That was okay. It was the one thing we had in common, the strongest proof of our familial bond: Mutual Disregard.
Mostly, it had to do with onions. They bring tears to your eyes, ya know. The onions, I mean. Well, and the grandmothers who insist on serving them up in every single dish at every single meal. Sliced, diced, sautéed or raw -- I'm afraid I put up a thoroughly leeky resistance. Predictably, she resented her granddaughter's rapscallion behavior, threatening to withhold dessert: "And it's your favorite - caramel!" So I fell for it once... fyi, caramelized onions are not the same thing.
Or could've been grammar. She would send back thank you notes or birthday greeting cards with my grammatical mistakes circled in red - yes, really. She was a former Latin teacher and upheld the stereotype with compunc(tua)tion. It was my earliest introduction to the deterrent power & effectiveness of the zero tolerance correctional system. Particularly, the syn tax.
But, as you might have suspected, her bitter disdain toward me was not limited merely to onions or handing down verdicts of punishing, diagrammed life sentences. In fact, it was bigger than the both of us, harking back to that historic North-South, Mason-Dixon great cultural divide. It began months before Grandmother was to arrive in Houston from her adopted home of Connecticut in order to supervise & cook us kids (oops, meant 'for us kids') while Mom partook in the
On a sleepover at a friend's house, one of the moms I especially liked was waxing eloquent on the subject of manners. This evening's lecture was about the dignity, nay, the ultimate respectability conveyed by addressing all elders as 'sir' or 'ma'am.' Then she switched feet. As I watched her clippered toenails sail through the air in majestic arches before sinking into an oblivion of burnt orange (Hook 'em Horns!) shag carpeting, followed by a skillful application of maroon (Gig 'em, Ags!) nail polish & the meticulous positioning of delicate, silvery appliqués of stars, hearts + crosses, I contemplated this etiquette lesson. (Briefly, one of the brothers sauntered past in his 'casual attire,' creating a trifle disturbance in the flow of her stream-of-refined-distinction-consciousness: "Good Lord, go git some clothes on, bubs, we got company!" An admirable demonstration of ladylike grace under somewhat trying circumstances, it recalled & fortuitously exemplified last week's 'Thou Shalt Not Take the Lord's Name in Vain' session.) The righteousness of her divine message was undeniable. Right then & there, I converted. From that moment on, I went about freely dropping 'yes, sirs' or 'no, ma'ams' at will. It made me feel clean & good & extremely polite all over - verily, 'twas the Southern Baptists' answer to confession! In heretofore childish ignorance, I'd been operating under New England-bred WASPish constraints. This was a revelation. I was pretty sure it was the next best thing to being born again....
Well, ma'am, on her very next visit, Grandma put an end to that. "Cathleen, I am neither a 'ma'am' nor your "Grandma.' You may call me 'Grandmother.' Now go wash your hands for supper."
I caught myself just as I was about to ask, "Yes, ma'am, but don't you mean 'for dinner,' Grandma?" Instead, I complied with Grandmother's directive. And, whenever I again felt the need to achieve that fresh, clean feeling, I did what all virtuous Episcopalians do. I scrubbed with Dial antibacterial soap.
But, eventually, when I became an adult and Grandmother retired & moved back to reunite with her sisters in Nebraska, we discovered our shared, unabashed love for each other... Ok, to be accurate, make that my love for punning & her love for punditry. Close enough. She explained it to me later, "When you were little, you were just 'a good kid.' You always did everything your mother told you to do." Absolutely unforgivable! 'Nuff said. Yet she continued, "Then you finally starting speaking up... and your puns were better than mine." A greater admission of adoration she'd never uttered. She retreated to her room to recover, not to be seen again until she suddenly reappeared at 10:01 pm anxiously throwing on her windbreaker and urging us to take cover with her in the shower stall. Visions of Dorothy and being swept off to Oz spun through my head. Just before we realized that deafening tornado siren was the same testing of the advanced warning system that sounded nightly, 365 days of the year, at, yessiree, 10 pm. Methodically, she removed her jacket, hung it in the closet, and wished us a good night.
She even tolerated Chris, once he discovered that the best way to interact with his grandmaw-in-law was to rile her by debating etymology. Not that Chris has ever been an authority & he usually lost handily, a fact which made her persnickety, rancor-ravenous intellect appreciate him all the more. Several times a day, they'd dash over to the bookshelf to consult her gilded 1950's unabridged dictionary with its 500 to 5000-year-old word origin notations. (He wasn't permitted to touch it otherwise. Neither was anyone else. But, before Chris, no relative had the
Of course, bets were wagered. To everyone's dismay, one time Chris won. His prize: her much admired childhood pocketknife with its authentic, decoratively-carved, inlaid cow horn handle. Grandmother pretended not to care. So Chris would spend those long drives to the big town -- undertaken on the pretense that it boasted the best all-you-can-eat fried chicken buffet in the county (it did) (but, more importantly, it also had the county's biggest liquor store, allowing ample restocking options for the sisters' daily happy hours) -- pulling out his new acquisition to admire its fine workmanship & challenge Grandma to a game of mumblety-peg right there in the backseat. Duly baited, Grandmother would mumble some characteristically captious retort, forcing the frazzled chauffeur, racing over rollercoasters of sandhills in this vast farming country, to intervene, "All right, you two, settle down back there -- I'm trying not to plow into a combine here!" My great aunt riding shotgun in the passenger seat would sadly shake her head; the other unfortunate aunt sandwiched between them would dutifully confiscate the knife.
