Friday, April 13, 2018
VIGNETTE FIVE: TO GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE WE GO
It’s a mid-summer’s day and I’m about eleven. It’s early. Early enough that, dressed as I am in t-shirt, shorts and sneakers, I can still feel the morning coolness on my bare arms and legs. But even the fresh morning air and sky hold the promise of a sultry-hot Ohio day ahead. I am unaccustomedly unworried about sunburn. It’s far enough into the season that, after burning and peeling, burning and peeling several times already—since I practically live at the public swimming pool this time of year—my self-despised whitebread skin is now cured to a brick-orange-brown and I can pretty much be out all day without blistering.
I try to take every class the pool offers and also tag along for “Mothers’ Morning” with whatever mother I can find to take me (friends’ mothers, cousins’ mothers, neighbors’ mothers, since my own mother can’t swim a lick and can seldom be talked into going). I’ll do just about anything to have more time to swim beyond the one to eight p.m. hours that the pool is open to the general public. While I have shrunk from every other sporting activity they’ve tried to enroll me in, they’d need a hand grenade or a stick of dynamite to get me out of the pool. This, and a love of boxing, are a couple of things my dad Whitie and I have in common. He’s a strong swimmer despite being a smoker, and in the Army, he was an underwater swimming champ, while his big brother Red, who taught him to swim when they were boys, was a Navy frogman and tactical scuba-diving instructor. These days, Whitie never goes to the pool either, however, and my earliest swimming lessons I got from my sister, Darla, when I was four or five and she was seven or eight.
But today I’m not headed for the pool. This morning I’ve volunteered to accompany my Grandma Alice, Whitie’s mother, to do some yard work at the home of Whitie’s grandmother, my great-grandmother, known to all of us as Grandma Numbers. She’s not Grandma Alice’s mother, but her mother-in-law. But Grandma Alice, whose own mother has been dead for many years now, cares for Grandma Numbers as if she were indeed Great-Grandma’s daughter. Perhaps better.
I spent a few years being confused as to why, if Grandpa Murel was a Newland, his mother’s last name was Numbers, but for a long while I just accepted it as a family eccentricity. When I grew a little older, however, curiosity got the best of me and I finally asked my mother, Reba Mae, what the score was. She explained that Grandpa Murel’s father had been Elmer Newland, a barber from Alger, Ohio, who had died young and left my great-grandmother widowed. It was from his father that Grandpa Murel had learned barbering, a trade he plied for a number of years before becoming a grocery store owner and, later, a door-to-door salesman.
This explains why my great-grandmother, the former Maude Bowers, has been so independent for the times she has lived in, making a living from a diner she owned across from the Allen County courthouse in Lima, Ohio. Sometime after the death of Elmer—by whom she had three children, my grandfather, his younger brother Dale, and their little sister, Irene (whom we all called Mame)—she would meet and marry Roy Numbers. Roy was also destined to die fairly young, so Grandma Numbers spent much of her life alone (although she was “courted” for some time, I’m told, by a Mr. Hemingway following Roy’s death). But in my short life, I’ve always known her to be alone, and that strikes me as somehow sad, even though, feisty independent woman that she is, she seems okay with it.
Grandpa Murel has already left for work, so Grandma Alice and I are on our own. She doesn’t drive, so we walk. It’s not all that far—three longish blocks up North Defiance Street to Hoopengarner and then two blocks right on Hoopengarner to the corner of Murray. That’s where Grandma Numbers lives in a small but comfy, moss-green-shingled house that Grandpa Murel built for her when he moved down to our town (Wapakoneta) from Lima, Ohio, after he landed a sales job with the Wapak office of the Western and Southern Life Insurance Company and convinced her to also move down and be closer to him.
Grandma Numbers is a big lady who loves eccentric, colorful clothes, when she’s not wearing a simple housedress. She’s fond of flowery smocks that reach halfway down over her long skirts. She also likes comfortable, wedge-heeled shoes and lots of jewelry—ring-type bracelets worn several together or clunky silver and turquoise cuff-bracelets like the kind the Hopi Indians make. She likes flashy earrings as well, with loops and colorful stones and stone-carved birds. She still likes to wear rouge, powder and lipstick when she goes out and she often wears satin hats of the brightest hues. I find her fascinating!
