What Do You Do When You Think You Have a Murderer in the Family?
I've come to believe that my grandmother literally poisoned those around her.
Illustraties door Matt Rota
When I was four or five, sometimes I'd walk into my grandmother's bedroom to find her weeping. She'd be sitting on the side of the bed, going through boxes of tissues. I don't believe this was a side of herself she shared with other people; she may have felt we had a cosmic bond because I had her father's name as my middle name and his fair features. She was crying for Martha, her daughter, who died of melanoma at the age of 28. Ten years later, after Norman – her youngest child, my uncle – died, also at 28, she would weep for him.
People were always dying around Grandma – her children, her husbands, her boyfriend – so her lifelong state of grief was understandable. To see her sunken in her high and soft bed, enshrouded in the darkness of the attic, and surrounded by the skin-and-spit smell of old age, was to know that mothers don't get what they deserve. Today, when I think back on it, I don't wonder whether Grandma got what she deserved as a mother; I wonder whether she got what she deserved as a murderer.
A few months ago, I loaded the wife and kids into the car and went out to visit Grandma. I hadn't seen her in more than a year and a half, and in that time she had moved from her house to an assisted-living place to another assisted-living place. There was no good excuse for my lapse – I guess I couldn't quite deal with the way we'd left her house. A catastrophe. Full of stuff. The buyers said they'd take care of it, and they did; they tore the whole thing down. My brother had a friend from the neighborhood (out on Long Island, AKA Lawng Islund) who said it was the scandal of the year.
That house, where I spent so much of my childhood visiting Grandma, was disgusting. In the late 90s, my brother and I dedicated three days to cleaning it up. Joe, my grandmother's last boyfriend, had died, and his stuff was there. He was one of five dead people whose stuff was there, was everywhere. My aunt's stuff, my uncle's stuff, my grandfather's stuff, and Grandma's second husband's stuff filled, I'd estimate, about half the total volume of the huse. Driver's licenses and important papers and half-finished projects and mementos like the rusted bolts my uncle Norman, on his diving trips, had dragged out of sunken wrecks. In the basement library, we uncovered a vial of red viscous fluid. The vial, sealed with a hard wax or plastic, was handblown and quite beautiful, and the box was neatly jointed hardwood. We thought the thing might be valuable. It could have been old – we weren't sure. So we tried to sell it to a New York East Village curiosity shop, which advised that we dispose of it via the Poison Control Center.
In the basement's woodshop we found a sprinkling of half-melted heroin spoons (Grandma had let some pretty questionable characters crash with her), and in the backyard we found a big black garbage bag full of dead animals. You could tell it was animals from the outside of the bag; you could see the shapes of the corpses. We both peeked in but were so quick about it that all we confirmed was the presence of dead bodies, not what kind. My brother says he saw turtles, which seems likely, since my mother had owned half a dozen turtles that all perished in a sudden, inexplicable cataclysm. I saw an owl, which is less likely, but also possible, since there are owls on Lawng Islund. Most likely, we decided, the bag was full of cats and raccoons, which were always getting into Grandma's garbage. She'd yell at them from the back porch. The last time I saw the bag it was on the lawn waiting for the trash pickup. In the shining black plastic you could still see the rounded shapes of haunches.
In that house, even the stuff worth keeping was depressing. Once-beautiful oak rocking chairs and cherrywood secretary desks had been covered with white porch paint. Bookshelves were lined with mouse-eaten library cast-offs. The carpets were thriving with mold. Dishes were stained or flecked with dried food. The toilets were full, unflushed, and dusted with baby powder. Grandma would say not flushing saved money, but really, she just wanted to remind you that everything was about saving money.
In Grandma's defense, she came to consciousness during the Great Depression and never mentally left the era. When the economy turned sour, in the 90s and 00s, she would point out the cultural similarities, laying it all out: During times of scarcity there's a turn to mystical thinking, self-help, and the occult, she'd tell us. I have no doubt that she was right. Even in her old age, she was insightful and informed. She'd rattle around her disgusting house with public radio blaring in every room. She knew everything, for instance that prune juice could be employed as hair dye (to this day, her hair is prune-brown). She had heard a dentist advise on NPR that it was very important to rinse your mouth out with water and to floss, even if you didn't have a chance to brush your teeth, and as of this writing she's 94 and still has all her teeth in her head. Only now they're all loose. Her whole jaw looks like it's loose in her mouth.
