So I’m five-years-old and we’re visiting my grandparents in Cape May, New Jersey. They lived in a little red house on Linda Anne, Avenue in Lower Township, just off the shore. My sister Caroline had apparently spent her two-year “being alive” head start claiming ownership of everything I could enjoy in their house. The backyard swing? That was hers. The recliner in the TV room? That was also hers (unless my grandfather wanted it.). The swing on the back porch? That was hers, too. If I wanted to use any of them, I’d have to wait until she was done. And let me tell you something – Caroline Brennan wasn’t big on being done with those swings or that chair (again, unless my grandfather wanted it). I wanted to argue, but what recourse did I have? She was here first, she had dibs. You can’t argue with dibs. That way lies chaos.
One day, Caroline and I were hanging out on the back porch. She was swinging in her swing. I was sitting on one of those canvas-backed director style chairs. I was fascinated by how easily they collapsed. Anyway, the summer heat had finally pushed Caroline to go grab a Jell-O pudding pop. She hopped off the swing and headed for the kitchen, instructing me that she had “saved” her spot and I was under no circumstances to ride her swing.
As she trotted off, I steamed in my director’s chair. This ageist tyranny had to be stopped! How was this fair? Just because I was born second I had to stay away from swings? It was unjust! But I wasn’t about to rebel. The rules were rules. Plus the collapsible director’s chair had, indeed, collapsed, and I was too busy getting up from a catastrophe. That’s when my grandmother entered the scene.
A bit about my grandmother, Agnes Coyle, or Granny as my sister and I called her. She was about the nicest person to ever live. She was the hub of our family – everyone knew her, everyone called her, she kept up with everybody. When she died, over three hundred people came to the funeral, which was, coincidentally, my first time really doing any public speaking. It was a daunting crowd. She was a dedicated mother and grandmother and aunt.
She also volunteered well into her eighties. She used to take older shut-ins shopping so that they would “always have a friend” and she volunteered on so many campaigns that their district’s congressman attended her wake. When a few neighbors were nervous about a black family moving into the neighborhood, Granny was the first person to knock on their door with home cooked meal to welcome them to the neighborhood.
In short, she didn’t let people suffer and she stood up to bullies. And when she saw me sitting on the floor, frustrated, near tears, she asked me why I wasn’t in the swing. When I told her I couldn’t because it was Caroline’s, she laughed and said, “it’s my swing. Get in.” I did as I was told. I then proceeded to tell her how i couldn’t ever enjoy anything in the house because Caroline had called it first. She listened. She was great at that. If you were upset, she just listened.
When I was fifteen years old, she called me the day after WWF wrestler Owen Hart died to see if I was okay and offer to listen. Why? Because she knew I liked pro-wrestling and she was worried. I wasn’t particularly upset, but it meant a lot to me. A few weeks later, my high school guidance counselor died from leukemia. I went straight home and cried my eyes out. The phone rang. My grandmother was checking in. I tried to blow her off. She wouldn’t let me off the line until I told her why I was upset. I unloaded on what happened. A year later she, too, would be dead from cancer. When she passed away I took solace in remembering how she was there for me a year before. I’ll never forget how well she listened.
And I’ll never forget how she listened that summer day as I sat beneath the swing. I noticed that she never took my sister to task or negated what my sister claimed was hers. But I felt a bit better knowing that Granny had listened to me.
The following summer, my grandparents got a small, above ground pool set up in their back yard. Outside the pool was a blue, wooden sign with an image of Snoopy hanging out in a boat. The sign read, “The Thomas Coyle Brennan Pool.” When my sister and I asked why, she said, “well, your sister owns so many other things in the house. You should have one thing.”
Needless to say, I was pretty excited. Not only did I have my own pool, but my Granny had gone to an artist in the neighborhood to have a sign made to tell the world that this was my pool. If at this point you’re wondering how I got revenge on Caroline, payback was sadly not on the menu. Caroline, ever the crafty tactician, offered to write the rules of the pool for me. I excitedly agreed. Her first rule was that “Caroline Brennan may always use this pool.”
(That was okay by me – I never particularly liked when Caroline felt left out. One time at the Wildwood Boardwalk amusement park, Caroline’s airplane on the aerial carousel’s electronic toy gun wouldn’t make any noise. She cried. I’ve never felt okay riding any carousel ride since.)
What I love about this story was my grandmother wanted to make me feel special, but she knew she couldn’t negate my sister’s imagination. She knew how important it was that we both felt comfortable in her home. She knew she couldn’t fight my fights for me – but maybe she could hand me a little ammunition.
My girlfriend’s grandfather passed away last week and it brought memories of my own grandparents – their lives, their deaths, what they meant to me. I envy anyone who is fortunate enough to be a grandparent. Some say it’s a chance for folks to handle only the good parts of being a parent. I say it’s a chance for experienced parents to really be at their best. Those of us so lucky to have good parents and good grandparents should never forget the good times. Sometimes I feel like the only stories we still tell of my grandmother are about her funeral. I’m trying to focus on the times where Granny made my life better.
I grabbed the pool sign before we sold off their house (the pool was destroyed years before hand in a hurricane). That was one of two things I grabbed. This is the other. And yes, the photo behind her is a photo of me and Caroline. We got along more than we let on. But, hey, we had a good grandmother.
I wish she was around to give me one last Werther’s Original butterscotch at church.