Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Maternally grand.

Yesterday I waxed reminiscent about my paternal grandparents. Today I'll give equal time to the maternal side.

My mother grew up in a small town about 50 miles from the small town where she attended college, married and eventually settled down. We made a lot of Sunday afternoon drives to see her parents--drives that seemed, to a child, to last an eternity; an eternity punctuated by overly dramatic coughing fits in an effort to get my father who smoked (and still smokes) Kools, to ROLL DOWN THE WINDOW BEFORE WE DIE BACK HERE. But eventually each drive came to an end, and we knew the end was coming when my mother announced it was time to play the water tower game. There was a very large water tower just outside that small town, and my mother could instantly transfix us (and shut us up--smart woman, my mother) by challenging us to be the first to spy the water tower on the horizon. There was no prize given in this contest, other than bragging rights and the joy of screaming "I see the water tower, I see the water tower!" sooner than your siblings. Not a joy to be discounted--I believe we were still doing it jokingly long after we were all "adults."

During our summer vacation each year, each of us kids was allowed to spend an entire week with Nanny and Papa, by ourselves. Since none of us ever did anything by ourselves, this was quite a treat. We'd do "chores" all week long, and at the end of the week, if we did a good job (and we never failed to measure up), we'd be given $5 or so and taken to the dime store for a shopping spree. (This was in the late 60s/early 70s--that was a FORTUNE.) Then on the weekend, they'd drive us back home, generally by way of one of Papa's "shortcuts" (the man knew a hundred different ways to go from Point A to Point B, many of them on unpaved country backroads, and NONE of them actual shortcuts), stopping on the way for a picnic, with plenty of fried chicken, deviled eggs, and homemade pimento cheese. Sometimes, on the deserted backroads, he'd let us sit on his lap and steer the car. Of course, as we got older, and busier with friends and other pursuits, and simply too "cool" to spend an entire week with the grandparents, the summer visits faded away. And we often begged off of the Sunday afternoon drives. Do you think if someone was able to tell you that you would someday wish for nothing more than another lazy week spent with your "uncool" grandparents, you'd be able to be less of a snotty, self-involved teenager? No, probably not, you're right. That's just the way it works. At any rate, we DID spend a lot of time with them over the years, comparatively, and I'm glad.

Papa was a big man, and a quiet man, mostly. Unless you got him started on something, and then he'd talk your ear off. He did a lot of things when he was younger that I never even knew about until his funeral--he was the auctioneer at pie suppers during WWII to raise money for the troops? Really? He was a butcher? Really? I only knew him as a service station owner (they weren't "gas stations" back then, remember...they were "service stations"). I have one of his shirts my grandmother saved, from the 50s or 60s by the looks of it, green, emblazoned with "Ted's Texaco" in red on the back, on display in my living room. We loved stopping by the station when it was open, jumping up and down on the bell that signified the arrival of a customer, and pleading for "rides" up and down on the hydraulic lift used for servicing cars. Papa was the only boy, and the youngest sibling, I believe, of several sisters, some with horrible names. Seriously: Ocia, Versie, Fludie...even for country folk those are bad! He was apparently spoiled rotten by those sisters, and led to believe that, at home, the menfolk were to be served by the womenfolk, period. I never in my life saw him even fill his own plate. Nanny filled it for him, every meal of their 62 years together. He was an avid hunter, and every year took a long trip with my uncle and some friends to Montana to go hunting. (God knows how they managed to feed themselves during those weeks!) According to my mother, when she was young he sat down at the station a lot in the evenings, drinking beer with his buddies, but he was diagnosed with diabetes when I was young, and the drinking stopped, as did the evenings out. He had played football in high school, back when they wore sweaters, and leather helmets, and barely any pads, and for years and years he never missed a high school football game, which he attended in his old letter sweater. He was quite proud when they interviewed him for the local newspaper, and ran a picture of him in said sweater. He was also quite proud of the accomplishments of his grandchildren, though we really never heard it directly. But once in college, at a performance of a musical I was in, he talked the ear off of a friend of mine seated next to him in the auditorium, pulling pictures out of his wallet to show her his talented granddaughter. I was mortified, of course, and yet touched. I mean, really...who doesn't want a grandpa who embarrasses you like that? Ordered by the doctor to get some exercise after the diabetes diagnosis, he began a ritual of twice-daily walks, making his rounds around town, checking in with store owners and old friends along the way. Then, as he aged, and walking became more difficult, he started to become slightly agoraphobic. He didn't want to do anything but sit in his recliner and do his crossword puzzles, which was infuriating to my grandmother, who was as restless and active as ever. He became even more taciturn, and it wasn't until his skin became noticeably yellow that anyone knew there was a bigger problem with his health than before. He was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer, and died just about three weeks later. I think he just gave up, and willed himself to go. It happened so quickly that my grandmother didn't quite grasp what was happening. Near the end he lapsed into unconsciousness--not quite a coma, but not far short of it--and Nanny kept commenting that he hadn't "woke up yet today." With tears in her eyes, my mother had to explain to her that he wasn't going to wake up. "Ever?" Man, oh man...how do you deal with the loss of your partner of almost 62 years? I can't even imagine. He died shortly thereafter, in 1995, at age 86, roughly. I have his shirt, some of his stubbornness and quiet tendencies, and in a drawer, some "Ted's Texaco" matchbooks.

