The Orgy Story

Dear readers, I realized the other day that I have made a grievous oversight. I have told you many tales about the wackiness that inevitably ensues when my grandmother has an extended hospital stay – the murderers in the shrubbery, the plots to destroy her dogs, the deathbed phone calls – but I have omitted to tell you about the midnight orgies. Prepare to be enlightened.

I don’t remember what Nanna was in the hospital for that time, but it mostly required bed rest and observation, and the nurses settled her in a nice double room with another patient called Juanita. Juanita was a very frail, very elderly woman who was stuck full of tubes and could barely lift herself off of the pillow. She had a sweet, peaceful personality and whenever we came to visit she would greet us with blessings and quiet updates on Nanna’s progress. Nanna, who has never approved of meekness, didn’t much care for her.

One day my aunts came to visit and found Nanna looking tired and disgruntled.

“How are you feeling, mother?” they asked.

“Terrible,” Nanna said bluntly. “I couldn’t sleep at all last night.”

Her daughters expressed their sympathies and asked what the problem was. Had she talked to the nurses about it?

No, said Nanna darkly, the nurses would be no help in this matter. The problem was Juanita, who had been making so much noise during the nights that it was impossible for anyone in her vicinity to rest.

Sharon and Carrie looked over at Juanita, who was taking a nap, and saw the usual 90 pounds of soft-spoken frailty. She did not look capable of making enough noise to disturb even the keenest hearing.

“What has she been doing?” they asked.

What hadn’t she been doing! Sharon and Carrie listened in horror as Nanna described the drunken revels that went on it that room every night. Juanita’s friends would come over and they would drink and cuss and carry on. They would play loud music. They would have sex with the nurses, right there on Juanita’s bed. They would, in short, indulge in every kind of depravity, and it was disgusting to watch.

My aunts were appalled. What kind of hospital was this? And how could they have so badly misjudged Juanita? We were so nice to her, they thought, and all the time she was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. They had worked themselves into a state of high indignation by the time common sense caught up and they looked at each other and thought, wait a minute

“We were nodding along with every word she said,” Carrie told us later, “and then it just got to the point where we both realized, ‘This woman is crazy.’”

The problem is that Nanna can be very convincing when she’s crazy. She has never had much use for self-doubt, so she always speaks with absolute conviction and brooks no argument. I can see how her daughters, having been trained from childhood up to believe that her word was law, could have been drawn down the rabbit hole. It’s just fortunate that they came to their senses before marching off to the hospital administration to lodge a formal complaint about Juanita’s sex parties.

Dentists and Dunners

Turn your attention to the Norman Rockwell print above and note the boy’s apprehensive expression as he gazes off into the corner of the frame. You might think he would be observing the dentist, possibly wielding a drill or some other fearful instrument, but if this scene were set in my grandfather’s clinic (he was the local dentist in Melbourne) such would not be the case. The boy would be cowering in fear before my grandmother, who was the practice’s secret weapon when dealing with recalcitrant children. She used to come out from behind the receptionist’s desk and terrorize them into submission, thereby allowing her more amiable husband to go about his business unimpeded.

Of course, quelling out-of-line children was small potatoes for someone with Nanna’s formidable personality. Fortunately, the office offered her much greater scope for her talents. When she first came to work in the office full time, her husband was in desperate need of a dunner.

The problem was that my grandfather was a mild-mannered fellow, amply supplied with the milk of human kindness, and when a patient neglected to pay his bill he usually mailed off a few reminders and then let the matter drop. On her arrival, therefore, Nanna discovered a drawer full of these unpaid bills and took it upon herself to pursue justice. She hunted down defaulters all over town, hounding them until they paid up. If they resisted, she dragged them to small claims court and extracted every cent she was due. (Nanna has never tried to get more than a thank-you note out of me, but even so the experience left me shaken. I can only imagine Continue reading

The Voodoo Abortion Story

One day I was down at the beach with my Aunt Carrie and she looked over at me and said, “Did you ever hear Jane’s voodoo abortion story?”

