The Grandma Story: We Weren’t Allowed To Ask Questions

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My grandmother and grandfather split up when I was maybe 10 or 11 years old.

I didn’t get the news how you might expect to learn something like this, such as Grandma telling us, or my father (it was his mother) sharing with my sister and me. It wasn’t through the family grapevine either.

I found out about grandma’s new life when my father told me and my sister that we were going to grandma’s house. This was a normal thing; we went there several times a year, and she lived pretty close to us. But there was an addition to the announcement: we were going to grandma’s new house, and “her friend” was there too.


I had questions, whose answers would’ve led to more questions. But there was a problem.

The way we were raised, the kids didn’t ask too many questions of the adults. We stayed out of grown folks’ business and were told what adults wanted us to know, regardless of the in-plain-sight Questions even a kid would ask. If we overheard adult business, it was best to pretend that we hadn’t heard it.

There would be many situations where there were obvious questions that someone needed to ask. But it was against the rules to ask. So we never did.

My dad had a cousin who spent a lot of time in and out of jail. I’d met this cousin only once, and couldn’t have picked the guy out of a police lineup (no pun intended). Once the cousin called the house collect and I’d declined the call. Dad wasn’t home, and I didn’t know what I could’ve said to the cousin. I didn’t really know what the deal was with him. Dad later told me that I should’ve accepted the call. He didn’t say why to accept it, what I would’ve said to the guy, where his cousin was, or even why he was locked up. I surely wanted to know all of those, but I didn’t ask. It was against the rules to ask.

I asked for a car for my 16th birthday. Mom said, “we can’t afford that.”

Can’t afford what? I hadn’t mentioned a make or model of car. Nor had I said whether I could contribute to the costs of a car. How can we not afford something that we don’t even know the cost of? 

That’s remained a question for almost 20 years.

In those moments, you could feel the tension in the house — that of the adults (mom and dad) who wouldn’t fill in the gaps with information, and that of two smart kids who had plenty of questions that we weren’t allowed to ask.

My dad had an older brother who died when I was a kid. It wasn’t until my thirties that I learned this uncle had killed himself.

It was against the rules to ask.

So, back to grandma’s (new) house.  As Latoya and I rode with dad to grandma’s place, dad issued instructions and a warning.

“You two, be on your best behavior. Mind your business, don’t be askin anyone any questions or none of that shit, alright?”

If you can’t tell, dad’s question wasn’t really a question. It was against the rules for us to ask.

Even after grandma’s new life became normal, and we spent weekends at her house with mom and dad not around to referee, we still never asked the critical questions. That’s how strong the unspoken teachings were. It was against the rules to ask.

I told you this happened when I was 10. It wasn’t until 2014, when I was 32, that dad (somewhat) let on as to what had happened back then. Grandpa had become a drinker, and started to lose his mind a bit. Grandmom finally had enough, divorced him and remarried. This all happened, I think, during a “quiet” period when Latoya and I hadn’t been to Grandma’s for a while. My parents, who could have easily kept quiet about the whole situation with two kids who knew better than to ask questions, never spoke about it.

Even then, in 2014, dad didn’t say that much. I glued it together to tell you this much. I still may be off on some of these details. I’d need to have a longer conversation with dad to get the whole thing. I’ve been writing down questions that need to be asked. And answered.

Many people don’t like talking about things. The easy reasoning is keeping people out of our business. The better reason is, people are A) uncomfortable about certain areas of their lives or B) Teaching the conditioning they themselves have been taught or C) Both.

A mentor of mine one day told me how she, when raising her sons, would have them watch her do her taxes and accounting so they understood money and why she was doing what she was doing with her money.

My mom would’ve smacked the shit out of either of us for asking anything about money. Hence the unchallenged  “we can’t afford that” remark.

These days, I want to talk about everything with people who need to hear it or speak it. I’m first to bring the uncomfortable stuff to the table. I aim to make everyone look at (or explain) the elephants in the room. It works, sometimes. Not everyone is ready for such conversations.

What have you not talked (or asked) about? Who do you need to have a sit-down with?

Don’t tell me. Call them.