Nanny, despite some initial "I might as well be in the coffin with him" languishing, lived quite a few more years. And quite a character, was she! She was the oldest of several children, and when her mother died in childbirth, she dropped out of school to take care of the younger children, even though she was only 12 or so herself. She was not well-educated, her grammar and spelling were poor by any standard, and it took some doing to decipher her handwriting, but she was, nonetheless, sharp as a tack. It's through her that I got my Cherokee blood, and it was quite important to her that we all get our tribal memberships. The only job she ever held outside the home was cleaning houses, and she was in quite high demand. Her "ladies," as she called them, doted on her. She had a waiting list, and if you pissed her off in any way, she'd cross you right off her list and go on to someone else. She worked for some of them for many years, and they considered "Jonesie" to be one of the family. (Her given name was Mayamma, but she hated it, and never let anyone use it. Can't say I blame her there.) It's also from her that I get my OCD tendencies--though, of course, in those days, nobody would have called it that. But she was fussy, and particular, and things had to be done just exactly her way. (The "right way," she would have said. Hee.) One of my "chores" on my summer visits was dusting her collection of glass birds, and boy, did I sweat, endeavoring to put each one of those little birds back in EXACTLY the position in which I'd found it. She was also a packrat--the woman kept everything. As children, we loved to go through her cupboards and chests. And we especially loved opening the bathroom drawers and counting the bars of soap. Yes, soap. She never had any less than 50 bars of soap at any given time. I asked her once why she had so much and she replied, "I heard once there was going to be a shortage." "When was that, Nanny, during World War II?" "Oh, hush," she replied, with a twinkle in her eye. "I might need it some day." Like many of her generation, having lived through the Depression and the war, she always worried she might not be able to get any more of whatever it was she was saving. When we moved her out of her house and into a nursing home, a few years after Papa died, we found vintage 50s nylons in her cedar chest. "Why are you keeping these?" "Well, I might need them, and not be able to afford any others." She hadn't worn a dress in years at that point, being a pantsuit gal and all, so I can't fathom the circumstances under which she might need them, but oh, did she pitch a fit when my mother insisted on throwing them out! She liked her plants and flowers outside, but they had to conform to her exacting specifications: hedges were trimmed with geometrical precision, flowerbeds had sharp borders, and she so hated stray grass and weeds that over the years she eventually completely paved over her tiny backyard with large flat rocks people found and brought her. One front flowerbed was covered in small, white decorative rocks and woe betide the grandchild who stepped on those rocks. We have hilarious home movie footage of my younger sister as a toddler, peering around cautiously for any sign of Nanny, then leaping into the flowerbed and stomping all over the rocks with a devilish look on her face. Speaking of devilish, Nanny could be quite the imp herself. Once, after an afternoon of exploring her big cedar chest full of wonders, she pressed a small jar of rose-scented perfume I had admired into my hand, instructing me to wait until we'd been on the road a while, and then pull it out and tell my mother I'd stolen it, just to see her reaction. Well, I did as instructed, but couldn't keep up the ruse very long, since my mother's reaction was, of course, extreme shock and horror. Hee. I can't smell anything rose-scented to this day without remembering that. Nanny was often lacking a social filter, and she'd say pretty much anything that came to mind, without regard to appropriateness. Once, we were out shopping (must have been my summer visit) and a man who passed us in the aisle...passed gas, to be polite. He chose the "pretend to be completely unaware of what you've done" tactic of dealing with it, but Nanny just couldn't let him escape with his dignity intact. She began cackling, "That man farted, hee hee, that man farted." I was mortified at the time, of course, whispering "Nanny, he can HEAR you!" Sure is funny remembering it now, though. She had a pretty high tolerance for the risque, for a woman of her era. She came to see every play I was in, for all the years she was physically able to, and the moments she loved best were the naughty ones. A few years after Papa died, it became clear that Nanny could no longer live alone. She didn't have the money to hire live-in help--and certainly no one would have been able to handle the job to her liking, anyway--so we had to put her in a nursing home. She was upset about it in the beginning, of course, but eventually became quite comfortable. She enjoyed all the social activities, after being so restricted at home, once she could no longer drive. The staff all loved her, cantankerous though she could be. At her funeral, the director told of his first meeting with Nanny. At that point, she was having to be restrained in her wheelchair, as otherwise she'd forget she couldn't really walk anymore and try anyway, risking a hip fracture. The director sat with her, Nanny grasping his hands tightly, as was her wont, and he read some scripture verses to her. She seemed to enjoy that, he said. He asked her if there was anything else he could do for her. Nanny grasped his hands even more tightly, and pulled him close. "Yes," she said sweetly, "GET ME OUT OF THIS DAMN THING!" Nanny loved life, she loved her family, she loved "red birds" (cardinals) and roosters and Tupperware and McDonald's Quarter Pounders and crocheting (she churned out beautiful afghans at an incredible pace); she hated fresh air and sunshine, having acquired air-conditioning relatively late in life. Being in her tiny, wood-paneled living room was like being in a cold, dark cave, and that's the way she liked it. And if you dared to suggest that the temperature inside was...oh, maybe a bit nippy, she'd quickly set you straight as to just whose house you were in! She lived to the ripe old age of 94, and died in the summer of 2003. I miss her, of course, but I feel her presence all around me. I have, in addition to some of her personality quirks: several pieces of her furniture and knick-knacks (including a ceramic rooster, of course), a number of afghans, an outdoor swing, a concrete planter, and her favorite rocking chair, which is now occupied most days by a cute orange kitty. I hope she doesn't mind too much the fine layer of kitty hair on it. She actually had a big orange kitty of her own when I was little. Punky's hair didn't linger in her house, though, oh no...she vacuumed him regularly. That's a pretty fitting summation of Nanny, for me, actually: "She vacuumed her cat."


