Friday, March 10, 2017

Genie in a Bottle

Genie with my dad and his brother, Juan (1943?)

Genie was a hustler, a liar, an IV drug user, a daily drinker, a chain smoker and a conniver.  She was selfish, extremely self-centered, passive aggressive, manipulative and immature.

I've recently discovered that also, to many people, (specifically, my dad and my brothers) Genie was caring, selfless, generous and considerate.  And in recent years, I've come to regard her as having been highly intelligent, self-educated and resourceful (and that woman really loved a good crossword puzzle!)

Genie was also my grandmother.  And writing this may be my first real attempt to forgive her.

*  *  *

"Will you take her back to London to bury her?" He was standing next to Genie's hospital bed.  She had been in a coma for a little less than a week.  Her tests had revealed that she'd suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and she wasn't expected to survive.   Scottie was sitting in a chair in the corner of the room, I was standing near her head holding her small, warm hand.  Her hand was soft, but her cocoa-brown skin looked dry and cracked.  I made a mental note to pull out the Jergens from her bag beside her bed after they left.
"Back to London?!" I heard the snicker in my voice.  I folded my lips together to keep from laughing out right.  Scottie looked at me from his chair. His eyes were alight with mirth.
"Um, maybe," I answered solemnly. "It'll be up to my dad.  I'm not sure what her wishes were."
"She's a wonderful lady," his voice cracked with emotion as he took a step forward and grabbed her other hand.
I looked at him with a slight startle.  He was White, tall with thinning, stringy, brown hair.  His brand new, cream-colored, Nike running shoes stood in stark contrast to the over-sized, oil-stained, workman's coat he wore.  I automatically switched to mouth breathing as he got closer, because it looked as though he may not have had a shower for while.  He had arrived a few minutes earlier with two other older, White men from the house in Palm Dessert, where about seven of them rented rooms. Genie was the only female occupant.  One of them was heavy-set,  the other was thin with a thick black, handlebar mustache.  They had each come to pay their last respects.

"Your grandmother was the best puzzler," said tall one.
"When she got her checks at the end of the month, everybody ate good!" interjected the heavy one.
"Your grandmother told the best stories..."
"Let us know if you need help getting her to London to bury her.  We don't have much, but we can help..."
"When I needed bail money for my son," said the mustachioed one.  "Your grandmother gave me her last $20.00..."
"Or at least she said it was her last $20.00!" Laughed the tall one.  "Did you check your pockets?! She might have given you your own twenty! You never knew with Genie!"

No, you never did know with Genie...

*   *   *

She died on April Fools Day, 2013.  One $2,200 mortuary bill later, she arrived in a UPS box at my door.
"Sign please."
While he stood there with an outstretched pen, realization flooded through me as soon as I saw the label on the box.
Oh Jesus, God.  It's Genie.
The act of signing for a UPS box that contained my dead grandmother's ashes seemed absurdly surreal.

Grandmothers don't get UPS'd in a box to biological granddaughters with whom they had no real connection.  Grandmothers don't spend their final days in group homes for wayward men. Grandmothers are given funerals surrounded by their loved-ones and their favorite flowers.  Grandmothers have ministers and eulogies.  Grandmothers are mourned by their family and friends.

I was surprised by how heavy the ashes were.  I stood there for a moment in the cold and watched as the gate closed behind the black and brown UPS van.  The crickets were singing and the sky overhead was clear and full of stars (or, as full of stars as a Los Angeles sky can be anyway).
"Mom, close the door.  It's freezing," called Miles from the living room.
I was turning to walk back into the brightly lit house when I stopped just short of the open doorway.

How am I going to explain what's in the box?

Without a word, I stole off the porch in my bare feet.  I sped up and yelped a little when the soles of my feet hit the surface of the chilly, pebble-strewn driveway.  Flipping on the outside light, I entered the detached guest room and placed her on the bare, carpeted floor.    I sat down cross-legged next to her and stared at the funeral home label on the box-top, keeping my hands on the sides of the box.  The box was cool and smooth and smelled vaguely of wet clay.  I tried to imagine that there was a person in there, a whole life contained in that box.


