Monday, February 14, 2011

Love Potion No. 9

Valentine Greetings from No. 9! That’s my town, Vallejo, California, just named no. 9 in the Most Miserable Places to Live list recently published on a web page near you. OK, it’s raining today but other than that, honestly I’m not in agreement with the survey results. I think I’d know if I were miserable.

Picture Postcard Tarot
(c) Copyright 2010 Marcia McCord
Of course, I am a big proponent of people being able to create their own version of happiness. One of the happiest sights I’ve seen in my life was in the middle of what this survey would likely call a Most Miserable place to live. My father, brother and I were driving from Missouri to Alabama. I was going to stay with my grandmother for the first time ever. I was 18.

You’d have to know something of my family dynamic to understand why I was finally getting to visit “Grandma.” She would roll over in the plot if she thought I really called her that. Her name, I was told by everyone including her, was “Grandmother McCord.” Doesn’t sound like a term of endearment, does it? I was visiting her based on the assumption that no one on the planet could be as evil as she was made out to be in my family mythos.

There was, of course, a little history to go along with the reputation. Our first encounter was years earlier. She came to visit us when we lived in Florida. I was 5 or so, before our neighbor told me I was going to hell for lying about my age on television.

My brother and I were terribly excited about getting to meet her. Our idea of a grandmother was something like Mrs. Santa Claus, cookies, hugs, happy to see us, tell us stories, interested in our art projects, that sort of grandma stuff. We all turned out at the airport to pick her up. I was in awe of her. I looked up. She did not stoop to greet me. She did not hug. She did not smile. She had blue hair, a popular affectation among the grey-haired beauty-shop goers of the time (the alternative was pink which I don’t think would have suited her).

My brother, older by a year, stepped forward to offer his hand and greeted her, “You’re looking lovely today, Grandmother McCord.”

Grandmother McCord looked down at him, tight-lipped, arms still crossed, and said, “You are well coached.”

He wasn’t. He was trying to be nice. We were articulate children which in comparison to our contemporaries sometimes made us appear monstrous. He never expected that our Grandma-person would disapprove of a polite greeting. That whole visit turned out to be something of a lose-lose scenario and we didn’t try it again.

I didn’t put all the pieces of the puzzle together until just about everyone involved had died but apparently there were a few unresolved conflicts that remained forever unresolved.

Still, I was hopeful that Grandmother had gotten over her case of annoyance at our existence. I had been writing to her every week for a couple of years, initiating contact out of the blue. She was my only living grandparent after all. I figured if she actually got to know me, she’d like me. By the time I was 18, I had been invited for a visit and I was very excited. My mother declined the opportunity for a road trip to deliver me, saying she had to mind the shop. Actually, she was pleased never to speak to her mother-in-law again. My father felt he would need at least some kind of reinforcement and insisted my brother come, too. I’m not sure how long it had been since my father had spoken to his mother.

Against her wishes, well, most of Grandmother’s life events could start out that way. It seemed like a good start. She was nearly a child bride to an older man whom she apparently loved. My father was her first child and by all accounts as cute as a bug. He was like a baby doll for her. My uncle Max was born a couple of years later and by then the whole drudgery of taking care of children had soaked in. No one was as cute as a bug to Grandmother any more. But still it was pretty clear that my father was her favorite. My grandfather, for reasons we will probably never know clearly, killed himself when my father was a young adult. In her grief, Grandmother called for my father and specifically not my uncle, confirming their sibling rivalry. Grandmother had enjoyed playing bridge and golf at the country club in their town in Kansas, but was forced to go to work. Years later, my uncle moved her to live in one half of a duplex on a former plantation in Alabama, a place Grandmother considered heathen and primitive. It was officially “Not Like Kansas,” tantamount to the expulsion from Eden.

I was unaware of the details of the fury, jealousy and anguish that lay within the family. So many things are not spoken of although sensitive children always know something is wrong. And yet, I reasoned that whatever it was, I had not done it, so that I might strike up some sort of relationship with this elderly woman before she died. So there we were on the road and I had the whole backseat to myself to mull over the years of bad feelings and isolation in my family.

It was nearly evening and we were driving through fields and woods in Mississippi. I had marveled at the changes in countryside when I noticed a wooden house with no paint, no glass in the windows and a rusted tin roof. There were no power or telephone lines. There was no car. There was a man sitting in an old rocking chair, rocking rhythmically and singing at the top of his lungs. By all I had been told about our places in the world, I should have been afraid of this man, afraid of his color, for he was black, afraid of his poverty and even afraid of his joy. But I watched him sing, his few teeth showing browned by snuff or tobacco, and watched him rock in his rocking chair. And I waved and smiled. And he waved back and kept singing and smiling.

He lived in what was then likely to rival that year’s 9th most miserable place if they had had such a survey. Yet, he had the secret that eluded my family, the secret of the 9 of Cups. He understood that he might not be able to change his poverty or other circumstances. But he could figure out how to be happy himself with a rocking chair and the setting sun.

So, I have to push back on that No. 9 thing they just put out there for my town. Sure, our town is known for its famous bankruptcy, but we actually do still have running water, electricity, elections, church spaghetti feeds, school reunions, and quite a few restaurants. I have nice neighbors and interesting friends. I don’t mean to say there haven’t been hard times, but I’ve seen those hard times all over. And yet, like that happy, happy man in the rocking chair, it is possible to find joy, even in good ol’ No. 9.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


  1. Marcia! You can't leave us in the lurch like this!

    What happened when you stayed with Grandmather McCord??!!