Dedicated to my wife's grandma. (Not enough of this story is fiction).
Thanks to BarBar for helping me with the plot and characterisation, and to James E. Henry for editing. This story is vastly improved because of their assistance.
Steph grimaced as she peered into her grandmother's room and wondered, once again, just what on earth she was doing here.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid," she muttered to herself, and groaned. She did not belong here. Even the younger nurses eyed her suspiciously, and as for the residents.... The looks on their faces perfectly matched the look on Steph's own face as the insidious smell seeped into her consciousness. Why did every old-age home have the same stinky smell as all hospitals?
Briefly her mind wandered, and she imagined some evil rich man cackling gleefully as he made a fortune selling a special hospital perfume....
She peered around the corner again. With luck, her grandmother would have her eyes closed, and she could go straight back outside and tell her stinking mother that the old bag was asleep. Her mother! Steph almost growled in frustration; because her own car was in for repairs -- heap of shit that it was -- she had to let her mother pick her up after work, and instead of taking her home, her mother had brought her to this place and insisted that she go visit her grandmother for once.
Steph had sighed and decided just going and visiting would be less bothersome than refusing to humour her mother. But with each step she'd somehow felt as if she was moving closer and closer to her doom. Stupid, but she couldn't shake the feeling, and the silent gawking she got from everyone wasn't helping. Of course, she should be used to that now. That was, after all, why her hair was the colour that it was.
Her grandmother's eyes were closed! Relieved, she turned away, but found herself face to face with a young nursing aide, who somehow swept her into Grandmother's room. "Edna, dear, look, Steph has come," she called out.
Steph watched her grandmother jerk herself awake, and saw that famous iron will slam down over the face like a curtain. Grandma might be old, her body might be failing her, but there was no question that the old battle-axe retained her full mental faculties, and still ruled over her family with an iron fist, even from this little room.
Dutifully, she leant over her grandmother and kissed her forehead. Her grandmother's hand reached out and grabbed her own with surprising strength, pulling her close.
"Steph, dear, I'm glad you've come. I've been waiting for you."
"Hello, Grandma. I know it's been too long, but I'm just so busy these days."
Her grandmother smiled pronounced, "It's all these labour-saving devices -- no wonder you don't have any time, dear," she pronounced.
Steph tittered gently to placate the old woman and looked again at her. She really wasn't in good shape. Since falling and breaking her hip -- was it a fortnight ago now? -- she'd been in a lot of pain. They'd operated, and then sent her back to the hospice, but her mum had told her that the doctor said it was only a matter of weeks, and Steph could see why. Her skin was feathery and cracked, she was only a faint shadow of her past self, and the internal bleeding in her right arm was painfully evident -- it was nearly bright purple, though the arm was still functioning, judging the strength with which it was holding her hand.
Steph shivered; it looked like a purple claw holding onto her. Hopefully this would be just a short visit. Her mum had said it would be her last, and she could only hope that indeed, it would be so. The quicker this was over, the better; since her fourteenth birthday she'd avoided her grandma as much as she could.
"Sit down, dear, we have a lot to talk about."
Reluctantly, Steph dragged the chair closer, and sat down. Impatiently, her grandmother gestured at her to bring the seat closer -- real close -- close enough that they could just whisper.
"So, dear, what's up with the latest boy of yours -- what's his name?"
For a few minutes, Steph struggled to give a suitably guarded account of her doings to her grandmother. This was exactly the problem, the old crone ruled over the family with that fist of iron, and everything had to be done to maintain a façade of correctness, a patina of decency. It didn't really matter what you did, as long as the proper look was maintained, as long as the family behaved like it had money, because money talks. This was what had caused her and her Grandma to fall out in the first place; Steph really couldn't be having with all that pretentious bullshit, and her grandma hadn't liked being challenged.
