“Aaaah, aaah,” I heard as I neared the house. The rocking chair slammed repeatedly on the linoleum floor and bumped against the wall.
“Creek, crack, thump, aaah!” kept tempo for the flipping and tearing of Montgomery Ward catalog pages. That was Wanda, my adult aunt who suffered a brain hemorrhage at birth. Grandma says she heard a loud crack as Wanda was born. Others in my family blamed combined family genes for Wanda’s affliction. Grandma and Grandpa first met at a family gathering, and according to folklore, Grandma competed with her younger sister for Grandpa’s eye. They married when Grandma was only 14 -years old and she had yet to come into womanhood.
Wanda’s body was 35-years old, but inside she was much like an 18-month old baby. She struggled to walk with a stumbling, uneven gait, grabbing clothes and hair to help her balance. She was unable to speak, but expressed herself with loud cries and coos. When excited, her cries became deafening roars, accompanied by a steady stream of drool escaping from the corner of her mouth. She was possibly inspiration for hillbilly offspring depicted in Hollywood films and ridiculed by comedians, but when I looked into Wanda’s gentle eyes, I could see there was much more inside. I saw a small girl, desperately wanting to share the secrets of life.
My friends were scared of Wanda and would hide in another room when she visited. To me, she was just Aunt Wanda – someone to stack blocks with and even though I was only seven-years old, I knew to withhold my aggression when she stole my share of blocks that I had diligently counted out evenly for her, my brother and me to build wooden masterpieces. The blocks were worn and chewed. The square corners had been rounded and splintered decades ago. They likely belonged to my older sisters or even my dad and his siblings. Grandma and Grandpa never threw anything away. Cabinets were filled with recycled butter tubs and Mason jars. Grandma kept every thread spool, every toilet paper roll and every scrap of fabric. My dad says he knew as a child that when he was sent to the grocery store to buy flour that it was in his best interest to choose a bag pattern that he could tolerate, because Grandma made many of his shirts from the flour sacks. Unlike most hoarders, Grandma had perfected the skill of reusing resources by clothing her family and creating intricate craft items to sell in her dollhouse. She covered toilet paper rolls with crocheted yarn, making unnecessary home décor that resembled candles to display on top of toilet tanks. Old clothing and scrap fabric were future quilt pieces and spools became furniture for dolls she made from peanuts and wooden clothes pins.
“Grandma!” I exclaimed as she danced and swayed her way to the door, wearing a floral dress and clashing apron, hands covered with clumps of flour and chicken residue.
“How-dee!” she yelled as she wiped her hands on her apron before hugging and tickling me. A piece of raw chicken skin fell to the floor and was quickly devoured by Daisy Mae, the small pooch who I was just sure was Satan himself. Daisy growled and showed me her teeth as I stepped into her domain, daring me to make a sudden move. I slowly shuffled to the side, fearing she would feast on my shoestrings before enjoying my eyeballs for dessert.
Grandpa scooted toward the commotion, rambling unintelligible nonsense, then broke into laughter at his own clever wit. He was short in stature and his belly had succumbed to his age, shadowing his belt and drawing his shoulders forward, providing a resting spot for his sagging chest. I had never seen the hair my grandpa wore as a boy. I only knew the horseshoe shaped design that grew between his temples, forming points above his ears. His black horn-rimmed glasses and thick eyebrows accentuated the mad scientist character he portrayed. He was dressed in a red flannel shirt that through the years had become part of his identity. I had seen my grandma buy stacks of them at a time during our trips to the local Walmart. My brother and I looked at each other and smiled before becoming targets of a good-ole-boy, back-slapping combo hug. We both winced at the painful beatings our backs were enduring through our thin t-shirts. I’m certain Grandpa never knew how much we dreaded his affection.
Grandma and Grandpa made their way outside to help my parents and older sister with the luggage, leaving my brother and me alone with Daisy Mae and Wanda.
“Ahh-boo!” Wanda yelled, rocking her chair with increasing vigor. We stood clear of the rockers, remembering how every toddler who graced their home had fallen victim to smashed fingers or toes.
“Hi Wanda,” I said in my best baby dialect. She kept rocking and yelling, smashing her chair into the wall, causing the rockers to dance from side to side. She threw her catalog onto the ground and wobbled out of the chair, like a child making his way off of a fast moving carnival ride. ‘Whoa Nelly,’ I thought to myself. She limped toward the sliding glass door that had been left unattended, providing the perfect opportunity for her slow escape.
