Relationships - A Memoir

by Sarah Doty, , May 10, 2010

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Granddaughter, Friend, Lover

Gonna take a sentimental journey,
Gonna set my heart at ease.
Gonna make a sentimental journey
to renew old memories.

-Doris Day, Sentimental Journey, 1944

Mama

I had just gotten back from a trip to London. The next day I saw Charlie. He said he wanted to marry me and put a ring on my finger. I was nervous about telling my family because they wouldn't be too thrilled. My mom saw the ring hidden behind a long sleeved shirt and we soon told my Dad and brother, Chris. The next day, my grandparents came to our house because they were visiting from Florida. Mom said "Aren't you going to tell Mama and Papa your news?"

I extended my left hand and said, "I got engaged."

She held my hand in hers, examining the ring. "You're going to regret it," she said as a matter-of-fact.

What a thing to say! I know my grandparents are old fashioned; my sister didn't tell them that she and her fiance were living together before they got married because it was so taboo. Well it was 2008; times have changed.

I was so disappointed when she said that to me. No congratulations, no complimenting the twenty one diamonds in the ring, no praise. I was the granddaughter that went against tradition and ever since then, my relationship with my grandmother has changed.

Once during that same visit, Papa, Mama, Dad, Mom and I were sitting on the couch and Fox News was blasting through the walls in the house. I had thought about what I would say if there was any bashing Democrats, but all those thoughts disappeared when Mama asked me who I was going to vote for in November. I said Obama. We went back to watching television and then Mama asked why.

"I can't really say... I forgot what he had planned that I approved of... I don't know."

I felt singled out. Everyone was staring into my eyes and I couldn't remember one of the reasons I wanted to vote for Barack Obama. I could have said that we didn't need another Republican in the White House after George Bush, or that I thought that John McCain would be another George Bush, and nothing would improve. But I wanted to be mature. After all, I was on thin ice because I was engaged.

Papa said Obama was a nigger and I was infuriated. My face got red and I felt about ready to burst. How could he even say that out loud? The worst thing was that my parents giggled over my grandfather's racism, making a joke of his ignorance.

I said I was going to go on the computer in the other room realizing I had had enough of Bill O'Reilly and the heavy feeling of ignorance in the room. Mom said she wanted me to stay to watch, and I said that I had homework to do and stormed off, shutting the door hard behind me.

I logged onto the computer and I just stared at the monitor through tear stained eyes. How could they all gang up on me like that? I was so furious that Mom and Dad laughed at my grandpa's statement. He was acting like a two year old. If you ignore his comment, he'll be less likely to say it in the future, just like a little kid. I wanted someone to talk to but Charlie was hanging out with his brother. And I didn't bring my phone in with me.

About ten minutes after I had left the living room, there was a knock on the door. It was Mama. She explained that all she wanted from me was a good reason to vote for either party, it didn't matter who. I didn't look at her the whole time she was in there with me. I wept and told her through sobs that I wanted to vote for him because he planned to cut costs for college students. Now I remembered the reason when my grandma's arms were around me, comforting me. The last time she saw me cry was when I scraped my knee as a kid. I'm sure this hurt her to see me so hurt.

I had been so tough, intending to stand my ground against the house of republicans, but I had faltered. It was easy to talk to Charlie about politics and to say how stupid we thought Sarah Palin was, but in front of my grandparents was a different story.

Mama still "hates that man" but she doesn't make it a point to extract my opinion about politics. To each their own.

* * *

My grandparents had lived in a little brick house in the town of Appalachian, New York, since my mother was born in the late 1950's. But Mama and Papa, the names given to them by their eldest granddaughter, my sister Diane, were getting sick of the cold weather and decided to move to Florida. I barely remember that house; I must have been six years old when they moved. I do remember the funky 1960's carpeting in the living room and the back patio with the lawn chairs which now sit in an enclosed porch in their newest abode in North Carolina. But while they were in Florida, they enjoyed the close proximity to my aunt Shelly, their youngest child, and her children.

Mama and Papa rented an apartment to stay at for a couple months during the summer in Endwell, a town close to Endicott. By then, I was in seventh grade but I still loved to visit Mama and Papa. One summer day, Mama and I made strawberry jam with fresh picked strawberries from a local farm. The kitchen was small with limited counter space, but we made do. I remember getting sugar all over the place and everything on the counter was covered in a red jelly.

I love to do domestic things with Mama. Everyone in my family calls me Martha Stewart, Marty for short, because of my domesticity. If I'm asked to help with dinner or set the table I'll gladly do it. I look back back on these memories and sometimes wonder if Mama really wanted to make jam or if she just wanted to bond with me.