Sparkling Cipher said...

When we were kids, our parents kept us occupied and taught us how to count and our colors by having herbie-calling contests. If we saw a blue VW Beetle, we had to shout out "blue herbie" and the number of Beetles we'd called before anyone else called it. We also counted houses with Christmas lights in the winter and blooming red bud and dogwood trees in spring. Bob and I still have some wild herbie-calling contests on the way home from work.

I almost posted today about our conversation with Sweets's 86-year-old Granny last night. She was saying how wasteful it was to pay for television when all you needed was an antenna to watch Dateline and Deal or No Deal. He told her, "But Grandma, we get naked channels. Don't you want a satellite dish, too, now?"

I nearly spit out my milk, but she just giggled. She sometimes tells him he shouldn't use the f word so much, but she really is amused by his coarseness.

stefanie said...

All I have to say is you have an amazing memory for details, my dear!

lizgwiz said...

sparkling, don't you love a good sassy granny? I'm glad I had one of those...and one who was so calm. The best of both worlds!

We played "Slug Bug" in our family. Though my mother had to intervene sometimes when the slugging became a little aggressive!

stef, I have an amazing memory for the trivial. That and a nickel will get me...well, nothing. But back when I was a kid, I remember a nickel would buy you....hee.

Paisley said...

I wish I had as many memories of my grandparents. They lived far away and I only saw them once a year and two of them died when I was 5 and 6.

metalia said...

This was such a beautiful descriptive story, Liz...so sweet. :)

lizgwiz said...

paisley, I have so many friends who didn't really know their grandparents. I feel so lucky that I did.

metalia, thanks. :)