“My grandmother cut me out of her will because I was born a female.”
It’s a good line at parties, even if it’s not 100% true. At some point I heard that when I was born, she duly informed my parents that my gender excluded me from any inheritance. After knowing her my whole life, her casual racism and blatant favoritism, it was easy to believe. I wanted to believe it.
When I emerged into the world healthy and female, there was a minor family tussle over my naming. My father decided to name me after his late mother. As his step-mother, Nana was presumably not best pleased. The story fit all too well with her typical modus operandi. Knowing my parents, I think they probably would have gone along with it on the phone and laughed about it later.
During my childhood visits to Nana, she would talk about her estate all the time. I would be admiring one of her touristy tchotchkes, like the miniature wooden clogs that hung in her kitchen or the Limoges porcelain bought in France. She’d reply with something like, “If you’re good, you can have that when I die.”
Kids will react to that in a number of ways. Part of me was floored by the idea of my ferocious grandmother not being there anymore. Even though we lived a six hour drive from her town, she was always a huge presence in my life. But there was part of me, the greedy part, which liked her brutally simple offer. She would die, and I’d get stuff. Nana was familiar with this sort of juvenile, immature grasping, and she played up to it, presenting things in exchange for attention. At the same time she was teaching me what I wasn’t good enough to receive.
My father was Nana’s eldest step-son, and there is several years difference between him and his baby brother. That brother was always my Nana’s favorite. Every family has a book of laws that govern how things work, just the same way that every family has its own rules for Monopoly. The first rule I’d learn in Nana’s house was that I would never be her ideal grandchild, no matter how I acted. I tried to be perfect at the dining room table, and told my parents, “Manners at Nana’s.” But as far as she was concerned, the sun shone out of my Uncle’s backside, and I was simply the daughter of the wrong man.
She was paranoid that I’d get in trouble if I went outside, so I spent much of my visiting time upstairs in her large two-story home. She had left my Uncle’s childhood bedroom intact, full of his toys and books. This was cool old stuff, rubber lego-like building blocks, vintage tin cars and trucks, painted soldiers, and a massive starchy teddy bear. I was banned from touching them. They were, she repeated, for his children to use. An only child stuck by myself, despite my terror I would play with them anyway. Years later, I confessed all to my mother. It was meant to come out half-jokingly, but I felt a prickle of guilt at the revelation. She looked very seriously at me and said, “Good.”
My mum now regrets how much she let her mother-in-law get away with. She had known my Nana her entire life. My parents met because my grandfathers had been friends. Their friendship crossed a class barrier, and Nana mildly disapproved of my mother’s family. Still, it was a small town, and my grandfathers took little notice of her. Eventually Nana even became my mother’s sister’s godmother. Then when it came to my parent’s marriage, her and my grandfather wigged out. They refused to come to the ceremony. I found out about this from my aunt, who blamed my Nana’s temper and her snobbery, but when I took the story to my mother she told me the truth: my father’s father had found out that one of his mistresses had been invited.
They did eventually attend the wedding, and the drama rolled on. Nana found out that the daughter of a friend of hers had snuck up the stairs with my uncle. The ensuing ruckus is family legend. The young woman had been staying with Nana at the time, and was immediately thrown out of the house, never to be spoken to again. My uncle was four years older than her, and notorious for dogging around. Only in Nana’s eyes was he pure as the lily.
Between my father and his brother was my aunt. A middle child who grew up with an enormous chip on her shoulder, she was pushed into a shotgun marriage with a man she hated. Her two sons spent a lot of their time with our grandmother, escaping their miserable home life. My aunt would later re-marry and have a daughter, a little older than me. She was the first person to openly discuss my Nana’s uncoolness with me. Like me, she was banned from playing with certain toys, and like me, she got the inheritance talk all the time.
Nana was fond of talking about how much certain objects in her house were worth. My worldly teenage cousin joked about it. I began to get a clue how jacked this all was. When my mother and aunt rubbished my Nana’s taste as being tacky, I realized that all her treasure wasn’t priceless. My favorite things of her were the mass-produced oil paintings, the china dogs, her extensive thimble and teaspoon collections. To think that this wasn’t what wealth looked like was as shocking to me as hearing my cousin casually call her an old cow.
Out of my Nana’s five grandchildren, the most loyal is my aunt’s oldest son. He seemed to bear the brunt of my aunt’s misery at her marriage, and soaked up all the affection my grandmother reserved for the male heirs. Over the next forty years he would always visit her regularly, even after a feud between his mother and Nana erupted. This feud would run pretty much continuously for the next ten years. My parents resolutely kept the hell out of it.
Nana let it be known, loudly and frequently, that my aunt and her issue had been summarily cut out from the family fortune. Mum had already dealt with enough family drama when she became the primary beneficiary of her mother’s will, and she let everyone but Nana know that any inheritance should be divided by equally to the grandkids. This seemed fair to me. It wasn’t real money as far as I was concerned, and I was old enough to enjoy the feeling of moral superiority over the promise of wealth.
