As kids my sister and I visited our grandparents’ house on the Mississippi Gulf Coast every summer. They had homemade pralines that Grandpa’s too tired to make these days and a big magnolia tree that they’ve since cut down. We all drove out to their lake house just over the border in Louisiana, and I learned how to bait a hook, although I never mastered the art of proper casting.
The grandparents are older now–in their mid-80’s–and for the past few years Grandma has put us up at the local Sleep Inn.
The inn is across Highway 90 from the beach, which is nice except that Sister and I have learned not to walk barefoot along the water’s edge. Many of the apparent rocks lining the beach are smushy and dark, and they stick to your feet like raw petroleum.
(Well, actually, I’ve never touched raw petroleum, but my unscientific theory is that these sandy clumps are partly composed of it since I recall that there were some nasty oil spills in the Gulf back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and there was another in the late 80’s, before the proliferation of casinos in nearby Biloxi and Gulfport, that threatened to wipe out the Least Terns and other bird populations. There are still special preserve areas along the beach for their nests even now. )
After stepping on these squishy things a few times and scrubbing our feet for a half-hour to rid our skin of smeary, black tar, we’ve finally learned to wear sandals or flip-flops along the beach, and to avoid wading.
My grandparents are lonely. They live in a house that’s much too big for them, with a lawn that’s much too big for them, and they drive cars that are much too big for them. They drive the cars over medians or the wrong way down busy highways.
Their children (my dad and my aunt) live far away, in Miami and Nashville. My aunt visits as often as she can, and Dad visits once a year, and they aren’t ready to face the fact that the house needs to be sold and the cars need to be taken away, and that a move into a retirement village could solve some of these problems.
I think my grandmother would be ready for this step if she weren’t afraid the move would kill my grandfather, whose life centers around their large yard and his big easy chair, and emailing loved ones.
Each year when we visit, we sit in the fancy living room we weren’t allowed in as kids, and Grandma (bless her heart) breaks out the $3.99 champagne and urges us to finish the bottle with her before we go out to dinner. Every night ends with at least one of them in tears because my sister has been estranged from my dad for more than five years, and because my parents are divorced and we, their poor Yankee granddaughters (if you grow up in Miami, you’re a Yankee), are products of a broken home.
I know it sounds like I’m poking fun at them, but I’m not. This is what they know. They love us and pity us and feel estranged from us, all in equal measure, and we feel the same way toward them.
Last year I completely cut off contact with my father, for reasons I won’t get into here. They’ve hardly spoken to me since. They want me to call, but when I do they cry and Grandpa reminds me that he won’t be on this earth much longer and that he wants peace in the family before he dies.
I wish I could give it to him, but it’s not gonna happen.
At night we depart for the hotel, filled with guilt, and we drive down to the Grand Casino where the surviving Barthelme brothers gambled away their inheritance.
A few drinks will take the edge off, we figure. But each year we forget exactly how bad the drinks are. I don’t know what it takes to get a whiskey and coke with Jack Daniels or a gin and tonic with Tanqueray, but we haven’t learned the trick yet. Typically we each order one drink that’s so putrid we can’t finish it. I swear their best wine is Mad Dog 20/20.
Then we return to the hotel and play cards and watch bad TV movies. For the last two years, I’ve used the trip as an opportunity to dye my hair.
Recently Grandma let it slip that money has been tight for them, so this year Sister and I bought a package deal: round-trip airfare and two nights at the Imperial Palace Biloxi. We’re hoping the drinks are a little better. There’s a movie theater there, anyway.
I’m trying to remember all the good things about visiting the coast: eating po-boys at Pirate’s Cove, the bell at Annie’s Restaurant in Pass Christian, sun in wintertime, fresh tomatoes, yellow cake with caramel icing, and the fact that the visit brings our grandparents joy.
All the same, I’m having trouble feeling anything but dread right now.