Saturday, July 26, 2014


                 “I want to show you my newest dolls I’ve made, Patti Duke,” said Grandma as she took my hand and led me into Grandpa’s woodshop.
                  The smell of bass wood and pine greeted us as we opened the door. Wood shavings covered the floor and I could almost feel the wood particles entering my lungs as I breathed. A stack of about a dozen rough cut wooden heads and torsos sat in a wicker basket near Grandpa’s table saw. Grandma had sketched the basic shape of the dolls on 3 x 3 bass blocks, then Grandpa made the initial cuts in the wood. Grandma used a small knife to whittle their features, spending several days on just one doll. A small tub filled with whittled hands and feet sat on a shelf in the wood shop. Each joint, crease and fingernail had been painstakingly detailed on every hand. Some feet were bare, but most wore boots showing each eyelet, string and buckle.
                  “These will be my girl dolls,” she said as she picked up a form with more defined curves. “And those over there will be boys,” she said pointing to a stack on the shelf.
                  “How come your dolls are always old people?” I asked. All of her dolls wore white cotton hair and showed signs of aging on their faces, with deep wrinkles accentuating their foreheads and mouths.
                  “Well, that’s a very good question,” she said. “I’ve carved younger dolls before, but it’s hard to get their faces completely smooth, so I just use that to my advantage and make old people instead,” she explained. “Now let’s go on out to my dollhouse so I can show you my new ones.”
                  The dollhouse was shaped like a wishing well, with stacks of limestone rock forming its foundation. Two-by-four posts, painted red, served as frames for the windows encircling the treasures inside. The oversized roof was large enough to protect onlookers peering through the windows. Hanging on top was a big swinging sign that read, “Mary’s Pioneer Dolls.” The shop had been strategically built atop a ledge on the cliff in the perfect spot for cars to see from the road below. The house was about five feet in diameter, just big enough for two or three people to shop at a time. It was lined with shelves, all the way around which displayed scenes from Grandma’s retirement community. Some dolls were playing checkers, complete with tiny black and red game pieces cut from quarter-inch dowel rods. Spittoons and a scruffy dog sat at their feet. Others were fishing from wooden boats, quilting, playing banjos, sitting in an outhouse – pretty much any hillbilly activity you could imagine. One female doll held a rolling pin above her head, chasing her husband who carried a whisky bottle in his hand and wore lipstick on his cheek. Grandma chuckled as she described each scene to me.
                  “Can I have one, Grandma?” I asked.
                  “You will get your very own dolls the day you graduate from high school,” she said. You must get your studies done and when you do, you’ll get your dolls.”
                  “But that’s ten years from now,” I complained.
                  “It’ll be here before you know it,” she said as she patted my head. “I tell you what, I’ll give you one of these peanut dolls if you promise to work hard in school,” she compromised.
                  “I will Grandma,” I said and smiled.
                  “Good, now which one do you want?” she asked.
                  “I looked closely at all the peanut dolls lined across the shelf. Most were young girls with long yarn braids and ankle-length spring dresses. Their arms and legs were made of pipe cleaners and small oval pieces of black felt served as shoes.
                  “I think I’ll take this one,” I said as I picked up a girl with orange hair and a mint green dress with tiny white polka dots. I studied her closer and saw that Grandma had stitched tiny lace on the collar and arms of her dress and she even wore a white slip and cotton pantaloons under her green dress.
                  “Thank you Grandma. She’s perfect. She can be Checkers’ and Callie’s owner,” I said.
                  “You know…I could teach you to whittle your very own dolls one day,” she suggested. “I know you could do it.”
                  “Okay,” I said as I searched for something to quickly change the subject. I didn’t want to tell her, but I just had little interest in sitting barefooted in a rocking chair on the porch, whittling old people from wood. Besides, I would probably cut myself.
                  “Did I tell you about the wart I had on my foot this summer?” I asked. “We had to get some medicine and Mom cut it off with a razor blade. She cut on it for three weeks and when we finally got to the middle of it, a million seeds scattered all over the floor. It was gross.”
                  Grandma raised her eyebrow, getting the picture that I would rather talk about my wart than my future as a doll maker. I smiled and said, “It’s gone now.”
                  “Let’s go show your momma your new doll,” she said.
                  We stepped out of the dollhouse and Grandma locked it behind us.


                  Portraits of children and grandchildren covered an entire wall in the Grandma’s dining room. Hairstyles and photographic nuances served as in indicator of each child’s actual age, ranging from formal black and white, to red-tinted discount store photos, to fake snowy windows and trees in the backgrounds. I gazed at each baby, studying their expressions. Most appeared scared and uncomfortable in the formal clothing they weren’t accustomed to wearing. Mom said I was sick the day my two-year-old photo was taken, but Grandma had insisted on capturing my milestone. My eyes showed signs of congestion, clear snot reflected the light on my upper lip, and my curly hair seemed a little woollier than usual.
