Our summer houseguest has departed and I can’t say that I’m terribly sad about it. Fifteen-year-old Jernae spent the past nine weeks vacationing on our third floor and volunteering at the Emeryville Recreation Center. It was a learning occasion for everyone, including me.
We’ve never had a teenager live with us. Weekend visits, yes, but 24/7 was a new, and often frustrating, experience. There were hours when I couldn’t get into the bathroom. The door was locked and there was no response when I knocked. The radio was always tuned to a station I didn’t like, my computer was often unavailable, and my cell phone was set for speed dial to people with names like Boo, and Poo, and Buckethead. The attic bedroom was a disaster. There were dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, and empty ice cream containers in the freezer.
But the most difficult part of having a teenager in the house was the angst, the silent treatments, the way she looked at me with half closed eyelids, as if the very sight of me made her nauseous. It was precisely the way, 40 years ago, I would respond to my mother whenever she’d ask me something inane and perky such as, “How was your day, dear?”
Several years ago, local writer Adair Lara wrote an essay about her children acting like happy, enthusiastic, obedient puppies when they were small. But as they grew older and morphed into full-fledged teens, Lara complained that her kids had become cat-like and unbearable: moody, unpredictable, superior-thinking beings who slinked around the house with negative attitudes. I know now exactly what she was referring to: that annoyed, evil feline look that screams silently, “Back-off now, I’m hormonal.”
Our situation grew so disagreeable, I had to call in the military, i.e., Jernae’s mother and grandmother, for some womanly advice. Renee, Jernae’s mother, told me to crack down on her daughter, and if that failed, I was to send her home to Hunter’s Point where she could sit inside their apartment and stew while her three sisters were in daycare and Momma was at work, driving a MUNI bus.
Jernae’s granny had a different approach. One Sunday she pulled her Cadillac in front of our house and blew the horn. She was dressed in her church-going clothes: a white flowing, regal ensemble, big brimmed hat, and sensible heels. “Bring that child to me,” she boomed from curbside. Jernae and I did as she commanded.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked Jernae. “I know you know how to behave. What’s the three R’s I taught you?”
Jernae hesitated before answering.
“Say them,” shouted Granny.
“Reliability, responsibility and...,” she paused, trying to collect her thoughts.
“And?” Granny leaned in close, as if she was hard of hearing.
“Respect,” answered Jernae.
“That’s right,” said Granny, shaking her head and raising a perfectly manicured finger. “This is Suzy’s house,” she continued, “and you ain’t the diva here, you hear me?”
“When you come over to Granny’s house, who’s the queen?” she asked.
“You are,” said Jernae.
“You got that right,” said Granny. “I’m the queen, I’m the diva, I’m Big Momma and don’t you forget it. And when you’re at Suzy’s house, she’s Big Momma. You’re not the Diva or the Queen or Big Momma yet. You hear me?”
“Yes, Granny,” answered Jernae softly.
“All right then,” said the Queen. She turned to me.
“There’s only room for one diva in your house, Suzy, and that’s got to be you. Now go inside and act the part. Call me if you have any more troubles.”
Granny revved the engine of her champagne-colored Escalade and roared off.
I don’t know if her words had much impact on Jernae, but they sure made a difference in me. I tossed back my shoulders, stood up straight, entered my little castle, and slammed the door behind me. Queen for at least one day, I thought. It feels all right to me.