I distinctly remember the times in the car with Papa in the driver's seat with no seat belt and Mama having to be the backseat driver because Papa wasn't a good driver to begin with. Every once in a while, Mama and Papa would take Chris and I to the Big Dipper, the local ice cream joint in Appalachian. After Papa paid for my chocolate peanut butter cup in a cone, we'd walk to sit in the gazebo and enjoy the warm weather. Chris and I were asked what we were up to in school. And Mama never failed to tell me every time they came to visit that I should go to culinary school because I loved to bake and decorate. I never liked her telling me what to do, but I know she meant well. I knew in my heart I'd never go to culinary school, but at the same time I didn't know what I wanted to do with my career. And that was okay; I was only a teenager.

* * *

My family was invited to Florida for the Christmas of 1999 by my grandparents. I was really excited to be able to have a warm Christmas for once but I never looked forward to the two day car drive with my family. We three kids were always jammed in the back and no one never wanted to get stuck in the middle seat, despite its good view.

I woke up one warm winter morning and instantly wanted to get in the shower. Being an adolescent, I was self conscious about the way I looked and wanted to get clean before facing anyone. There were two bathrooms in that ranch style house, but for whatever reason, no one could ever use the guest bathroom shower. Seven people had to share one bathroom. It was bad enough in my house having to share one bathroom with four other people. But I didn't complain because Mama and Papa were doing so much for us already. I was told by my mom that Mama was about to get in the shower but she sacrificed her time slot so I could jump in. I was about to set my clothes down on the chair, but I noticed a pile of clothes already there. I examined it more than I should have because something about that pile of clothes was different. One of the bra cups was filled with a hardened gel--but why? It took me a few moments of reflection before I put the pieces together: Mama must only have one breast. It all made sense--the way her body looked in her night gown that didn't seem quite right. But now I understood. I have since learned that she had breast cancer in the early 1990's, but I had never known that she had had to have her whole breast amputated.

In the shower, I selfishly thought about how much it would suck to have one breast. No guy would like me if I only had one breast. I also thought why no one told me that she had breast cancer. I was 12 years old; I was mature enough to learn the truth. But I never told anyone what I found. I figured they didn't want me to know, and I didn't want to let anyone know that I knew.

* * *

Ten years after the last Christmas with my grandparents, we were invited down again to their new house in North Carolina. By now, they knew that I had voted for Barack Obama and were conscious of my political views. This almost seemed to encourage Papa to turn on Fox News at full volume. Diane and I, the only liberals in the house, escaped to the guest room my parents were using and talked. We discussed what had happened the night before when we arrived. After we were all sitting on our already flattened butts from the car ride, Papa asked Diane if there were any "coloreds" in her neighborhood. And because they were our grandparents, we knew we had to respect them, and she replied that No, there weren't many black people that lived near her. We don't understand why he is so prejudiced against them. His parents were racist towards African Americans, but I think both Papa and Mama don't come in contact with many that they don't really understand that they are decent people, just like you and me. Either that, or they're afraid of change.

* * *

Walking around their new house, I noticed their wedding picture framed in black and white in the family room. They looked so young and thin, and Mama's dress looked gorgeous on her. She had an hour glass figure enhanced with a sweetheart neck line and a long veil flowing behind her. Later that day I asked her if she still had it and if she would show it to me. She pulled it out of her trousseau, and a strong scent of moth balls filled the room. The dress was practically in mint condition, it had just yellowed a bit. I almost cried when I saw it because it was so beautiful and it's exactly what I want my wedding dress to look like. To be able to see such a timeless dress that my grandma wore was a great experience, and I can't wait to show my daughter and granddaughter mine.

* * *

Even though Mama and I have differences in political views and tradition, our old fashioned nature brings us together. When we'd go for a car ride, the air conditioning was always on because Papa didn't want his hair messed up, and the radio was always on an AM station. When I was younger, I couldn't stand the rich voices on the radio singing about sentimental journeys home. But that is the music that I prefer today. Current singers don't have much talent in my opinion and I long to live in a time when you had talent if you could actually sing. Mama always showed Mom, Diane, and I old black and white movies and my love for them has resurfaced recently. Living on Cortland campus has me longing for the times when women respected their bodies, and covered them with dresses and skirts and wore high heels. They curled their hair and wore red lipstick. They took over their husbands' jobs during the war and women knew how to raise their children well without welfare. No one cursed on the television and women spoke in the transatlantic accent I know so well in Casablanca.