                  “Let’s see if I can name them all,” I said to Grandma. “That’s Cheri, that’s Vicki, that’s Jacki, that’s Corey, that’s me, that’s Jason, that’s Holli and that’s Ladell.”
                  “You are right,” said Grandma. “But what about these over here?”
                  ‘These are going to be tougher,’ I thought. ‘They’re all black and white.’
                  “Well, that one looks like Darline,” I said as I pointed to a small girl wearing a spring dress, grinning genuinely. Next to it was a photo of pure innocence. It showed a young girl looking solemnly away from the camera. “Is this one Wanda?” I asked.
                  “It sure is,” Grandma said.
                  “Who is this baby?” I asked as I pointed to a smaller black and white photo of a tiny baby.
                  “Oh,” Grandma said in a distant, reflective voice. She paused for a moment, took a deep breath and said, “That’s Bonnie. She was my first baby. She died when she was just a few months old. And this over here is your Uncle Bobbie. He was your Daddy’s younger brother. He died too.”
                  Grandma studied the pencil she carried in her hands, rolling it between her thumbs and forefingers as she spoke of her babies. The tip of the pencil had been sharpened with one of her carving knives, leaving an uneven grain above the lead.
                  “What happened?” I asked innocently.
                  “Well…” she paused again, then said “I suppose the good Lord just wanted them with Him. I think they might have had cerebral palsy too, like your Aunt Wanda.”
                  I didn’t know what to say to my Grandma that day and wished I could have come up with something to make her sadness go away. She was only 16 years old when my dad was born, which would have made her no older than 15 years old when Bonnie came into and left her life. I could see the emptiness that still lived inside my grandma as she told me about her deceased babies.
                  “They were awfully pretty little ones,” Grandma said. “But they’re waiting for me in Heaven.”
                  Grandma sensed that I couldn’t possibly understand what she went through as a teenager and quickly changed the subject.
                  “Looky who we have over here,” she said as she turned my attention to Dad’s picture. “Oh, he sure was a handsome fella.”
                  “I can’t believe he was ever a baby,” I said as I giggled. I studied his picture and wondered if somewhere inside that little boy he had any indication of the man he would grow to be.
                  Dad was almost forty years old when I was born and to hear my sisters tell it, he had relaxed considerably with his two youngest kids. He loved telling embellished stories of his childhood and was proud of the top-notch education he received in his small school, where not only was he the class prankster, but he also scored the winning points in numerous basketball games – usually with no more than three seconds left on the clock. He was one of fifteen graduates in Auxvasse High School’s class of 1950.
                  He and Mom met after he returned from serving in the U.S. Navy for a few years. Mom was just 17 years old. Dad and his friend, Bill Bell, had driven to Fulton, Missouri that night to stir up some trouble. Bill recognized my mom and waved her and her friends over to the car to take a spin in Dad’s brand new, red and black, 1954 Rambler. Dad says Mom smoked a cigar with him that evening. Mom says Dad looked like the boy she was already engaged to. Mom and Dad got married seven weeks later.
                  “How old was Wanda in this picture, Grandma?” I was struck by how normal Wanda appeared in her toddler photo. She wore a pretty dress and her hair was blonde and curly, very similar to my own hair.
                  “She’s two-years old there,” said Grandma. “She sure looks pretty, doesn’t she?  We’re awful lucky to have her.”
                  ‘Lucky?’ I thought. I had never thought of them as lucky for having Wanda.
“Yes. I like her dress,” I said.
                  When Wanda was born, Grandma and Grandpa were told she would likely suffer the same fate as her older brother and sister with CP. She beat the odds, living beyond her five-year prognosis, but achieved very few developmental milestones. Several people encouraged Grandma and Grandpa to find special living arrangements for “the feeble-minded” like Wanda to take the burden off of their hands. It was a different time in the 1940’s. Mental retardation was often hidden – institutionalized, left for state workers to serve as surrogate mothers to these imperfect beings. Grandma and Grandpa embraced the challenge they were given, never ashamed to take Wanda on public outings. Grandma insisted that nobody could care for her baby the way she could.
I wonder what it must have been like for Dad and his other siblings to grow up in the shadow of a sister, misunderstood by society. Their lives perhaps revolved around Wanda’s special needs and they were likely tormented by their peers for unaccepted biological circumstances beyond their control. The family moved to Colorado for a year, hoping the altitude would help Wanda’s respiratory difficulties. I’ve never heard Dad, Darline or Don speak of any animosity toward the sacrifices they were forced to make as children.