She immediately had my undivided attention. Readers of this blog remember Jane, right? The one who’s been married seven times and once suggested that nuns go straight to hell? (If not, go back and check out Boxed Wine and Bourbon and The Triumph of Hope over Experience. Your life will not be complete until you do.) Jane has a colorful past and a spark of storytelling genius, and I would have been riveted if Carrie had said she had an anecdote about tax returns, much less voodoo abortion.

So I indicated that I was all ears and Carrie told me this story.

When Jane was in high school she began experimenting, as teenagers do, and although later questioning by an angry nun would reveal that young Jane was not sure of the exact definition of “sexual intercourse” (this was not covered by Catholic schools in the ‘70s), she must have managed it somehow because she began to suspect that she was in a family way.

Jane confided in her best friend Sue, and after considering the symptoms in light of what little knowledge was available to the younger generation in conservative, rural Mississippi, the girls concluded that Jane was in Big Trouble. But all was not lost, Sue told her. She knew of a way that Jane could solve her problem without ever having to bring it to the unwelcome attention of parents or teachers.

For those of you who did not grow up in the rural South a generation ago, I should explain that in that time and place every middle-class white family had a black maid. Sue’s family was fortunate enough to employ a woman who was skilled in the arts of voodoo, and Sue advised Jane to seek her counsel immediately.

This was before Planned Parenthood.

So they went to see the voodoo woman, Continue reading

Stars in her crown

My grandmother has always been somewhat ambivalent about religion. On the one hand, she resents the notion that her actions should be guided by charity and meekness. On the other hand, her Pentecostal grandparents, who used to threaten her with demons when she was a child, instilled in her a lifelong fear of hellfire and damnation. This creates occasional internal conflict, but Nanna is a woman of spirt and determination, and most of the time she is able to stand firm against divine intimidation. Bear this in mind as I explain about the refrigerator.

Not far from Nanna’s house the family keeps a cabin on the river, a convenient little getaway that comes in handy when we convene for the holidays and wish to avoid Nanna’s abominable dogs. Mom and her siblings share responsibility for its upkeep, and few years ago Mom volunteered to buy a new refrigerator for the kitchen. This raised the question of what to do with the elderly but functional model then in residence.

Nanna, unsurprisingly, was quick to claim it for her own. After all, she pointed out, she only had three or four refrigerators in her house already, and since they were packed to overflowing she was rapidly approaching the point where she would be unable to stow any more leftovers and might have to start throwing away perfectly good food from 1993.

We spotted a few flaws in this logic, but decided it was better to give her the fridge rather than risk her unloading her surplus food on us. This is always a danger at family gatherings.

Before the fridge could be moved, however, we received a visit from Lisa, the neighbor, a genial soul who proposed that rather than give this refrigerator to a woman who already had several, we should donate it to the Christian Mission and have it passed along to a family in need.

Needless to say, Nanna did not care for this idea at all. She and Lisa argued over it for some time and perhaps Nanna would have prevailed against a lesser opponent, but Lisa has a stubborn streak to rival Nanna’s own (this is exactly why my grandmother has always disapproved of her) and through a combination of grit and guilt she eventually induced Nanna to cede her rights to the fridge.

“You’re doing the right thing,” Lisa assured her, generous in victory. “This will be stars in your crown!”

Nanna had been forced into charity but was determined at the very least not to be gracious about it, so she went to my Aunt Sharon to complain. It was an unfortunate choice of audience, given that Sharon is a devout Baptist and has modeled her entire life on the principle that ‘tis better to give than to receive. She listened in horror to her mother’s rant, which ended with a mocking repetition of Lisa’s last words and a grumble of, “Stars in my crown shit.”

Sharon, affronted by this slur on the hereafter and concerned (not for the first time) for the fate of Nanna’s immortal soul, told the whole thing to Mom in a state of high indignation and opined that Nanna was “not even going to have a crown.”

The refrigerator did end up going to the Christian Mission, though, so hopefully actions speak louder than words.


The Buffalo Story

This is a story about dead buffalos and eagle feathers, and I wish I could say it’s about my family but it’s technically not. This story belongs to my boyfriend’s parents, Sarah and John, but I was there to watch some of it unfold and they have graciously agreed to let me chronicle their adventure.

