When I think back on Grandma's little wrinkled body, way too old for her years, I can still smell the stale tobacco that always clung to her and that incessant, unfiltered Pall Mall cigarette, stuck between her two yellow-stained fingers. She lived in Eureka California, in the front apartment of an old, weathered, two-story house. The house, built in the 19th century, had high ceilings, tall leaded glass windows and heavy wood moldings.
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Grandma had simple tastes, as she was raised in what was dubbed "Box Town" in Evansville; an industrial river town, on the border of Indiana and Kentucky.
My mother related this description to me of the place she spent most of her childhood.
"The poorest in "Box Town" took up residence in the coal shacks next to the tracks. The coal trains rumbled by and the shacks would shake, some with dirt floors and there were rats, a lot of rats. We lived in one of those old dirt floor coal shacks for a little while and I can still hear the sickening sounds of my dad and uncle Mac killing rats at night with an ice pick. A rat would run across our bed and my sister Barbara was just a baby."
Most of the homes, known as shotgun houses, had clapboard siding and a front porch.
The depression had hit folks hard. My mother told me that occasionally the mob would creep through in their big black cars and fancy suits, recruiting desperate young men.
The area changed very little between the turn of the Century and the devastating flood in 1939. Even the ravages of nature couldn’t erase the filth, or the resulting mind set of those who lived in a society where votes were bought, people stole and starved, disease was rampant, and many children were filthy and neglected. It was this mindset that caused my grandmother to cherish the simple things. She needed nothing more than a home that was warm and clean.
Grandma's boyfriend, one of many men that she took up with throughout her life, was a tall dark Portuguese man with broken English and a big hooked nose. His name was Hannibal Lima. The only thing they had in common was a wicked sense of humor. With her lightening quick one-liners, there was never a dull moment when she was around.
It wasn't long after she was separated from my alcoholic grandfather, that she abandoned her children. Whether it was because of her inability to care for them financially, her inability to cope, or she just didn't want to be saddled with them is a mystery that to this day remains unsolved. The children were split up. My mother’s brother Bud was fortunate enough to go into an aunt's home where he was raised as her own son. Her sister’s Charlotte and Barbara were both dragged through one foster home after another. My mother made the comment that "no one wanted Lois' brats." There was little or no thought given to the hearts of the children. They were just nine and five years old.
My mother, her oldest daughter, married a thin, nineteen year old kid, with sky blue eyes and a winning smile. He was from Oklahoma and had come from a large hardworking farm family. When I was born a year later, she was only sixteen years old.
My parent’s marriage leant Grandma the opportunity to live with them while she was in between men. She would frequently go off on month long alcoholic benders. Invariably my mother, after arguing with my dad, would go pick her up because the guy grandma was with had thrown her out, and Grandma would live with us for a time. The pattern went on.
Grandma washed her clothing in the bathtub and her bedding in the laundry room of the trailer court that Hannibal owned. He was also the manager and the janitor. The front entry of his apartment was the office. The trailer court had been built on the land surrounding the house. Grandma made her spending money by occasionally babysitting a little one that lived there. Her few dresses were in the gingham pattern and on her little size six feet she wore leather moccasins with beads on the toe. Besides one pair of dress shoes, one wool tweed suit and a winter coat, that was the extent of her wardrobe. Around the house she lived in dusters and "house shoes." You couldn't get her into a pair of slacks, my mother tried several times over the years before finally giving up. The extent of her glamour was a permanent done at the beauty school so that she could wet a comb and swipe it through bob length curls that was a dull blonde color with some gray around the edges of her face. She was only 5'2" tall and her figure was a little on the plump side.
Hannibal was different than the others, he didn't drink for one thing, and he was more tolerant of her idiosyncrasies. They were together off and on from around 1957 until 1978, the year that Grandma passed away at only sixty years old.
From my perspective as a child, I figured that Grandma and Hannibal argued over her sharp foul tongue and that was why she moved out of his part of the house and into her own. That way she could see him if and when she wanted to, and still maintain their eccentric relationship. He owned the place so he continued to provide for her even though he could have rented it to a paying tenant.