Actually, Steph was pretty mainstream. Okay, she had a couple of tattoos, and a few piercings in her ears and one in her nose and belly button -- nothing much. But still way off the tree for the rest of her overly conservative family, and they'd largely snubbed her wherever possible. Not that it was was really possible to snub her: they all lived crammed into the one little country town, and Steph worked in the café, a little visual candy for the customers as Sheila, her boss, put it. Since it was the only café in town, her family ran into her constantly. Steph just ignored it all; as soon as she had the money, she'd be gone, never to see the place again.
She'd actually been surprised to get a summons to visit grandmother. All right, she'd ignored it until her mother had manipulated her into coming, and now she was regretting it. Her nosy grandma could just butt out of her life, thank you very much!
Just as she was starting to get really irritated, her grandma moved on, talking about her cousins, and Steph got caught up on the various comings and goings of her many relatives. What had prompted her grandmother to have eleven children was beyond Steph's imagination, but she'd done it, and now there seemed to be countless numbers of descendants -- grandchildren in abundance -- and now a growing crop of great-grandchildren. In fact, it had looked rather as if one of Steph's disrespectable unmarried teenage relatives was going to present her grandmother with her first great-great-grandchild. Steph was pleased that she was no longer the worst disgrace in the family, but was rather surprised to hear her grandmother dismiss the idea.
"Dear, I won't see it. I'm about to die."
"No, Grandma, don't say that. I'm sure you'll be fine!" But really, she just said this for form; it was obvious that she wasn't fine.
"Don't give me that, young girl. You know better than that. I know I'm going to die. In fact, that's why I wanted to talk to you."
Steph looked at her grandma, surprised. "Umm, what?"
Her grandmother took a deep breath, and then stared into Steph's eyes. "I am going to die. After I die, I want you to do something for me."
There was something about the way she said this. It reminded Steph of that feeling of doom she'd had as she walked in. Whatever her grandmother wanted her to do, it was going to be big, she could tell that much. But the next thing her grandma said left her completely shocked.
"Dear, you're not a virgin are you?"
Steph was so stunned with this question that she didn't even think about her reply, and just told the truth. "Of course not, Grandma, not for years." Immediately, she regretted it.
But her grandma just nodded. "I didn't think so, dear, but I thought I should check. I couldn't talk to you about this if you hadn't spread your legs under a man."
Steph shook her head. Had her grandma really said that? Surely she'd misheard. "What?" But then she realised how impolite that had sounded. "Umm, Grandma, what is this about?"
Her grandma sighed. "Dear, of all my offspring, you're the only one with real spine. The only one who's really stood up to me."
"No, Grandma, what about Bess? She's always arguing with you. And what about Jim? He's never even spoken to you for years!"
Her grandma dismissed the two of them with a casual wave of her hand. "Ha! Bess always does what I say, in the end. She even named her children the way I told her to. And Jim ran away rather than face me after getting that girl pregnant. Coward and scum! Dear, it's only you. You're the only one who's showed real spine."
Steph didn't know what to say. She thought she'd been at the top of Grandma's most-hated list for years. In fact, she was sure of it.
"So, what do you want?"
"Dear, do you remember when we argued back on your fourteenth birthday?"
Steph nodded. Oh yes, she remembered it well.
"You told me that I was wrong to worry so much about what other people thought, about appearances, and about money, and that I should worry about what my own family really wanted."
Steph grunted. That was a reasonable summary of what she'd said. Money -- people would do anything for money, whatever the consequences.
"I knew you were wrong, just another young hothead, another blowhard who didn't understand society, how money does talk. Just like all the other grandchildren before you. But unlike them, you've put your money where your mouth is. You've done what you wanted, whatever other people said. And even more important, you've helped other family members out, even when everyone else did their best to punish you for that."
And even when you orchestrated the punishment, Steph thought to herself venomously, but didn't say.
"Well, I've been thinking. A lot. About my life, and my family, and you've made me change my mind."
Her grandmother paused portentously. Steph desperately tried to make sense of all this in her mind. Her grandmother had changed her mind? How?
"I nearly died a couple of weeks ago, and I realised that I wasn't happy with what I'll leave behind. I'm going to change it. This family is going to be forced to change. And you're going to do it for me."
"Umm, Grandma, just what do you want me to do?"
