Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 3.9]

I worked my ass off the summer after graduation, trying to save as much money as possible for college. I was hired at the recently opened Golden Corral and on one level was happy to be away from Emily. But on another, I was a bit intimidated by the older women waitresses working there. One of them, Barb, seemed to hate me from the start. She was an attractive woman with dyed jet-black hair and long red nails, about my mom’s age. I noticed she became visibly irritated when our boss assigned her to teach me how to “turn a table over” properly. She barked out orders, wouldn’t look at me when she spoke, and glared annoyingly at me when I asked a question.

I used my most respectful tone and thanked her repeatedly, hoping to win her over, until she abruptly slammed the condiment cart down on the table and hissed, “Look, Missy, I don’t like you. Your mother is a bitch and a man-stealing slut. Stay away from me and we’ll get along just fine.”

Another woman who worked there, Sharon, overheard this and rescued me by grabbing my arm and taking me into the kitchen. After that, I glommed onto Sharon. I came to adore her, really. Sometimes we’d sit in her car after work drinking warm wine coolers and smoking menthols. She kept her hair bleached and had a very cute figure. Her voice was sweet and breathy, and she often played with my hair or grabbed my arm when we were talking. Sharon gave me her undivided attention and I could talk to her about anything. Sharon was the first woman I was ever close to that I would classify as “sexy.” She had a son a few years younger than me. At times, I felt affection for her like a mother. Other times, I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to kiss her. I was grateful for her kindness that summer.


When I wasn’t working or reading, I visited Grandma Trailer. She was nearing eighty and needed a little more help getting around. She kept herself entertained with never-ending crochet projects; in fact, her afghans and baby coats had become legendary around our small town. I asked her to teach me how to cook my favorite recipes of hers, and often, I’d stay so late watching TV and talking to her, I’d just end up sleeping on her couch. She was a great listener and always gave me her straight, honest opinion. She had a way of taking something I was worried about and making it seem like it was a natural and normal part of life. Nothing I said shocked her and she never judged. I trusted her implicitly.

She would answer any question I asked of her too, usually very matter-of-factly with a mix of pragmatic wisdom and sardonic humor.

“Grandma, do you ever get lonely? How come you never got remarried after Grandpa Louie died? That was so long ago now.”

“Oh Haw! Seriously, Michelle. What do I need a man for? Really.” Then laughing a bit, she said, “Well, let’s just put it this way. I wouldn’t get married again unless I met a man with a square asshole who could shit gold bricks.”

She was also a wealth of knowledge about our family history, and I discovered one day she was willing to confide in me and share things she probably wasn’t supposed to tell me.

One evening, we were sitting at the kitchen table playing solitaire and nibbling on Ritz crackers when Grandma said, “Have you talked to your mom lately?”

“Hmm. Yes. I went over there this past weekend. She and Dave were having a pool party.”

“I really like David. I think he’s good for her.”

“Me, too, Grandma. But can I tell you something?”

“Of course.”

“Well, did you know that Mom never calls me? And when I call her, she never asks about my life.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, she never calls me. I have to call her if I want to talk to her. I really don’t understand that. I keep calling her because I don’t want her to think I don’t love her. Do you think she just doesn’t want to talk to me?”

“Heavens no. She doesn’t call anyone, Michelle. I think she avoids calling all of us because she worries what we think of her.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, several years ago, she stopped coming over here for visits. She said she’s afraid that Grandma Jane and Grandpa Martin would get upset if they found out she comes to visit me and not them.”

“Grandma, why is she so upset with them?”

“Oh criminy. That’s complicated, Dear. Your mom has always felt that they didn’t like her as much as her siblings. They treated her differently.”

“Like how?”

“Well, for starters, they always wanted a boy. Had the name picked out and everything—Bobby. They had Betty first, then tried again and had your mom. Grandpa was disappointed and for some reason they used the name Bobby for your mom anyway, kept her hair short, and threw her into softball. Your mom hated it.”

“So then what happened when they had Carl?”

“Well, your mom felt like they didn’t have any more need for her. She never felt she could do anything right in their eyes. They did seem to come down on her pretty hard.”

“Like how?”

“Well, they didn’t let her wear pants, they wouldn’t let her go out on many dates or with her friends, and she seemed to be grounded a lot. Unfortunately, she struggled in school. They were never happy with her grades. They didn’t treat Carl or Betty that way.”

“Dad said Mom felt unloved?”

“I suppose.”

“What’s the matter with Grandma and Grandpa? Why would they treat her like that?”

“Michelle, you can’t ever repeat this, okay?”

“Promise,” I said, nodding.

“There’s something wrong with Grandma Jane. She isn’t quite right. Downright odd sometimes, in fact. She’s always tried to get sympathy from people and needs to be the center of attention. She was very jealous of your mother because your mom was so beautiful. Everything good that happened to your mom, like becoming a cheerleader, your grandma seemed to resent and sabotage one way or another.”

“I don’t understand. Grandma seems fine, sorta, when I’m around. At least I’ve never seen her be mean to anyone.”

“It’s hard to explain, but one night when she was pregnant with Betty, I got a call from her neighbors across the street. They said Jane was wandering up and down the sidewalk howling and moaning, kind of in hysterics or something. They went down to get her and they said she wasn’t lucid.”


“Yes. It was like she was in a trance. She snapped out of it when I yanked her back home. But honestly, I wonder if she wasn’t just faking it. Not that that’s any better. Anyway, there was another time when Grandpa called me because Grandma was in a ‘fit’ and kept sticking her head in the oven whenever Grandpa wasn’t looking. He’d catch her like that. Can you imagine? I came over and asked her why she was doing that and she said that your mom was driving her crazy.”

“Oh no, that’s awful.”

“Yes. Many of us have caught Grandma in all kinds of lies over the years. I think she fakes most of her illnesses, too, for attention. I’ve caught her many times acting fine one minute and sick the very next. And, she reads all those medical diagnosis books. She even tries to make friends with all her doctors. She’s always complaining to me that Grandpa doesn’t give her enough attention. Grandpa pitches a fit every time she convinces another doctor she has a new problem. He’s already spending over $800 dollars a month, after insurance, on her medicines. I think taking all that medicine probably makes her sicker.”

“Did Mom not get along with Betty and Carl? She doesn’t ever talk to them now.”

“No. They didn’t really seem to get along. Your mom always thought Betty was Grandma’s favorite and Carl was Grandpa’s favorite. And, at times, it really seemed that way. I remember one time, when your dad came to pick up your mom for a date, he knocked on the door and asked if ‘Cinderella’ could come out. They never really liked your dad much after that. It all used to make Grandpa Louie so mad. He tried to defend your mom and pull her aside and give her some attention. He’s the one who helped her apply to the Art Institute of Chicago. He said he would move ‘hell and high water’ to be sure she had the money to go if she got accepted.”

“She got accepted, right?”

“Yes, she did and she talked a lot her senior year about moving to Chicago and becoming a Playboy Bunny, of all things. I encouraged her. I thought it would be so exciting.”

“But then she got pregnant?”


“Oh Grandma, how awful. She got pregnant with me. And that ended everything for her, didn’t it?”

“Michelle, you shouldn’t think about it like that. Once they found out about you, they tried to do the best they could to be good parents. I think your mom loves you the best she can.”

“Yeah. I try not to be sad about it. Mom seems happier now with David. I just never want her to think I don’t love her.”

“I think she knows you do, Michelle.”

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