TBT: Memories of Great-Grandma

This week’s “Throwback Thursday” post was inspired by a conversation I had with Marissa Bergen, Rock and Roll Super Mom, who writes some fun and clever poetry on her blog, Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth. The conversation was on her spooky poem, The Picture. I encourage you to go check it out.  This recollection of mine seems appropriate to run the day before Halloween.

Marissa’s poem was about a (I assume) young child fearful of a painting on her grandmother’s wall and what happened when she decided to take matters in her own hands.  I don’t recall ever spending the night at my grandmother’s house.  Hers was walking distance from ours so I suppose a sleepover never made sense.  I do, however, remember spending the night at my great grandmother’s house.

The memory that I related to Marissa was of spending the night with my younger brother.  It was a very small farm house with one bathroom, a tiny kitchen, three bedrooms, two connected living rooms, and a basement.  Despite the house’s diminutive stature, the hallway going to the last bedroom was at least a mile long.  And not lit.  And I think there were cobwebs in the corners.  And rats watching us with beady little red, evil eyes.  And a witch cackling somewhere just out of sight.

Ok, so maybe the last few points are exaggerations.  Exaggerations on reality, not on how we felt.  I can remember the intense fear of being led down that (actually very short) hallway.  I hated it when my brother stayed with me because if it was just me, I got to sleep in grandma’s bed with her.  Until I got older and she claimed that I kicked her too much in my sleep.  Even then, I got to sleep in the second bedroom.  I never got banished to the end bedroom on my own.

There’s a reason for that.  I think Great Grandma knew that a child alone had no hope of survival in that bedroom.  We never wanted her to close the door.  We never wanted her to leave.  But she always did.

My brother and I would lie flat on our backs, huddled as close to each other in the dead center of the bed as possible.  We’d hold the blanket up tight under our chins.  Our fingers would begin to ache from clinching the sheets so tightly.  And we’d stare intently at the picture on the wall.

I don’t remember what the picture was.  I just remember truly thinking the person in the picture was watching us.  We’d whisper furtively to each other, wanting the reassurance of each other’s voice but fearful that the sound would draw out the demons watching us from that picture.

We were never as united as we were fighting for our lives in that dark room at the end of that long hallway.  “I want to roll over,” one of us would say.

“Ok,” the other would respond.  “I’ll keep watch.  You go ahead and turn over.”

We’d keep watch until we eventually dropped from fatigue.  The paralyzing fear I felt then is still palpable now.  I don’t know why.  It’s not like great grandma was a scary woman.  Well, barring the fact that she only had two fingers on her right hand and she was quite adept at pinching that fleshy underside of your arm with them if you were doing something wrong.  And she had false teeth that she liked to pop out of her mouth at us in a ghoulish expression that would cause us to shriek in mostly-fun fear.

Oh, and then there was the fact that she actually had those three fingers missing from her right hand in a jar in her basement.  I’m not making that up.  The fingers, and a chunk of the hand, were severed when she was two years old and was pretending to play the organ on a piece of sharp farm equipment.  She slipped and sliced her hand.

A very talented German doctor stitched up her hand.  And stored her fingers in a jar of formaldehyde that he kept on a shelf in his office.  And when she got a job working for him as a teenager, he handed the fingers back to their rightful owner.  Nothing spooky about that, right?

No, the truly terrifying thing about Great Grandma’s house was the time I realized just how old she really was.  When it dawned on me that none of my friends went to visit their great grandmas… because they didn’t have living great grandmas.  Or if they did, they were waiting out the end in nursing homes.

My great grandma lived by herself on a large farm out in the middle of nowhere.  When all of this came crashing down on me one day, I called my mom in a panic.  Had to stand at the rotary phone at the end of the kitchen.  And whisper – just in case Great Grandma was listening.

“But mom!” I pleaded.  “What if she… dies?!”

“Well,” she replied calmly and practically, “you’ll call me and I’ll come pick you up.”

“But what if I can’t reach you?!”

“Then you’ll call grandma.  One of us will come get you.”

“But what am I supposed to do until you get here?!”

“What do you mean?  Just wait for us.”

“But what about her?!”

“What do you mean, ‘what about her’?”

“I’d be in a house with a… dead body…”

“Well, it’s not like she’s going to jump up and grab you.  She’d be dead.”

Obviously, my mother had never taken the long walk to that end bedroom or she wouldn’t be so sanguine.  I resolved to sit out on the porch and wait for them there if, indeed, my great grandmother were to expire during one of my visits.  She didn’t, of course.  Like most childhood fears, that one was unfounded.

