Thursday, July 29, 2010

Money and Family

My grandfather had money, and he lived in north-central Alabama. One hot July when I was fourteen, we went to his big, classy house. The epitome of new money, it sprawled, a brick fortress set on a hill. It had four bedrooms and three bathrooms in the upper level. Granny Jean had a carpeted kitchen, a living room with a glass wall that looked out on a patio, a living room with a silver and blue Christmas theme, including a fake, silver tree decorated in blue. Grandpa had a little office off the side of his carpeted garage where he kept his jewels. He poured a bag of sapphires onto his desktop, and I watched them catch the thin fluorescent light from the little lamp on his desk, and I used all my teenage self-control to stifle the urge to tell him I wanted a sapphire ring, not emerald.

"Grandpa's nervous," Mama explained to me when we arrived. "If he gets mad at you, don't think anything of it." I couldn't understand why he would be nervous. He owned the place. Why should he be nervous?
The master bedroom had a bathroom the size of my parents' bedroom in our trailer home in Laurel. Granny Jean showed me into a closet the size of my bedroom where she let me try on her Levi jeans. She even gave me a pair of button-fly jeans, the only pair I've ever owned. By the time I made enough money to buy my own, Levi's didn't make them in my size. A glass wall in their bedroom opened onto a sprawling, wooden deck raised out of the hillside, and from the deck we could traverse two flights of stairs to their Olympic-sized swimming pool. It had a yellow slide that, in my memory anyway, climbed as high as the wooden deck outside the master bedroom.

When nobody paid attention, Granny Jean and I would sneak out to the second, detached garage where we would get on her little motorcycle (really only a ramped-up moped, but it was red and would go 40 mph) and ride the length of their long, serpentine driveway. Up and down the hill, back and forth, until Granny announced she had to make dinner, do a load of laundry, or get a drink. Or all three.

From the pool, a sliding glass door led into the lower level of the house. It was an open area about the size of the front of my house now. It contained a second kitchen, a bedroom the size of our living room and kitchen combined in Mississippi, a full bathroom, and another closet the size of my bedroom back home. The internal stairs to the upper floor marched along the top of the triangular wall, the entirety of which had been painted in a floor-to-ceiling mural of a number of dogs dressed in suits, 30s-style, smoking cigars and playing poker.

I fell in love. The carpet in the garage, the extra kitchen, the glass walls all sang the siren song of luxury. I drank it up, listened with abandon, and loosed a teenage girl's exuberance upon the house. I half-ran down the main hallway of the upper level, impatient to be in the pool, my mind completely occupied with trying to calculate whether it would be faster to run down the stairs and out the glass door of the lower-level apartment or through the master bedroom and down the deck stairs. My left hip bumped into half-circle hallway table, and a curio fell over.

My heart leapt into my throat, and I grabbed the curio to save it, right it, put it in its place. An iron fist closed on my upper arm, and Grandpa stood in my face, screaming, asking where I'd learned manners and how to behave. He had a smell, one I didn't recognize at first. Not beer; that was a smell I knew. It reminded me of the whiskey-and-peppermint "cough syrup" Mama used at home when I got sick. "Never run in a house; what's wrong with you? Try to move like a lady for God's sake; you should be ashamed of yourself." I stammered apologies, tried to shutter my face; I knew instinctively not to cry, but the tears came anyway. I felt ashamed, such a horrible disappointment. He shook me, "Stop sniveling. You're too old to be a crybaby."

Mama appeared and took me away, telling Grandpa she'd deal with me. We went downstairs, and she surprised me with a hug, told me everything would be okay. "It's okay baby, you didn't do anything wrong. You just bumped into a table," she spoke in a rhythm, a cadence. A chanted lullaby. "You didn't do anything wrong. I promise. Grandpa's the one who has the problem. He's nervous, and he doesn't know how to handle having people around. It's okay. It's okay. It's okay." I began to understand that when Mama said nervous, she meant afraid of people. Maybe territorial.

A few years would pass before I realized that the dogs-playing-poker picture was ubiquitous and not the invention of my rich, alcoholic grandfather's twisted imagination. Even more time passed before I learned it was tacky. To this day, my gut association with that picture is New Money. Dirty, oozing, filthy rich new money.

Ten years later, he knelt by the wall-to-wall brick hearth in the living room, put his pistol muzzle against the bottom of his chin, and pulled the trigger. Granny Jean called Mama, and by the time Mama drove from Mississippi to Alabama, Granny Jean was dead drunk. Unable to function. Mama called me in Texas where I lived with my four-year-old daughter and told me the news. I took my company's bereavement leave, three days, and relished the time off to catch up on laundry and dishes. I played games and went swimming with Burgundy.

Mama said she cleaned it up. Wiped the blood and flesh from the hearth and scrubbed it from the carpet and the walls. Granny Jean drank.

He never met Burgundy; Mama feared he wouldn't be able to handle the shock of knowing his oldest grandchild had failed at chastity. That probably was for the best, but I always wondered how in the world I could have lived without her. How could anyone look into the eyes of my daughter and wish I'd been chaste?

Granny Jean never met her either. She had photos after Grandpa died, and she lives in a home somewhere in Alabama. They sold the magnificent house. I never saw it after the summer of 1989. I've never seen her again, either. I just realized it's been 21 years. I send her a Christmas letter, but I've never heard back from her.

Grandpa left a tape recording. In it, he addressed how he wanted his money doled out. He didn't exactly say goodbye or try to tie bows on the packages of relationships. It was a settling of accounts. He left each of his three children the same amount. He made sure to deduct the amount of a loan that he'd made to my Uncle from his inheritance. He told Granny Jean that although they'd had a lot of fun for a number of years drinking together, it was time for her to grow up and fly straight. No more drinking.


  1. What a sad, sad story. :(

    Money does horrible things to people. I too had an alcoholic, rich grandfather that died 6 years ago. Just before he died he burned every bridge with his biological children and grandchildren and signed over everything he owned to his third wife (who was also half his age). We haven't heard from her much since.

  2. Also wanted to add that your writing in this post was great and that I love your new "look" :)

  3. Yes, sad and fascinating. And I agree, your writing is so engaging in this post.