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My grandmother is a conductor of pain. It rolls off her tongue in waves and plays on the sharp edges of her countenance. With one word or slight turn of the chin she can slip ice into even the warmest of hearts. Her very appearance is cold. Strings of grey and white barbed wire stand indignantly atop her skull. Beady eyes crane through a mess of wrinkles grouped together in a scowl. I don't care to imagine what it must have been like to grow up with someone like that. Though I do know my mother still wears the mental scars carved by this woman who excels at destroying self-esteem. And I do know that resentment towards my grandma still churns inside her. Resentment she's tucked away from her mom, hidden behind the hollow smiles and feigned indifference she wears like an evening gown. For years, I'd encouraged my mother to stand up for herself and tell her mom what she really feels about her, force her to see how much she'd damaged her. It felt wrong to me that my mother who practically exhaled goodness should whither under the weight of such a heavy past. But for years she'd refuse to speak out, opting instead for silent hatred.
Visits to my grandma were plunges into the battlefield. My mother would suit up in smiles and pleasantries before heading out to face the enemy. There was only one weapon. It was conversation and my grandmother wielded it. Admist deploy inquiry on the family and remarks on the weather she would slip an insult or strongly held opinion then watch my mother dance; warding off abuse after abuse and tip-toeing around each controversial belief thrown her way, trying her best to keep the large, ticking, bomg sitting adjacent to her from going off. What I hated most about those visits, however, wasn't the painful way they spoke to eachother. It was the way my grandmother would stare across the table and count all the scars she'd left in her daughter's mind--her trophy collection of lessons well-taught. It always made her smile.
The day my mother finally did decide to stand up for herself I envisioned there would be fireworkds. Or a rainbow.It's silly looking back on it but at the time I'd always imagined the pure righteousness of the event would be so great that it would somehow physically manifest itself. Because that's what happens in movies when right wins over wrong. Good wins over bad.
Instead the day my mother finally decided to stand up for herself there was nothing but a cold sun. Earlier that morning it had been normal. Warm and yellow hanging up in the sky like a coin. It was the moment that my mother spoke the words she'd kept inside for so long that it chilled.
The words were dropped into the air where they hung for a few moments. The room shifted around them to accomodate their size. Enlarged. Yet standing there in the shadows I couldn't help but feel over-crowded. The sunlight creeping in through the glass door morphed into something colder. It's warmth became lost in the thick hostility of the air.
My grandmother blinked. And the floor seemed to tremble as though a wall was collapsing to its knees. For a moment she started at her daughter as though she was scared of her. Her entire body seemed to undergo a sudden crumple. One so small it was hard to see. But I saw it. Her scowl moved slightly as her skin suddenly sagged downward into a frown that took up her entire face. Her shoulders and back followed, barely slumping foward but changing just enough for me to see that this was not my grandma. This was a child. Vulnerable, scared, and insecure.
The moment I registered the dissapearnce of my grandma she had reappeared. The floor stopped trembling. Walls were rebuilt as my grandma bustled herself back up like a bird ruffling its feathers and resumed the marble exterior she'd been carved in.
"Anything else?" Grandma threw the words at her daughter.
I watched from where I stood partly hidden in the corner as my mother stepped foward, and this time she was wielding the conversation.
I wanted to leave. This was the moment I had been urging my mother towards for years and I wanted to escape it. It was all too much. There was no rainbow or firewoks. There was only an icy feeling of abuse, a scarred woman, and a vulnerable child. My body grew heavier as I continued to watch the words hissed through clench teeth hurl through the air. I couldn't move. I could only watch and sip coffee. The warm liquid comforting in the chill of the sun's light.
My grandma watched her daughter patiently. Her faced locked in the stoic expression she was born with.
"You're manipulative," my mom continued.
That was true.
Everything my mother said was grounded in truth. But watching her finally say them didn't fill me with the happiness I thought it would. Instead I felt...uncomfortable. Because as the ugly words fell into my Grandmother's lap I couldn't help but imagine the child I'd seen before.
I took another sip of coffee. It had gone cold.
"Are you done?" Grandma finally asked.
"Yes I am done." She placed emphasis on the period when she said it. Making sure to leave it hanging in the room before she left. A period. An ending. It was obvious she did not intend on seeing her mother anymore. And when I looked over and saw the child again I knew my grandmother understood that as well.
That was when I rushed from the room and into the bathroom. My head ached with the pain of not understanding. My mother had finally stood up for herself. That was supposed to be a good thing. Yet even as the thought crossed my mind the image of the vulnerable child I'd seen rose beneath my eyelids as though to counter it.
The words echoed against the walls of my ears. The child frowned.
The child was crying.
I thought today would be a triumphant memory of a bully learning their place. Instead I watched my grandmother's armor drop and what lay beneath was scarring. Standing there in the dim light of a dingy bathroom I finally realized something--people like walls. We live inside four walls, most of us work inside four walls, we love walls so much we even construct them around our personalities. They act as filters, showing others what we want them to see and hiding anything we dont. My grandmother especially loved walls. She trapped her emotions, vulnerabilities, and insecurites behind them. I saw walls and I wanted to knock them down. I wanted to open up my grandmother and unearth what was inside. When my mom stood up for herself the carefully constructed barriers wrapped around my grandma finally came tumbling down-only for a brief moment-but long enough for me to get a glimpse of what has been kept secret for so long. Raw vulnerability-so terrifyingly foreign sitting in the lines of her skin and soaking in the grey of her eyes.
Raw vulnerability I could see now as I stared at the red, tear-stained face in the mirror. As I watched the water slipping from the corners of my eyes I began to understand that some walls are not meant to be torn down. Sometimes the things sitting behind them are more terrible than the walls themselves. Sometimes walls are a good thing.
Standing there in the dim light of a dingy bathroom I looked at the tear-stained face in the mirror and started building.
When I was done there was a freshly arranged smile sitting on my face--it was small but it was a start.