I don't ever recall her saying, "I love you," to anyone. She wasn't the tender type. Her emotions came out in laughter and anger. I have seen tears in her eyes just a few times. Once when her grown children would have to leave after a visit from Indiana and when she saw me again for the first time in many years. She was "Box Town" rough and as long as Hannibal would provide for her, she stayed. Did he love her or feel sorry for her? When Grandma died, I called him and he openly cried, wanting to know where to send flowers. It wasn't until then that I realized that he probably did love her. I have no idea if she loved him but my guess is that in her own way, she did.
In September 1978, after I was married with six small children, we received a call from Grandma's doctor. He informed us that she had terminal liver cancer and that the family needed to come. We called Uncle Bud, Aunt Charlotte and Aunt Barbara right away. They arrived from Evansville within two days of receiving word. Together with my mother, they drove to Eureka, California to get Grandma and bring her to Portland, Oregon where she could spend her last days around her family. Her body had deteriorated to the point where she looked like a ninety-year-old woman. We literally had to convince the doctors that sixty was her real age.
I stayed behind and rented her a small apartment near my home. I also worked on getting her Medicaid transferred from California as soon as possible. We were unaware of how close she really was to death. The trip in the car was grueling for her. She was weak and tired. Her belly was very distended from her swollen liver and they had a hard time getting her to eat. Once in the car they packed pillows around her and my mother told me that she leaned over the front seat and held onto her mother's shoulders as much as she could tolerate it. They took turns driving the 500 miles from Portland to Eureka.
Grandma was in her apartment just one day when she became critical enough to call an ambulance. We took her into her apartment, she lay down in her new bed and she didn't get out of it until the paramedics put her on a stretcher. Her children saw her as often as they could.
We watched her will herself to stay alive. Now on oxygen and pain medication she sat up in bed making jokes and throwing her family what was dubbed the "grandma look" to make them laugh. She was in the hospital for three days before she died. When her children left to go back to Indiana, she gave up the fight.
The last words my husband heard her speak were, "If I die today, I know my children love me."
She had asked the Lord back into her life two years prior to her diagnosis. That was when she told me about my great grandfather baptizing her, in the wintertime by immersion; in the icy cold Ohio River. She returned to her Christian roots by listening to Jimmy Swaggart's radio program. After one of my visits to her hospital room, I kissed her good bye and walked out leaving the door open. I heard her start to pray the Lord's Prayer in a way that I have not heard it since. It was powerful.
She started with, "Our Holy Father which art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy precious Holy name." Her raspy voice, gasping for air, was rising and falling in such praise that with chills running through me, I began to cry. I wanted to go back in and stay with her but I had to get home to my children. My very patient husband was expecting me.
The day of her death, a pull on me was so strong that I felt like my car was being sucked to the hospital by a vacuum. No one had called me from there but somehow I just knew that Grandma was bringing me to her. In a panic, I ran into the office where I had an appointment to turn in the voluminous paper work I had filled out so that her expenses could be met. The lines were long and the room was crowded. I must have looked like a ghost because I walked to the front of the line and told the desk clerk that I needed to get this done now, "My Grandmother is dying as we speak."
She said nothing and opened the gate for me to come behind the counter and I think I floated through. I was ushered into a small office and offered a chair. I handed what I had to a heavy set social worker with thick dark hair. She grabbed the phone to clarify something as I fidgeted anxiously, trying everything in my power to be patient. Miraculously, I was in and out of there in less than five minutes. I ran to my car and when I got in, I saw that the gas gauge said empty. The hospital was about twenty blocks away over a San Francisco like hill.
Angry with myself for neglecting to notice the gas gauge before this, I had no choice but to stop. I said, "Just a dollar please and hurry, I have to get to the hospital."
I have no memory from there until the moment that I walked onto the hospital floor. Grandma's door was pulled shut. I knew she had died but that vacuum, that strange pull on me, was still there. A nurse was waiting for my arrival on the floor. The hospital staff had called other family members to inform them of Grandma's death and my family told the nurse to watch out for me because I was en route. They didn't want me to walk into the room and find her lying there dead. I ask the nurse, a lovely dark haired middle-aged woman, to take me to her. When I walked into the tiny room, the first thing I noticed was the silence. Grandma was not wheezing and struggling to breathe. All tubes and IV drips were taken off of her. The sun was shining through the window onto her face and she looked serene as if she were truly resting in peace. "Thank you Jesus," was all I could say.
