Monday, July 19, 2010

The Conflict Between Perception and Reality

That's me on the left. I'm probably about 11 or 12.
My grandmother is standing behind me.

Yesterday was my grandmother's birthday.

Actually, lately I've been wondering if a person's birthday can still be called a "birthday" after that person has died. I suppose it can because it will always be the anniversary of the day she was born, even after the last person who still remembers her has passed away.

But the word "birthday" always conjures up images (in my mind, anyway) of children's parties and cake and ice cream. For most of the adults I know, birthdays are somewhat grim milestones that many prefer not to acknowledge, much less celebrate.

As far back as I can remember, my grandmother had a sweet tooth so she probably would have been comfortable with the cake and ice cream. I don't have specific memories of how we celebrated her birthdays when I was a child, but cake and/or ice cream must have been a part of it at some point.

Her daughter (my mother) loved to have parties and put up decorations and serve special party food. Based on that, I guess we must have done something, but I have no special memories and no photographs exist in the photo albums in my possession.

She seemed to have a wide circle of friends. I guess everyone has at least one person who is (for wont of a better term) his/her antagonist. But I know of only one "feud" in her life, and that was really between my grandfather and their neighbor, who had different ideas about what Grandpa should do with his property. I don't remember the neighbor's name, just the nickname my grandfather gave him and that both he and my grandmother used whenever they referred to him — "Poor Old Crippled Tom."

(For the record, I do remember meeting "Tom" — if that was, indeed, his name — and I do not recall seeing any disability or handicap so I don't know if he was really "crippled" or if that was some sort of inside joke.)

My grandmother was one of those people who seemed to get along with everyone. When my grandfather wasn't around, she may even have been capable of conducting a cordial conversation with "Tom." But even if she agreed with him, she would have left decisions about the property — a duplex in the Park Cities of Dallas, Texas — to my grandfather.

One of my fondest memories from my childhood was a country fishing club in east Texas to which my grandparents belonged. Members (and their guests) could keep fishing boats and equipment on the premises, spend the night whenever they wanted and enjoy old–fashioned country cooking. Children could run and play on the grounds.

My family enjoyed many trips to the fishing club with my grandparents. The beds were always comfortable, and the food was always delicious. In the summer, there were always trucks parked along the road nearby, from which farmers sold watermelons, peaches and other things they grew themselves.

The club was tucked away in the sparsely populated woods of east Texas. If one craved civilization, the nearest town — Pittsburg — had a few thousand residents and a drug store with a soda counter that seemed like a throwback to another era then (I can only imagine what it would seem like today).

It was a throwback in another way, too, I suppose. All the employees — the cooks who worked in the kitchen and served the food, the men who made sure the fishing boats were ready ahead of time when members were planning a weekend of fishing, then cleaned the fish they caught so they were ready to take home when the member left — were black.

I don't know what the pay was like, and I don't know what kind of hours the workers had to put in. The conditions may have been racist, but there was nothing racist about how they were treated, as far as I could see. Of course, that could have been one of those conflicts between perception and reality.

Anyway, if you didn't want to fish, you could stay at the clubhouse while the fishermen were doing their thing, and many of the members' wives did precisely that. In my mind's eye, I can see my mother and my grandmother sitting in rocking chairs on the big screened porch that looked out onto the boathouses and the lake. If the wind was calm, they might get up a card game with some of the other ladies; if the wind picked up, they could take the card game inside.

I don't remember my grandmother being much of a fisherwoman. Trips to the fishing club were more social events for her. It was my grandfather who went to fish — and I will always remember one summer evening when I was about 7 or 8 and he taught me how to cast at that club. An older boy had been there with his parents and/or grandparents, and he had learned to cast (and had enjoyed telling me about it). So I asked Grandpa to teach me, and he told me he'd go down to the lakeline with me after supper and we could practice between the boathouses.

Well, we went down there and my mother and grandmother watched while Grandpa watched me cast and called out instructions. And before the evening was over, I had actually caught a fish.

Mom had her camera with her, and she assembled me, my brother, my grandmother and a couple of girls who just happened to be watching off to one side. And preserved the moment for all time.

I was her oldest grandson, and I know she loved the role of grandmother, but I've heard that she didn't want to be called Grandmother — or any variation on that. My grandfather, I have been told, teased her about it mercilessly (it is my impression that their relationship resembled that of Frank and Marie Barone of TV's Everybody Loves Raymond), and she worried about it long before I could talk.

