburdened at last. But soon her face expressed a look of horror and shame.
The next day, Gogo called my mother. “I won’t be making the English Trifle for Christmas this year, Duckie,” she told my mother. “Be a good girl, won’t you, and make it this year? Your trifle is every bit as good as mine; why I taught you of course. Be a dear?”
The next day she called me. “Don’t buy me a Christmas present this year, Duckie,” she told me, her voice sounding weak. She was only 74.
“What do you mean?” I cried. “I already bought you one thing, and it’s wrapped and under my tree.” I had bought her a book about Princess Di’s wedding, which had only just happened.
“No ducks, take it back if you could. I won’t need any presents this year. Tell your sister too.”
The next day, my brother came home to find her about to swallow a mountain of pills. She had dozens and dozen spilled into her lap, and she was staring down at them. She had always liked her tablets, here and there, but her doctors had long cut her off. And to make matters worse, she had just gotten out of the hospital from a bad case if pneumonia. They had put her on steroids, and she was forbidden to have any other medication whatsoever. “Mum,” George yelled, grabbing her arm. “What the hell are you doing? You’re not supposed to be taking any pills! Are you trying to kill yourself?” My brother took her pills away from her and she burst into tears. It was too late. Her fantasy had all fallen apart. Spishek was gone. Her shame was plastered onto each of our faces. “You promise me you won’t take any more pills?” my brother said, scolding her. She nodded as if to promise that she wouldn’t. But the next day, she would swallow as many pills as she could.
I was driving alone that day in my white mustang, speeding down the coast highway toward Half Moon Bay. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, my hood came loose and flew up with a terrifying jolt, and blocked my vision. I skidded to the side of the road, shaken, but relieved that I was able to stop safely.
But then I realized my heart was thumping for a different reason. I knew. I just knew. I knew the hood and my grandmother were connected. For some inexplicable reason I knew that the hood flying up was my grandmother, saying good-bye.
I raced home. By the time I reached my front door I was sobbing myself. I spotted her wrapped gift under the Christmas tree as I reached for the phone. I called her apartment over and over and over, but there was no answer. At this point, Gogo rarely left the house. I became frantic.
At last someone picked up. It was her next door neighbor. And when I identified myself, she promptly hung up on me.
It took several tries before the woman would talk to me. She was breathless and teary, and explained how she’d seen my grandmother through the window, lying motionless on the floor. Neither loud knocks nor frenzied screams seemed to rouse my grandmother, and eventually the neighbor broke the window and crawled in to help. She thought she had felt a pulse and had called paramedics. “They’re here now,” she told me. “They’re trying to resuscitate her right now,” she said, as she hung up on me for the fifth time.
I knew my grandmother was dead. She died when my hood flew up.
I never thought my grandmother was the type of person to take her own life. I thought her too self-absorbed, too spirited, and too selfish to take herself willingly out of the game. But everything she had worked so hard to create, was gone. Even the illusions.
My grandmother was a spider caught in its own web; she was nothing but a corpse enveloped by yards of her own slimy textile. She had become tangled in her own web of lies.
I learned that day that lies can kill us.
An itsy bitsy spider crawled up the water spout. Down came the lies and washed the spider out. Up came the sun and it dried up all the pain, and the itsy bitsy spider lives in our hearts again.
I apologize for being gone so long...life can just get too busy sometimes. Please feel free to leave a comment below. Happy Labor Day Weekend!