Grandma taught us all
that her sickly parents
sent her down
to the old-timey version
of what we all came to know
as Pic 'N' Save
with a pocketful of nickels and old-timey coupons
to buy old-timey expired food
so big girl Grandma could portion out little pieces
for her baby sisters and brother
and make her own birthday cake
every year. She did it
all by herself.
Grandma never cries,
not even when Uncle Tim died.
She kept still and quiet
through the whole service.
I barely even knew
her husband, my grandfather Papa,
she never had any interest in remarrying
when he died—
his mom left him with his drunk dad,
who left him with Aunt Mary and Uncle Sydney
who never got one nickel for their trouble,
and when Papa and Grandma were young and visiting
the south they chose to stay with his mom
and Duke instead—
but in my Special Box I keep
some of the trinkets
Papa gave us grandkids
recovered from the trash
and saved in his junk room
before the cancer finally killed him
I have bipolar disorder.
This poem came from an episode,
but it's not mine, not really mine.
When Duke got burned
—a vat of molten metal
dumping all over him from overhead
in the old-timey foundry
with an old-timey disregard for anyone's
safety—they had six days
to get him Saved
so he wouldn't burn forever.
He didn't deserve what happened to him.
None of us did.
Step-grandkids would follow him around
like hungry dogs
who know where to go
and he'd pretend to lose his nickels
through the hole in his pocket
that he never wanted to stitch up
and kids would scramble to gather the nickels
He had a good heart.
We hope in the end
he accepted the Lord's grace.
Papa lifted my sister into the dumpster
to look for empty old bottles
to take back to the liquor store
and redeem them
and maybe get some nickels.
He was sober as a rule, but
my mom was "Ugly"
and Tim was "Stupid",
and little Terrie, in her fifties by now,
didn't get one
unless "Diabetic" counts.
Papa loved to talk
about what Heaven might be like.
Come to think of it,
so did everyone else.
Our old hunched grandmother
gave Mom our old upright grand piano
and the other cancer.
We tried to move
still farther north, but not as far north
as I moved later. We couldn't
get the great grand piano out of the family
room in the basement.
Gravity can be so cruel.
Halfway up the stairs
we lost control.
The old piano slipped,
all that weight about killed Dad,
and he had nothing to do with it,
and anyway, his family has their own stuff.
and that old-timey evangelical meanness
and some adult teeth that never grew in
and a three-dimensional grandfather
clock puzzle we never got to finish
before that Grandpa died,
and all the old tapes
from his old-timey radio show
broadcast into homes across Southern California
called Beside The Still Waters
after the old gospel song
about the Good Shepherd
and his flock
that none can molest,
and the other Grandma
who never quite grew up.
She couldn't remember her dad
even when she could still remember
A poor childhood
—decades of suffering
from Pastor's Wife Spine,
shame from somewhere, a child lost
first to ailment and then to The Home
and then home to Heaven,
a sweetly earnest craving
for affection and sweets, and her love
of loving on poor little dogs,
all heirlooms now—
but at least it lasted
"Watch the TV, boob!"
"That won't buy the baby a shirt."
She taught herself
to play the piano.
Still seems weird,
her not being here,
the surprising shapes
and vibrant colors revealed
on the floors
as the dementia carried her
to The Home, and then home with us,
and then home to Heaven
and she slowly gave up
most of her end tables
for the garage sale.
Anyway, we finally sought professional help
with our eight-hundred-pounds heirloom
(just the piano)
which as it turned out was far easier
and less damaging
and more expensive
and worth every nickel
and a little embarrassing by this point
because we kinda knew
all along we needed
but we waited
till after we almost killed Dad,
and if he'd died
we could have partly blamed Grandma
even though she had a strong alibi,
being not only in California at the time,
but also old
We just say, "We brought the piano."
If the piano falls to me,
I'm not catching it.
I know how much I'm worth. Mercy,
I don't want my parents' stuff
that I just know they're saving in the basement
for the kids I might bring into this family
from a successful relationship someday. Mercy,
none of us—
not my brothers, sister, sister-in-law, cousins, nephew;
nor the heirloom children,
made of the best materials
God could afford
during the depression,
and then moved from house to house,
burdensome, not quite discarded
because we all know
there's not a better place for them someplace else,
it's here or the dumpster,
would be a net gain,
they might hear
shhhh, shhhh, just curl up
and watch the boob tube—
the heirloom children
already have their own little heirlooms
following them everywhere
and literal pieces of trash,
they can't bear to throw away
when they finally clean their own rooms,
even the kids that aren't technically blood relatives,
and if you've ever read Horton Hatches the Egg
to someone else's kid
you get what I mean—
none of us children
ever wanted that upright damned piano.
That piano is a family heirloom.
at the white elephant party
Grandma and her sisters and little Fred
who's in his sixties now
and all their husbands and wives
and kids and grandkids
and new husbands and new wives
pass around the same old bottle
of Old People cologne.
