Susan Sheu | Longreads | December 2017 | 23 minutes (5,862 words)
In the early 1980s, my mother took a class at the local Wisconsin university’s student psychology center called “Assertiveness Training.” She was awakening belatedly to a version of the mind-expanding youth she had missed by marrying and dropping out of college at age 20 in 1967, during the Summer of Love. The class was taught by Dr. B, who told the students to use “I” statements to ask for what they wanted in plain terms during work and family interactions. (“I am unhappy that you said that to me. I feel that I am not heard when I speak to you.”) The idea was to learn to be assertive but not aggressive, to stop being a silently suffering martyr or someone who holds in all their anger and resentment until it boils over into inappropriate and ineffective rage or self-destructive behavior. It goes without saying that the class was all women. As she immersed herself in college again, my mother began to tell me that when I grew up, I could be anything I wanted — a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist. Even though the Equal Rights Amendment had not been ratified, she wanted me to believe that my future was up to me. Perhaps that was one reason she took Assertiveness Training, to be the kind of mother who raised a daughter who wouldn’t need a class like that.
My grandmother was the model of someone who regularly displayed inappropriate anger, someone my mom was trying to avoid becoming. My grandma Violet had once been docile, and my mom believed that she made the rest of us pay for that false submissiveness for the rest of her life. The short version of my grandmother’s story is that she didn’t marry the man she was in love with because he was Catholic and she was Protestant (this was Nebraska, circa 1928); she didn’t attend college despite receiving a debate scholarship because her mother feigned illness to keep her youngest child at home; and she tried to be a good wife in a marriage with a decent, practical man with whom she was not in love. She ran my grandpa’s restaurant while he was serving in World War II, and when he returned, no longer had any day-to-day responsibilities in the business operations.
By the time I knew her, my grandmother was smoking, alternating between Camels and Newports, drinking gin and, if she was feeling moderate, Mogen David wine (“The Jews” drank it. And Sammy Davis, Jr., “that talented Negro,” was a Jew. It had a screw top. And it was sweet.). She told off anyone who stood in her way, and for decades after her death, my mother made me pretend she was still alive, because it was the memory of my grandma’s fiery temper more than the restraining order that kept my father away. My grandma also took Valium, prescribed by the psychiatrist she began seeing shortly before her death in 1978. I was 9 when she died, but I already knew that her outspokenness and self-medication were a great source of shame for my mom and grandpa.
I’ve since come to understand that my grandma had the appropriate response to her circumstances.