Even though Gumma never liked my mother, Denise occasionally tried to earn her approval.
One Christmas my parents left Sibby and I at Gumma and Da's so they could go to a party. When they came to pick us up, my mother was drunk as a skunk and thought that that was an appropriate time to give her mother in law her gift.
"They're parfoooms," she slurred, with a hint of a British accent, as if Gumma needed an explanation as to what these tiny bottles of liquid were. Gumma thanked Denise, respectfully ignoring the fact that she was obliterated.
In true addict fashion my mother craved Gumma's love, and went through the spectrum of emotions when she didn't get it. Sometimes, when Denise was drunk, she’d bad mouth her mother in law.
"She's a mean drunk!" she'd ironically spew, alone at the dining room table at midnight.
Then there was self pity. "I could be a princess and I still wouldn't be good enough for her precious son."
It's no wonder that Denise felt most comfortable around her disapproving mother in law when she was drunk. That was when when she was most comfortable. Vodka/tonics took away the part of my mother that cared so much. This cycle continued throughout my parent's twenty year marriage: Denise trying to earn Gumma's approval, getting angry that she couldn't, feeling down on herself, then not caring.
On Gumma's eighty-second birthday my mother bought her cake. It was the nicest pre-made sheet cake Stop & Shop had to offer, decorated with "Happy Birthday Gumma" in pink icing. She wanted it to be a surprise, so she called me at Gumma’s and asked for my help. A few minutes later Sibby and Denise knocked on the front door and I suggested to Gumma that we answer it together. As we pulled open the heavy wooden door my mother and sister started to sing.
"Happy birthday to you..."
Denise stood, one foot inside, holding the cake with a box's worth of lit candles, unsteadily in the doorway. Gumma smiled and let out an audible "awww" of appreciation. She was flattered and touched. The trouble my mother had gone to for this moment was apparent and Gumma was truly moved. She sank back in her stance, visibly appreciating this act of love and letting my mother see. As the song came to an end, Denise stepped up into the house with her other foot and, as if on cue, dropped the cake upside down on the living room rug.
"OH NO!" Denise exclaimed, as Gumma burst into uncontrollable laughter. "Betty, I'm so sorry!" my mother continued, overwhelmed with guilt.
But Gumma had become consumed by the chuckles and was relying on the stairs to hold her up. I'd never seen Gumma laugh that hard. Tears fell from her eyes and her laughs intensified until they turned silent. Slowly, my mother realized that Gumma was anything but mad, and her shame fell way to the giggles. Soon the four of us were in hysterics.
As we regained composure my mother and I began cleaning up the upside down cake. Gumma sat up, wiping the tears from her face.
"Oh, don't worry about it," she reassured my mother, but Denise scurried to fix her mess.
"I'll get you another cake," she said, entirely missing the point that that laugh had been worth a spent cake.
"No, please," Gumma reassured. "Don't go out of your way."
But my mother had made up her mind. As I cleaned the rug my mother and sister left to get Gumma another birthday cake. In her determination to make things go "perfectly" Denise had missed out on the fact that they already had. That perfect moment of sincerity - when my mother accidentally dropped the cake causing Gumma to laugh - was all Gumma needed to make her day. She didn't need a cake. She needed the hilarious look of horror on my mother’s face to make her laugh like she hadn’t laughed in years to bring her one step closer to accepting her.