“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” ~ James Baldwin
I did not really grow up in a strictly religious home. My grandparents were alcoholics and they taught me different lessons than you would probably learn at “Johnny Church Member’s” grandmother’s house. By the age of eight or nine I knew how to play Bridge, Texas Holdem, Blackjack, Craps, 21, 31, 333, Follow The Queen, Stud, Baseball, Woolworths, and various other derivations of many poker games. I learned that you had to be at least thirteen before you can sneak beer from the basement. I learned that everyone drank, that only certain types of beer, always Canadian beer, did not taste like “panther piss”. I also learned that children didn’t matter. I learned that mouthy little kids like me were to be “seen and not heard”. I learned that drunkenness was a daily thing, not a special holiday activity. I learned how to swear. To this day I can pack more empties in the trunk of a Ford Fairlane than anyone I know.
My grandmother was a poor gambler but didn’t know it. She thought she was an excellent player and indeed seemed to be so to an eight-year-old child. She understood the fundamentals of the game and would beat me every time we played. She would usually take my allowance. It was a very tender family.
By the time I was eleven or twelve, however, I began to win. Eventually two things dawned on me: First, she wasn’t that good. Second, she had taken a great deal of my boyhood money and it was time for her to go down. Somehow I convinced her that we should play for higher stakes and I began the carnage. Slowly, relentlessly, I drove her into the ground.
I looked at my grandmother. This was the person who had taught me how to play. She was the woman who had raised my mother. She was an old lady on a pension, and I took her for everything in her account. At eleven years of age I damaged her financially. I watched her sign a cheque in defeat. It was for hundreds of dollars. Did I feel guilty?
I remember thinking at the time, “this is the greatest day of my life”.
As I look back I wonder why I did not feel any remorse. My grandmother was not a nice person. She did not know how to express love, and one could argue she felt little as well. She was a bitter, angry little alcoholic who would later disown me because I won an argument, and not even an important one. When she found out I was engaged she commented, “I don’t know the woman but she must be a slut to marry him.”
I learned a great deal from my grandmother. I learned that family is not that important. I learned that it is easy to lie to cover up addiction, that beer was consumed before lunch for ‘medicinal’ reasons. I learned that bitterness worked. I learned that I didn’t matter. I learned that love was conditional.
As I ponder that part of my life, and the subsequent apathy I felt when she died, I realize that I, on occasion, feel ripped off. I did not have grandparents that I could love and cherish. My father was an orphan. The grandparents I had were not nice people.
I look at the grandparents that my children have and I’m thankful for all four of them. They each have brought something unique and wonderful to the table. My children love them all dearly. When the boy’s papa died last year I was saddened and thankful for his life and his legacy. I am jealous of the relationship my sons still have with their remaining grandpa and grandmothers.
And thankful. Very very thankful.
p.s. – next Wednesday my father will be joining us as our weekly guest blogger!