Sarah and John came to visit us this spring, and they broke the monotony of the long drive from Denver to Nashville by visiting some friends along the way. That’s how they acquired the eagle feather story. Their friend Molly is fond of beadwork and a few months ago she decided to try her hand at making an authentic Native American headdress. The only snag was that if she was going to do it right she needed eagle feathers, and since eagles are a protected species their feathers are not readily acquired. The only way to obtain them, short of poaching or having connections in the black market, is to be a Native American.

Apparently if you are a registered member of a Native American tribe, you get special privileges in this regard and if you fill out some paperwork, the government will put you on a list to receive feathers should they become available.

By a stroke of good fortune, Molly’s husband was of Choctaw descent and qualified for the eagle list. So Molly talked him into signing up, and several weeks later they got a call from FedEx telling them that their eagle feathers would be delivered that day. They came in a cooler, and when Molly opened it up she found not just a few tail feathers, but the entire rear end of an eagle, flesh and all.
Continue reading

Tableware and T-Shirts

My grandmother is exceedingly fond of yard sales and other purveyors of secondhand goods, and she is always buying strange things and offloading them on her hapless relatives (see “Be Thinking of Nice Things to Say”). Every now and then, though, she will stumble upon something so bizarre that it is truly a treasure, although maybe not for the reasons she judges it to be so. Such treasures include a T-shirt of unknown origins that she gave to my sister, and these John Deere plates she got for me when I moved into my first apartment (even though she knew perfectly well that I already had a full set of dishes):


I am now the proud owner of 20 or so plates that remind me with every meal that “nothing runs like a Deere,” and I must say they’ve grown on me.

But on to the shirt. Here’s a picture of my sister modelling it:


It’s not the best quality picture, so allow me to walk you through it. Underneath the promise of Fine Southern Hospitality is the slogan “Peaches, Peanuts, and Sweet Tea,” along with pictures of these delicacies for the benefit of the illiterate. A pecan tree spreads its branches in the background. And at the bottom, strategically positioned to be roughly aligned with the wearer’s crotch, are the words “Welcome to Georgia.”

I love this shirt; it has such an abundance of delightfully ambiguous double entendres. Are the peaches a Southern staple or a fertility symbol? Is ‘Georgia’ a poetic euphemism? What kind of hospitality are we talking, here?

I’m not sure if Nanna picked up on the fact that she was gifting her granddaughter a shirt that could easily be an advertisement for a Bible-belt brothel. You never quite know, with Nanna. My sister took the shirt with her when she went to college in the Northeast, just to screw with the Yankees’ perceptions of Southerners.

(Update: since posting this, I have been reminded by my sister that the shirt was size XL and still bore a price tag indicating that it cost $1.49 at Wal-Mart. These are typical hallmarks of my grandmother’s gifts.)

Often Wrong, Never in Doubt

Readers of this blog have probably noticed its flexible treatment of time: recent stories and ancient history have been presented in no particular order with relatively little explanation. Therefore, to orient those of you not personally acquainted with my family, I should explain that my grandmother has been in a nursing home for about a year now.

We had been trying to persuade her to take this step for a long time, as it became increasingly dangerous for her to live alone and increasingly expensive to provide the kind of full-time care she needed, but she was adamant in her desire to stay in her own home. Eventually, though, her dementia progressed to the point that she was no longer reliably sure of where she was (well, technically she was sure; Nanna is never unsure. She was just wrong), and by ‘home’ she meant the house she had grown up in as a child.

We visited her in her house shortly before the move, and suddenly she stopped in mid-conversation and looked speculatively around her living room.

“Where is this place?” she asked us. “Is this the country club?”

“No,” Mom explained, “this is your house.”

Nanna looked doubtful for a moment, so my aunt and I nodded confirmation. Then she pulled herself together and gave us all a look of pure exasperation.

“Oh, Lord,” she sighed impatiently, “don’t y’all start that again.”