Grandma had a special way with all babies. She was much like a big kid herself and played peek-a-boo or see-saw until the youngster was worn out from laughter.
“I’m gonna get you…,” she’d say as she crept closer. The toddler would shriek with laughter and run to the other room, Grandma prancing after him, but never close enough to make the capture. “You’re too fast for me!” she’d proclaim.
Grandma would attempt her childish antics on the older kids as well, but it usually resulted in preteens rolling their eyes and walking away.
“Well, phooey on you, then!” she would say as she redirected her attention to a more willing participant.


                  The next morning I was awakened by the smell of bacon frying on the stove and Grandma singing “Momma’s little baby loves shortnin’, shortnin’. Momma’s little baby loves shortnin’ bread.”
                  “Ahh-boo,” cheered Wanda.
                  I opened my eyes, stretched and could still taste the musty, waxy flavor of orange flower petal in my mouth. I fumbled for the glass of water Grandma had given me and sat up in bed to take a drink in hopes of diluting the acidic taste. As I scooted my bottom across the cushions, I felt my thin pajamas and tiny foam balls sticking to my back.
                  ‘Oh no!’ I thought. I did it. I had pee’d on Grandma’s cushions again. I sat still, contemplating my escape. Maybe she wouldn’t notice. How could I, a seven-year-old with a reading level of at least a third-grader, have let my bladder spill again?
                  I crept out of bed and tore the wet PJ’s off, throwing them on the ground.
                  “Oh gross, stupid, you pee’d the bed again, didn’t you?” laughed my brother.
                  “No I didn’t!” I screamed. “I just got sweaty, that’s all!”
                  Mom came into the room with a half-hidden look of disappointment. “You be still,” she told my brother. Without a word, she gathered up my urine-filled pajamas, blankets and sheets and left the room to run them through the washer.
                  She returned carrying a towel and insisted that I bathe immediately. I felt ashamed as I wrapped the towel around me, hung my head low and scurried into the bathroom where a tub running warm water awaited my urine-coated body.
                  Grandma’s house had become full with relatives. Distant cousins referred to Grandma as Aunt Mary. Confused, I deduced that it must have meant that my aunts were their grandmas. It sounded logical at the time.
                  I finished my bath and skipped back into the kitchen wearing the terry cloth shirt and shorts my mom had placed on the sink for me.
“Patti Duke, your plate is over there on the bar. Pull up a stool and eat your breakfast,” said Grandma.
                  I carefully hopped upon the unsteady wicker stool and examined my plate. ‘Bacon…check, toast…check, eggs…uh, negative. Too runny.’ I munched on the bacon and toast. It felt good to finally get the orange flower petal taste out of my mouth. I studied the mushroom-shaped ceramic cookie jars that sat directly in front of me. I wondered if there were really cookies inside of them. I surveyed the room to see if anyone was watching me. They were all preoccupied with laughing at Dad, telling one of his wild motorcycle tales.
                  “I was running close to forty miles per hour through a bunch of trees and a limb snagged me in the nose and threw me off the bike. It went clean up my nostril,” he said. His audience was in tears, laughing at his near brush with death.
                  I turned my attention back to the cookie jars and as quietly as I could, lifted the mushroom top lid and peeked inside. Bingo! There were two sugar wafer cookies inside. I reached inside and pulled out a crumbling vanilla cookie. I snapped it into my mouth and chewed quickly.
                  “Yuck!” I shouted and spit the half-digested cookie onto my plate, ruining my toast. The cookie was dry and stale and didn’t taste very sugary at all. It felt like Styrofoam in my mouth. I quickly put the lid back on the cookie jar and fell into a coughing rage once again. This time I took a drink of milk and luckily it was too noisy for anyone to notice I was gasping for air.
                  “Patti Duke, when you get done there, I have a special surprise for you,” said my Grandma.
                  “What is it? What is it?” I asked anxiously, forgetting about the dreadful Styrofoam lingering in my mouth.
                  “You finish your breakfast first,” she said.
                  “I’m done. What is it?” I asked. I could hardly wait and hopped down from the wicker stool. I abandoned the stale, saliva filled cookie covered toast and rushed to my grandma.
                  “Go wait in the other room and I’ll be there in a minute,” she said. I raced into the family room and bounced on top of the orange and brown floral couch, waiting for Grandma. ‘I wonder what it could be,’ I thought to myself.
                  Grandma danced into the room with my mom, holding something behind her back.