I am the oldest and the only girl with three little brothers, hence the name "Sister." We Lived in Crescent City, California, a small coastal town eighty miles to the north of Eureka. When I was eight years old, I started to stay for a few weeks in the summer with Grandma. Yes, she was a drunk, sometimes foul-mouthed and she smoked herself literally to death, but even though she never said so, I knew that she loved me very much and always looked forward to my visits.
I slept with her in a double bed on the left side. She turned her back to me as she slept on her right side. I wondered if that was why that side of her face was more wrinkled than the other, but I didn't dare ask. She knew how to throw a look that would run off a grizzly bear. Bored and unable to fall asleep before Grandma, I would run my fingers around the outline of the big pink roses on the back of her pajama top. She would growl something and throw her elbow back at me but she never intended for it to make contact and it never did. I would stop and try to go to sleep. It was hard for me because she went to bed early and got up early.
Each morning the whistle of her little red teapot awakened me. It had always been there on the back burner of her little apartment sized gas stove. She had a pot of coffee on too and bacon frying in a small cast iron skillet. I can see her standing there, poking it with a fork. Between her fingers was that cigarette smoldering its stinky smell. Grandma was clean though and she liked her "little bedroom" and "little kitchen" and "her little coffee table" all tidied up. Everything was her little something or other.
"Beverly come and eat," she would holler, "Grandma's got your breakfast ready."
I would get out of bed, run across the cold faded linoleum floor on my tiptoes, go into the kitchen, sit down at her little chrome dinette set, put my feet up on the edge of the chair and stick my knees in my pajama top. She always laughed at my sleepy face and asked me who combed my hair.
Although it was summer, the mornings were chilly. She lived close to the bay and she didn't put on the heat unless I griped and then she would open the oven door to "take the chill off the air".
"Here's your bacon and eggs Sister."
"Thanks Grandma, but there's plastic on them again." I whined.
She would laugh a congested laugh and tell me it was because the grease was hot. "They aint slimy though Sis, so eat and quit your belly achin'. Do you want Grandma to tell you her favorite joke?"
"Yeah, I like jokes," I would say grinning. She'd clear her throat and sit down in her chair with her cup of coffee and her cigarette.
"Okay here goes," she gave a cough, "there were three turtles and they decided to go on vacation."
I quit eating and started grinning at her.
"There was an old one, a middle aged one and a young one. They got two thousand miles a way from home and decided to stop into this little restaurant to have a cup of coffee." Grandma stopped and coughed phlegm into a Kleenex, took a drag off her cigarette, took a drink of coffee and after clearing her throat, continued. I was always patient because she hadn't blown a punch line in her life.
"Well Sister, they were sitting there drinking their coffee when the old one piped up and said, 'Oh no! We left the electricity on back home!'
'Well I am not going back,' said the middle aged one, 'cause I am too slow!' ' I'm not going back,' said the oldest one, 'I am slower than you are!'
'Well, I'm not going back,' said the youngest, 'cause you will drink my coffee!'
'No! We aint' gonna drink your coffee we promise,' said the oldest.
Grandma was in character with a furrowed brow and looking sly. 'You sure?' said, the young one. 'We promise, now get on outta here.' He got up and they watched as he walked out the door."
Grandma took another time out with her Kleenex, cigarette and coffee. I decided to take a bite of the egg, plastic and all. She waited for me to swallow so I wouldn't choke and then continued. "Two years went by and he still wasn't back. Finally the old one said, 'we might as well drink his coffee, he cause he aint comin' back.' "bout that time," Grandma wheezed out a laugh, "he poked his head in the door," more laughing and wheezing, this time with a coughing spell, "if you do," Grandma was in hysterics now and so was I and I hadn't even heard the punch line! She shouted in laughter, "if you do, I won't go!"