I know that my grandma wants the best for me and she wants me to think life decisions through thoroughly. I'm the one she wanted to go to culinary school to do what I love every day of my life. Maybe she sees a lot of her in me and wants me to do the things that I want to do before I settle down to get married because she never had the chance to. She complains about Papa all the time. He's stubborn, he doesn't eat my homemade cooking, and he's a bad driver. Maybe 50 years of marriage has just gotten to her or maybe she regrets marrying my grandfather. Maybe she had wished she had waited to get married and doesn't want me to make the same mistakes she did. Maybe she cares for me more than I know.


Brandi

I first saw Brandi when I was playing in my backyard. I pressed my five year old body against the wiry fence to catch a better glimpse. Mom had just picked me up from kindergarten and I learned later on that Brandi had the afternoon kindergarten class, right after mine. So she soon left from her backyard, and I went inside.

We became the best of friends. She came over to my house in the morning before school for breakfast and then all us kids would be carpooled to school. When we were old enough, we walked the short distance back home together. We dominated the neighborhood. We rode our bikes on Oxford Street and when it rained, we rode through it chanting "Pour! Pour! Pour! Pour! No lightning! No thunder!" again and again. We would sing silly songs on the swing set in my backyard and we'd count the number of freckles Brandi had on her arms and legs. I fondly remember playing Barbies in Brandi's room, but only when Jeff wasn't around. She had lots of Barbies, clothes, and furniture and we'd play house and drive Barbie around in her pink corvette.

Brandi was oppressed. Her mom, Tammy, was working full time as a waitress to pay for her apartment. She was married to Jeff, a man who always blamed Brandi for things she didn't do in a drunken slur of words. And Brandi had to babysit her half-brother, Corey, son of Jeff. Corey was the most spoiled kid in the world, but only Brandi and I saw it. One time, we were walking into the grocery store, and Corey protested and ripped out a chunk of Brandi's strawberry blonde hair. When we went home to tell her mom, Tammy just shrugged it off and told Brandi not to do it again.

It was late one summer night and we knew it was time for us to each go home. We approached her door, but Tammy came out and said to play a little bit longer outside. Jeff wasn't feeling well. So we watched the front door from the car wash across the street, wondering what was wrong. Eventually, she could go into her house, and I went to mine.

When we were young teenagers, we were dropped off at a local pool to have some fun. We left our towels and loose change in the changing room and went to jump into the Z pool, as it was called. We had loads of fun, scoping out the cute boys in the pool, knowing that not one of them would like me because I was fat. When we were done swimming, we went to dry off and noticed our change was gone. We needed that change to call for a ride home. We decided to walk home.

Home was a couple miles away but there was no other way. We walked past IBM and the residential section of Endicott. My bathing suit was damp and my bare legs faced some abrasion from the movement of my thighs. We reached the last stretch of coming home, but only after my clear plastic tote bag's strap broke, all of my items fallen onto the dirty sidewalk.

We explained to my Mom that we lost our change and had to walk home. It was a Friday and my family was going to go to Tony's for dinner. I changed and dealt with the tenderness of my thighs while eating a steak and cheese sub, while Brandi was dealing with her brother and step dad at home.

During the summers, Brandi would go visit her dad in Georgia. I only saw him once in a red car with the top pulled down. Some summers, though, her dad wasn't able to house her for a couple weeks and she'd stay home.

In seventh grade, Brandi's family moved to Endwell into a house. I really didn't like her absence on my street and often sang LeAnn Rimes' "How can I live without you?" in my head. When I visited her house for the first time, I saw her room which was bigger than the one at the apartment and she could do whatever she wanted with it; it was hers. We each grabbed a notebook and cut out pictures of cute boys, clothing we liked and quotes that spoke to us out of magazines and taped them into the empty notebooks. I still have mine at home and every time I look through it, it brings back memories of her house on University Avenue. I always felt very uncomfortable in that house, like something bad was going to happen.

In eighth grade, Brandi suddenly moved to Boston with her family. I was upset because I could see we were growing apart. I got a call from her one day and she said her mom would love to have me visit in the summer for a week or two. I asked her how it was there and she said it was really expensive and she wouldn't want to live there forever.

And she didn't. She came back and started ninth grade like nothing happened. High school was special to Brandi. She could hang out with her cousin, Shannon, who was one grade ahead of us. We all ate together at lunch in the dark corner of the senior cafeteria. Sometimes, we'd go to Wendy's for lunch and then to Hockey Bob's for some candy. We started to eat lunch with Shannon's friend Dan and his brother Joel. It was cool to eat with boys and despite all the sexist, stupid things they said, I still sat there because Brandi was my friend.

