Growing up in the South, you hear a lot about southern grandmas.
Southern grandmas are sassy. Southern grandmas make sure you’re fed. Southern grandmas are the best cooks.
Southern grandmas know what’s going on — at all times. They’re in everything and know everyone. You better be careful, ’cause Grandma always knows what you’re doin’.
Honestly, this could be said about any grandma. I’ve seen the memes. I’ve read the stories. I always thought growing up, “I wish I had a grandma.”
I wanted grandparents at all.
Mom’s father died before my birth. Her mother, a high-class lady from California, had nothing to do with us. Dad’s father had also died, and his mother, who lived five hours away in Texas, died in my teen years. I met her once. By then, she was already too old and ill to speak. I wished we had met sooner.
Growing up, I had envy for kids with grandparents. They talked about weekends spent with grandmas and grandpas. We had no one — just Mom, my sister, and me. California-transplants, we had no family, and when you live in the South, it’s almost a requirement to be part of the local smalltown community to have family blood.
Either that or join a church.
I read often how children need grandparents. When my older brother married while living in California, I met my grandmother for the first time at 10 years old.
I found her fascinating. We had similar hands — those long, white piano fingers — except she had a finger missing from a factory accident from her youth. She looked like my mom, and it felt right to be near someone we shared blood with.
I sat close to her during lunch but quickly found Grandma was nothing like the grandma of my peers. She had an air of spite, arrogance, and rudeness. All her words were tainted in venom.
When we visited her condo, we had to speak in whispers. She didn’t like much noise. She didn’t like children. Her neighbors also didn’t like noise. It was a kids-free community.
She also didn’t like my mom, though I didn’t know until my teenage years how rough their relationship had been. She kicked Mom to the curb as a teenager and made her a ward of the state — simply because she didn’t like her.
She kept her other children, though.
I began to realize Grandma was not the grandma of my fantasies but more the villain of childhood cartoons.
She had had three husbands, all now dead. The latter two were rich doctors. She dressed with expensive taste and had a real love for money.
When we went to eat together, I remember how angry she became at my 10-year-old self for not ordering the steak. She found my childhood desire for chicken tenders disgusting. Everything Mom or I did needed her critique.
Grandma would send my older sister jewelry. Rachell called it “old lady” jewelry — big clip-on earrings or bulky, beady necklaces. Inexpensive play jewelry.
Rachell hated them but I remember jealousy burning in my stomach. Grandma didn’t send me jewelry. But she did once send a $10 check for my birthday. It wouldn’t cash.
I lost my bitterness toward Grandma’s apparent favoritism toward my sister when I grew older and learned more about the woman.
She had been abusive to Mom — severely so — and Mom spent most of her years raised by her own grandmother, her father’s mother. Mom spent most of her youth in girls’ homes, a psychiatric ward, and juvenile hall — anyplace that would take her since Grandma didn’t want her.
Mom’s only safe haven had been meeting her first husband, Jim, at age 17. He took her in and cared for her when Grandma wouldn’t. They later married and had two children, my older brothers.
Now in her 80s, Grandma’s in hospice. Alzheimer's has ravaged her brain. She remembers none of us now, not that I think the woman ever really thought of me.
When we lost my brother, Jon, in a bad wreck, I remember Mom talking to Grandma on the phone. She wanted a mother’s ear and sympathy. Grandma always liked Jon. He really had been the only child of Mom she really liked. He had her arrogance and cocky attitude, but not her cruelty.
But Grandma couldn’t remember he died. She thought the motorcyclist Mom talked of was a friend of Mom’s, not her son. It broke Mom’s heart.
Despite all the abuse inflicted on Mom by Grandma, Mom chose not to remind her Jon died. She didn’t want to put that pain on her again.
Mom’s a better person than I am.
Nowadays, you do not need to have biological grandparents to have grandparents.
There are groups such as Surrogate Grandparents-USA, which connects families with a grandparent for their children.
Founded in January 2015, the group is described as “a place where grandparents who are missing having grandchildren in their lives and families whose children are missing having grandparents in their lives can find and connect with each other for a possible lifetime of love.”
Randy Lilleston with AARP wrote back in 2017 how in only two years, the group gained more than 2,500 members.
“There are all sorts of people who might look for a surrogate grandparent: adult children of divorced couples, people who have been rejected by their birth families because of their sexual or gender identities, or just people who live a long distance from the nearest relative,” Lilleston wrote in “For Surrogate Grandparents, the Ties Still Bind.”
I’ve considered joining the group myself. We still have no other family out here in rural Oklahoma. My heart swells at the idea of a grandparent who would accept me — a 27-year-old transgender writer with serious self-esteem and depression issues.
It isn’t about replacing grandparents. It’s about offering a multi-generational relationship that many people — like me — may never have otherwise.
I find it’s about compassion and friendship and, it seems, love.
Who wouldn’t want that? I know I do.
Cassius Corbin is a poet, fiction writer, photographer, and blogger from rural Oklahoma. Follow him on Twitter @cassiuscorbin, Instagram @sixfeetrooted or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Buy his photography on Redbubble.