High on my list of Birthday Presents I Was Least Excited To Receive are all three presents I ever received from my evil step-grandmother. She married my grandfather about a year after my grandmother died relatively young of emphysema (having been prescribed cigarettes by her doctor a couple of decades before…) and set about alienating our entire side of the family with astonishing speed.
In the early years of her hostile take-over of my grandfather, they still spent their summers in the Old House down the street from my mom, my two brothers, and me. The Old House was the venerable ancestral hovel, the white clapboard homestead built in 1840 that still had a well in the sink when I was growing up, and was only three houses down the lane from our house. Bobbi (“Aah!” she would scream, “don’t call me granny!!!” “OK,” we mumbled, agreeably enough) hated the Old House, hated Cape Cod, and was mortally offended by her husband’s daughter — my mom — and her seriously scruffy, underacheiving kids down the street. My mom was divorced, we were poor, provincial, out of shape, and — the gravest sin of them all — we didn’t ski.
Bobbi spent her winters in Vermont, where she and Granddad skiied every day. During her summers on Cape Cod, she and Granddad rode their matching bicycles, wearing matching warm-up suits and sneakers, to the tennis courts at my middle school at about the same time my bus picked me up. The sound of bike tires on the asphalt made me leap behind the bushes at the bus stop more than once. I’d shiver under my fuschia-and-turquoise backpack in pure 7th-grade terror, waiting for the sounds of shifting ten-speed gears to fade into the distance, and then I’d realize I’d missed my bus. Then I’d go home and call a cab to school. Well. Maybe. Often I’d just stay home, eat Mrs. Grass Chicken Soup (with the magical Golden Flavor Nugget!) and watch The Courtship of Eddie’s Father reruns.
She was a WASP-y, elitist, fitness-obsessed, loudmouthed horror, and I was an overweight, poor, fatherless, bookish 7th grader.
So, at first, she tried to “help.”
The first birthday present was that first summer in the early 80s, almost a full year after her annexation of the Grandparental Territories had begun. On the morning in question, she left on my doorstep an unwrapped present, still in the shopping bag complete with price tag, that I opened with an unsurprisingly low level of enthusiasm. Hot off the presses, it was the latest audio cassette tape of Jazzercise! For Beginners! accompanied by a Visual Aid Poster and Manual!
I used to listen to it while eating an entire box of Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookies, ass up on my bed, reading Harlequin Romances.
The next summer, it was a pair of Nike running shoes. I was actually kind of excited about these, because the new eighth grade uniform was clearly shaping up to consist entirely of chinos, blue izod shirts, and white nikes with the red swoosh. God, we must have looked like such creepy little Junior Republicans.
But I wore them to the beach the next weekend, forgot that I was wearing them, and went for a delightful tromp through the nearby salt marsh. Of course the muck suctioned them right off my feet, and I had to walk back to the beach barefoot, bloodying the soles of my feet on the sharp, broken reeds of the marsh trail.
Later that summer, I was walking back up the hill to my house from the store with a bag of candy bars swinging at my side (I had three new Harlequins, and it would probably take at least until dinner to finish them all). I heard the familiar drone of my grandfather’s Buick behind me, and, cleverly thinking to fool them into thinking they had just caught me at the tail end of my evening jog, tossed my candy bag onto the neighbor’s lawn and started to jog. The late lamented Nikes being in the Great Salt Marsh in the Sky, I was of course wearing my Dr. Scholl’s clogs.
Clomp clomp clomp clomp
They didn’t buy it.
But they did very thoughtfully pull up alongside me and ask me if I hadn’t dropped something back there in the neighbor’s yard. Then Bobbi suggested I try my next jog in my nice new Nikes. I must have gotten a look of sweaty panic on my face at that point, because she smirked and waved my grandfather on homeward.
The next summer, Bobbi made her last attempt at reforming me, and gave me her last “gift.” At the beginning of the summer, she promised to give me a dollar for every pound I had lost by Labor Day. Of course I was insulted by these slave wages; I had been working at Anthony’s Italian Restaurant all year as the salad girl, and was making about 75 bucks a week. I didn’t really think about her offer again until I happened to be standing in the driveway as she and Granddad and the Buick drove up, away from the Old House for the last time that summer, and they slowed up beside me.
“How much do I owe ya?” Bobbi said, twisting her lips sourly.
I stared at her a minute, then dug into my back pocket and tossed a ten onto her lap. As I turned back to the house, I called over my shoulder, “Keep the change.”