Quite often, we'd go on Platte river picnics. In a brilliant strategy designed solely to avoid odious odorous onion conflict, Chris and I would provide victuals. Grandmother didn't seem to mind, for she'd given up most cooking by then and genuinely embraced reprieve from such onerous tasks & the freed-up opportunity it afforded to focus on life's finer pastimes - namely, critiquing others' cooking. Such as, while observing Chris' attempt to cut open a watermelon one afternoon, "You city kids certainly are green when it comes to choosing ripe produce." Snapping the knife blade back into its authentic, decoratively-carved, inlaid cow horn casing, and then ceremoniously slipping the treasure back into his pocket, Chris replied, "Aww, no need to thank us, Grandma. Just let me know when I can slice up another piece fer ya!"
No matter where else in the world Chris & I visited, those annual trips to Nebraska were the favorites of our pre-kid travels. But, invariably, after depleting typical old lady talk -- like discussing the weather, or the potential of Tom Osborne's latest recruiting class, or the sweetness of this year's corn crop, or the nuances of Blackshirt defensive formations, or how Chuck Hagel was the right kind of Republican ('cuz he was the only one Left) -- their attention would turn to children. And it's easy to guess the gist of those hints, no? That's right, they couldn't stand babies! Enormously grateful that part of their lives was done & didn't possess the patience to deal with youngins now & what vexation 'n tribulation they wrought, o my!
Therefore, expecting cool politeness and an inevitable distancing of our relations -- far exceeding the 1,000 concrete highway miles already separating us -- to coincide with the news that I was expecting, we were completely unprepared for Grandmother's reaction. First, there was her admonition that I should hold & cuddle our newborn constantly. She regretfully reflected that she'd been a poor mother, believing the child-rearing experts' advice of her generation to let babies cry it out & limit affection in order to avoid spoiling them at all costs.
Then the phone calls began. Which, given her telephone-averse tendencies, were already extraordinary. However, on top of that, her nascent great-grand maternal devotion compelled her to withstand the tortures inflicted by our answering machine -- as we preferred to screen calls by initially letting Al Green, Bob Marley or Black Uhuru pick up for us. That really pushed her
Ever practical, Grandmother & her siblings had long ago disavowed any desire for presents, even on Christmas and Easter. "We have enough. Don't want anything. Don't need anything. Can't abide the thought of having more things to look after," they insisted. Thus launched a new tradition. We sent the only item still in constant demand, requiring minimal dusting & flexible storage options:
Gifted Conundrums. Their
Since we indoctrinate 'em early 'round here, M&K joined in the fun as soon as they were able to meet the high level of punning standards set by our family. Yup, right around 18 months of age or so... Honestly, though, it took them until approximately 2 1/2 to equal their folks' utmost erudite efforts. Not that we were tracking it. Well, alright, just casually. On their What To Expect hourly growth charts lining the halls. Fostering such a pressure-free environment is the key to inspiring creativity. (Plus, imho, witnessing your children's emerging precociousness so seamlessly converge with their father's not-so-latent immaturity is truly one of the greatest joys in parenting... as any mom of a preschooler could confirm.)
"I'm glad we became friends, Cathy," Grandmother confided on our last visit together, "I like you." Which clearly was her subtle way of saying, "You're like me. I like that about you!" (It's true, definitely there are parts of her in me. But upon doing some further solecism searching, I must admit, they're fragmentary at best.) And then, overcome with such sentimentality, she added, "Oh, and you're OK, too, Chris."
After pausing a respectful minute or two to make certain that hadn't activated the tornado warning system again, I suggested, "Hey, wanna go to Dairy Freeze? I feel like having some onion rings."
"My treat!" ordered Grandmother, splurging for double scoops of soft serve choke(d up)cherry ice creams all around before managing to fully regain a proper sense of decorum.
*Easter Eggs Hint: In accordance with our stringently highbrow punning criteria, plays are only on "egg"- no "ex" - words. For instance, the ex-ample at right would be disallowed. Granted, it might suggest hilarity at 2 in the morning, but who could respect themselves if this cracked up them in the light of day?
Caution: Further scrolling will reveal all the answers!
(To the puns.)