This post originally appeared on The Billfold.
“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.
To find out whether the author inherited anything from Nana (and whether or not she cared if she did) continue reading at The Billfold.