*   *   * 

"So, tell me about your grandmother," said Beverly.
"Do you have a few years?" I laughed.
Beverly smiled silently and folded her hands on the table while she held my gaze.
My laugh faltered when I realized that she was waiting and I opened my notebook.  I cleared my throat, "okay, um she was born in Wascum, Texas," I smiled.
"Okay," said Beverly in a patient voice.
"I'm sketchy on her childhood and all that," I said with a dismissive wave of my hand.   "I know she was a teenager when she married my grandfather, Walter, in Chicago.  I know they had two boys right away; my uncle Juan first and then a year or so later, my dad. But somehow she ended up moving to Los Angeles without Walter.  I'm told he went out to buy lemons and never returned, or something like that."
"So, she was a single, teenage mother in a strange city?"
I looked at my notebook and then back up at Beverly.
"Well, yeah.  I suppose she was."
I became conscious of the sound of me clicking my pen open and closed with my right thumb over and over. I stopped abruptly.
"Okay," she said.
I was quiet for a moment, while I found my place with my index finger and then I continued.
"Anyway, she was never much of a grandmother to me.  Oh, I got a card every birthday with five dollars and a 'Love, Grandma Genie' in her big, loopy script, but that was about it."
"Well, that's something," said Beverly.
"Sure, but it wasn't what my friends had.  Their relationships with their grandparents were different.  Their grandparents were like their surrogate parents.  I never really had a connection with Genie."
"Tell me what she was like."
What was she like...?
"Well, for one thing, she lied about everything." I felt my face grimacing with annoyance.
"No one knew how old she really was.  My dad jokes that he doesn't even know if she knew, because she had lied about it for so long.  And get this -- she spoke with an English accent."
"What?!" Beverly laughed with her head thrown back, revealing two rows of shiny, white teeth.
"For real!" I said after we'd laughed for a few seconds.   "She spoke with a legitimate, British accent!"
I screwed up my face and pointed my index finger in the air as I mimicked her:
"Lo-rah.  Did you put the caahhh in the gair-aahhge?"
Beverly's laughter filled the air.
"Or, ' Lo-rahhh, I'd bett-ahh put a jumper on — it's positively chilly out he-ah.'"
"That's amazing!" Said Beverly.  "Was she messing around?"
"No," I said shaking my head.  "You don't hear me though! She was from Wascum, Texas and she spoke with a perfect, cockney, British accent.  She never broke character, not once.  That is how she always spoke."
"And the rest of her family? Her siblings?  Her parents?  Did they have accents too?"
"Nope!  No one else spoke like that.  And no one ever seemed to know why she did."
"Did she ever visit England?" Said Beverly.  "Remember when Madonna married Guy Ritchie and came she back with that British accent and everybody was up in arms?!"
"Yes," I laughed.  "I remember that, but no -- Genie never left the United States! But apparently, that didn't stop her from telling everyone she met that she'd grown-up in England."
"Boy, you gotta admire her commitment," said Beverly dabbing the corners of her eyes with a napkin.
"Whoo boy! Okay, so, you moved to Los Angeles by yourself in the late eighties?"
Boy, Beverly has a good memory!
"And your grandmo — er, Genie still lived here then, right?"
"And what was your relationship like?"
"Relationship?!  There was no relationship." I lifted my left eyebrow for emphasis.
"She'd call occasionally, 'Lo-rah, can you come quite quickly, dea-ahhh?  Thahhs's a bit of an urrhh-gent situation.'"
"And then what?"
"And when I arrived, she'd send me right to the store for cigarettes and brandy and maybe get me to 'let her hold some money' before I left.  If I didn't give her the money right away, she'd make up these elaborate stories to make it sound like someone would die if she didn't get $50.00 that day."
"Oh my!"
"Once she asked someone for money to go to her sister's funeral.  The problem was, they knew that her sister had died years before."
"Oh I see!" laughed Beverly.  "Boy! She sounds like quite a character!  And you said that she struggled with alcoholism too?"
I shook my head adamantly.  "There was no struggle.  She never tried to get sober.  She just did what she did and didn't care who it impacted. I wanted to protect my dad and my brothers from her 'conning'.  I felt like I was the only one who could see through her — to me, she was glass."
Beverly took a deep breath and reached across the table, placing her hand on my wrist.
"So, why all this?" Beverly waved her fingers over my notebook.  "I get that she was quirky and certainly quite the scam artist, but why do you think you have this huge resentment towards her?"
I pulled my shoulders back and opened my mouth to protest, before dropping my shoulders back down and closing my lips sharply.
"I'm not sure that there is...a...resentment," I said slowly, keeping my eyes on the notebook.  "I mean I guess the thing I resent is that I feel like people expect me to have had a relationship with her."
I made my voice higher, "'Oh Laura - I'm so sorry to hear about your grandmother'.  Or 'Oh Laura, I heard about your grandmother! When is the funeral...'" I let my voice trail off.
"But I don't think of it that way.  I don't think of her that way.  I think of her as my father's mother.  I just think of her as Genie."
"I don't think..." Beverly started carefully. "Well, let just me say, it might not be that anyone is really expecting anything of you, maybe it's your own internal assessment that you should be feeling something that you're not connected with?"
I titled my head to the side.
"Maybe," I said shaking my head.  "But I don't know if I'm even ready to look at all that."
"That's okay, sweet girl," Beverly's eyes shone with kindness and tolerance.  "What would you like to  look at today?"
"Well, the thing is that she's just sitting out there in my little guest house!  It's almost October, she died in April.  It's weird.  I don't know what's appropriate here.  And even if I'm not motivated or ready to honor her.  I want to do the right thing for my dad.  He loved her.  So did my brothers.  She was really great to my brother Kofi.  She actually took care of him for a few months when he was little. And Chris adored her."
"So what are you thinking?"
"Maybe when my dad and my brothers come for Thanksgiving, we take her up north and scatter her ashes off of a cliff or something."
"I'm sure your father would appreciate that."
"Or maybe we can drive up to the beach in Santa Barbara and do it there."
"Perfect," she said with a wink.
"I do have some memories of her where I didn't feel like she was 'grifting' me," I smiled.
"Like, she caught the bouquet at my wedding! It was awesome! She beat out all of these young hopefuls, like a wide receiver.  She was all dressed up in this long, green dress and matching sequined turban (that's a whole other story! Apparently my dad had to take her to about 10 stores the day before the wedding before she found one she liked)!  And when Miles was first born she came to visit and she couldn't take her eyes off of him.  She kept calling him 'the little prince.'  I was braced the whole day for her to hit me up for money before she left, but she was really actually very sweet.  She didn't ask for anything but a photograph of him. Maybe I could talk about that..."

