Part-two in a series of essays by guest Gero-Punk
Grandma was sickly for a long time and had to rest and then became so ill she had to stay in bed. The oak and leather davenport in the parlor transformed into a bed and Grandma laid there in the days and at nights Grandpa carried her to the “tent” room built specially in the back yard for her but with enough beds in it for more people to sleep. The fresh air was supposed to make her better while she slept. Mama said she thought I would be a bother but Grandma said I would be her little nurse. I could fetch things for her and bring her glasses of water and be cheerful company for her. She made me a white apron to wear while I was staying with them to help out. Years later when clearing my parents’ home, I found that apron and from its small size realized that even though I’d felt myself to be quite an accomplished nurse, I had been very young as the apron that covered me from neck to hem was about eighteen inches long.
That was after I killed the baby chicks. When that event occurred, Grandma and I were both outside, she working in her garden and I jumping about under the English walnut tree. A batch of downy chickens learning their first lessons of scratching in the dirt and catching bugs followed the mother hen with difficulty because of the thick, long grass and small irrigation ditches. By accident my foot trod on one of those babies; it uttered a “peep” so charming to my ears that I then hunted them down to step on them. Presently Grandma asked what I was doing. “Stomping on the peeps,” I answered. She came at once and stopped me, gently letting me know how I had hurt those baby chicks so badly they couldn’t live.
While we lived in Portland, Mama took me to see Santa Claus, the real one, not anybody dressed up and pretending. I had already wondered about the veracity of the Santa Claus story. Santa had a real beard – I pulled on it to find out – but the most convincing fact was that he knew my name. That Christmas time we went to visit Grandma and Grandpa Saunders in Richland and at the church program, there was Santa Claus again. I was sure he knew I was in the audience because he gave each child a sack of candy. When we got back to Grandma’s, there were sleigh tracks in the snow outside; Santa must have been there already. There must be something for me under Grandma’s tree, but there wasn’t. So it was with a happy heart that I went to Uncle Fred and Aunt Nina’s to see cousin Betty’s Christmas tree; they said Santa had been there. Mama and Grandma and Grandpa went with me. Betty’s tree was decorated and taller than Uncle Fred’s head. On its sturdy branches were many exciting-looking packages. Uncle Fred reached into the branches and brought the packages out one by one. He was surprised and happy every time he found a package for Betty. I sat waiting on the couch, sitting nicely with my feet stretched out in front of me, quiet and still. I kept smiling and hoping but a drop at a time disappointment crept into my heart until I was quite sad. One package was for Aunt Nina, one for Uncle Fred but all the rest of the packages were for Betty, except one. One was for me and that one was not from Santa but from Betty. When all the packages were distributed and I saw that Santa had forgotten me, I sobbed. How could Santa do this to me? Mama told me that Santa didn’t know I was in Richland, that all of my presents would be waiting for me at home, but my heart was broken. Santa had seen me at church; I could not be comforted. Mama felt bad. She took me back to Grandma’s and went into the attic room and found a set of china doll dishes that had been hers when she was a little girl. The tiny cups, the saucers, and little plates were fitted into snug places in the red liner of a bright blue cardboard box with pictures of flowers on the lid. Mama said I was too small to have those dishes and that she had wanted to give them to me when I was older but Santa wanted me to have them on that Christmas Eve.
Before bedtime at Grandma and Grandpa Gray’s whoever was in the house gathered in the living room and got down on their knees for evening prayers. Not everybody had to pray out loud but Grandpa led off. He prayed for the President and for the country. He prayed for the family members, often by name, and asked that someday we could all be together in heaven. In the process of growing up I remember thinking that it might be more fun to be with my friends than stuck with all those aunts and uncles.
Cousin Clarence, a nephew of Grandpa’s, came to visit two times that I can remember. He was a philanthropist at heart and wrote large checks for good causes when in his cups. Unfortunately, he drank often and his bank account did not match his generosity, so he spent many of his years in prison. That explained why the presents he brought were so dreary – once a blue-knotted string purse fell to my lot – he made them in whatever correctional institution kept him sober at the time.
We Lived in Umatilla County
Our address was RFD#1, Milton, Oregon, and the mailbox was at the County Road about a quarter of a mile from the house. The mailman was Uncle Elmer Hopkins, the father of my first cousins Marjory and Donna whom I loved dearly. Marjy was 2 years and five months older than I and Donna was one year, one week, and one day younger, but I felt much closer to Marjy in both size and maturity. I always wanted to be older than I was and grew fast; reaching Marjy’s height about the time I was five, as old photographs show. They had one older brother, Lauriel, with a golden air of glamour, who was old enough to carry a BB gun and shoot crows that were eating Grandpa’s ripening fruit. Later on, I would have a little brother, Hads, and a baby sister, Barbara, and the Hopkins kids would have a brother, even younger than Barbara, named Ted – not short for Theodore — just Ted – with Gray for his middle name.
Uncle Elmer was married to Aunt Goldie, one of Daddy’s older sisters – four years older. The child in between, Little Rankin, died from a ruptured appendix at the age of two years, two months, and twenty-nine days a few weeks before Daddy was born. We all knew about Little Rankin and how Grandpa had asked the doctor, “What would you do if he were your son?” and the doctor said he wouldn’t operate – the child would die anyway and would suffer more. Grandma showed us Rankin’s doll, and the coins he played with when he died and with tears in her eyes closed the drawer she kept those grave mementos in. She said, “I don’t know what I would have done without Papa!”
The Big Mud Puddle
Locust and black walnut trees so tall that Mama said they’d break right off in the next storm and smash us in our beds surrounded our house. On the way to the mailbox I jumped across the little irrigation ditch at the side of the shallow, soft mud puddle the cars made crossing without a bridge and stirred the mud for a while with my stick. That was where Donna got us in trouble the day Marjy, Donna, and I spent all afternoon climbing in and out of water in washing tubs set out in the side yard. Our mothers bathed us and sent us back outside in fresh, ironed cotton dresses with matching bloomers giving us stern instructions to keep clean until our Daddies came home for supper. We’d have a company dinner: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, cream gravy, green beans, sliced tomatoes, and fresh corn from the garden and our mothers were making pies for dessert. I don’t remember for sure what kind but think they were cherry.
I guided my cousins to the perpetual puddle and showed them how we could defy the law by walking carefully, delicately, silently along the soft edges with the water lapping just above the soles of our shoes but not splashing our socks or going inside. I’d done it many times; no one need ever know or tell. I led the way with Marjy following but then not even halfway round Donna fell in, splashing half of her pink dress chocolate along with her face and hair. She bawled like the baby she always was! Marjy and I tried to hush her and brush her off but she insisted on crying until our mothers stormed out of the house to give us a dose of Walnut Tea. The center stalk of the walnut’s compound leaf when stripped makes a flexible, stinging little switch. Aunt Goldie believed in the efficacy of applying this to bare legs much more strongly than Mama did and Donna got it and poor Marjy had two switches worn limp on her while mama, using only one, went through the motions and shook her head at me though it was really my fault. However, no one would have been in trouble had Donna stayed on her feet like the big girl she should have been.
Velda Metelmann is a student in the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program at Marylhurst University. She’ll be commencing her thesis work on “a good old age” this fall.