I had many wonderful experiences at Great Grandma’s house.  And I count the spooky, terrifying ones among them.  Happy Halloween, everyone.

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TBT: The Great Stuffed Animal Migration

I had a lot of dolls and stuffed animals when I was young.  I mean, a lot.  So did my little brother.  We had our favorites.  I had Julie, the wrap-around monkey puppet.  She frequently wore earrings, which really helped me out when I forgot to wear some to the lake shortly after I got mine pierced.  She let me use hers.  She also went with me when the day care center took us to see Gremlins in the theater.  That was good because that movie scared the living you-know-what out of me and I don’t think I could have survived had she not been there to wrap her arms around my eyes.

And then there was Jennifer, the home-made doll that the wonderful woman next door made for me.  And Jane, the knock-off Cabbage Patch doll.  And… Rufus?  A really big dog that was usually wearing a T-shirt.  My brother had LeMutt and LeMutt’s girlfriend Fifi.  I think LeMutt and Fifi were available in different sizes and we had a smaller version of LeMutt than Fifi.  Didn’t seem to bother us much.

One of my fondest memories concerning our stuffed animals was a trip to the lake one year.  I’m not sure how old we were.  Old enough (by eighties standards) to be home alone but not so old that we had put the dolls away.  Maybe ten and seven?

Anyway, mom had left us with instructions.  We were supposed to load a few supplies into the pop-up trailer and make sure we were ready to go when she and my step-dad got home from work.  We were strictly limited to two stuffed animals each.  Yes, Mom.  We understand completely.

Two animals each, however, was unacceptable.  We soon developed a plan.  The pop-up was basically already packed and closed down so no one would be crawling into it or opening it up.  It was a safe haven.  We started carrying stuffed animals out by the armful to stuff behind all the boxes in the trailer.  We got caught up in the adrenaline rush of the plan implementation and took nearly every single stuffed animal, no matter how small, insignificant, or unloved out to the trailer.

Some careful planning went into which four animals were in the car with us.  They had to be believable as the four we would most want, of course.  Rufus was the biggest problem (literally).  He was too big to hide in the trailer without risking exposure if the parents should perform a quick flashlight check before departure.  But he wasn’t likely to be one of my top two.  I agonized over this for quite some time before deciding to risk suspicion.

Still, there were still more animals that didn’t fit in the trailer.  By the time our parents got home, we really wanted to pull off a complete coup.  So while they were busy, we’d quickly and quietly sneak small animals out to the car in our shirts and stuff them under the seats.  We hid even more animals in our pillowcases and laid the pillows in the backseat, carefully situating them so the lumps weren’t obvious.  And then, when it was time to go, we walked to the car, each holding two, and only two, animals.

Looking back, I laugh at how much work went into hiding things.  As a parent, I can only imagine how distracted they were with everything they needed to take care of.  No wonder we got away with it.

We sat quietly in the backseat as the car pulled out of the drive.  Occasional furtive glances were shared as my brother waited for me to give the indication.  The key to success with the in-car animals was to wait until we were too far away for them to turn the car back.  But not too far that we couldn’t enjoy them!  Besides, we were really itching to reveal our hand!

Finally, I nodded and we each darted under the front seats to extract the animals.  We pulled them gleefully from our pillowcases.  Our mother looked back in shock.  We laughed and laughed and laughed.  Mom grinned and shook her head.  Success.  And we hadn’t even gotten in trouble.

One more hurdle remained.  When we got to the lake, they began to raise the trailer.  (A pop-up trailer has a roof that winds up and two beds that slide out to leave you with a big open space in the middle.  Many have a kitchen and table in them.  Ours was a very basic model – just the two beds.  All of our towels, dishes, etc. were stored in Avon boxes in the floor.)  They let down the door.  They stepped inside.  They saw the animals.  We shrieked in delight.

Mom was not quite so forgiving this time.  Then again, it was so over-the-top ridiculous that after a brief expression of anger, she just shook her head in disbelief.  Then she said that every single last animal had to fit on our bed.  Every single one.  It was a challenge to do that and still have room for us but we pulled it off.  Mom couldn’t understand why we wanted so many stuffed animals at the lake.  It wasn’t the having them there that we wanted – it was the getting them there.  To this day, it remains one of our best cooperative acts of subterfuge.

I still have “the big three”: Jane, Jennifer, and Julie.  My kids found them in the closet one day and they came back to life (Woody and Buzz would love to know that).  Only, despite my insistence, they aren’t named Jane, Jennifer, and Julie anymore.

I’d like you to meet, from left to right, Shirley, Ginger, and… Mr. Muffets.  That last one has taken some getting used to.

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