When we went to visit her at the assisted-living place, I fixed her hearing aids, and my wife went out to get some adult diapers. Grandma barely knows who I am, and when I asked her about her children, she didn't remember Martha at all. I hadn't exactly missed her during those months of not visiting, so I didn't expect the visit to upset me. But Grandma not knowing Martha's name, Grandma lying in bed sucking on her unmoored jaw, Grandma with all of her teeth about to fall out – I almost lost it. The kids sat there, unblinking, their mouths hanging open in stupefied horror. For them, the last year has been a tour of deathbeds: Gigipop. Poppa. Abuelita. Granmaman. And now Grandma. It was obvious – she was next.
They managed to buck up when Grandma asked them to sing. They knew some German songs from school, and she joined in. She said that when she sings she returns to her childhood. She lives in it, she said, like it's the present moment. And maybe in her mind, when she sings, her childhood is still there – but I don't think there's much else there. Sometimes she points to her head and jokes about her "forgettery".
It's strange to see a parental figure get like that. As a kid, I'd stay at Grandma's house so my too-young parents could get a break, often for weeks at a time. She'd tell me that Jews invent things, that Jews don't drink, that Jews are smart because the philosophy of the Jews values thinking, and that I'm not supposed to call them Jews. She would say, "Even when we argue, you have a good mind." When I announced my engagement to a Gentile, Grandma dropped to her knees and begged me not to get married in a church. The wedding took place on a tennis court, and Grandma was the belle of the ball, flirting with my wife's uncles, who were 20 years younger than she was. Grandma was always a good time, but when she wasn't the host, wasn't responsible for the food, it was like a weight was lifted from her, like she could really be free.
Grandma's expertise in nutrition dates back to the 60s. By the mid 70s, she had written several self-published mimeographed books on nutritional intake and vitamins. Around then or possibly earlier, I think, she started to poison people.
I can't pin down exactly what she did with what ingredients. I can't even be sure that she really did the things I think she did. All I have, really, are pieces of circumstantial evidence and hunches that have coalesced over the years. In my narrative of suspicions, she preferred to use vitamin A (which can cause sleepiness, blurred vision, and nausea, among other things), then she used laxatives, and then, as she got older and lazier, she moved on to prescription drugs.
Grandma never cooked the same thing twice, and her creations were greasy beyond belief and usually really weird. For example: chicken baked with apricots and canned tomatoes, or mixed-up ground meats with prunes, or pickled things. She was infamous at the local grocery store. They saved the shark livers for her.
In later years, her meals featured courses of ready-made, or nearly ready-made, food, and eventually that became her favored methodology. She had this effective strategy of finding the food you loved most, buying it in ridiculous amounts, and feeding it to you unrelentingly. You'd eat it – the imported Jarlsberg, the ice cream. And you'd pass out on the couch, or on the train back to the city. Of course, the longer you stayed with Grandma, the more likely something bad would happen to you. If you visited her for a week, you'd suffer from the shits, you'd be exhausted, and your vision would start to blur.
At first, my mother was the only one who'd refuse to eat Grandma's food, and I thought she was being paranoid. Then I started noticing that every time I went to Grandma's, I'd pass out on the couch or on the train on the way back to the city. When I stopped eating Grandma's food, my brother thought I was paranoid. But I stopped passing out, and pretty soon he stopped eating Grandma's food too.
But here's the thing: You don't want to believe your grandmother is poisoning you. You know that she loves you – there's no doubt of that – and she's so marvelously grandmotherly and charming. And you know that she would never want to poison you. So despite your better judgment, you eat the food until you've passed out so many times that you can't keep doubting yourself. Eventually, we would arrive for holidays at Grandma's with groceries and takeout, and she'd seem relieved that we wouldn't let her touch our plates. By then, her eyesight was starting to go, so she wouldn't notice the layer of crystalline powder atop that fancy lox she was giving you.
So the question became: How did we explain to guests, outsiders, that they shouldn't eat grandma's food? One time, maybe on Passover, my brother brought his new girlfriend, an actress. Grandma had promised not to prepare anything, and it seemed she'd kept her word, so we didn't mention the poisoning thing to the girlfriend, but after we'd eaten lunch, Grandma came out of the kitchen with these oatmeal raisin cookies that looked terrible. They were bulbous, like the baking soda had gone haywire. My brother's girlfriend ate two of them, maybe out of politeness. We looked on, aghast. She had a rehearsal in the city, but she passed out on the couch and missed it.
So why would Grandma poison us? Well, for some time, my mother has postulated that Grandma has Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a condition that causes caregivers to poison or injure their charges. Me? I'm sure that Grandma wasn't trying to hurt anyone. If she slipped you a Mickey it was because she didn't want you to leave – she loved to make people miss their train. "Stay the night, stay the night," she'd coo.