This confirmed our suspicions that her physical location was pretty much irrelevant at that point. Once settled in the nursing home she remained in the dark as to where she was or why, but she retained an unshakeable conviction that she knew everyone there and that all acknowledged her superiority. Whenever we visited she would treat the nurses like her personal servants and regally introduce us to the other residents using fictitious identities.

She might gesture to the elderly lady next to us and say, “This is my cousin Suzanne,” at which point the old lady would shake hands genially with us and explain, “We’re not cousins and my name is Rebecca, but I’m used to her calling me Suzanne now.” Then Nanna would order a passing nurse to bring us all soft drinks, which never appeared because those nurses are already underpaid for what they do.

Once a family friend went to visit Nanna and found her in a state of high excitement as she watched a nurse on the other side of the room touching up the paintwork on the wall.

“Oh, I’m so glad you’re here,” Nanna said in greeting. “I need you to go and tell that girl that she is painting the wall the wrong color.”

(She wasn’t.)

Travelling and Telephones

Several years ago my Aunt Sharon was getting into Nanna’s car and she noticed a big black smudge in the middle of the steering wheel. Sharon, who firmly believes that cleanliness is next to godliness and takes both of these virtues very seriously, immediately inquired as to the cause of this unsightly mark.

“Oh, it’s just ink,” explained Nanna. “That’s where I hold my newspaper on yard sale day.”

Apparently this used to be a habit of hers on Saturdays; she would fold the newspaper to the ads section and drive around town in search of the advertised sales, no doubt posing all kinds of hazards to life and limb as she careened around corners with her eyes on the paper. Fortunately, those were the days before texting and therefore everyone else on the road was alert enough to avoid catastrophe.

Eventually Nanna became unsteady on her feet (and ran out of storage space) and fell out of the yard sale habit. Instead she took up a new hobby: worrying. This could be done from the comfort of her La-Z-Boy and meshed perfectly with her other favorite pastime: complicating the lives of her offspring.

Driving to visit Nanna invariably entailed phone calls that would go something like this:

Phone rings.

Us: Hello?

Nanna: Oh, thank goodness you’re alive. Why aren’t you here yet?

Us: It’s five o’clock. We told you we’d be there at six.

Nanna: Well, hurry up. I’ve been worrying about you all day long.

So we’d reassure her and then we would hang up the phone and wonder why she had felt it necessary to devote an entire day to worrying about a two-hour drive. But Nanna was never one to leave things till the last minute.

Sometimes she’d call before we’d even left, demanding to know what the holdup was.

“Nanna, it’s three o’clock,” Mom would say. “The girls aren’t even out of school yet.”

“Well, I’ve been expecting you for half an hour,” Nanna would huff, indignant that she should be expected to conform to such trivialities of time and space. “Y’all should have told me you were coming so late.”

 “We did!” Mom would yell, only not out loud because that is not what proper Southern women do. She managed to save the rant until after she had hung up the phone.

My Aunt Carrie, who often drove up to spend weekends with Nanna, had similar problems. One weekend the phone call might go like this:

Nanna: Carrie? Where are you? I’ve been waiting for hours.

Carrie: It’s Friday, mother. I don’t get off work until five. I’ll see you tonight.

Nanna: Well couldn’t you take the afternoon off to come see your old mother? Your boss would understand.

And then she proceeded to guilt Carrie so thoroughly that the next time she did take the afternoon off, leading to this phone call:

Carrie: I’m just calling to let you know that we’re on our way and we’ll be there around 3 o’clock.

Nanna: 3 o’clock? I wasn’t expecting you till night time! Don’t y’all have work?

Carrie: We left early today so we could come see you.

Nanna: Well why would you do that? Your job isn’t good enough for you? Your boss is going to fire you…

Etc., etc. You can see why we didn’t always answer the phone when we knew Nanna was on the other end.

The Facts of Life According to Nanna

Between 1938 and 1971, a chemical called DES was the go-to women’s fertility drug. The downside, as it later turned out, was that it often caused birth defects and damaged the reproductive systems of the babies it conceived.