*   *   *

"Liar, manipulator, daily drinker, selfish, self-centered..."
"Huh?" said Scottie. He was laying on top of the covers, propped up against the pillows. I had just burst into the bedroom.
"It's almost 5-years since Genie died.  I'm writing this week's blog about her."
"Oh!" He laughed.  "You were talking about your grandmother!  Yeah, wow, that's crazy! That was 5-years ago?! And all those weird guys in her hospital room from the place where she lived.  What was she, 93?"  He tapped his head with his finger as if to capture the memory.  
I nodded and continued.
"Yes, she was 90 something.  But Honey, those words, those are some of the words that I've used over and over to describe Genie all of my life.  I just now realized that a lot of those words at some point in my life could be used or have been used to describe me."
"Well..." he started.
"I was that liar," I cut him off.   "I was that manipulator, the daily drinker, I was selfish and self-centered.  Don't you see?  I always thought, Oh no!  I will NEVER be anything like her!"
"Yeah," he ran his hand through his hair with an unconvinced look. "Okay..."
"I saw her world getting smaller and smaller as she got older and I thought, GOOD RIDDANCE! You should just disappear somewhere where you can't cause anymore trouble!"
"Yeah, you've never really had anyone really like -- well, like Genie in your life."
"But Hon, what if the reason I wasn't able to connect with her the way my family did, wasn't just the fact that I was the only one who saw right through her?  I mean, I'm sure my dad and Kofi saw her for what she was -- and they loved her anyway."
"Well, it was different for them."
I put my index finger up in the air.
"Exactly!  What if, for me,  Genie wasn't just a glass window that only I could see through?   What if, for me, Genie was more like a mirror?"
"Wow, Baby," he said with a tone of admiration. "You got all that from your writing just now?"
"I'm just starting to unravel it, but yeah."
"You know," he said, "with my dad, I truly got to forgive him before he died because I was really able to see him for who he was.  At first I could only see the things about him that I didn't like, such as the fact that he subscribed to a way of life that was based in racism and chauvinism.  And despite warnings from his doctors and my mom's pleas, he stubbornly insisted on killing himself with booze and cheeseburgers.   But he also gave me all this other stuff; my love of fast cars and my appreciation for cooking.  He also taught me about things like loyalty, monogamy and frugality.  Until I could really see the whole person, I couldn't forgive him for his shortcomings.  Maybe you're just seeing a more complete picture of Genie now."

From right to left:
My brother, Kenji, My grandfather Theophile, my mom, Linda, me, my dad, Ronald,  Genie and my brother Kofi


  1. Really wish I could have met Genie in better circumstances . She seemed to be quite the charecter. I am grateful to have been a part of this process and I was struck by the conditions that surrounded the end of her life . Though death is an event we must do alone , it was particularly lonely in that hospital room and I can only imagine how alone she must have been the last years of her life . I think we get gifts from all those that we meet and Genie gave us both a glimpse into "what it might have looked like " down another road . Great story and thank you for introducing everyone to Geanie , you don't find many like her anymore . I still smile when I think of her :)

  2. Beautiful piece, Laura. Your journey comes full-circle, back to yourself, where all good writing begins.

    On a separate note, when I look at your wedding photo, I am struck by how beautiful you and your mother are. Just wanted to say that...;)

  3. Thank you, Peu! I love how we are in that picture too. And thank you for noticing the full circle thing. You always were one to grab on to the subtleties. I love that about you!