Author Archives: JennyWren

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.)