There had been days when I got to the table when Brandi and Shannon weren't there and I had to eat my bagged lunch with Dan and Joel. And once, I was walking down the hall and saw Brandi and Shannon walk away, looking back and giggling when they saw me, and then went out the doors to outside. Their absence from the table made me upset each and every time. Why didn't they want to eat lunch with me? Why didn't my best friend want to eat lunch with me?

A couple days after the second anniversary of September 11, I was forced to sit with Dan and Joel. I was emotionally distressed that day because my favorite actor, John Ritter, had just passed away. I explained how I felt to Dan and Joel only to be laughed at because wasn't that the guy from Problem Child? Dan thought it was so funny that John Ritter was in Problem Child and totally dismissed my feelings about his passing. He just kept laughing and my body temperature raised and I thought about leaving him, laughing like an idiot, along side his brother. I thought Who would I eat with now? I dismissed that thought and quickly realized that not sitting with anyone was better than being ditched by my best friend and laughed at by an acquaintance. I got up, left, and never sat at that table again.

In earth science, I was friends with Taylor and I asked if I could eat lunch with her. She was happy to eat lunch with me and I became good friends with her, Amy, and Bethany throughout ninth and tenth grade. After none of them were able to come to my 16th birthday party in the summer, I moved on the next year to Vanessa, Jessica, and Amanda.

One day for lunch, Jessica and I decided to go to Dunkin' Donuts and walked past the smoking corner on the street across from the school. I scanned my eyes through the people and noticed Brandi with a cigarette in her hand. Ever since we were kids, we promised each other that we would never smoke because both our moms did and we knew the health damages it caused and how expensive cigarettes were. And there was Brandi. She saw me, and hid behind some tall guy, ashamed. I was disappointed but kept on walking.

I don't really know when Brandi stopped going to our school and I don't know where she had gone. But I was working twenty hours a week at a grocery store and doing well in college. One Saturday I was ringing customers out and I looked down at the end of my line and noticed two familiar faces. My heart started to beat faster but I told myself I had to calm down. When Brandi and Corey reached me to pay for their groceries I said "It's good to see you, what are you doing now?" Brandi was working at IBM with her mom and she said she'd give me a call sometime.

"You have the same phone number, right?" she said.

"Yeah, I do." I smiled, content that she remembered.

"I'll call you sometime," she said.

"Okay," I replied. Except I knew she'd never call. And she didn't.

Charlie

I liked to go to work. Despite my Nazi-like boss, I got along with all the other cashiers and there were some cute guys I talked to. One such guy, Steve, was a bagger and always made me smile so much my cheeks hurt. He was hilarious and I developed a crush on him. Lucky for me, he asked me out. On date night, I put eye shadow and mascara on and waited on my couch with my parents, who were watching television, for him to come pick me up. My heart pounded with anticipation; this was going to be my first date. The minutes ticked by and I realized that he wasn't coming. My parents comforted me and my mom said "He better have a good reason." The next day, at work in the morning, no one other than Steve walked into my line and I stared at him, waiting for an apology. He acted like nothing was wrong and then I asked, "Where were you last night?"

He said, "I was so nervous that I drank too much alcohol." He is now referred to in my house as STD: Steve the douche bag.

Matt was always pleasant and had a good sense of humor. He was good at what he did and was jealous of Steve. (Well, Matt, you don't need to be anymore!) One night, he was stocking candy in an isle and came over to my register to ask if I wanted to go see Superman at the theater. I said sure, sounds like fun. We never made a date to go see it and I realized that I didn't actually want to go to the movies with Matt. I wasn't attracted to him--I just thought he was a nice guy. So, the coward that I was, I slipped a note into his work locker, telling him that he was a nice person, but I wasn't interested in him that way. We never saw Superman.

One January night of the year of 2006 I noticed a new guy was working and I turned my body to look at him while I was ringing a customer's items through. I was immediately attracted to him; he was tall, had dark hair, and was handsome. His name was Charlie and he soon became my new crush. He started off as a bagger, and in order to keep him close so I could get to know him better, I kept rushing the next customer's items down the belt so he'd have to bag for me and couldn't escape. I chatted with him between orders, asked where he went to school, what his major was. Eventually, he moved to the dairy section, and I moved up to the office as a store teller. During my breaks, I'd go over to the dairy section and ask him how he was doing that day. I never got a how are you? back, thinking, "Next time he'll ask." I persisted until July and then backed off a little bit. Obviously, he wasn't interested in me, so I wasn't going to waste my time anymore.

I went off to Broome Community College in the fall of 2006. I saw him on campus a few times and said Hi, still desiring him. One day in early October, he came up to the office window at work and said "How are you?" Right then, I knew something was different. All my thoughts came to a halt. He proceeded to say "Saturday?" Was he asking me out?

