Exploring the concept of retouching the past brought an odd memory of my paternal grandmother to mind. At the time, it seemed like a little thing. In retrospect, however, it was the spark that started conversations and led to the telling of less than flattering stories.
My sister and I were sitting on grandma’s front porch, helping her snap beans. Like most little kids, the big topic of conversation on my mind was my most recent boo-boo. I brought it up to her, showing her my finger with the flesh-colored latex badge of courage wrapped around it.
Grandma was nonplused by what she called my “boxed band-aid.” She thought using band-aids was wasteful. “In fact,” she told me “Jane [name has been changed because I can’t remember it] across the street is such a clever, ingenious child. Rather than using store-bought band-aids, when she has a cut, Jane uses a little piece of tissue and some scotch tape. That’s all you need.”
In my memory, this was a pleasant interlude with my grandmother, who usually wanted little to do with me. Grandma, who suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness that wasn’t discussed—much less treated—in the 60s, was an ardent fan of my sister. She disliked my mother, and was ambivalent to disdainful of me.
It wasn’t just a desire to please that caused me to go with the tissue and tape idea the next time I had to dress a (probably barely perceptible) finger wound. I genuinely thought it was a good idea. Of course, I was eight.
I didn’t understand my parents’ annoyance when I revealed the source of my anti-band-aid campaign. Eventually I tired of it. We were more likely than not to be out of scotch tape.
Years later, my parents explained that it wasn’t really about band-aids or scotch tape. What they found heartbreaking was that this was one of the best moments I had with my grandmother. The nearest Grandma could come to bonding with me was to compare me unfavorably to the little girl across the street.
As time went by and Grandma’s mental state deteriorated further, my sister and I became privy to more stories about her. One of the manifestations of her illness was that Grandma’s love for her only child, my dad, bordered on obsessive.
When Daddy started dating, Grandma hated each girl he brought home. She continued to hate them until they became ex-girlfriends. Once they reached the “ex” status, they walked on water. When the next girl came along, Grandma would regale her with stories of the wonderful ex that was waiting in the wings. In conversation, she’d work in some comment about how the new girlfriend paled in comparison to the old—much like the band-aid comparison.
I used to wonder if Mom and Dad were exaggerating or being oversensitive. That wondering stopped when I heard the story of the guestroom redecorating.
After my parents’ honeymoon, they came back to my dad’s childhood home to stay for a few days. Grandma had busied herself making Daddy’s old bedroom into a guest room. The pièce de résistance of the redecoration was the hanging of a picture over the headboard of the bed: a nice, large, elegantly framed picture of my dad’s previous girlfriend.
See, it really wasn’t about the band-aid.