Other times, Grandma's concerns seemed more practical. My mother, when she moved back to Grandma's for a brief time, had many pets – turtles, dogs, hamsters, cats – that successively took ill and died. And there was Joe, the ex-paratrooper who was Grandma's last boyfriend. He got into the habit of blowing his pension checks in Atlantic City and mooching off Grandma until the next check arrived. Then he got a broken leg and we got all these hysterical calls from Grandma saying she was forced to wait on him hand and foot – and then he was dead.
And what would Grandma say? Well, even if she was inclined or in a condition to tell me why she did what she did, I don't think she'd be able to. She's always been a mystery, even to herself. There's this story she would tell: When she was a very young girl, a boy tried to kiss her in a closet, so she shoved him away and ran home and cried and cried. "Why, Grandma?" we would ask her. "Because," she would say, "I was in love with him!"
Grandma's father was an older man, tall and handsome, a widower who had been an equestrian back in Russia. Her mother was 17 when she married him. The couple had four daughters and one boy, who died very young. When the Depression hit, the father was called in to the office of the Brooklyn factory where he worked as a foreman: They had no choice; they would have to let him go. He begged for a job, any job, to support his family, which was how he became a "fireman," shoveling coal into a furnace. An explosion, a backfire, I think it's called, injured him badly, and he didn't come home. He disappeared. Three weeks after the accident, my grandmother went out to talk to a man who was sitting on the stoop across from their house. His face was covered in bandages. She asked why he hadn't come home, and he said, "I was afraid you wouldn't love me anymore." He was scarred for the rest of his life. I never met my great-grandfather Benjamin, my namesake.
Grandma's first husband, Irving – she was married to him through the 50s and 60s – was adored by everyone, just like her father. He was in business with some Italians, which is one way to describe his trade. After 20 years of marriage, she divorced him, and it wasn't until much later that I got the inkling it might have been because Irving had a frightening side.
In 1982, when he was 70 years old, Irving was in a car accident. He drove his Cadillac off the highway. He might have fallen asleep, or it might have been the fault of the screwdriver that was discovered in the steering column. His head was smashed up in the wreck, but he was a tough old Jew, and after four years he woke up and spent ten more fighting his paralysis before dying in his late 80s. Meanwhile, his money became the object of a convoluted lawsuit that resulted in Irving's business partners and second wife (who cared for him) getting most of his fortune. Throughout all that, Grandma would bemoan the fact that she'd left Irving. She'd say, "The kinds of things he did all day, you can't come home and be Mr. Nice Guy, no way."
Martha, Grandma's oldest child and my aunt, got cancer in her 20s. Grandma cared for her. Martha's disease might have killed her, but... well, I don't know. Aaron, Grandma's second husband, also died of cancer back in the 1970s. He was deaf, he hated television, and he yelled at children – Grandma said that she married him because "he was the only one who would have me". He smoked pipes. After his first operation, for throat cancer, he played ping-pong with me; he seemed happy and was less of a monster. He took up gardening. But no matter how much he ate, he kept losing weight and withered away. Or... Again, it could have just been the cancer.
Next up in the funerary procession was Norman, Grandma's youngest child and only son. So let's talk about him: Norman was a piece of shit. He was only eight years older than I was, and he tortured me when I was a kid. He had the most hideous laugh, like a pig squealing. Not a happy pig. Like a pig in pain. He'd threaten me with knives and steal and break my things. He'd try to convince me that he was going to kidnap me in the middle of the night and sell me to "the Arabs". Maybe all that was because he was envious of me; he was chunky and Jewish-looking, so Grandma, with her blue eyes and blond hair, found him repellent. In sharp contrast to Norman, the fleshy failure, I was a natural athlete with Gentile features and, therefore, her favorite. Once, I saw Grandma punish Norman by standing him in front of the open stove, turning up the broiler flames, and threatening to burn off his dick. He was maybe 12 at the time. She'd also cook him huge plates of food and offer them to him. He'd say no because he didn't want to get any fatter, but she'd keep pushing the food under his chin until he finally ate – and then berate him for being so fat.
Norman liked weapons. He collected things that killed, like crossbows and axes, and everyone was terrified of him. He would sometimes storm around the house with a bowie knife or machete, and the rest of us would cower in our rooms. When I was maybe seven, he covered my arm in methane and set it on fire, just to show me how powerful methane was and how lighting it wouldn't hurt me. It's true that I didn't feel any pain, though it did burn all the hair off my arm. Another time, when I was visiting Lawng Islund as a teenager, a bunch of other kids tackled me and kicked me over and over. My mother thought Norman had sent them.
