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.

Backseat Bait-and-Switch

This weekend my aunts told me a story about the unorthodox parenting strategies of their friend Jessie, who grew up in Melbourne with them. When she was in her twenties Jessie found herself single-handedly raising two school-age daughters and an infant son, and rather than trying to get all of them ready every morning she found it was easier if she drove her daughters to school and just left the baby at home until she got back. Melbourne is tiny and the school was close enough that she wasn’t gone more than 10 minutes, so what could possibly go wrong?

This went smoothly for a while until her next-door neighbor, peering out her kitchen window every morning to count the offspring in Jessie’s backseat, became concerned about the fate of this neglected infant and went to Jessie to offer her services as a babysitter. She was properly trained in Southern manners and thus did not openly accuse Jessie of reckless child endangerment, but she explained that she knew how busy Jessie must be and tactfully offered to come over every morning to help the girls get ready for school and sit with the baby “so that you won’t have to take him with you.”

This left Jessie with a dilemma. She did not want her prim and proper neighbor coming over every morning to cast her disapproving gaze over Jessie’s lackluster housekeeping, but nor could she continue to leave the baby at home alone after having been confronted.

Most people, in this situation, would have given in and either allowed the neighbor into the house or packed the baby up for school. But the people of Melbourne are both stubborn and shameless, and they take a more creative approach to problem solving. After giving the problem much thought, Jessie had a brainwave: she swaddled one of her daughters’ baby dolls and carried it out to the car every morning, where she buckled it into her son’s car seat in full view of her neighbor and drove merrily off to school, leaving her son at home as always. As he got bigger and began to toddle, she got a bigger doll.

I have been pondering this for the past two days and I’m still not sure whether it qualifies as genius or madness. It’s a fine line indeed.

The Social Status of Bootleggers

On my dad’s side of the family, I have a clearly defined heritage: my great-great-grandfather was an Irish salmon poacher who immigrated to the States to avoid arrest. We went on a family trip to Ireland once and found church records tracing several centuries of family history.

On my mom’s side, the family tree fades into murky obscurity if you try to trace it back more than a couple of generations. Every now and then, though, Mom will decide that my sister and I need to get in touch with our roots and she will dredge up a scrap of family history for us. This requires going to Nanna to check her facts.

“What about Uncle D.C.?” Mom asked once. “Wasn’t he a moonshiner?”

“No!” said Nanna indignantly, looking quite appalled at the prospect of being related to such a low-class person. “He was a bootlegger.”

This is how I learned that bootleggers are considered more respectable than moonshiners. Who knew?

Given the nature of Uncle D.C.’s profession, he had naturally formed a strong attachment to his truck. During a trip to the Melbourne cemetery, we were able to see proof of his affection. It seems that before he died, D.C.  requested to be buried next to his truck rather than his wife. His wife, evidently feeling that she had enjoyed enough of his company in this life and had no need of him in the next, agreed to this arrangement and it stands today. D.C.’s rusting truck is parked on the edge of the cemetery with his tombstone close beside, far removed from the neatly laid out graves of his relatives.


That’s not actually D.C.’s tombstone in the front corner; his is off to the side of the truck.



To my paternal relatives: yes, I know it was the brother who was the salmon poacher, but ‘great-great-grandfather’ seemed simpler than ‘great-great-great-uncle.’

Deathbeds, Doppelgängers, and the Art of Appraising Bosoms

The point of physical therapy, as I understand it, is to recover strength, mobility, or flexibility after an injury. Art theft and sexual harassment should not enter into the equation. However, if that equation includes an old lady then all bets are off, and this is especially true of my grandmother.

Several years ago Nanna was in a rehabilitation hospital with a broken shoulder. This happened a lot, back in those innocent days when we trustingly did whatever the doctors told us. It was always the same – some physician would recommend days or weeks of physical therapy or observation, and we would warn him that Nanna’s likelihood of going insane went up exponentially every additional night she spent in the hospital (see earlier post about Doctors and Dementia), and he would wave his hand airily and assure us that things would be fine. So, against our better judgment, we would sign Nanna up for the extra week, and it would inevitably end up being seven days of hell for everyone involved.

Anyway, Nanna was supposed to stay at this rehab center for two weeks. The very first night she panicked and started calling up all of her loved ones (with the exception of her daughters, who had flocked from all over the South to support her in her time of need and were subsequently quite annoyed at being omitted) to tell them that she was on her deathbed and she wanted to say her last good-byes. By the second night, the nurses were putting up guards around her bed because Nanna was convinced it was a coffin and she kept trying to escape. By the third night, when my uncle came to sit up with her, he was mobbed at the door by a host of doctors and nurses crying, “Thank God you’re here!”

