September 16, 2011
Several years after this idyllic snapshot was taken, my Grandpa died. And Gramma was left as a widow and single mother of four (in the 1960s when such things were not as socially acceptable). Needing to provide for her family, she was forced to find work which she did as a bartender. I don't know the details - perhaps this was something she'd done when Grandpa was still alive; maybe she meant to take the work on temporarily. Whatever the case, she ended up working that job until she retired.
I don't know if she'd always been a drinker, but I know that she was certainly drunk much of the time when my mom and her brothers were growing up (and indeed when I was growing up). The kids sort of raised themselves and must have been left on their own quite a lot. I've heard many stories from my mom and uncles over the years of my Gramma coming home drunk and beating them over some insigificant transgression. In her grief over my Grandfather's death, she turned to one of his friends for comfort. And then my Uncle Joe was born. This friend of my Grandfather was married and had a family of his own. My uncle grew up not knowing his father and not wanting to. I wonder what that must have been like for him - having grown up now knowing my own biological father, I can make a guess that he - in the very least - felt like an outsider. A bit of a loner. And I try to imagine what it was like for my Gramma - a widow, single mother and new mother to an illegitimate child. The anger she must have felt to have lost her husband - who, from what I can puzzle together, was the love of her life - must have been immobilizing at times.
The abuse my Grandmother doled out was difficult for me to reconcile as I was growing up because I had always seen a different side of her. As a kid I loved going to her house; all of the cousins did - it was exciting and fun. We knew we could eat Rice Crispies with ice cream for breakfast and count on the cookie jar being full of chocolate chip cookies and Oreos. Sometimes - and this was a special treat - we'd go with Gramma to the VFW Hall and we'd get to sit up at the bar and order our own special cocktail - ususally a Dr. Pepper or A&W Rootbeer - which we'd sip through a tiny, red straw. We'd also get a whole candybar to ourselves - I always opted for a Whatchamacallit or Butterfinger. It was a thrilling day out. It was only when I got older that I realized that this wasn't a special outing for the sake of our entertainment; it was so Gramma could have a drink (or two, three, four). As an early adult when I was working as a bartender I recall thinking "wow, this smells like Gramma!" as I poured my first bourbon and water.