She is growing somewhat elderly, however, and Grandpa worries about her. He sometimes treats her rather as if she were a child. I recently overheard him and his brother Dale talking about her. It was about how she would sometimes simply get into her car and drive off to wherever she felt like going. In the garage built onto the side of her house, she has an impeccable, creamy green forty-nine Dodge, which she refers to as “her machine”.
Independent woman that she is, she has been driving practically since motorcars first replaced the horse and buggy and she doesn’t see why she should stop anytime soon. She drives herself to the grocery store, sometimes even to her favorite supermarket in Lima, fifteen miles away. And she also will sometimes travel incredibly long distances on a whim, at a leisurely pace, seldom breaking more than thirty-five or forty miles an hour. Florida has been one of her destinations—she drove down on the Dixie Highway. And she once also drove all the way out to Arizona.
In the conversation between Grandpa and his brother that I overheard, Grandpa was saying that their mother was talking again about driving down to Florida to visit her daughter, Mame.
“Hell, Murel,” Great-Uncle Dale was saying, “we should just get that car out of her garage and sell it.”
“Why, we can’t do that, Dale,” Grandpa said. “That’s her machine, not ours. We can’t just sell it.” Like his mother, Grandpa also refers to cars as “machines”.
“Maybe you can’t, Murel, but I can,” said Dale, who is a used car salesman. “If we don’t, one of these days they’ll be calling us to go pick up the pieces of her in a hand basket.”
Grandpa Murel has tried deflating one of her tires in the hope that this will discourage her from taking the car out of the garage. But it doesn’t. She just pays one of the neighbor boys to come change it and then goes to one of the tire places downtown to have it checked. He has thought about deflating all four, but that would be suspicious and would mean a confrontation between him and his mother. So he resigns himself to the fact that she’ll do whatever she pleases and hopes the Good Lord will protect her. Dale chides him for not taking the bull by the horns, but as Grandpa points out to his brother, “I don’t see you a-layin’ down the law to her.”
Grandma Numbers has a few of the tools we’ll need to work on her yard in her garage—a push mower, a hoe, a spade, a garden rake—but there are tools of her own that Grandma Alice likes to take along. Among them, her own garden cart. I’m pushing the cart up Defiance Street. In it are my grandma’s favorite leaf rake, her hand trowel, a pair of well-sharpened grass-clippers and her gardening gloves. She has also brought along a half-peck basket with some plants and seeds in it that she wants to plant in a new flowerbed we’re planning to spade up behind the house.
So we go rattling up the street toward Hoopengarner, talking all the way. We always have things to talk about, Grandma Alice and I. We must make an interesting sight—I, in shorts and t-shirt pushing the rumbling, clanking garden cart, and Grandma Alice wearing a heavy dark green man’s cardigan with leather elbow patches over her light summer housedress, a pair of well-worn oxfords on her feet and a long-billed fishing cap with a picture of a marlin emblazoned on the front. She’s ready for anything—the cap because a few years back she almost died from a sunstroke she got working under the hot sun without a cover for her extremely fair head, the sweater against the morning chill to keep pneumonia at bay, and the light cotton frock underneath for the noonday sun.
As usual when we’re together, she tells me stories I’ve heard her tell a dozen times before. But I never stop her, because I always like to hear them again.
One of my favorites is about a schoolboy who is always blurting out the most outrageous things in the classroom. I can picture the classroom because Grandma has told me what classrooms were like when she was a girl, back in the early nineteen-hundreds—the children sitting at their varnished wood and cast-iron writing desks with their inkwells and nib-holder pens, the teacher up a step on a little platform, a small woodstove at his back on the right, the black slate chalk board at his back to the left, his heavy oak desk like an un-breachable barrier between him and them.
Every time the teacher asks a question, the boy in the story blurts out an answer without thinking. The answers are always wrong and often ridiculous. After a particularly outrageous answer, the teacher admonishes the boy to never again speak in class unless he has thought three times about what he’ll say before he opens his mouth.
One day, while enthusiastically explaining the grammar and structure of a sentence he’s diagramming on the board, the teacher backs too near the hot woodstove and the tails of the long swallow-tailed coat that he’s wearing start smoldering and, then, suddenly, burst into flames.
As usual, the boy is the first one on his feet and waving his hand, but this time, he takes the teacher’s advice, takes his time, and says, “I think, sir...(Grandma takes a lengthy pause for effect), I think, sir...I think, sir...your coat-tail’s on fire!”
