A Gift

I stared in disbelief at my grandmother’s door—the locked entrance to the apartment where I’d spent most of my life. “What do you mean, ‘how are you?’” I shouted. “You’re not even going to open the god-damned door?”

“I’m glad you’re all right,” she called out. “Okay, then. Bye.”

I pounded on the door with my fists and screamed, “Grandma! Grandma! I can’t believe you!” But I could. My grandmother had three major flaws: number one was too much pride; number two was her secretiveness; and number three—her worst flaw—was her ability to completely ignore any situation or conversation that caused her the slightest discomfort. And that was exactly what Grandma was doing.

I turned to Barbara, my new foster sister, who had come with me. She was staring strangely at me, her normally pale skin flushed, her big brown eyes large with fear. “Sorry, Barbie. I thought she’d…” My words trailed off and I rested my head against the apartment door and began to cry. I was thirteen. I hadn’t lived with my grandmother for almost two years, and when I had, I’d always felt like an intruder. But for some reason I didn’t really understand, I still considered her place home.

I’d gone to live with my grandmother when I was five years old. My parents were drug addicts and couldn’t raise me, so Gram had stepped in, offering me a home inside the red brick building in the projects where she lived. Life with Grandma had been isolating. She was as proud as she was uneducated, and because she lived in fear that her limitations might be exposed, she lived a very private life, with few connections to the outside world. I was, for the most part, a good kid, but by the age of ten I had become restless. I’d found my voice, too—a voice of indignation and ferocious rebellion. Grandma’s apartment became a battleground and each day the war between us escalated. By the time I was eleven, Gram had had enough and kicked me out.

In the two years that followed, I’d bounced from the apartments of other family members to mental hospitals, from shelters to group homes. Now, at thirteen, I’d landed at my current residence, a foster home I loved. Despite the battles I’d waged against my grandmother, despite all the bad blood between us, I wanted to reconnect with her—to show her how well I was doing and introduce her to my new foster sister. What I wanted most of all was Grandma’s approval, and in my youthful ignorance, I thought I could show up at her house by surprise and she would toss aside my history of bad behavior, throw open the door and welcome me in with open arms. So her “How are you?” from behind the locked door was a slap in the face—a stinging wallop back to the reality that she had never fully accepted me. She didn’t want to see me? Not even through a crack in the door with the safety chain on? A hundred painful emotions churned inside of me, and with them came the involuntary tears I was furious at myself for shedding.

“You won’t open the door? It’s okay. Fuck you!” I screamed. “Come on!” I ordered Barbara, flying past her and down the hall, out the door of the apartment building, down the front stairs.

“You okay?” Barbara called after me, her voice thick with concern and heavy with accent.

“I’m fine!” I declared, though I was anything but. Grandma had wounded me and I wanted to wound her back. My face cast downward, I wiped fiercely at my eyes and rounded the corner of the brick building where I’d been raised. I had no idea what I was going to do until I looked up at the parking lot behind the building. There was my grandmother’s beloved car, parked behind the crippled fence. I got a trick for her ass,” I muttered to myself and headed toward the back of the building.

“What are you doing?” Barbara asked as she watched me struggle a few bricks loose from under the stairs of the back porch. Without answering her, I headed straight for Grandma’s silver Buick Thunderbird. She had bought it with the insurance money she’d gotten after a driver smashed into her other old clunker a few years earlier. A year ago, some kids had busted out one of the Thunderbird’s windows by accident and she’d been upset. Well, she’d be devastated by the time I finished with that car. The bricks I was holding fell to the ground—all but one. As I took aim at the front windshield, I felt strangely calm. With all my might, I hurled the brick. The alarm began wailing as soon as it made contact, but I’d only made a dent, not a smash. I picked up the brick again. I could see a few bystanders peering at me as I took aim the second time and fired.

It took four more hits before that front window was smashed to my satisfaction. I moved on to the passenger’s-side window. Again I took aim—but this time, when the brick hit the glass, the window exploded. I think the mixture of exploding glass, shrieking car alarm, and my own fierce emotions made me high. By the time I’d busted out the last window, I was laughing and crying hysterically. The last thing I remember is my foster sister grabbing me by my arm and dragging me away from the scene of my crime. As she did, I caught a glimpse of my grandmother peering out of my old bedroom window. She was a shadowy figure behind a curtain, and I was a feverish thirteen-year-old in a yellow sundress and white sandals, an outfit I’d put on that morning to show her how well I was doing.

I know this sounds like the memory of a disturbed young girl—and it is. But it’s more than that. This is a story of gratitude for the gift of forgiveness—for the gift of abiding love.

A year after the window-smashing incident—the year I was fourteen—I was arrested for murder. Stretched out on my bunk on my first night in a juvenile detention center, I thought about how completely alone I was. Both of my parents were messed up, and as for the rest of my family, I’d let years of anger burn every bridge between them and me. There’d be no one in the world to stand by me while I fought to survive in the face of hopelessness and despair. So I was taken by surprise when, the next morning, I was called for a visit. And what surprised me even more was that the visitor was my reclusive grandmother—a woman who preferred solitude to company, isolation to connection. Yet there she was, in a floral dress and matching headband, walking her proud walk, her hands turned out to show off her ring. I braced myself as she approached me, thinking I was in for a verbal assault I didn’t have the energy to endure. But the biggest surprise I got that morning was the kiss and the hug Grandma gave when she reached me. No judgment, no harsh words, no bitter tone.

We visited for two hours, and she promised me she’d be back the next day—that she’d always be there for me as long as she had breath in her body. And you know what? She did come back the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. Grandma has continued to be there for me until this day ten years later. For that, I’m grateful beyond what these words can express.

My grandmother has never brought up that day I destroyed her car. On the day of her first visit—the first full day of my imprisoned life—she and I had a new beginning. I believe my grandmother has blessed me with many things over the years, but the most precious gift she has ever given me came ten years ago in that visiting room. To this day I can see her approaching me in her colorful dress, walking across a bridge of love to give me the gift of a second start.

Robin Ledbetter is a friend of POPS who knows the gift of writing and friendship. Robin is serving a 50-year sentence in prison, a sentence she received when she was 14 years old. You can read more about Robin in her award-winning PEN America Free Expression story at http://www.pen.org/nonfiction-essay/laying-roots.

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