***Trigger warning: violence; child sexual abuse, mental health***
“Life is a game of hopscotch,” she tells Emily, her 20-year-old granddaughter.
Emily is ebullient, bursting with excitement over landing her first job. Grandma’s thrilled for her, but the pain in her back is so severe she’s struggling to keep smiling. Visits from her daughters or Emily, or whoever’s left of her diminishing circle of friends are so few and far between these days that she really needs Emily’s youthful exuberance to brighten her day and ease the loneliness of old age.
“Young people have so many better things to do” is how she consoles herself as day after visit-less day goes by. A young woman like Emily has more exciting things on her plate. How bloody boring for a young person to spend time listening to an old lady prattle on about her arthritis, peripheral neuropathy, cataracts, swollen ankles, and aching knees, or her worries about her granddad’s increasing sugar cravings, and almost total deafness. How bloody boring indeed. She even bores herself.
And worse yet, if she’s not grizzling about how everything hurts, then she’s complaining about Grandpa’s annoying habit of constant channel-swapping during the commercials. She remembers telling her elder daughter, Vanessa, ages ago, or was it last week…she can’t remember now…each day’s the same as the day before…that
“…his channel-surfing pisses me off big-time!”
Vanessa had replied: “Yes, I know Mom. You’ve told me that several times now.”
She had caught Vanessa rolling her eyes but pretended she hadn’t. Vanessa’s exasperated, what-can-I-do-about-it sigh couldn’t stop her when she was on a roll. It was such a relief to have someone else besides herself or her deaf old hubby to talk with. Otherwise, too many unwanted memories found a way to fill the silent void of her days.
“You know, your father is so riveted by those stupid battle bots, that when he finally switches back to Law and Order SVU, we’ve missed the prosecutor nailing some damn misogynistic rapist. You know, that’s my favourite part of each episode, Vanessa. I hate missing it. Lock ‘em up and throw away the key, I yell at the TV.”
She’s jolted back to the present by the vehemence of her unspoken feelings and the quizzical look on Emily’s face. Did she just say that out loud or only in her head?
“We were talking about why you say life is a game of hopscotch, Grandma. Remember?”
She doesn’t remember but it’s easier to pretend she does, to lie, than to be honest about her mind forever going walkabout lately. It’s her father’s fault that she lies. He had turned her into a liar when she was a child, when she realized that telling the truth brought a smack across her face or a fist into her ear. When you get punished for being honest, you may as well lie. So lying became second nature, even when she didn’t need to lie. It’s called mental survival. So she lies to Emily when she adds:
“Oh, I was just thinking about you and your excitement over your first job. I suppose it will be the first of several jobs in your lifetime. That’s part of what I mean about life being a game of hopscotch.”
“Oh, so you mean forever hopping from job to job?”
“I suppose I do.”
“Oh, grandma. This is the job of my dreams. I can see myself staying with this company forever!”
She’d like to have ten bucks for every time she’d told herself similar stories over the past seventy-plus years, not just about the various jobs she’d held, but about the dozens of major decisions she’d made believing they were the right ones, only to find herself back at square one again and again. A game of hopscotch.
“That IS what you mean, isn’t it Grandma?”
How sweet Emily is, trying to keep her engaged in the moment instead of lost in memories and too often lately, in regrets. It’s so easy now, when she hasn’t much else to do and no-one else to talk to except a husband who can’t hear her unless she shouts, to go wandering down depressing paths into the past looking for happier times. On those paths, she keeps running into old friends with whom she spent her younger days, only to remember now that many are long departed. She wonders how many made it into that heaven for which they sacrificed “their wicked innermost desires” in case they jeopardized their chances of getting inside the pearly gates. What about the others? Some probably went to that hell they might well have deserved but who would know if they did? All of them wore masks and covered up lies and indiscretions. Okay, sins if you insist! And then the rest? As she expects will be her case any time now, they simply returned to the dust from which some nun or priest said they came. Another insignificant human…just dust. Back to square one.
“Scotch, Emily? No thanks. I hate the stuff. That’s your grandpa’s drink, dear, but thanks for asking.”
“No grandma. I wasn’t asking if you want a drink. I wanted to know why you said life is a game of hopscotch. I asked if you meant constantly changing jobs…”
“Oh yes, we were discussing that weren’t we sweetheart. I remember,” she lies again. “Well, going from job to job is just one part of why I say that. But it’s…how should I put this? Okay. Let’s try this. When I was a child, though I wasn’t very good at it, I loved playing hopscotch with my playmates. Do kids still play hopscotch today or are they banning that along with books because the chalk defaces the sidewalk or kids might hurt themselves or some such contemporary insanity?”
“Yes, Grandma. Kids still play hopscotch. So as you were going to say…?”
Ah, Emily. How good she is at keeping her Grandma focussed!
“Well, what I’m trying to say, and not saying very well, I’m afraid, is that as a child, whenever it was my turn to step on that starting square, I would tell myself that this time I wasn’t going to lose my balance when I had to hop on just one leg, that I’d land properly when I had to come down with both legs but on opposite squares, and that I’d get all the way to the end in one go. In short, that as long as I kept trying, I would succeed.”
“Was succeeding important to you, Grandma? Why?”
Why? Careful here, Grandma. Emily is plunging her back into those dark, early days. Those days growing up with that tyrant she called daddy sometimes, father other times. The one who convinced her that she was ugly and would never succeed at anything unless she did everything he expected of her, without question, because only he knew what was best for her. The one who terrified her so much she didn’t dare oppose him or deny whatever he wanted. The one whom she knew, deep in her soul, was doing a bad thing but she didn’t know how to stop him. An ongoing game of father-daughter hopscotch. She was too scared of her father, a narcissist whose belt made sure she got the message, who insisted that good daughters always did what their daddies told them to do. A so-called “father” who played hopscotch with everything she was. He played with her essence so often that all the chalk lines were erased, and she lost so much belief in herself that she ended up starting from square one, again and again, just to get to where she was now.
“Where did you just go?”
“Oh…um…I was just picturing myself playing hopscotch with my friends and remembering how I got better and better at landing on two feet by constantly re-drawing the lines someone else tried so hard to blur and nearly succeeded erasing altogether.”
“So then, you mastered hopscotch, Grandma?”
“Well, it’s more like I mastered myself, Emily, by refusing to believe those who said I wouldn’t succeed. It took one hell of a lot of self-talk!”
Emily plants a kiss on her wrinkled cheek, asking, “Can I make you a cup of tea or something, Grandma, before I go say hi to Grandpa?”
“No I’m fine,” she lies again. “Thanks for dropping by sweetheart.”
Is she fine? No, she’s not. All that lying is going to land her in Purgatory at the very least. Bah! That’s B.S. Good thing she stopped believing in all that religious nonsense when he first started playing hopscotch with her heart and soul and years of prayers changed nothing.
Her chat with Emily has stirred up too many unwanted memories, the ones buried so deep, the ones she never fully succeeded in erasing…the ones that take her back to square one again and again.