Eventually Nanna settled down and recovered her usual assertive personality. She was still in a state of hospital-induced disorientation (doctors kept coming in to ask her if she knew where she was or what year it was or who was currently in the Oval Office, and her answers were always years off the mark) but this did not prevent her from trying to dominate the people around her. Going to have a family lunch with her, for example, might go like this:

A nurse would come in bearing unappetizing hospital food, make pleasant conversation for a few minutes, and depart. Mom would say, “She seems nice.”

“Oh, she is,” Nanna would say, reaching past her wilted vegetables to get to the pudding. “She has the cutest little mole on one of her breasts but she always keeps it covered up. So whenever she comes by I just reach up and pull her shirt down so people can see.”

And Mom would look aghast and say, “You can’t do that, Mother! They’ll think you’re crazy and they’ll never let you out of here.”

And then I would suggest that perhaps sexually harassing the nurses would inspire them to let her out sooner, and then Nanna would give me her don’t sass me look and then tell my sister that she, too, could stand to show a little more cleavage.

(Side note: The first time Nanna met my cousin’s new wife, Amy, she pulled her aside for a private chat. Afterwards my Aunt Sharon noticed her new daughter-in-law wearing the bemused expression of someone who has just realized what it means to acquire eccentric in-laws, and demanded to know what Nanna had done to her. “Oh,” said Amy, blushing, “she just wanted to tell me that she thought I had beautiful breasts.” I don’t know when my grandmother became an expert on appraising bosoms, but it’s a responsibility she takes very seriously.)

The only other thing that was notable about that particular hospital stay was that in one of the hallways they had a painting of a little girl sitting outside holding a teddy bear. The girl’s head is angled away so you can’t see her face, but Nanna was convinced it was a picture of me that had been painted by a neighbor many years ago, and that the hospital had stolen it or at the very least purchased it on the black market.

I am pretty sure that no such painting ever existed, and that although I did spend a lot of my childhood outdoors, I would never have done so with a polka dotted dress or a teddy bear. We tried to explain to her that this painting had nothing to do with our family, but Nanna refused to let her faith in her own judgment be shaken, despite the fact that at this point she had been unable to pinpoint exactly which decade she was in several days in a row.

Every time one of the nurses pushed her wheelchair past the painting, she would tell them that it was of her granddaughter and suggest that it really ought to be returned to its rightful owners. She was so persistent that when they finally discharged her the hospital gave her the painting as a parting gift (or possibly a good-riddance gift).

We considered the painting to be ill-gotten gains and tried to persuade her to give it back, but Nanna was triumphant. She insisted that Mom take the painting home with her, overruling her protestations that she didn’t like the painting and it wasn’t of me anyway.

Mom stuck it in a closet, but the next time Nanna came to visit she was highly offended that it wasn’t up on the walls. “Fine,” Mom said, exasperated. “See that collage over there? My daughter made it herself and it won a prize in the school art show. I’ll just take it down and replace it with a painting of some random girl.”

Nanna is impervious to passive aggression. “Good,” she said smugly. “That’s the perfect spot for it.”


                    My hair has never been that straight in my life.

Boxed Wine and Bourbon

This blog has been dormant for a few weeks, but today seemed like a good day to continue the saga of the much-married Jane. As you may have gathered from previous posts, Jane’s unusually eventful life has taught her the value of a sense of humor and a roll-with-the-punches attitude. When the subject of money comes up, she just laughs and says, “I could retire tomorrow – as long as I was dead by Friday.”

Developing this kind of stoicism requires a certain amount of liquid encouragement, and Jane’s stimulant of choice is boxed wine. (It’s cheap enough that she can have as much as she wants, and the quality is low enough that she never has to share with her more discriminating friends.) So when Jane gave up wine for Lent last year it was a genuine sacrifice. By happy coincidence, though, it allowed her to devote herself to fulfilling her New Year’s resolution: to learn how to drink bourbon straight. So while most people’s resolutions fall by the wayside after the first few months, Jane had achieved her goal by Easter. “I still don’t like bourbon, but I can drink it,” she told us during a visit. “And now I can go into a bar and order bourbon on the rocks, which just sounds incredibly sexy.”

The next morning Jane was telling us about a Southern folk artist she likes. The conversation was perfectly innocuous, and for a full five minutes she lulled us into believing that she was less colorful when separated from her vinous muse. These illusions were quickly dispelled, however, when someone asked how she’d found out about the artist.

“I heard about him from these two retired nuns that I buy birdhouses from,” she said, which is a wonderful sentence in itself, and added musingly, “Of course, I didn’t even know that nuns could retire. I thought they just died and went to hell.”

It seems Jane had some unpleasant schoolgirl experiences involving cranky nuns with rulers. She told us that she had recently asked one of the ex-nuns about why they were so mean and the woman of God replied, “We never had sex and we didn’t get chocolate all that often. You’re lucky we didn’t kill one of you little brats.”