A reminiscence in the spirit of the season.
I loved my Gramma. I’m man enough to say it. And Gramma loved me, too. She was everything a good grandmother should be: Patient; kind; and she spoiled me, as grandmothers are wont to do with their grandsons. I was sad when she passed away. I think about her sometimes, and I still miss her.
But this is not about that Gramma. This is about the Other Gramma, like the “Other Mother” from Coraline. We’ll call her “Weird Gramma,” a different side of the same woman. This is the Gramma who, when I pointed out to her the ailing dogwoods in front of her house, responded, “Yes, they’re dying, just like we are.”
One of my earliest memories of Weird Gramma dates to when I was no older than six, and probably younger; my memory is fuzzy. But this moment has remained with me throughout the years. My grandmother, mom, and I were all sitting at the kitchen table, and Gramma was telling a story about how, the previous night, she and Grampa got lost on some back roads. They were driving around in the dark. While driving down a lonely stretch of road, Gramma and Grampa passed an old woman holding a lantern and an old man digging in a ditch. Gramma hesitated, and glanced at me. “I’m not sure if I should say any more,” she said. My mom, merrily smoking a cigarette, gestured with her hand. “Go ahead,” she said. “Well,” Gramma replied. “I think they might have been gnomes.” She went on to say something about them hiding their “treasure.”
In my mind’s eye, I see my child self’s eyes get big as saucers. I remember thinking in that moment, “This is not right.” Even then, my child’s mind knew that adults did not say the kinds of things my grandmother had just said. Worse, although my only exposure to “gnomes” at that age could have come only from cartoons, like David the Gnome, I understood that these were not those kinds of creatures. Almost as if my mind tapped into an atavistic knowledge of folklore and superstition, of knocker attacks in the mines, I conjured up an image of a stooped old woman holding high a lantern while her mate dug a hole–in which to hide gold, or a body, or some other mystery?–their eyes glittering. Although humanoid, they were not human, and the thoughts that uncoiled in their minds were alien, malevolent things. These impressions all occurred within moments, of course. I remember my hair standing on end, but I cannot recall how the rest of the conversation went.
My memory fails me, as it so often does. My next recollections come from when I was much older, but I can’t quite place them; I may have been a senior in high school, or it could have been even later than that, perhaps around 2002-2003. In any case, Weird Gramma managed to freak me out.
Gramma had told me stories over the years of waking up to find someone choking her. She couldn’t fight back, or move, or cry out, but the person had broken into her house in the middle of the night and was attacking her. I had experienced these symptoms myself, and heard similar stories from friends, and recognized this as a common phenomenon, a kind of nightmare or sleep paralysis. Indeed, these are just the modern manifestations of a long tradition. During the Middle Ages, sufferers of these phenomena referred to succubi. Later, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was said to be witches who tormented their victims, hence the term “hag ridden.” (Presumably the witch literally “rode” the sleeper through the skies.) Gramma was skeptical of my attempts at rationalism.
In any case, Gramma upped the ante when she suffered a fall in the winter of either my senior year, or, possibly, 2002-2003. She slipped in the bathroom, fell on the side of the bathtub, broke several ribs, and punctured her lungs. Gramma was not in her best health even then: Blind in one eye, diabetic, with heart disease, she was lucky my cousin found her when he did. It was touch and go, but Gramma pulled through; she was nothing if not a fighter.
It was not Gramma’s accident that was disturbing, though. Rather, it was what she described after she had been treated and began to heal. When asked how she came to fall–as if it’s somehow unusual for an old person to lose his or her footing–she said that it felt like someone had pulled her to the ground. Fair enough; losing one’s balance can feel that way. She continued. A “monster” had done it to her. (I received this second hand.) “A monster?” my father prompted her. Yes. He came floating along the ground, and appeared to be wearing a “ragged robe,” and had “skinny arms,” and he caught her and pulled her to the ground.
Granted, this sounds like the talk of someone on too much pain medication. I’d be inclined to attribute it to that, too, if she hadn’t brought it up repeatedly afterward. (Disconcertingly, she had at least two more falls in the same spot, neither quite as severe, one of which she also attributed to the “monster.”) I remember riding in my car as my mom related this story to me. Gramma’s description of the “monster” brings to mind a fairly obvious image. My mom and I talked around it. Neither of us wanted to say it. Finally, I said, “Her description of it sounds like Death.” “That’s what I thought, too,” my mom said. Again, my hair rose on end. To hear another person say that she, too, was struck by something so outlandish, gave it a credence that, on its own, it would never have possessed. That, if Gramma ever made the connection between the “monster” and the Grim Reaper, she never mentioned it. Her obliviousness added to the story’s intrigue.
Later that week, on a dark January evening, I stood outside of my Gramma’s empty house. I had been tasked with delivering to my dad a bill that was sitting on the dining room table. I stood in the driveway, facing the dark house, and, despite every fiber of my rational being saying to me, “It’s fine. There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I had one hell of a time working up the nerve to enter the house. I got in and out. Quick.
In retrospect, of course, I know that my grandmother had an overactive imagination, and, later perhaps, she was on too many medications for her own good. But the impression has been made. What’s most disconcerting is the knowledge that our rational minds are just pretenses. We’re playing at being more than we are. Faced with even the most unlikely of dangers, we revert, we give in to superstition and base fear. There is a gap between what we know and what we experience. The latter will always trump the former.