Both of us had tears running down our faces. Grandma set her little white "Stanley" cup with its permanent coffee stains down and ran to the bathroom so she could finish laughing on the toilet. She took her little waste can with her so she could cough and spit as she went. I ate while she was in the bathroom laughing, coughing, spitting and laughing some more.
After a lunch of the daily standard, fried hotdogs with onions mixed with pork 'n beans, we noticed the wind had come up and was rattling the windows. It had blown the fog away making the day bright and brisk. Even in the summer if it was really hot inland, the Northern California coast would be socked in. That particular day I recall so well.
Grandma said, "Sister, let's walk into town." She said as she was putting tight braids in my hair. I was wearing my red cotton pedal pushers with a matching sleeveless top, red Keds and white anklets. Grandma told me to get my sweater on.
"Grandma I don't want to wear my sweater," I whined.
"Well you are going to!" That was the end of it, I slipped it on then we left to take our walk.
Once out on the sidewalk I asked, "Grandma do you know how to drive a car?"
"Yeah I do, really good."
"You do?" I asked naďve.
"Up a telephone pole," she chuckled.
I started skipping up the sidewalk and when I skipped, my tennis shoes squeaked. A little white fox terrier, across the street from us would bark at me every time I would make a squeak. This amused Grandma and she made me skip up and down the sidewalk so she could laugh at the dog.
"Grandma my legs are getting tired!"
"Well Okay Sister, let's go."
As we walked along, Grandma would always sing da doo doo da doo to the tune of "From a Jack to a King" or "Freight Train" she'd throw in a little vibrato at the end. I was use to it, loved it and expected it. She filled in the gaps of our conversations with her da doo doo doos.
One time a little classmate had come to play when Grandma was at our house. She heard her singing and said to me, "Your Grandma sounds funny."
I was furious with her, "No she don't, go home!" I yelled.
We reached the end of her block and had to cross the street. One of the things that Grandma used to say when she crossed the street was "Don't you run over me and kill me and let me find it out!"
She always laughed at her own jokes and I laughed and laughed with her.
We walked into downtown Eureka and we both needed to sit down a bit. Grandma decided to stop into a coffee shop for some "hot coffee." I ordered vanilla ice cream. It came in a stainless steel dessert cup and had tiny little pieces of ice in it. Vanilla is my favorite to this day.
When I was three and four, Grandma lived in the Sacramento Valley. I went to stay with her when it was time for Mama to give birth to my youngest brother. Grandma would take me with her for a beer, then bribe me with a treat each time.
"Don't tell Poppy on me Okay Sis? Grandma will let you have anything you want for breakfast, no matter what it is."
Wow, here was my opportunity to come up with something like never before. She had hid a six-pack in the ditch that ran along side the peach orchard on the narrow two lane country road. "I'll have pork- n- beans and maraschino cherries," I proclaimed proudly.
I have no idea how I knew what a maraschino cherry was, but I remember a little jar of them in Grandma's icebox. I can still see the look of surprise on her face. Did she ever laugh and laugh. I got them too. Anything to keep her out of trouble with Poppy.
I needed to have something to play with while I was at Grandma's so she went to the dump and bought me a little red tricycle. I was looking around the smelly junk store and insisted they buy me a doll that had half its head missing. I named her Lucy, which I pronounced "Wucy".
I was out in the yard peddling my trike on the hot hard ground in front of the house. Poppy had been teasing me because he thought it was funny when I got mad. He was working on his old pick-up and went back to work on it forgetting he was suppose to keep an eye on me. Grandma went to look for me and there I was, out in the middle of the road peddling away. I was holding Lucy under one arm."
She ran up to me and said, "Where do you think you are going!"
Still mad at Poppy, I told her, "I am going to take my kid and go home!"
Home was 400 miles to the north.
The day when Daddy and Mom drove me to be with Grandma and Poppy that summer in 1954 I did something that I had to hear about for the rest of my life. Grandma spoke in sarcastic terms and in the first person so as to keep me addressing her by her title. I on the other hand, being four, heard literal terms. So one day she said, " Sister, Grandma has bought herself some new Bobby pins, and the first thing I want you to is go in there and bite the heads off everyone of them!"
So I did.