You get a bad draw, you get stuck
with the stiff
old-timey scent of Old People
or maybe it was Unshed Tears,
wrapped like a Christmas toy. I got it, I cried,
and a grown-up named Cousin Dan
or Rodney or something
took it for himself
so I would stop crying
and then I could steal the whoopee cushion
from Grandma. Grandma wasn't sleeping.
Grandma was just closing her eyes
listening to everything.
She hears everything.
Grandma's not sleepy,
Grandma's never sleepy,
and besides, she has to get back
to her own room
to all her backed-up work—
years' worth, she makes it sound,
though Lord only knows
what she does in there
and her eyedrops
and her devotionals
and watching the boob tube
and just closing her eyes
She was never gonna use the whoopee cushion.
Cousin Dan had a good heart, I guess,
but he got the bad heart and the diabetes.
He dropped dead one day
while the kids were too young, just like Tim.
Of course, Dan or whoever still brought
that old Old People stench back
the next time around. It's our tradition.
Ya always bring the stank rankness back
next Christmas and hopefully
gets stuck with it.
The kids still laugh at the smell,
and, bless them, they still believe
in a fair-skinned bearded omniscient immortal
well-fed old man, who lives
as far north as humanly possible,
even farther than me,
who sees them when they're sleeping
and knows when they're wide awake
hearing everything, whispered talk maybe
about whether or not the grown-ups should keep
the unwanted heirlooms
the way they're still holding on
to every scrap of junk they ever received
from their parents
or whether it would be better for everyone
to give them up,
—deep down we all know it'd be worse
and how could I
ever forgive them, deep down?
How could we
with our selves, let alone
And fair Santa portions out toys
to all the Nice girls and boys
from more privileged branches of the family tree
with less Naughty parents
which, ironically, is a longstanding
You better not cry.
We adults try so hard
to keep our traditions alive
for the kids.
Grandma's an antique.
We moved her in with us.
Mom portions out Grandma's pain pills,
exactly what she needs
when she needs it, just managing
the pain now, and tries
not to release the old anger
when old Grandma needs
to receive the same exact information
during every turn of the cycle
of renewed pain.
Old dogs, new tricks,
pretty strong stuff. Speaking of which,
Marzipan got the neurotic fear of abandonment
and the lifelong habit of taking dumps
in all the wrong places.
Marzi growls when we scratch Sadie
behind the ears. Marzi scrambles for a bite
of Sadie's special food
for Old Dogs.
We can buy more dog food.
Stop growling at each other.
You're scaring the pups.
I just don't know
where my anger belongs.
It's an heirloom in reverse.
I will lose control,
my grip slipping
and the burdensome, unstoppable thing
hurtling up out of the basement
and ricocheting up the family tree
with a great grand disregard
for my loved ones' emotional safety
or for the final peace
of the finally and permanently dead.
If you're in the way
when it's moving
you're gonna get hit.
Move it, Gramps.
Like most heirlooms the old anger moves
everywhere and belongs nowhere.
The buck stops nowhere
real. If only,
if Santa really exists—
he's a monster, he's the real monster,
ancient, leathery, reeking of Old People
he's slowly devoured,
he hurts kids
and he's apparently immortal. But
with its apparent randomness
and its great grand disregard
for humanity isn't that cruel.
Mercy, no, there is no Santa,
reindeer can't fly because Gravity.
It's not personal, none of it,
and an angry letter
would only ruin a mailman's day.
So my letter collects dust in a box
with all the other explosive letters
I neither sent nor burned, all dated
after I finally got professional help
and finally learned,
that even more mean words won't help.
Uncle Sam paid the price
for my salvation,
every last nickel for my counseling,
I never even saw the bill,
though all the little things
had been free all along.
I wish I'd known. The definition of insanity
is doing the same thing over and over again
and expecting a different result.
The Taxpayer got a real bargain,
ounce of prevention and all that.
I cry plenty these days.
I didn't build an attic.
She's old and weak now,
so sometimes I push Grandma around
in her wheelchair and try
to make her laugh.
We love each other.
She laughs sometimes,
especially at fart jokes,
at being the butt
of gentle jokes,
but not the mean ones,
at the silly old songs
and nursery rhymes
that come back to mind, under her breath,
like the one about the man
living his whole life in the toilet
which back then they called the can
and I bet she'd tell you
it was literally an old can,
and the Man in the Can grabs at you
if you get too close,
and we laugh at her
when she raves
about clean gas station bathrooms
with plenty of clean paper
to cover every surface,
and she laughs
at the sepia-filtered memory of fun
they used to have
gambling for each other's nickels,
everyone else died
and she somehow managed
to live long enough
to see her great-grandson
crack butt jokes
while her granddaughter bakes the cake
in the background
and her daughter, my mom,
gets to enjoy some of her tea
while it's still hot, finally taking a rest
from making sure
her own grown children
Grandma suddenly gets up,
hobbles into her own room
to put drops in her eyes.
Later, we realize
she's been missing
for quite some time.