Note the picture, showing another view of The World’s Worst Sport Coat. The photo is dated July, 1958, which was the summer before I began high school in the 9th grade. This is the sport coat I was wearing in my first debate, which I wrote about below in the August 9th entry. Remember, this coat was striped in various shades of purple. What a thing of beauty. This had to be taken at the same time as the picture in the blog entry below because no one could look as stupid as I do on two separate occasions. The little fellow in the middle is my brother David, resplendent in perhaps the dorkiest outfit I have ever seen on a child, and my sister Sandy, well, perhaps she’ll write in and explain her outfit. We must have been going to church.
Before launching into today’s entry featuring my grandma, I’d like to point out a couple of errors I have made so far. The first is really stupid: in the July 30 entry below, I say we used to race down the 19th street hill, when I meant the 18th Street hill. I had several people correct me, thank you, it was a slip of the pen. More seriously, in the same entry I tell the story of Butch McGee (not his real name) who lived in the neighborhood, and how his father would go through his pocket change and throw all his Roosevelt dimes on the ground because he hated FDR so much. Well, Butch himself has written in and said not so, that his father was a proud Democrat, and Roosevelt was a God in his house. So where did I get that story? I haven’t the slightest idea. I have a clear picture in my head of Butch telling it to me, but evidently it is a false memory. Working on this memoir has unearthed interesting questions on the nature of memory, and at the most extreme, truth itself. Questions that I have no answers for. All I can do is tell it like I remember it. Mark Twain said… “When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.” Perhaps that’s me, now.
On to Grandma.
Emma Mason, formerly Emma Bush, was my mother’s mother. She owned the house we lived in on Maxwell Avenue and the one behind us, which was really a very large garage with an apartment overtop which was rented out. Our house was made of stucco, though I never heard anyone say that word back then. It was sheathed in grey concrete with small round pebbles mixed in, so we just called it the Pebble House. It was very small, and in later years my grandma lived there by herself.
Grandma never lived permanently in town until she was old. She was a country person, and I remember her living in two houses over the years. One was in Walker, WV, and the other, the first house, was in Beatrice, WV. The Beatrice house was a full working farm with crops and a barn with cows in it, a coop with chickens, and I remember a few pigs. The house was curious in that it was built high on brick pillars and was accessed from the road by walking across a swinging bridge that my mother hated. Whenever we started across it we kids would push from side to side making the bridge swing and my mother shriek. So when you were in the house you were up high. I could, and did, look out my bedroom window and watch Grandma catch chickens, chop their heads off and let them run around for awhile, headless. She then hung them by their feet on the clothesline until they bled out. We would have them for lunch.
One of my very earliest memories was from this house, or rather the barn. I couldn’t have been more than four years old. I was in the barn with Grandma’s husband, Mr. Mason – I’ll get to him in a minute – and it seems I remember other men standing around. Mr. Mason was milking one of the cows. He showed me how to do it, then told me to go around behind the cow and take hold of the tail and pump it like he used the outdoor pump to get water. There was no indoor plumbing in this house. That, he assured me, would produce more milk. Being a trusting, dutiful boy, I went behind the cow, lifted up the tail and began pumping. The cow immediately pissed on me, which everyone thought was hilarious. I jumped out of the way, but not before getting liberally sprinkled. I remember being vaguely aware that I was being made fun of, that Mr. Mason, and probably everyone else, knew that if you fooled with a cow’s tail the cow would piss on you. But I also remember feeling that while it wasn’t funny to me, it was done without meanness. Thus averting a painful reaction to an event that could have put me on an analyst’s couch in later years.
Mr. Mason was grandma’s husband, as I have said, but we didn’t ever call him Grandpa. Grandma had been married before to a man no one ever mentioned until many years later. This man’s name was Bush, and when anyone spoke of him the speaker would always mention that he was as bald as an egg and always had been as bald as an egg as far as anyone knew. Even as a child he was said to be hairless. He was also a drunk who would go off on “toots” a couple of times a year where he would disappear for days at a time and then show back up looking like he’d been on, well, a toot. Grandma was tough, so when she’d had enough, she kicked him out and divorced him. Some said she had the first divorce ever granted to a woman in the state of West Virginia. Remember, I keep saying that West Virginia in the early part of the 20th century was closer to Victorian England than it was to the rest of the civilized world.
