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.


Germs’ll Make ‘Em Tougher

I have a dear friend who is a new mom and very concerned about germs. She dutifully followed the doctor’s instructions to keep the baby at home for the first six weeks. She also kept him away from children until he had his 3 month shots. And don’t even think about touching him if you haven’t washed your hands!

These may very well be good precautions that all mothers should take. In fact, I think more and more mothers are exceptionally careful about sanitizing their children’s environment. I am not one of them. Never have been, not even with my first child, and my children are almost never sick.

Daryl was born on a Wednesday, two days before Jane’s third birthday and three days before her party. Some of our friends assumed the party was cancelled. But, really, what is a mother to do? Tell her excited toddler that she doesn’t get to have her birthday party after all because of this little beast that she’s not sure she wants to accept into the household anyway? Take time away from cherishing my newest bundle of joy so I can try to remember who has been invited so I can call and tell them no?

Nah, party’s on! I even took him with me to Wal-Mart the day we got out of the hospital. I needed (wanted?) some things that, for whatever reason, I couldn’t (wouldn’t?) let anyone else get. And of course, I couldn’t leave Daryl at home. What if he got hungry?

The day of the party, he was passed around and around. Every adult and even some children took a turn holding him. It didn’t occur to me to ask anyone to wash their hands first. It just didn’t.

When Jane was in preschool, her teacher took me aside one day. “Jane keeps spilling her Cheerios on the floor and then crawling under the table to eat them! I keep telling her to stop but she won’t listen.”

I flashed back to all the times I had picked up Cheerios from the freshly vacuumed carpet and put them back in her bowl. Oh, shoot. Who am I kidding? The floor wasn’t vacuumed! When we got home, I had a very serious talk with Jane. “Jane, when you are at school, you need to not eat food that you’ve picked up off the floor. Okay?”

I come by my “germs’ll make ’em tougher” attitude honestly. For one thing, I’ve been an avid backpacker for many years. It’s a little hard to worry about germs and cleanliness when you are not showering for a week or two, conserving water, swallowing your toothpaste, picking up food from the ground and either eating it or packing it out, pooping while squatted against a moss-covered log. Some of that necessarily lax attitude is bound to seep into my front country life.

It’s not just the back country lifestyle, though. As I said, I come by it honestly. I seriously do not remember my mother being terribly concerned about germs. I can remember playing behind the backstop at her softball games. I would build intricate farms from whatever I could find on the ground. Sticks formed the fences that separated the animals. Rocks were the cows. Cigarette butts made excellent sheep, especially if the outer covering had come off. My mother always smiled and listened to my descriptions. She never yelled not to touch that stuff and go wash your hands right now, young lady!

She and I are outright germaphobes compared to my grandmother, however. I’ll never forget the day that I complimented her on this scrumptious gourmet bread being served at a family meal. “Where did you get it, Grandma?”

“Oh, that? I got it out of the dumpster behind the 501 Cafe.”

I spluttered, “You got it where? What were you doing in the 501 Cafe dumpster?”

“Well, I was checking the day old bread store’s dumpster next door and noticed that they had dumped some bread in this other one so checked it out. It’s perfectly good bread. It’s always wrapped in plastic. They just throw it away after it’s a couple of days old.”

I can assure you that I have never been dumpster diving and have no plans to try it out. But I’m also not going to fret over my child continuing to eat his ice cream after the dog licks it or finishing off that slice of pizza after it hits the floor. I do not expect everyone to be like me though, so I promise not to snicker (too much) if you exercise more caution with your own children.