But my very favorite stories are the ones about real people. I never tire of hearing about my grandmother’s maternal grandfather, Jerry Hamilton, for instance. This is the story she’s re-telling me today as we walk to Grandma Numbers’ house. I’ve requested it. It is actually two stories in one, since one serves as a proper prelude to the other one.
The first is about how her Grandpa Jerry was a mess sergeant in the Union Army during the Civil War. Back then, he was a big, irascible man whom soldiers liked to goad just to get a rise out of him.
One day, Grandma says, a couple of them stuffed a rag into the mess tent stovepipe so that all the smoke backed up inside. They’re laughing outside hearing how Sgt. Hamilton is cursing them through the smoke between choking fits. But suddenly, in a cloud of blue wood smoke, he bursts through the tent flaps, roaring bloody murder and wielding a meat cleaver. One of the jokers doesn’t get away quickly enough. Jerry seizes him from behind by the collar and is raising the cleaver over his head—maybe to whack him with the flat of the blade, but then again...maybe not. The other trooper, who has hidden behind the tent, now rushes up behind Jerry and poleaxes him with a heavy stick of firewood. Jerry goes down like a sack of potatoes and stays down.
“He was never quite right in the head after that,” Grandma Alice says, after a solemn pause. “And although he was usually a nice man, gentle despite his size, he had these ‘spells’ when he could be dangerous.”
And here begins Part Two of the Jerry Hamilton Story—how sometimes he’d sit quietly, ominously, for a long time sharpening a butcher knife with a soapstone. Grandma Alice’s grandmother, who stuttered, would say, “Hey, J-j-j-jerry, what’re you gonna d-d-d-d-do with that kn-n-n-n-n-nife?” And he would stop whetting the razor-sharp blade, look up from his stone at her and, in a blood-chilling tone, say, “Just wait. You’ll see.”
Grandma says her father, Jerry’s son-in-law, was the only one who could handle him when he was like that. They were friends. “They visited saloons together, neither shy about swilling beer.” (Grandma lowers her voice to say this last, as if afraid somebody will overhear, since she is a teetotaling Methodist and a respected member of the Women’s Society of Christian Service).
So one day, says Grandma Alice, Jerry and her dad are together in this saloon when several ruffians start bullying a poor old drunk. After a few minutes, Jerry tells them to lay off, but they ignore him and say, “Who’s gonna make us, Pop?”
Now Jerry’s had a belly full of this nonsense and starts over toward the band of bullies. Grandma’s dad tries to stop him but Jerry brushes him aside and wades into the group, making quick work of them. Men go flying over the bar, out through the swinging saloon doors, through the glass windowpane at the front of the place, before Grandma’s father can finally settle Jerry down and usher him out of the bar.
A warrant is issued for Jerry Hamilton’s arrest. But he holes-up for a couple of days on the second storey of a rooming house. Finally, the sheriff, who, it just so happens, today has his tin star pinned to the lapel of a brand new suit, arrives with several deputies at the rooming house, and, standing just under Jerry’s window, scatter-gun in hand, hollers up at the billowing curtains of the open window, “All right, Hamilton, I got a warrant here for your arrest. I don’t want us to have to go up there after ya. Come on down and come with me.”
In response, the curtains part, and, with incredible aim, Jerry heaves the stinking contents of the chamber pot that he’s been using for the last couple of days, raining down onto the sheriff and his brand new suit.
I’m waiting with bated breath for the punctuating line that I know is coming. And after a dramatic pause, Grandma Alice delivers it: “He was locked up for a long while after that,” she says.
This story carries us to Grandma Numbers’ house at the corner of Murray and Hoopengarner. It’s not a big yard but there’s plenty to do this morning. There’s a man who lives right across from my great-grandmother’s place who fixes lawn mowers and sharpens blades for a living. So her mechanical push mower is always well-oiled and sharpened and in great working order. It’s a pleasure to use and I eagerly set to mowing the grass, pleased with the quiet whirring, slicing sound that the machine makes as I push it through the yard.
Meanwhile, Grandma Alice tackles the existing flowerbeds at the front of the house, hoeing, weeding, trimming, beautifying. She has a peculiar way of working. She never squats. She either bends straight over at the waist or she sits flat on the ground, legs outstretched, her housedress tucked between thighs and knees, working to one side or another. But it works for her. She excels at this. She’s fast and effective. She has a green thumb.
