TBT: Great Grandma’s House

Two weeks ago, in honor of Halloween, my Throwback Thursday post was about the spooky bedroom at the end of the hall at my Great Grandmother’s house. I spent a lot of time at her house. This week’s throwback looks at some of the brighter – or at least, not frightening – times.

Great Grandma was very adept at pinching pennies. Conservation was the name of the game. According to her, an inch and a half of water in the bottom of the tub was more than adequate for me to take a bath in. Can’t wash my hair in that little water? No problem. She’d just bend me backwards over the edge of the bathroom sink and wash it there.

She had a whole bunch of cheap costume jewelry. Never having pierced her ears, all the earrings were clip-on. This was perfect for our jewelry store that my brother and I would setup in the living room. We’d pull a dining room chair in as our display space. Hang the necklaces on the corners. Clip the earrings on the center portion of the chair back. We’d push the two facing couches away from the walls and each would claim one space as his or her home. The shop would be outside one of the homes. Business couldn’t have been swift. What, with only two people in the town.

My favorite activity, by far, was eating Saltine crackers. Now that I think about it, that was pretty much my favorite activity wherever I was. And I always had to be sneaky about it because crazy grown-ups seemed to have a problem with a kid eating an entire sleeve of crackers in one sitting.

Grandma kept her crackers in the little vertical storage space in her range (cooktop and oven – not built into any cabinetry). I’m sure the space was intended for baking sheets or something, but at her house, that’s where the crackers were. When she wasn’t looking, I’d swipe them and run to hide under the table in the living room.

For a smart kid, I wasn’t very bright though. I almost always forgot to close the door in my haste. So in would walk Grandma to the kitchen. She’d see the open compartment, and she’d start calling me. Problem was, she was 80-some years old and had quite a few grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

It took her awhile to get to my name.

“Mary Lee? Marsha? Susan? Jennifer? Lucy?” I never felt compelled to respond until she got to mine. I mean, how was I supposed to know she was calling me? In the meantime, I’d pick up the pace on stuffing crackers in my mouth.

Eventually, sometimes after cycling through some men’s names too, she’d hit mine. And I’d dutifully call out, “Yes?” The response was always muffled since it’s hard to speak with your mouth full of crackers. She’d enter the living room and snag the remaining crackers. I don’t recall getting into much trouble for it.

She had a pecan orchard too. As she got older, she became less and less able to pick the pecans on her own. In fact, sometimes she’d call my mom or my grandma yelling, “The crows are getting my pecans! The crows are getting my pecans!!” That was the siren call that would get all family members living in the area loaded up and hurried out to her house to pick pecans.

When I was in eighth grade, I remember going out there and picking pecans. That’s when I learned that there’s some sort of dye in the soft outer green shells that protect the brown speckled shells we are all accustomed to. I was trying to be helpful and peeled them all off. And all my fingers were stained orange!

Such an event is absolutely devastating to a middle schooler. How could I go to school with my hands looking like that?! I simply couldn’t. There was obviously only one thing to do… I carefully covered all my fingers with band-aids. Yep. That’s what I did.

And being an honest child, when the unforeseen question came up, “What did you do to your fingers?!”, I told the truth. Which made me look incredibly stupid since I wasn’t actually injured.

On Great Grandma’s wall, hung a poem. I thought this was one of the most insightful things I’d ever seen. And when we emptied her house, so many years later, I learned I wasn’t alone. Everyone wanted the poem. And so we all got color copies of the original. Mine is matted and hanging on my dining room wall:

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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.