But my mother, when she did speak of her father, the bald Mr. Bush, did so with fondness. The family lived for a time and ran a hotel known as The Yew Pine Inn, where Mom remembered playing in the long dark hallways and watching burlesque performers practicing their acts before putting on shows in local venues. After Grandma kicked Mr. Bush out, he returned and took my mother away with him; mom lived with him for a while before Grandma came and took her back. Mom thought Grandma took her back not out of any love for her, but that she just couldn’t stand for Mr. Bush to have anything that she considered hers.
In later years, after Grandma was widowed, she moved back into town to the pebble house. By then we had moved across the street into my friend Francis’ house. Francis is perhaps my oldest friend and married my sister, years later in New York City.
Grandma went to work as a health aide to a rich old lady who lived in another part of town. From what I know now, it sounds like she was more slave than aide, having to live in the house and do all the work for the invalid, who was probably younger than she was. I’ve said Grandma was tough and by that I mean she was West Virginia tough. Aside from snakes, she feared nothing and worked until Alzheimer’s or whatever mental disease crippled her made it impossible to live on her own. When I turned 16 and got my driver’s license, it was my job, every Sunday morning, to go pick up Grandma at work and bring her home to her house. For this she would give me a dime. I would spend an hour or so with her while she would read me the newspaper, a long, painful process because she had never gone beyond grade school, if that. We would talk about the articles she read because she was mystified by most of them. These discussions were usually fairly bizarre.
She bought a TV, a tiny, round-screened model, and would sit and watch her favorite game shows. One day she told me she was thinking of getting a new set with a bigger screen because she knew there’s was a lot more going on behind the edges of her screen that she was missing. As I tried to explain that a bigger screen simply meant the same picture would just be bigger, she smiled gently at me in the manner of a parent smiling at a child who was generally recognized as being a fool.
In later years, Grandma, as I have said, began to exhibit signs of dementia. Alzheimer’s had not yet been “discovered,” but it was clear that Grandma couldn’t take care of herself, so she came to live with us. Since she had been living in the pebble house across the street, this didn’t require much in the way of relocation. By then I was in college, at West Virginia University, a couple of hours away, so I wasn’t home much. When I was, I’d sit in the living room with Grandma watching television. Every once in awhile, she’d shout out to me, “Harness up the buckboard, we got to get to Harmon before nightfall!” And I would say, “Right, Grandma, we’ll go in the morning.” Which seemed to satisfy her.
She drove my dad crazy. She thought he was the hired hand and treated him as such. He could never just go along with whatever nutty thing she was saying, but always tried to reason with her and tell her that we drove cars now and there were no more buckboards. He never understood my attempts to explain to him why it would do no good to apply reason to her pronouncements and the best thing to do was to just go along with her craziness (I was a psychology major at the time) and that she would never understand his rational explanations. After she began trying to light the electric lights with matches, it was decided to put her in a nursing home.
Where she did not do well. On one of my visits home, my mother described one of Grandma’s infractions. It was Christmas. For some reason, Grandma got up in the middle of the night and made her way to the central nurse’s station, where — it apparently was unoccupied at the time — she found the PW system and turned it on. How could she have known how to do this? She must have been quietly observing for some time. She then began to sing the Christmas carol Jingle Bells, except she supplied the lyrics from curse words that none of us had any idea she knew. It went like this (so said my mother): “Fuck fuck fuck, fuck fuck fuck, shit piss goddamn fuck fuck fuck.” Evidently they had to tackle her and drag the microphone out of her hand as she continued to sing. I am not making this up. When I was told this story, the only thing I could think of was, good for grandma.
She died a few years later, though no one told me at the time. I always felt that this not telling me was a kind of betrayal because I loved my feisty grandma, and no one understood that I would have come home from wherever I was to show my respect for her and to help bury her.
Next up: the tantalizing mystery surrounding Grandma.