"After I die, I want you to make sure that I don't get buried with George. I want you to get me buried in Greenhill cemetery, where Leila is buried."
Steph looked at her Grandma, aghast. Not buried with her husband? But the grave site was all prepared, the tombstone already done, all organised, in the family corner of the local cemetery. Grandma was the centre of the family, her own stillborn child was buried right there. How could she say that she didn't want to get buried there, and to rest in some other place with the family disgrace? It just went against every sense of propriety that Steph had, and she didn't have much at all. It was just wrong, plain and simple, and there was no way that Steph could do this -- even if she had any authority.
"But Grandma, you have to be buried there! All your family is buried there. And Grandpa! How can you not want to be buried there?"
"Dear, all my life, I've done what everybody expected, what people told me to do. But I'm not going to be buried there, not over my dead body!"
Steph just stared at her grandma.
"Dear, you don't understand, so I'm going to tell you about Grandpa and I."
"When I was young, like you, I was a fine-looking young lady, just like you are. And just like you, I was up with all the latest fashions, a very smart-looking lass. And I thought I was so clever. But then the depression came. You young kids have no idea how hard that was, what it's like to be really hungry, and to only have eels to eat. That's all we had."
Steph had heard this story often, of course. But what followed was all new.
"So my mother said I should use my pretty face to snare a rich husband. She helped me raise my hems and tighten my dresses, and I went up to the big city to see if I could catch the right eye. My father organised a respectable young man, George, from down the road to go with me, to keep me safe. He was a little bit older than me."
George -- her husband, Steph knew. He was actually sixteen years older, she realised, when she did the maths.
"One time, there was no one in the train with us on the way home. George held me down, put his hand over my mouth, and raped me."
Her grandma nodded. "Yes. He raped me. I've never told anyone, dear. He spread my legs and tied me to the seat, and then he stuck his penis in me three times. Then he made me clean him and the blood and mess up."
"I should've told my father, but they'd told me time and time again that you have to keep appearances up, and what would happen if I told them? I couldn't do it. So George kept going with me to 'protect' me, and he got to rape me several times again, and there was nothing I could do about it."
"I did catch the eye of a very rich man too, but then I found out that George had made me pregnant. So we went to my parents, and I told them as how I'd fallen in love with George, and we'd had a little accident, and then after that we had to get married, of course."
Steph's heart had stopped beating. She could hardly believe her ears. This was just so... wrong.
"Well, dear, you can imagine how it was for me after that. Anytime he wanted it, I had to spread my legs. It didn't matter whether I wanted it or not. If I fought him, he'd just overpower me and tie me to the bed and do it anyway. Later, I tried to tell him that he'd make me pregnant again, and that we couldn't afford to have another baby, but he'd just tell me that it didn't matter, and I'd just have to feed them."
For Steph, this cast the old family stories in a totally different light. She could see it all clearly now; Grandpa had come home from that "hard labour" job he'd had, rested and drunk beer, while the family kowtowed to him. Then he'd taken his wife upstairs, banged her a bit, and then gone to sleep. Meanwhile, she'd done her own hard labour, starting long before he got up, and finishing long after he went to sleep, feeding and clothing the children, even when she was pregnant. She'd wondered why the family stories had her grandmother checking the rabbit traps and eel nets late at night, but now she understood. And she'd said that she didn't understand why her grandmother had chosen to have eleven children....
"Fourteen times that bastard made me pregnant, until eventually I just couldn't get pregnant again. What a relief that was! I was lucky that I only got eleven children."
Wow. Steph had only known about one stillborn child for Grandma. Her own sister had lost one the year before, and it had been a terrible source of grief to the whole family. Steph, who was close to her sister, had shared the pain, and had been angered by the apparent callousness her grandma had shown about it. Now, perhaps, she saw things from a different perspective. A death was one less hungry mouth to feed -- it must have been tempting, late at night, when the children were sick, to just let them go. But no, the stories of her grandma's love and care for her sick children were another strong family tradition.
"But Grandma, you loved him."