With time, my parents took Nana’s edicts less seriously, but never stopped visiting her. We all rolled our eyes over her latest outrageous statement after the phone was hung up or our car pulled out of her driveway. Once I’d grown out of my bolshy teenage years, I began to see why my parents put up with so much. They took care of her as she got older because it was their duty. I called her a racist old bitch to my friends but always sent a Christmas Card. She never stopped dropping hints about her will. But it didn’t hold any power over us. We were united, and could hardly put a monetary value on listening to her complaints about my aunt or put up with sleeping in guest bedrooms now infested with giant silverfish.
Over the years I’d receive strange parcels from her in the mail. At 19, her high-kitsch oil portraits of dusky maidens showed up at my parent’s house, along with the teaspoon collection. My mother cursed the day eight-year-old me had admired them. I hooted with laughter and shoved them in the back of a wardrobe.
Nana grew older and her giant house and its leagues of silverfish got to be too much to manage. My parents helped organize the terrific task of selling it and setting her up in something smaller. This meant shuffling through decades worth of old junk. I was at University and didn’t have the time to travel up and help. Mum reported back that every second item was ‘reserved’ for my uncle, Nana pitching a fit at the idea that it would ever be thrown out. This uncle never showed up to help. In the last decade of Nana’s life, he kept her at arm’s length. “Would you believe,” Mum sighed down the phone to me, “he’s not interested in saving his geometry tool case from school?”
Now I visited Nana in her new home, a pre-fabricated number just next door to the old house. There were still lots of keepsakes and decorations on display, including a knee-high ceramic goblin she’d taken a shine to. I uncovered a box in a wardrobe that identified the smell that I always associated with her home. Mothballs. Mum and I joked that if we weren’t careful with Nana, she’d send us the goblin.
In her nineties by now, she had a part-time caretaker and a housekeeper to push around. The caretaker once told me that my uncle offered her a bonus check to say thanks. She was furious. “Why doesn’t he show himself? That’s all she wants.”
I nodded. I knew. She was a lovely woman, devoted to Nana, and I envied her ability not to take her moods seriously. Naturally, she was offended by my uncle’s gauche gesture. There were rules and boundaries about how our family was meant to interact with her. My parents had shown me what to do. I made another round of tea and rubbed my Nana’s feet, put the shopping away, asked the caretaker about her pet dogs.
But, like a child, I envied my uncle’s offer. If you could just shove money at the old woman and be done with her, why wouldn’t you? It was like the bargain she’d proposed when I was young: behave yourself, and I’ll give you want you want (a daschund figurine made out of glass, bought in Germany). Come with me to church and I’ll buy you any toy you like. It won’t stop me from telling your parents that you’re spoiled, but you’ll get something out of the exchange.
My uncle had a daughter a couple of years younger than me. Twice they’d travelled down to the house when we had visited. Watching her and my Nana was a revelation. She’d never get told off directly like the rest of us did, and she could misbehave in ways that boggled me. Nana’s spite was reserved for her mother, but she could be seen struggling to keep her tongue in check. Most of the complaints about my aunt were said behind her back. It took me time to work how my uncle was leveraging his child’s presence to get her to behave.
For all that I think my parents could have made my trips to her house more comfortable, they never used me as bait against Nana. Family meant you did these things, and when I was older, I would understand. Of all the laws my parents abided by, this was the one I struggled with the most.
She died after I moved overseas. I had last seen her at Christmas, a year before. I chatted with her carer, drove her around, and made cups of coffee sweetened with condensed milk. It wasn’t good for her health to drink it, but she was Nana. Try telling her what to do. You might end up being sent a goblin. Her death stunned me, and my parents were stunned by that. Weeping over the phone to them, I said I’d fly back for the funeral. They were shocked by my offer and advised against it, saying it would be a short ceremony and the flight would cost too much. “You were there when it mattered,” Mum said to me. “Don’t worry about this now. We don’t.”
I had imagined her death. When I was younger and full of resentment, I had visualized her funeral and the opportunity it would provide. I desperately wanted to speak truth to power. I’d denounce the excuses she’d made for my abusive grandfather, and the way she had treated my Dad when he was young. Describe how hateful she had been, how she’d tried to divide and conquer among us. How she’d taken so much goodwill for granted and yet bullishly refused to love anyone as much as one child, letting the rest of us know that we would never match up.
By the time she died, I had given up on most of that rage. I examined the family book of laws, and overturned her jurisdiction. I gave myself permission to back away from the parts of my family that made me miserable.
About a year after her death, I was Skyping with Mum. “What about her money? What happened to all the money? I know the house move must’ve taken most of it, plus the nursing.”
Mum laughed, free of spite, big and generous. “There was no money! We paid for the house in the end.”
I smiled back. “I think you’re undervaluing the re-sale potential of my teaspoon set.”
The author lives in the U.K.