My mom found out about this back in the 1980s, and of course she immediately called up my grandmother to ask if she had ever taken this drug. In retrospect, she should have known better.

“Fertility drugs?” asked Nanna. “Hell, no! All four of y’all were accidents.”

Nanna may have begrudged her entry into the world of motherhood, but while she is not especially maternal nor is she a shirker. So she took seriously her responsibility to prevent her daughters from continuing the cycle of unplanned progeny. Nowadays this would have taken the form of sex ed, but this was rural, conservative Alabama in the 1970s, and so it took the form of a series of strange, unhelpful, and vaguely threatening talks held with each of her daughters as they came of age.

“If you ever get pregnant,” Nanna told my teenage aunt Sharon, not bothering to explain how this unfortunate circumstance might come about, “just come tell us and we can handle it. Your father will sell his dental practice and we’ll pack up the family and move to another town where nobody knows us.”

So no pressure.

Aunt Carrie’s experience was similar, although apparently by that point Nanna was no longer willing to move. “If you find yourself in a family way,” Nanna instructed, “you can always come tell me. Don’t worry, I won’t be mad, we’ll just go hold hands and jump off the Pea River Bridge together.”

My mother, poor soul, was the one who got the most technical detail. One day as she was passing through the living room, Nanna glanced up from a magazine article and said, “Did you know there are 10,000 sperm in every drop of semen?”

And then she went back to her magazine and that was that. Mom is still not sure if this was intended as a fun fact or a warning about the pregnancy-inducing potential of that one drop.

Needless to say, I have very few cousins on my mother’s side.

Arteries, Alcohol, and Automobiles

Last week I introduced Jessie as the woman who used to strap a doll into a car seat every morning so the neighbors wouldn’t know she was leaving her baby home alone. Her saga continues with the Heart Attack Incident.

One night not long ago Jessie was driving herself home, having enjoyed the sparkling company and lackluster alcohol that are the hallmarks of any good Melbourne get-together, and found that she had inexplicably driven her car into a ditch.

So Jessie dialed 9-1-1, which you can do pretty much whenever you like in Melbourne because emergencies are few and far between, and before long her distress signal had been answered by not one but two men in uniform. One was the helpful and understanding kind of policeman, but the other was a state trooper who insisted on asking unpleasant questions about how the car had come to grief on a stretch of road that was theoretically quite uncomplicated. When Jessie was unable to give a satisfactory answer, he proposed a breathalyzer test.

Jessie considered this, taking into account the points on her license and that fact that there really had been quite a lot of the lackluster alcohol, and finally told him thank you very much, but she’d rather not.

“Well,” the trooper said, “Alabama state law is that if you refuse the test, you have to spend 24 hours in jail.”

Jessie went with a third option: call up the chief of police and request his friendly intervention. This may sound strange to you city-dwellers out there, but in a small southern town it’s par for the course. When my grandmother moved out of Melbourne she was always frustrated that she could no longer get her favorite judge to fix her speeding tickets.

So Jessie dialed up the chief of police, who was an old buddy of hers, and explained the situation.

“Well, let’s see what we can do about this,” said the chief. “What’s the trooper’s name?”

Jessie peered at the trooper’s name tag and reported her findings.

“Aw, hell,” said the chief in disgust, “I can’t do anything with him. You’ll have to fake a heart attack.”

(Please take a moment to appreciate the fact that not only was this advice given in all seriousness, but it came from the chief of police. That is awesome.)

So Jessie clutched her chest and began to groan, and the incorruptible trooper was forced to roll his eyes and call an ambulance to take her to the nearest hospital.

I would like to report that this strategy was successful, but if I stray from the facts I will lose all credibility. It is therefore my sad duty to report that doctors are actually pretty good at distinguishing between real heart attacks and fake ones, and in short order they were able to inform the state trooper that Jessie’s arteries were functioning perfectly. So she had to spend 24 hours in jail after all, and she lost her license for a few months.*

*This didn’t mean she stopped driving, of course; she just drove slowly and inconspicuously, and only to work and back.**

**And by work I mean school. Did I mention that Jessie is a third-grade teacher?***

***Of course she is.