Then, one day when we were visiting my grandparents, my grandmother's tenant came in with the rent check and addressed her as "Mrs. D." I apparently latched onto as much of that as I was capable and started calling her "Dede." She liked that. It was the unique kind of term of endearment that she wanted, and it didn't betray the fact that she was a grandmother.

How she was perceived was important to her.

But not in her final years. She had dementia and stopped talking years before she died.

In fact, in the closing years of her life, I was never convinced that she knew who I was — or if, five minutes after I left, she remembered that I had visited her in the nursing home. I was never sure that she recognized my parents or my brother. She probably didn't. She never addressed anyone by name.

As much as her mind was capable of processing information by that time, she may have thought that we were just some nice folks who had stopped by her room. There may have been fleeting moments when, even if she didn't know our names, she knew she had seen our faces before.

We visited her on special occasions, and my mother tried to make things appear to be as "normal" as possible. I often wondered why Mom went to so much trouble for someone who clearly did not know who we were and would not remember that we had been there, but I guess she hoped that, if my grandmother experienced even a second of lucidity, she would know that she was surrounded by her family and that she was loved.

She was loved, all right. The number of people who knew her during her lifetime is dwindling, but there isn't a one of those who are left who wouldn't tell you that my grandmother was loved.

There was a time, however, when there was some question about when she was born. Not the month. The year.

We knew that her birthday was in July, and we knew my grandfather's birthday was in September. Traditionally, the husband was older than the wife, but the fact that the wife might have been a few months older was really overlooked. And we had always believed that my grandparents were born in the same year so the difference — we thought — was measured in months, not years.

At some point, though — and I think it was after my grandmother's mental and physical decline had begun, but I don't remember precisely — my mother discovered that my grandmother actually had been born the year before my grandfather. Maybe she found a birth certificate, or maybe my father (who became something of an amateur genealogist in his retirement) saw something in a Census report.

My grandmother wasn't two months older than my grandfather. She was 14 months older. So, apparently, she lied about her birth date. She certainly lied to my mother about it. She may have lied to my grandfather about it. He may well have died not knowing the truth.

What I recall about that revelation was not being shocked that she was actually a year older than I had been led to believe. I was shocked that she had lied — and I was impressed that she had gotten away with it for so long.

But, in hindsight, I guess I was a little disappointed in her because I always felt, when I was a child, that I could count on her integrity. She never said anything to anyone (in my presence, anyway) that was spiteful or vindictive. Or deceitful. Even when she felt it necessary to correct someone, she usually did so in the nicest, least threatening way she could think of.

So I guess I felt a little betrayed when I learned there was a gap between the way I perceived my grandmother and the truth.

It probably wouldn't have bothered me as much as it did if I hadn't kept thinking about a conversation I had with my grandmother when I was a senior in high school. One of my oldest buddies was about to marry a girl who was roughly a year older than he was. I told my grandmother about it, and she replied, "Those marriages never work."

In hindsight, I felt that was uncharacteristically hypocritical of her, considering that her marriage had been one of "those marriages." And she and my grandfather had been together for about 40 years.

But, at the time, she was the only one who knew the truth. Her response was completely consistent with the attitudes of the people of her day. I didn't challenge her on the point, but I disagreed with her. I had known my friend since we were both toddlers, and I was certain his marriage would succeed.

(As it turned out, though, she was right about my friend — in a way. His marriage did fail — but I don't think the age difference was the reason why it failed.)

I guess there will always be a conflict between perception and reality, particularly in election years.

We've seen one such conflict played out in Washington today. The president, who has been preoccupied with health care and, more recently, the constant flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for the last three months, has neglected job creation and allowed unemployment to get out of control, even though polls have repeatedly shown that respondents see joblessness as the most serious problem facing America today.

Today, he urged Congress to extend unemployment benefits, even though, without effective leadership from their titular leader, Democrats allowed those benefits to lapse two months ago. Now, with an electoral disaster looming in the fall, Barack Obama wants to cultivate the perception that he is on the side of the working man, now that so many working men, through no fault of their own, aren't.

And the president, whose spine must be unbelievably flexible, given how he bent over backwards in a vain effort to achieve bipartisan support for initiatives that needed no Republican votes to pass, now seems to be just fine with criticizing Republicans for blocking the extension of unemployment benefits.

I agree with him when he says the unemployed are being held "hostage to Washington politics." But he's just as guilty of playing politics with the jobless as the Republicans are. Neither side is blameless.

This is the choice voters are given in America today. If the Democrats retain a majority in either chamber of Congress, it will be almost by default.

It's hard to pinpoint precisely what bothers voters the most these days, but the insincerity of their leaders has to rank right up there.

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