My paternal grandmother was born on Christmas Eve 1929 and, as such, always insisted on celebrating it as absolutely distinct from Christmas. She was always mindful of birthdays; gifts for the birthday girl were usually accompanied by something small for the other sister.
She loved flowers and cats and painting. All of her children grew up to be cat people, as have all of her six grandchildren. Baking was a passion of hers; cherry pies and shortbread were specialties. Christmas was incomplete without a tin or two of Grandma’s shortbread, sent through the mail from Kentucky.
After a long and often difficult illness, she passed away in early September. While sudden, it was not unexpected. Luckily, Parkinson’s had left her wits mostly intact to the end, so that she could appreciate what would turn out to be final visits with family in August.
On this, what would have been her eighty-eighth birthday, I would like to share with you to inadvertent and formative role my Grandma had on my interest in true crime.
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I have written previously on how my childhood interest in Ancient Egypt, encouraged by my parents, likely sparked my early fascination with the morbid and macabre.
Completely unknown to my parents, I fanned this fascination by watching forbidden TV as soon as their backs were turned.
There was Discovery Channel’s “A Haunting in Connecticut,” which I watched while my mom was out shopping. I was nine. I didn’t sleep for days.
Of course, I went on to watch all of Discovery’s “A Haunting” series in secret.
There was the time I watched Stephen King’s “Rose Red” on-and-off for an afternoon at my dad’s house. Big mistake.
Best of all were those chances I had to watch Discovery’s “FBI Files.” Rediscovering the series as an adult, I laughed at how plastic science class skeletons had scared the ever-living **** out of me as a nine-year-old.
Then, there was that fateful trip to Grandma’s.
The moral of this story: if you really want to know what your kids are watching, make sure you can walk faster than they can change the channel.
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I don’t think it was that long summer we spent with Grandma after my parents divorced. I think it was an earlier trip, maybe earlier that same year. I was about eleven.
As my younger sister had taken the big-screen TV downstairs, and I did not want to watch Disney with her, my Grandma offered me the little box TV on her vanity. She left to do laundry or read.
I turned it on to find it was on A&E, which was running a weekend marathon of Cold Case Files.
The original Cold Case Files, which ran through the mid-2000s, featured Bill Kurtis’s chilling narration. It also featured plenty of gruesome postmortem photos. I couldn’t turn away, mostly out of horror. This was beyond anything I’d seen before. I couldn’t process. God knows I still can’t watch it before bed. Speaking of which…
At Grandma’s, I slept on a cot below a large first-floor window. Unfortunately for me, I had just learned who the LA Nightstalker was. The bug-eyed, hollow-cheeked composite sketch appeared every time I closed my eyes.
All the lights were on that night. All of them.
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I was hooked. On a visit to my other set of grandparents, around the same time, I watched Dateline for the first time, again, surreptitiously. I still remember my first Dateline episode, on the murder of Molly Bish. Years later, moving to Boston, the details of the case would return to me. It haunts me–as a child, Molly had seemed like a grown-up. Barely an adult myself, looking at a picture of her now, I see a child, her life cut away from in front of her.
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I flipped over the A&E website, where you can watch Cold Case Files episodes in whole with just a little advertising. I see now they have rebooted the series, beginning earlier this year, but without Bill Kurtis’s voice. Darn.
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I asked my cousin, “Do you think Grandma knew I watched sixteen hours of Cold Case Files on her TV that time?”
My cousin thought. “I feel like she knew, and she couldn’t have approved, but she wasn’t going to really object to it.”
So, Grandma, thank you for spoiling your grandchildren, even if it was with questionable TV choices.
Happy birthday. I miss you. I love you.