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Family relationships are complicated....

I'm going to post the TL;DR on top so that you guys can know what you're getting into before you read the whole thing. My grandma is dying. I don't feel all that sad. Thus, I feel guilty for feeling that way because...Family.

To say my relationship with my grandmother is complicated is to say that seven is a prime number or that the earth orbits the sun. These are things that in my world are absolutes. Certainties. Tonight, she lies dying in a hospital a hundred miles away and I find myself on my couch thinking about that relationship. Thinking about her.

She is a deeply flawed person. My therapist told me that she was a narcissist and while she was never diagnosed, I think that fits. She played what I call “The Game.” I’m not sure what the objective was, but I’m pretty sure that it was unwinnable by everyone but her. The three main contestants in the game were her three daughters. My oldest aunt was the perfect one. She could do no wrong. My mother was the middle child and the dumb one. She could do no right. My youngest aunt was the rebellious/mouthy one. She did what she wanted and Grandma let her. The rest of us were pawns in the game that got moved around the board at will. You got points when you did something that she approved of. If you were part of my oldest aunt’s family, it was automatically a +1. If you were part of my mom’s family, it was automatically -10. My youngest aunt had no children and so was neutral on the board. When I was growing up, I thought that this was how families functioned. I thought everyone gossiped cruelly about people that they called their friends. I thought everyone cared about how they looked to the world. I thought everyone was shallow and mean. Or whatever traits are in the dictionary next to narcissist.


I always hated how she treated my brother and I as if we were lesser compared to my oldest aunt’s kids. Leigh* got a Barbie for getting an hundred on a spelling test. She never missed a single one of Jonathan’s baseball games, but refused to attend any of my brother’s tennis matches (or anything else that we did.) My brother and I were both on the school trivia team and one of the blessings and curses of living in a small town or community is that everyone knows everyone else. My high school principal grew up on the road where my Grandma lives so when he met her in the local Hardees, he asked her why she never attended any of our school events and told her how valuable we were to the Trivia team. She showed up at the next meet. It was the only extracurricular event that she showed up to for either my brother or I and it was a two-fer.

I know that these are first world problems. I wasn’t being physically abused. I wasn’t being neglected or starved or any other type of horrible calamity, but spending your childhood wondering why you aren’t good enough or why your grandmother doesn’t love you enough is damaging all the same. You see, my mother was still constantly seeking what my grandmother would always fail to give. She sought her mother’s approval and used my brother and I to do it. What will people think? I heard that from my mother so often that even sitting here now and distant from it, I feel like rebelling and causing a public scene. My mother wasn’t really asking about generic people. The question that was actually in her mind was “What will Mama think?” I learned that what other people thought mattered more than what I thought. I learned that the goal was perfection and if you were incapable of reaching it, you weren’t worthy of love. I learned that I wasn’t valuable as I was. I was only valuable if I was as someone else wanted me to be. My mother was complicit in breaking me, but her mother was the architect of the plan. After all, she was the one that broke my mother.

I can think of things that I admired about her. She was intelligent and mechanically adept. She was great at practical things like sewing, engine repair, carpentry, and construction. If she’d been born 50 years later, she’d have been an engineer. Instead, she used her superior intelligence to manipulate the people around her. Including me.

When I read this back, I sound angry. I’m not. Not anymore. Four years ago, it all came to a head when I watched Grandma treat my brother’s son the way that she had treated my brother and I when we were children. She’s hugged my cousin’s two children and introduced them to my dad’s sister like they were her only two great-grandchildren. It seemed like an innocuous little moment, but suddenly I was so angry at her. Angry at mom. Angry at my dad. Angry at the whole crazy family. It was irrational for me to get that mad that fast. At that point, I decided to get help.


My therapist helped me to determine the kind of boundaries that I needed to function. To survive, I had to take myself out of “The Game.” I stopped taking my grandmother’s phone calls. I stopped going home except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and sometimes Mother’s Day. And even then, I don’t stay long. I decided not to ever have children. I can’t risk breaking a daughter the way I was broken. When my mother points out my “flaws,” I laugh and tell her that she is wrong. I don’t think any of them realize what they did to me with the constant competition, constant criticism, and backstabbing among family members. I won’t live like that. And I shouldn’t have to.

So tonight, my grandmother is in a hospital 100 miles away and I’m dwelling on the complicated relationships of which she was the architect and I don’t know how to feel. Relief? Sadness? Disappointment? Nothing? I just don’t know. Complications.

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