The sight of my Grandmother’s white Lincoln Continental pulling up into our driveway always filled me with happiness. Her arrival typically meant I would be leaving for a sleepover at her house, I loved going to my grandmother’s, it reminded me of normalcy and safety, her home was a place I felt free to be a child. Far away from the booby-trapped kindness of Barbara, and the sleepy indifference of my father, my grandmother’s house was a respite from a home that felt a lot like Hades. The drive down US Highway 19 was a treat in her luxury sedan, I’d look out the window at the passing strip malls and swamps, a moving smudge of color and light, noticing that the more space we put between us and the trailer on Flora Lane, the deeper I would surrender into the embrace of the Lincoln’s white leather seat.
My Grandmother lived in PalmHarbor, about 30 minutes away from the haunted manufactured home in the little town ofHoliday. Our neighborhood was a sad mishmash of trailers, duplex apartments, and mostly old and uncared for houses; most yards were littered with some variety of junk, like an old car or a broken down lawnmower being swallowed by the very grass it was meant to mow. My school bus passed right by our brown and white trailer onFlora Lane, before dropping me off in front of the drive-in. I’d try to distract my friends when we passed my home, showing them my shiny new issue of Bop magazine, and pretending not to notice if my brother or sister were outside waving as the big yellow blue bird drove by, I didn’t want my friends to know I came from such an pitiful place.
My grandmother’s house was tucked in Freshwater Estates, a beautiful lakefront community full of sprawling green manicured lawns, tasteful 70’s ranch style architecture, swimming pools inFloridarooms, rose bushes, trampolines, and little old ladies inLincoln’s. The pine tree in her front yard was the tallest tree in Freshwater estates, and you could see the top of it from the highway. Sometimes I would watch it like I watched the moon, except it didn’t follow us; we followed it, the towering tree guiding us home down pretty and winding tree lined streets.
My grandmother shared her house with her third husband, a man named Werner Frentrop. Werner was German; he walked with a cane, and wore a snow white crew cut. Werner was red faced, beer bellied, and hypertensive. He had a thick, hard to understand German accent, but I’m pretty sure I once heard him refer to my mother as dirty Jew at the dinner table. My grandmother dropped him off at the B-21 lounge everyday between the hours of 5-7, where he watered his gin blossom for a full two hours like it was his job.
Werner and my grandmother had separate bedrooms. I always slept with my grandmother , I loved to go through her closet, opening the zippered bags that contained her fur coats and stoles, and rubbing my face in the soft fur, one half of me wishing I could have one, and the other half feeling sorry for the animal that I imagined must miss his warm coat. Her dresser was full of photographs of my father, his sister, and us kids, and bottles of expensive perfume stood by on her vanity. Werner’s bedroom was down the hall from my grandmother’s, it was a place I never visited or thought about much. The living room was furnished with a TV, a brown leather recliner, and a matching loveseat, the chair and loveseat had towels draped across the arm rests and back. The family room was full of floral Ethan Allen furniture that was covered in thick plastic, like it was being saved for just the right sitting occasion, the furniture sat on oriental rugs that also were covered in thick plastic. Stacks of National Geographic and Readers Digest magazines sat on polished dark wood coffee and end tables. I would lose track of time reading articles in Readers Digest about inspiring children with downs syndrome, Erma Bombeck’s take on life, and “Laughter, the Best Medicine,” which made me laugh, even if it wasn’t out loud. National Geographic kept me transfixed. Photos of women’s lips and necks being stretched with plates and chokers made my eyes bug out, and all that nakedness sitting right there in magazines on my grandmother’s coffee table…..it was shocking. I remember trying to work my way through an article about the solar system, the pictures of the planets made me dizzy and filled me with wonder. I came across the word “eccentric, “ shortly after starting to read about one of the planets, I didn’t understand most of what I was reading anyway, but this word…well I couldn’t live another moment without knowing it’s meaning. I went into the kitchen were my grandmother was pouring me a glass of Canada Dry ginger ale into my favorite purple metal cup, and showed her the word, asking her what it meant. She handed me my soda, and sent me to the bookcase to get Webster. I suddenly had a new word to describe Barbara’s behavior, but I still didn’t quite understand how it related to outer space.
I spent hours swimming, diving, and turning underwater summersaults by myself in the swimming pool, while my grandmother made a mess stuffing sausages or roasting lamb in the kitchen. The back of my grandmother’s property butted up toLakeTarpon, and a wildlife preserve sat across the water, announcing itself with a thick wall of trees. Back on our side, an old wooden dock stood alone in the lake. No matter how much I begged there was never a boat to keep the dock company. The freshwater lake was rumored to be full of alligators, so I was forbidden to swim in the dark waters, but I didn’t mind, I was content splashing in the clear chlorination, pondering the profundity of Duran Duran lyrics, and staying good and soggy. The pool was in the “Florida room,” a screened in room that allowed us to enjoy the outdoors without getting rained on, or being turned into gator snacks.
Just after my sixth grade graduation ceremony, where I had won an orange satin ribbon for being the class clown, my grandmother came back to the trailer so I could gather my things for what was to be our last sleepover. It was pouring down rain and my grandmother and my father stood in the kitchen yelling at each other, my grandmother demanded, “how can you do this to your children?”, My father screamed, “who in the hell are you to talk to me about parenting after you left my father to go whoring….” I was in my room packing an overnight bag, but I couldn’t breathe. I needed air. I walked out of my room, tears streaming down my face and said, “Dad, I’m going to go for a walk, okay?” he looked right through me, and spit, “you can go to hell for all I care!” My father was sending my brother and me back to my mother inArizona. We would be leaving in a couple of days. It was the second time he did it, the first time sending us toPhoenixon a Greyhound with just a phone number. My sister was already gone, she was sent a few months before us, and was living with a friend of my mother’s who would eventually legally adopt her. My mother lived in Tucson, which was 120 miles away from Phoenix, so my 13 year old brother and an 11 year old me were alone at the bus station until my Mom could contact our Aunt Blossom to come pick us up. My father brought us back about a week later. It was never explained to us why we were sent away and then brought back. I remember Barbara telling us we had to promise to be good this time. I promised, even though I wasn’t sure how I was going to keep it. I could never be good enough.
I barely remember that last night at my grandmother’s house. I remember throwing up on the floor of herLincolnas we were driving down US 19, it was dark and the rain was an eerie lullaby to accompany me while I lost my stomach contents just after we passed over a bridge. My grandmother wasn’t mad. I remember her telling me that it was ok, that I didn’t have to be sorry. When we got to her house, she sent me inside to take a bath while she cleaned the car. We never talked about Barbara, or how awful it all was. I don’t know if she ever tried to intervene. I don’t think she did. I remember her telling me that my father loved me. She promised me that he loved me very much.