I left a neat little pile of them on her dresser. Grandma ran out of the bedroom and pointing at me with fury in her Scotch- Irish eyes, told mom what I had done. I immediately went on the defense. "She told me too" I said with one hand over my behind. Mom laughed herself into hysterics and I ran out to play as fast as my legs would take me.
One time Grandma was thirsty for a beer so she and I walked down the road to the tavern that was at a four way stop about a quarter mile up the road from grandma's little white clapboard house. I was sitting on the bar facing Grandma when the bar tender ask, "Lois, you still shacking up with old Earl?"
"Yeah, we are still livin' together." She looked at him suspiciously. "Why do you ask?"
He cleared his throat and said, "I was just wondering."
It wasn't too long after that, that she caught Earl, my Poppy, at the bar with a woman on his lap.
Grandma came to live with us in Eureka and that is where she met and took up with Hannibal. He drove a yellow and white Simca. The Simca was a small car about the size of a Volkswagen bug. When she lived with him, he would tease me about being so skinny. He said I didn't have legs; I had golf clubs. Then he would laugh when it made me mad.
"Hannibal, knock it off!" Grandma yelled. Then she told me sympathetically, "Sister, you don't have golf club legs Honey, Grandma thinks you look like a movie star."
"Really Grandma, who do I look like?"
"Olive Oil," she laughed. I frowned, making her and Hannibal laugh harder.
My brothers and I were smart enough to never refer to her by her married name so when she wasn't around, we called her "Grandma what's her name," because we didn't know what her last name was. We later learned that she went by her maiden name of Gibson.
One time we all went to the store in Hannibal's little car. We had bought some link hot dogs. I was sitting in the back seat and Hannibal was stopped at a light. Some young ladies were crossing the street in front of us and the light turned green, Hannibal was so busy staring that he didn't go. Grandma reached down into the bag, pulled out the link hot dogs and swung them around popping Hannibal straight in his right eye. He startled, grabbed his eye, horns honked then he pushed the pedal down hard throwing me back in the seat. I was laughing so hard I had to lie down. I haven't seen a sitcom yet that would top her everyday life.
Hannibal grabbed his eye and said, "Are you crazy? What you hit me for?"
Then he sped on because Grandma had thrown him that infamous evil look.
Why I was delayed at the gas station I don't know and I have always questioned it. Some strange but very real energy had pulled me to her but I have always been saddened that I wasn't beside her when she died. Was that providence, coincidence, her plan, or God's plan? My guess is that it was me who could handle it. I needed to be the one to reassure my mother that Grandma died peacefully.
The nurse said that she insisted upon getting up to go the bathroom instead of using a bed- pan.
As she was assisting her back to bed she looked up at the nurse and said, "Why do I feel so weak?" Then she closed her eyes and died.
The date was September 28, 1978. I arranged the funeral as my mother’s silent shock turned into an emotional trauma. Mom never was very strong and I went through my adult life trying to keep her hot temper and her reason in check. She had gone the same path as her mother and had bailed out on her four children, when I was just ten years old. Mom wasn't a drinker though and after she married in 1968 and had another child, then her life became more stable.
She’d never before faced the death of someone this close to her. Although my aunts and uncles had been separated from their mother at an early age, my mother had always lived near by. Despite everything, the bond between them was very strong.
I felt that same strange, but very real feeling, coming from my mother's soul when she died. When I walked into the room one crushing morning, the pull was gone. I knew that all that was left in that ICU room was the shell of my mother. I made the decision to remove life support and mother's heart stopped within a few minutes.
There is something about having closure that is so important. Because I hadn't made it to the hospital to be with Grandma at the very moment that she passed away, I wanted to take her shoulders and yell, "Grandma wake up! There is more that I want to say!"
So when my paternal grandmother became ill, my Dad and I flew out to Oklahoma and I made certain that I sat beside her until there wasn't a single thing left for me to say.
When my mother died, I used that experience and made sure that each and everyone of our large family that could come, and had that opportunity before life support was removed.
And, I stayed vigil.
"If you have the chance to sit it out or dance, I just say Dance." writen by Mark Sanders recorded by LeeAnn Womack