Should I mention that he was a genius? He was; he could do anything. When I was eight, he walked me to Canal Street, just a few blocks from where I lived in Tribeca, to show me how he could buy computer parts and assemble a working machine in an afternoon, which he did.
In the late 80s, when he was 28, Norman was still living with Grandma, but he was kind of figuring things out: He had lost weight, he had a girlfriend, and he was thinking about some kind of career in computers, "networked computers," as they called what would become the internet back then. He was way into scuba diving too. He would sleep underwater in the tub with his equipment on, and sometimes he'd rent a boat and dive down to some wreck and take photos.
The day of the accident, he was scheduled to go out on a rented boat, but Grandma didn't want him to go – she always complained about how expensive it was – so she slipped him something. I think. He was feeling pretty out of it that morning; he thought maybe he was sick. His partner persuaded him to go out anyway, and then there was a problem with the configuration of Norman's equipment when he was underwater. Maybe it was a malfunction, or maybe it was his own fault; he had customized all his gear (because he was a genius). His diving partner swam to the surface alone, instead of sharing his tank with Norman in a "buddy-system" ascent. We don't know exactly why Norman stayed down there. It might have been that he thought he didn't have enough oxygen to attempt a "controlled emergency" ascent, which is when you exhale all the way up. Or it might have been that he was entangled in the U-boat wreck he and his partner were investigating. Or he might have just been too out of it to save himself. There are these flags that divers can fire up toward the surface to alert the rescue diver, who's supposed to be ready to go on the deck of the boat, and Norman did send up his flag. But this was Lawng Islund, where rules about keeping rescue divers on boats aren't taken too seriously, and Norman died down there, watching that fucking flag wave.
Then there was my wife's miscarriage. Funny thing about that. Or not "funny," I guess, but I forgot about it until I decided to write this story and I was going over some old notes. When we announced my wife's pregnancy, Grandma freaked out about how there'd be another mouth to feed and we couldn't afford it. We visited her just before my wife miscarried, and even though my wife knew to stay away from her food, everyone slips up a little from time to time. And, well... it was late in the pregnancy for a miscarriage. And the dates line up. But it could be a coincidence.
Later, when we did have a child, Grandma came over to celebrate, bearing a present for the baby: a pair of medical scissors – sharp, pointed, big medical scissors. On another visit, she brought us beets she had bought. I was like, "Grandma, why are you giving me 15 cans of beets?" She had recipes, beets this and beets that, and lots and lots of them included sunflower seeds too. She was enormously proud of one invention: beet-and-sunflower-seed ice cream. You couldn't top it, nutrition-wise, she said. Look it up. I did: "Canned beets and sunflower seeds," I typed into my computer. "URGENT PRODUCT RECALL," Google spat back. Everything she gave us should have been pulled from the shelves.
Sometimes when I tell these stories, I have the feeling that people think I should have done something. Well, it was difficult psychologically to piece all of this together, and as a kid, I didn't understand what was going on. Before Grandma put me to bed she'd sometimes serve me this really rich hot chocolate that looked oily and thin. And when I woke up it would be 24 or even 72 hours later. Three or four times we rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night because I was having trouble breathing. But it wasn't until my 30s that I connected all this and it dawned on me that sleeping for three days is not normal or OK, and that the only times I woke up in the middle of the night unable to breathe, I was at Grandma's.
And even when I did figure it out, so what? After Joe, Grandma's last boyfriend, died, I went to the cops and told them I thought Grandma was involved. They said, "Whaddya want us to do about it?"
And now, once again, I feel like I'm supposed to care. Like there should be closure. Either I purge my past, forgive her, and arrive at a higher vibrational state, or I find proof of what she's done over the years and expose her once and for all. I'd always planned to search her house one last time, but now the house is gone. And nobody is exhuming any bodies, and Grandma doesn't even know what Grandma did. And there's not going to be any grand finale. And as I sat there listening to Grandma sing with my children – not quite crying, I wasn't quite crying – I realised that I didn't care what had happened, that nobody cares what happened, that caring is for cops on CSI and doctors on ER and muscle-bound Marines in the movies.
Not long ago, I was talking to a friend I've told about Grandma. My friend casually mentioned that Grandma could have accidentally killed me, which surprised me. That wasn't accurate, I said.
"But didn't you have trouble breathing? Didn't you rush to the hospital in the middle of the night? She wasn't trying to hurt you, she was trying to manage you, but she could have hurt you."
"I suppose that's true," I said, nodding, slowly and in disbelief, because Grandma never would have hurt me. We had a cosmic bond.