Grandma drew in a deep breath, and then coughed, painfully. "I hated that man with every fibre of my soul. But I had to keep up appearances.
"So I will not be buried with that man."
Steph nodded, firmly. No way.
"But you know the family; they'll fight that. They'll do everything they can to have me buried there with him. So you're going to stop them."
"Umm, how am I going to stop them?"
"I've made you my executor, along with my lawyer. So you have the legal right to do it. But more importantly, you're going to stand up at my funeral, and you're going to tell everyone what I've just told you."
There was a long pause, as Steph digested that. She really couldn't imagine herself doing that. She was enough of a black sheep as it was. How could she... she couldn't even think about what her grandma was talking about. The tears in her eyes were bad enough now, let alone what they'd be at the funeral. She'd cried so hard at her grandpa's funeral....
"Yes dear, you. You're the one with the spine. Maybe you think this is just the delirious ravings of an old lunatic, so in case you do, my lawyer has a written copy of this, one I made years ago, that he'll give you after I die, but I'm going to tell you all of it now, so that you know."
There was more?
"I tried to keep it secret, to keep all the secrets, but they ate into the family. They're still eating my family from the inside out. Well, dear, you convinced me that I need to change that. And you're going to get up at my funeral and tell all the secrets. I don't know what will happen after that, but I know that everyone will look less happy. I just hope that they're actually happier inside."
Steph didn't know what to say. How could she, the nineteen-year-old wild child, get up at her revered grandmother's funeral and destroy the family?
And there's more?
"Grandma, you say there's more?"
Grandma nodded. "He raped Leila when she was a teenager too."
Steph gasped. Leila had ended up committing suicide, the first of Grandma's children to die.
"All the children know about that. Of course, we blamed Leila, and called her a disgrace. Especially after she committed suicide. George raped Mary too, but not all of my children know about that."
Grandma looked at her. "I covered those up. God help me. Appearances have to be maintained." The last was said with a heavy irony. But Steph thought, perhaps, she was starting to understand her grandma. You couldn't say that she hadn't practised what she preached, that was for sure, whatever the price.
"Then Robert and Mary had an affair. They're still doing it."
Steph nearly fell out of her chair. Brother and sister? Robert -- the church elder? Mary -- the defender of all that is right? And Grandma wanted her to say this in public?
"But Amy's ok with that because she's been doing it with Caroline for years."
Steph's eyes boggled. Amy was Robert's wife, and Caroline another of the sisters. If her grandma didn't stop, Steph might have a heart attack herself.
"So that's why Jeff left, and why Michelle has never met her father."
Whoa, slow down! Steph was lost now, that last sentence had jumped across too many known family disasters at once. Jeff was Amy's son, and no one had heard from him for years. As for Michelle, as far as Steph knew, her mother, one of her cousins, had never told anyone who the father was. Apparently Grandma knew more.
For a moment, Steph was distracted, wondering who the father was. After all that Grandma had said, she'd guess that Michelle's mum had been raped by someone in the family- perhaps "church elder" Robert?
But then her grandmother explained, and detailed exactly why all these things in the family were broken. It was a long and complicated explanation, and Steph discovered that what was wrong with her family was much deeper than she'd ever imagined, and the problems affected nearly every member of her large family in one way or another. She could sort of see how that blowing this stuff open at the funeral could actually improve matters -- though it would surely cause a lot of heartache for a while.
But still, it sure wasn't going to be her. It wasn't so much that she had a problem with Grandma; by the time her grandma had finished explaining just how much was wrong with the family, and exactly why, she had kind of come to understand the rules her grandma had lived by. No, they were wrong, there were no two ways about it, and the consequences were painfully clear in the family. But at least her grandma had lived to her rules all her life, whatever the price -- and Steph shuddered to think of that price. Okay, Steph could see that dropping a bomb like this at the funeral would actually be a form of atonement for that, but why pick Steph to do the dirty work? And why would her Grandma think Steph would want to do it -- what would be in it for her, to destroy what little was left of her own standing with everyone while destroying the family?