We all have that person in our lives who with or without intention, strikes out at us cruelly, typically out of the blue. It may be something they said or something they didn’t say—a sin of commission or a sin of omission. The reasons for this are endless: a jealousy, a resentment for something real or imagined. Perhaps even a spitefulness that periodically spews out.
My grandmother was guilty of this. It may have been a deeply buried sense of her frustration of not living the life she envisioned. My grandmother was a beautiful, intelligent woman who came from a family who might be considered affluent even by today’s standards. She married my grandfather who was an Iowa farmer. Perhaps she became restless and frustrated at the life she had chosen or the life that had chosen her.
Regardless of the root of my grandmother’s vicious outbursts, they did occur. Oftentimes seemingly without rhyme or reason. The primary target of her lashing out was her family. When I got older my mother told me how her mother had, at many times in her life, targeted her and verbally berated her.
I knew from spending time with my grandparents in the summers that my grandmother had these tendencies to focus, to hone in on one certain family member. The next day she would act as if this occurrence hadn’t happened. I recall one night when I got up to use the restroom. I was staying the weekend with my grandparents as I attended college nearby. On that night I overheard my grandmother berating my grandfather. As was always the case with him, he was calm and measured. He never struck back.
I was shocked at what I heard and was conflicted as to what I should do. I felt that this was something between my grandparents; that this was something I should not be privy to nor witness. The next morning, I nervously got up and took extra time to shower and dress before I went into the kitchen. My grandmother acted happy; as if nothing were wrong. I was quiet and pensive as I ate my breakfast. When I did find the courage to speak about the incident, I told my grandmother that I had overheard her last night. I told her that I heard her saying horrible things to my grandfather. She looked at me, guileless. She said that I must have been dreaming; that this never occurred.
My mother had said that this pattern of behavior was common for my grandmother, both when she was growing up and as an adult. That it seemed easy and natural for my grandmother to act reprehensibly then deny that it had ever happened. It became what my family referred to as her “magic eraser.” Needless to say, my grandmother never did change these behaviors.
My father was amazing in that he never once treated my grandmother, his mother-in-law, unkindly. When discussing my grandmother's bizarre and spiteful behaviors, he would say that she did the best she could do. Both my grandmother and my father have been gone for many years. I’ve had time to turn these ideas over in my mind; to try to make sense of them. I often return to those words from my father: “She did the best she could do.”
I think now, as an adult, I may have a better understanding of what my father meant when he said that. It’s not that he was condoning or excusing my grandmother’s cruel and erratic behaviors. I think he simply saw her as a deeply flawed woman. He somehow knew that her pain became lessened by expelling it. Whether purposefully or unintentionally she spewed this pain out on others. So I think when my father said “she did the best she could do” he was saying that maybe, just maybe, my grandmother was not capable of doing any better. She did the best that she could do.