"Like hell, honey."

Posted on 10th June 2015 by Rufi Thorpe
Rufi Thorpe, one of this week's Book Club authors, on the woman who inspired her the most.

My grandmother always spoke in a low, gravelly voice. “I love you like hell, honey,” she would say.

Lest the word “grandmother” mislead you, she was not the sort to bake cookies or wear aprons. She was the kind of woman to eat spicy mustard and wear saddle shoes. She drank and smoked heavily, liked both her cats and carpets persian, collected miniatures and creepy dolls, voted Republican, interrupted whenever you were speaking, burped in your face and then said, “See, you're not allowed to do that because you're not old.”           

When I was a child, I was told many horrifying stories about my grandmother. My mother told them to me late at night, or while driving in the car, or whenever they bubbled up in her mind. They were a constant rushing hiss of words, yet in my grandmother's presence, they would suddenly evaporate into a queasy silence. None of these things could be spoken of to my grandmother, let alone by her. In fact, my grandmother claimed not to remember vast swathes of her own life. And so there was a kind of airlock in my mind, like on a spaceship, keeping the icy cold emptiness of these stories safely on the outside, or perhaps the inside, of my heart.

My grandmother was not the sort of woman for whom intimacy was easy. She disliked children. She spoke French, could read Latin and Greek, and though she majored in Spanish in college, could not speak a word of it and was actively prejudiced towards our Hispanic cleaning woman. She was a card shark at everything from bridge to poker. She could speak entirely backwards, both in terms of word order in a sentence, as well as actually pronouncing the words themselves from last letter to first. She was born before women had the right to vote. She was also married to an abusive alcoholic and she stayed with him while he abused her two daughters until finally, thank God, he drank himself to death. Divorce was not an option. It never even occurred to her.

“I love you like hell, honey,” she would say and give me a dry kiss on the hair.

My grandmother fell ill with rheumatic fever in her early twenties and the young man she was engaged to decided to marry someone else. She was ill for so long that her parents gave up on her and sent her to a sanitarium in Arizona. She decided that if she was going to die, she would prefer to do it on her own, and so she and a woman with breast cancer checked themselves out and got a cabin in the mountains and a German Shepherd. They lived alone there together, and my grandmother helped the woman die and in the process learned how to live. She recovered everything but her sense of smell. She convinced her brother to loan her a hundred dollars and she bought a car and taught herself how to drive. She became the assistant to an astrologist. After that, she got a job keeping the books at an airport where she met my grandfather.

“You would have liked him,” she told me once. “He was very charming.”

My mother says the same thing. This always alarmed and frightened me, this insistence that I would have liked my grandfather. He was too drunk to hold a job for long, but too charming not to hire, and so he was a jack of all trades: a featherweight boxer, a tap dancer on the Vaudeville circuit, a pilot, a journalist, a stock broker, a TV news anchor, a jeweler, though that was at the end and no one bought the disgusting gobs of gold and rubies he soldered together in his workshop. We have clusters of these monstrosities in a safe deposit box. To me that said everything about my grandfather.

“I love you like hell, honey,” my grandmother would say to me. And I thought maybe she knew what hell was like. I thought maybe she meant it.

For the most part she loved me distantly, unable to know how to engage a child or even a teenager. But when I was eighteen, for Christmas she gave me a letter. In a fit of anti-material idealism, I had told my family that I did not want any presents, and so instead of buying me things, she had written me a twenty page letter telling me about her life. It was the first time I heard her talking about her life in her own words, about her parents, about college. She did not discuss what came later with my grandfather. Instead, she closed the letter by saying, “Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been different if I could have known you as a girl. If we could have been friends. I think maybe you could have made me braver. You are so full of laughter and light. I think we would have gotten along, and I think maybe everything would have turned out very differently for me.”

I grew up with many privileges my grandmother did not. But even as I live my life, such a happy one, even as I love my husband and my son, another part of me is thinking about her, about a woman so wild and unfree. Every story I tell is for her. Every world I create is an attempt to go back in time and be her friend. To make that grim and brilliant girl laugh.


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