"No, I have to work."

"Sunday?"

"Work."

"Monday?"

"I have class."

"Tuesday?"

"Sure!" It was Columbus Day and we had the day off. So that Tuesday, he picked me up from my house and we drove to TGI Fridays. I was so nervous that I barely touched my chicken fingers. This was my first date, after all. We walked through the mall after lunch, and then he dropped me off at home. It was the most perfect first date. A few weeks later, we made our relationship official, and I looked forward to experiencing all of my "firsts" with him.

Charlie and I were up in my room once, cuddling on my bed. Neither one of us had said I love you yet, but I definitely felt it, with David Cassidy's "I Think I Love You" in my head all the time. He had told me of the time he was sitting at home realizing that he loved me and had to tell me that moment. He left his house and drove fifty minutes to the college where I had my night class. He sprinted up the stairs and poked his head into the empty classroom. He asked my professor if I was there and she said I had just left. He was so disappointed. I didn't have a reliable cell phone, so he couldn't call me. Defeated, he headed home.

So I was technically the first one to say I love you. We were talking of things we loved. And I asked him "Do you know what I love more than cookies?"

"What?" He smiled, looking into my eyes.

"You." We were both so happy and I was glad I said it, because I truly felt it.

The following semester, we signed up for an art history class together. There was a trip offered to all students that semester to go to Philadelphia's art museums and spend the night at the Hilton. We took advantage of this trip. I didn't tell my mom that we'd be sharing the same hotel room and she still doesn't know to this day. Our relationship was bliss. We were getting along wonderfully and we frequently hung out with my friends Niki and Chris.

I went to the mall with Niki one weekend and found out that things weren't all that great with Chris anymore. In fact, she was miserable. It took her months to finally end things with Chris and she was crushed that their love was gone. It was towards the end of the semester in May and I wasn't handling a boyfriend, a job, and school work that well and I became stressed and moody. Charlie was put off by me and what started was breeding grounds for an incredible disaster.

Since Charlie didn't have to work as much as I did, he got to hang out with Niki and help her cope with her break up. But during this time, they developed feelings for each other. They met some of Niki's friends and went to trivia while I had to work. Charlie later told me that it felt like a first date. I was very uncomfortable and disappointed. When I met Niki for lunch at school, I was silently furious with her because it seemed she was trying to steal Charlie away from me, even though she said our friendship came first.

I visited Charlie at work on my days off because it was walking distance away. He was stocking milk and he had to tell me something. He said he was attracted to Niki and wanted to try things out with her. I said "I just want you to be happy." Dumbest thing I ever said. Turns out, that was a test to see if I was invested in him still and he wanted me to say no and wanted me to fight for him. I said later on that if he and Niki ever got together I would never speak to them ever again.

Things were getting to be too much to handle. I was already taking a Darwin and Dickinson course and at the end of May was the trip to London, England. I was very grateful to get away from it all and sort of reflect on my relationships. By the end of the ten day trip, I was missing Charlie like crazy and I used my roommate's laptop to talk to him on Instant Messenger. It was so nice to be able to contact him. I hadn't bought a phone card and this was the first time I was communicating with anyone from home. He said that he had a surprise for me when I got back. I felt in my gut that he was going to propose, but I didn't want to get my hopes up. After a long flight back to Binghamton, I slept in the next day and Charlie came over. It was awkward at first because of all we'd been through and the not seeing him for ten days part. I hugged him and held him close. I missed him.

I pulled away and he had a jewelry box in his hand. I opened it and stared at the ring. It was absolutely gorgeous. It was white gold with three clusters of seven diamonds in each. I was so surprised. I looked at Charlie. He was smiling very nervously and his lip was quivering. I embraced him and felt his rampant heart beat out of his chest. "Can you say something?" he asked me, after I pulled away.

"Yes," I said.

* * *

That fall, I was off to Cortland and it couldn't come soon enough. I felt the bad vibes from my family all summer long about my engagement and I needed to live out on my own. Charlie and I got along really well and fully reconnected again. We experienced Cortland together and I drove to his house every weekend to spend the night, still adjusting to living away from home.

We have experienced so much together in our four years together, and I look forward to getting an apartment with him and marrying him in an old vintage wedding dress. I've learned that relationships between family members don't always have to be perfect and sometimes it's okay to move on to another friendship when one isn't working out so well. I'm an old fashioned gal, so staying in on Friday nights to write papers instead of going to Main Street to get trashed is something I'd prefer to do. There aren't that many decent guys on campus anyway, and I'm so glad to have an intelligent, self motivated guy like Charlie to look out for me.

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