Sex Advice, Thanksgiving Shaming, and One Grandmother’s Complicated Love

Cassie Balfour and her grandmother, Sheila Kaliman, had a relationship that Cassie calls “as complex as any mother-daughter relationship.” Sheila passed away on June 20, 2016. In our interview, Cassie reflected on what made their relationship so special.

“Once you’ve seen one…”

One time my grandmother was taking care of us, which she did a lot when I was young. I was ten or eleven. My grandmother had been married three times and she was a heavy smoker throughout her life. She always dyed her hair very dark and she had these bright green eyes and long, really elegant legs. I can’t remember what prompted it, but I just remember her turning to me and blowing out smoke and going, “Cassie, once you’ve seen one dick you’ve seen ‘em all.” Such a classic Sheila Kaliman line in that it was hilarious—she knew it was inappropriate and she relished saying it. And it was also great advice: like, the grass is always greener. It’s actually incredibly wise when you think about it, ok? She was a broad.

She was this incredibly confident and tough woman who had a really difficult life. She had an abusive father and step-father and an abusive first husband, and she divorced him in the mid-1960s and then was a single mom on welfare with three kids. But she didn’t dwell on the fact that she had a hard life—she was someone who found strength in it. My grandmother was definitely the center of the family, the steady one, the one that you could always come to if you needed anything. Her hands were always grabbing you to make a point, she was always putting her head on your shoulder when you said something funny because she was laughing so hard.

It was taken for granted in my family that she had the ability to see spirits, and a lot of people believed that she had psychic powers. I personally believe she was just an incredibly empathetic person who was in tune with other people. But those types of attributes, even if you don’t believe in them, they make someone larger than life.

“I saw that she was capable of being as cruel as I was”

The last time that my grandmother really hurt me, I remember very vividly. She was taking care of us, I was about eleven and already a budding liberal somehow, and we of course got into a debate about welfare where I was in way over my head. I remembered that she had been on food stamps at one point when she had left her first ex-husband. And I threw that in her face to be like, “But you were on welfare, not everyone who’s on it is bad.”

I think that really triggered something in her. So instead of being gentle with me because I was a dumb eleven-year-old, she got pretty defensive. She was like, “Ok, you wanna talk about real life? Well here’s some scary shit that you don’t understand because you grew up in a really nice suburb.” She pulled out some real-life example of her hitting rock bottom. I was sobbing and was upset for days after that. I felt like I’d really hurt her and she’d really put me in my place. I saw that she was capable of being as cruel as I was, that we were both very good at using arguments to hurt our opponents.

And if you thought there was going to be some nice resolution there, you know what? My grandmother threw the fact that I cried during a debate in my face for the next—what—fifteen years. Every Thanksgiving gathering where one of my uncles would start something, she would turn to them and go, “You know, Cassie gets pretty upset sometimes, so be nice. She’ll cry if you debate her.” Such subtle shame.

“I think that tainted our relationship”

In later years, my grandmother became politically conservative to the point where I didn’t recognize her. She was obsessed with these rightwing radio hosts and Fox News. That really ran up against my view of her as being this open-minded, worldly, feminist person. It made me not want to call her as much, I didn’t really want to talk about politics or welfare queens. In the last few years, I would call her sparingly because I knew she would want to talk forever. I think that tainted our relationship a little more than I wish I would have let it.

But ultimately my grandmother was someone who walked the talk in terms of being generous with her time and empathetic and welcoming of people from all walks of life. She was resilient and funny and charming despite having a number of horrific instances happen to her. That’s something I really admire, and I don’t know if I have that kind of resilience or toughness. It’s something that you have to develop and it has to be tested, and I don’t know if I’ve had that. I don’t know at this point if I ever could.

“I just wish I would’ve said that to her”

My grandmother was the type of person who said “I love you” a million times before you hung up the phone. She would absent-mindedly say, “You are so brilliant.” She was someone who always said to everyone, “I feel this way about you.” And I’m not good at that at all.

Whenever she told me, “Cassie, you’re just like me,” or “I see so much of myself in you,” I wish I would’ve said, “That was the best thing anyone has ever said to me.”

I wish I would’ve said that to her, as opposed to saying it to my father after she died.

I just wish I would’ve said, “I can’t imagine a higher compliment coming from anyone in my life.” Because I admired her so much and loved her so much and the nicest thing that she could have ever said to me was, “I see so much of myself in you.”

This post is the first in a series of intimate interviews with people discussing their most meaningful relationships. To receive a monthly dose of thoughtful storytelling, sign up for the monthly newsletter at the top of this page.