“Ahh-boo!’ she yelled to my dad.
“Hi Wani-girl,” he said. “How are you?” He pulled his pipe from his mouth, dropped his bags and gave her a big brotherly hug.
After what seemed like twenty minutes of welcoming embraces and cordial greetings and laughter, we were all in the house, standing among 1970’s floral luggage at our feet. The smell of chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy and biscuits filled the home.
“Oh, I gots to tend to the cobbler,” my grandma said as she rushed into the kitchen, Daisy Mae nipping at her heels in hopes of catching some gourmet hand scraps from her apron.
“I call dibs on the clubhouse!” shouted my brother as he ran to the two-by-fours nailed to the wall that lead to a small balcony with an angled four-foot ceiling.
“No,” mom said. “Jacki is sleeping up there. You and Patti will sleep in the family room.” Grandma always laid out scraps of foam for us to sleep on. The foam was brown from years of use and stained with body soil. Tiny foam balls covered our pajamas after a night of rest on our make-shift beds. One particularly peculiar piece had a circle cut from the center of it. It wasn’t until I was older and subject to medical nuisances, myself, that I realized it was a custom-made therapeutic cushion for Grandma’s hemorrhoids.
“Who likes fried chicken?” asked Grandma.
“I do,” I said, “but can you leave the pepper off of mine?” I was born with what I was sure must be scientifically relevant taste buds, so sensitive that I could sense one fleck of spice hidden in my food. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would ruin a perfectly delicious piece of fried chicken by adding black pepper in hopes of enhancing the taste.
“I made some extra special chicken legs just for you, Patti Duke,” she said as she poked my belly. I giggled and felt a sense of relief from the potential dinner crisis. I had been known to throw food across the room as angry hunger was sent into a state of fury when meals were not prepared exactly to my liking. I once refused to eat toast at a restaurant because it had been buttered on the wrong side.
Grandma placed a cookie sheet on the table and a large oval plate inside of it. The plate resembled a food trough, overflowing with biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy. Grandpa escorted Wanda to the table and tied a dish towel around her neck. She grabbed the tablespoon with her fist and assaulted her food, splattering the mushy mixture down the front of her and onto the cookie sheet. Grandpa continued to supervise Wanda’s feeding while Grandma put the finishing touches on our meal. By the time Wanda was full, Grandpa wore mashed potato accents in his hair and across his flannel shirt.
After dinner, my brother and I anxiously awaited our coveted time with Grandma who was sure to have a craft project ready for us to express our budding creativity. On previous visits we had painted turkey bones to resemble Jurassic creatures, searched for large leaves for Grandpa to trace and cut out of wood using his jigsaw and painted polka-dotted bathing suits on Mrs. Butterworth syrup bottles. That night we would cut big-eared, buck-toothed faces and arm holes out of brown paper bags to wear over our heads and tiny bodies. I was not the expert paper cutter that my brother was and I cut my eye holes in the wrong place. Grandma thought for a moment, then cut the top off of it, rolled it up to hide my mistake and molded it into a pirate hat. She fashioned some trousers out of the bottom half of the bag and cinched them tight around my waist with one of Grandpa’s belts.
We modeled our paper bag costumes for my parents, sister and aunts while Grandma used a roll of film to document our fabrications. Cheering and accolades filled the dining room as we strutted along the catwalk into the kitchen.
Corey pulled me aside and whispered, “Let’s send Grandma on a scavenger hunt!” And off we went on our next adventure. We placed small notes in what we thought were the most comical places – the washing machine, under the toilet lid, inside her shoe and in her underwear drawer. The last note read, as it always did, “Read us a bedtime story.” We couldn’t have realized it at the time, but Grandma was unable to read. She was the oldest girl of eleven children and attended first and second grade before her mother needed her at home to help with the younger children.
“You show me how smart you are. Read this to me,” she said and I proudly performed my oral reading skills. She clapped and marveled at what a smart child I was, who would likely challenge Einstein in his scholastic accomplishments. Upon delivering the last message, she said, “I don’t have any books, but how would you like to hear some tales of Brer Rabbit?”
“Yay!” we cheered.
“You two varmints go get your PJ’s on and I’ll get your beds all ready for you,” she said.