Sunday Afternoons

Sunday Afternoons

From Chicken Soup for Every Mom's Soul

Sunday Afternoons

When I was a child living in suburban New Jersey, we saw my father’s parents every other Sunday afternoon. We usually went to their apartment in Queens, but occasionally they would come to us instead. My mother’s relationship with her in-laws wasn’t what you would call warm and loving. It was more like a truce called by two countries at war. The two parties—my mother and my grandparents—grudgingly tolerated each other for the sake of my father and the grandchildren. But they remained suspicious of each other, and from time to time, there would be skirmishes. One of these happened shortly after my youngest brother, Jerry, was born, when I was almost seven.

On this particular visit, my father was working in the attic when my grandparents arrived. Our house had only two bedrooms, and now that there were three children, we needed more room. My father had finished framing out two new bedrooms and the doorways, but he hadn’t put the floor in yet. There were just narrow joists with pink fiberglass insulation between them.

My grandparents were eager to see the new baby, so my mother took them into our bedroom, where little Jerry lay sleeping peacefully. Suddenly, loud banging sounds began coming from the attic.

Oy gevalt!” my grandmother exclaimed in her thick Yiddish accent. “Vas is dis?

My mother explained about my father’s remodeling project. Immediately, my grandmother turned and walked out of the room and headed for the stairs.

“Selma, wait, you can’t go up there,” my mother called, hurrying after her. But my grandmother paid no attention. She started up the steps to the attic as quickly as her arthritic legs could carry her, which actually wasn’t that fast. But what she lacked in speed, she made up for in determination. My mother followed after her, becoming more adamant by the moment. She even grabbed my grandmother’s arm to try to stop her, but my grandmother shook her off angrily.

“Leave me!” she insisted. “I just want to see, is that so terrible?”

We were all about to see just how terrible it would be. When my grandmother reached the top of the steps, she peered around the corner, but she couldn’t see my father. He was working in the other end of the attic, just out of view. The fact that there was no floor didn’t deter my grandmother. She stepped onto one of the joists, and began making her way gingerly down the hallway, as gracefully as you’d expect from an overweight, arthritic sixty-five-year-old grandmother. Needless to say, she lost her balance and fell. Her foot went right through the insulation and through the ceiling below.

My brother Richard and I were still in the bedroom, drawing with crayons, when my grandmother’s leg came plunging through the ceiling. We jumped up and ran to the steps. My father hopped from joist to joist until he reached his mother, and then he and my mother and my grandfather struggled to hoist her back to her feet and guide her down the steps. She cried and complained the whole way down. My mother was furious. She must have said, “I told you not to go up there” fifty times. But she got even more angry a few minutes later when she went to check on the baby. He was still sleeping peacefully, his tiny thumb tucked into his pink little mouth. And lying on the sheet, right next to his soft, downy head, was a ten-pound chunk of plaster that had fallen from the ceiling where my grandmother’s leg had come through, right above the crib.

“You could have killed him,” my mother hissed through her teeth.

My grandmother waved her hand dismissively. “Ach, he’s fine,” she said.

My father took my mother aside and pleaded with her until she cooled off a little. But my grandparents decided not to stay for dinner.

My mother was still angry, though. It took her a couple of more days before she could even discuss the incident without steam practically coming out of her ears. But nevertheless, when Sunday rolled around, we all piled into the car and drove out to Queens.

My grandparents lived on the sixth floor of an apartment building on a busy street. My brothers and I weren’t allowed to play outside, and there wasn’t much else for us to do there, except watch TV. There weren’t any children’s programs on during the afternoon, and none of us were interested in watching baseball, so we usually had several hours of being bored and restless in the cramped apartment, hours we typically filled by whining and fighting. “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” came on at 7:00 P.M. and after that, there was “Lassie,” but all too often, my parents decided it was time to leave just when Lassie was about to rescue Timmy from the abandoned well.

Understandably, we didn’t exactly look forward to these visits. We didn’t really understand why we had to go, especially since my parents didn’t seem to enjoy it much, either. My mother typically spent the entire afternoon engaged in a heated political argument with my grandfather, whose newspaper of choice was the National Enquirer, which my mother said she wouldn’t even use to wrap fish. My mother’s and my grandfather’s political views were completely opposite: my mother was a passionate, strident liberal, and my grandfather was, basically an extreme conservative, suspicious of the government and resentful of racial minority groups. It didn’t occur to me, as a young child, that since he had started out as a poor Jewish immigrant himself, my grandfather should have been a little more understanding of the plight of other minorities. But although his marginal command of English was no match for my mother’s quick and brilliant facility with words, he outshined her in pure stubbornness. The arguments would become louder and angrier. My father, unwilling to take sides, retreated unhappily behind the newspaper. I hated hearing the arguments, all of the yelling and the obvious fact that this was more than just a political disagreement, it was also a personal attack on both sides. I begged my mother to stop, and I told her that I didn’t want to go to my grandparents’ house any more. But she refused to listen to my complaints.

I suspect that, in some strange way, my mother actually enjoyed these arguments. She was supremely confident and utterly convinced that she was right, of course. And perhaps she believed that, if she kept chipping away at my grandfather long enough and hard enough, he would eventually come to his senses and agree with her.

But he never did.

Gradually, my grandmother’s arthritis worsened. Various medications and treatments were tried, but a year or so later, she was in a wheelchair, and by the time I was a teenager, she was completely immobilized. She lay in bed, unable to move anything more than her eyeballs without suffering excruciating pain. I was frightened, afraid of hurting her, uncertain of what to say and how to act. But my mother insisted that we talk to my grandmother. My brothers and I would tiptoe into the bedroom and stand at the foot of the bed so she could see us without having to turn her head.

“Oh, mein kinderlach!” she would exclaim, her eyes filling with tears. “Come, come closer!”

We would inch towards the side of the bed, and my grandmother would slowly raise one finger, grimacing with pain as she reached to stroke our hands. Even at our young ages, we somehow knew that it was worth it to her, that no amount of pain could stop her from touching us.

In the living room, my mother would be arguing vociferously with my grandfather over a political candidate or a social issue. But after a while, they would just stop. My grandfather went into the kitchen to prepare my grandmother’s meal. I watched as he fed her lovingly with a spoon, gently wiping the food from her chin and bending the straw so she could drink.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood why my mother had insisted on those seemingly endless visits to my grandparents. I realized that, under the cover of those intense political debates, my mother believed in the value of a family, the invisible bonds that hold people together. I learned that politics and money and egos and everything else that family members disagree about were just on the surface, and that underneath this rough exterior were the things that really mattered: Devotion. Faithfulness. Love. Even when those family members were stubborn and argumentative. Even when they were opinionated and rude. Even when they did something stupid and dangerous and almost killed a sleeping baby. Even if they did all of these things, they were still family—still important and still loved.

Phyllis Nutkis

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