After a while, Grandma Numbers calls us in for a break and we go in the back door through a tiny utility room into her cramped little kitchen. It wouldn’t be nearly so cramped if it weren’t for the many shelves on the walls, wherever there are no cupboards. But she obviously couldn’t get along without all the shelving, because they veritably tremble under the weight of every manner of dry grocery product imaginable—beans, coffee, tea, crackers, cookies, canned goods, cereal, flour, sugar, etc. etc., all in a variety of brands and sizes.
Like the rest of the house, what little extra room there is on the walls and windowsills is liberally covered with knick-knacks, souvenirs of trips she has made and places she’s been. There is also a birdcage on a stand that sits by the small kitchen table. In it are a couple of parakeets. I can never recall a time when Grandma Numbers didn’t have parakeets—and when at least one of them wasn’t called Petey. Grandma Alice has little use for caged birds, but sometimes cares for them when Grandma Numbers is away. The birds turn their little heads, inspecting us as we sit at the table and occasionally let out a shrill tweet.
Grandma Numbers has laid out cookies and Ritz crackers in the middle of the colorful oilcloth-covered table. From her percolator she serves Grandma and herself coffee in cups with saucers and adds a swirl of heavy half-and-half, which blooms beautifully in the black coffee before they both add sugar and stir it all in to a homogenous tan. I’m served a shot of black coffee and the cup is filled the rest of the way up with warm milk to which I add abundant sugar. Nobody asks sarcastically if I’d “like a little coffee with my sugar” because both my grandma and my great-grandma have a notorious sweet tooth.
I enjoy my milk and cookies and feed the birds little pieces of Ritz cracker, which they seem to relish, while the two ageing women discuss family members and acquaintances whom I either don’t know at all, or only vaguely remember having met. Some of Great-Grandma’s relatives and in-laws live elsewhere in Ohio, some in Chicago, others in Florida, so we seldom see them.
After our snack, Grandma Alice and I get back to work. She finishes primping the front flowerbeds on either side of the stoop, while I use her leaf rake to rake up all the grass clippings I’ve left with the mower. I fork them into the garden cart with the rake and haul them to a little burn pile behind the garage. Then I use Grandma’s grass clippers to tidy up along the sidewalks and driveway. When I’m finished, I survey my work and feel a burst of pride at how neat and manicured the yard looks.
Now Grandma comes around to where I am in the backyard and she indicates where she wants to put in new flowerbeds on either side of the back stoop. I take the spade and get the soil on one side of the stoop turned over and while I’m turning over the ground on the other side, Grandma starts hoeing the first one. And while she’s hoeing the second one, I’m using Grandma Numbers’ garden rake to work the first one into a fine texture. While I work on the second one, Grandma plants and sows in the first, and so on.
It’s almost noon by the time we finish—my last task, sweeping the sidewalks clean of grass clippings.
Grandma Alice says, “I don’t know about you, bub, but I’m pooped. Let’s get a drink of water, say good-bye to Grandma Numbers and head for home. I’ll make us a couple of pork chops with greens and potato patties, how’s that sound?”
Grandma Numbers gives us each a glass of ice-water from the fridge, thanks us for all our help and we say our good-byes. We’re rumbling down the street again, this time with Grandma’s cardigan draped over the handlebar of the garden cart. She’s tired, so we walk a little slower heading back. I’m tired too, but in a good way, sweaty, a little sunburned, smelling of fresh grass and damp soil, the tips of my sneakers as green as Grandma’s thumb. I feel accomplished, useful, as if I’ve done a good job. Maybe I’ll go to the pool later this afternoon.
On the way back to Grandma Alice’s house at the corner of Defiance Street and Glynwood Road—a house Grandpa Murel also built—she tells me once again the story about how a jealous husband on Grandpa Murel’s insurance debit once accused him of trying to steal his wife. Drunk, the man reeled down from his porch onto the icy sidewalk as Grandpa was leaving and challenged him to a fight, but before he could throw a punch, Grandpa caught him with a right hook to the eye and he went sprawling on the slick pavement. The man sat up holding his left eye and saying over and over, “Oh, Newland, you put my light out, you put my light out!”
This strikes us both as hilarious and we laugh uproariously as we rumble along, and Grandma follows up with some more of Grandpa’s zany exploits.
We make a good team, I’m thinking, as we walk along side by side. And right now I can’t think of anyplace I’d rather be.