                  “Pick a hand,” she said.
                  “That one!” I exclaimed, pointing to her left arm.
                  She pulled her arm to the front of her and presented a calico cat.
                  “Wow!” I shouted. “It’s just like the one in the story!”
                  She then pulled her other arm to the front and handed me a dog made of gingham.
                  “It’s the gingham dog and calico cat!” I cheered.
                  “She made those for you last night,” explained my mom.
                  I looked them over closely and studied the beads she used to form their facial features. Tiny black beads were sewn on their faces under embroidered eyebrows. She used black thread to make triangle-shaped noses and red beads to form their mouths. The cat wore black embroidered whiskers and a long tail hung from his derriere. She had sewn big floppy ears onto the dog and a small piece of red felt formed a tongue protruding from his mouth.
                  “Wow, they’re so cute!” I said. “I’m going to take them to school and show my teacher!” I knew Mrs. Bohlmeyer would be so pleased to know I had read the story before it was assigned.
                  It never occurred to me to question how Grandma had time to make my stuffed animals. She never used a pattern to create anything. Since she was unable to read, she relied on trial and error with scrap fabric to perfect her crafts. To most, it would seem unlikely that she would have gingham and calico fabric on hand, but Grandma’s house was full of crafty treasures. She had collected drawers full of fabric in every pattern imaginable that she used for sewing clothes for her wooden dolls. In the floor laid stacks of denim pant legs that had once been attached her grandkids’ jeans before they became calf-length. Grandma fashioned the denim remnants into over-alls for her male dolls. Each garment was hand-stitched with hundreds of threads locking every ruffle, button, bead, collar, cuff and pocket into place. White thread accents on the over-alls gave them the appearance of rugged authenticity.
                  “Do they have tags with their names on them?” I asked as I turned their butts into the air. Grandma looked at my mom and smiled.
                  “Well, no, but I reckon you can come up with just the right names for them,” she said.
                  I thought for a moment and said, “This one is Checkers,” addressing the gingham dog, “and this one is Callie,” holding up the cat.
                  “I think those names are just dandy,” said Grandma.


                  That night we listened to the wild tales of crazy Brer Rabbit, complete with a reenactment featuring my favorite stuffed toy, Alphie the rabbit.
                  “You take that, Tar Baby,” she exclaimed as she wound up Alphie’s fist and punched a pillow.
                  “And Tar Baby, he said nothin’,” Grandma recited.
                  She told us the comedic tale of Brer Rabbit and the briar patch, and the heroic fable of Brer Fox and Brer Turtle in the great race. My brother and I laughed until our bellies ached at Grandma’s expressive story-telling abilities.
                  Before we called it a night, she said, “Now Patti Duke, will you read me a story from one of your school books?”
                  I rummaged through my bag and uncovered my second grade literature book. I flipped to the page that my koala bear bookmark kept and read Eugene Field’s poetic tale of The Gingham Dog and The Calico Cat. Grandma listened in amazement as I read word for word from the book.
                  “Twas half-past twelve and what do you think? Nor one nor t’ other had slept a wink,” I read. I struggled a bit as I spoke the language written by an author from the 1800’s. I continued reading the words without understanding his underlying humor. Grandma looked over my shoulder and watched intently as I relayed the cryptic phrases. The dog and cat had mysteriously disappeared that night. Scraps of cloth and stuffing were all that was left. As I neared the end of the story, I became nervous that I wouldn’t comprehend the author’s punch line.
                  “But the truth about the cat and pup is this: they ate each other up!” Grandma and I laughed and laughed at the vision of a stuffed dog and cat eating each other to nonexistence.
                  “You are so smart,” she said. “I can’t believe you can read all of those big words.”
                  I smiled shyly and said, “I’m not even the best reader in my class. Elizabeth is reading chapter books and last summer, she got an award from the library for reading 22 books! Can you believe she read 22 books in one summer?”
                  “Oh, I know you, too, could read 22 books if you set your mind to it. You have some real smarts about you,” she said as she ran her fingers through my curly hair.
                  “Oh, nah, who wants to read in the summertime anyway?” I said.
                  Grandma laughed and declared, “It’s time for you to go to sleep,” and gave me a tickle. “And don’t pee in your britches tonight,” she whispered.
                  “Goodnight Grandma. I won’t,” I said.
                  She then tucked my brother into his foam cushions and spent several minutes wrestling him to exhaustion.
                  I lied in bed for awhile, staring at the wooden dolls that adorned Grandpa’s custom-built shelves. Photo albums were crammed tightly and occupied three of the open spaces. There must have been fifty or sixty of them, each carefully labeled with a black marker specifying a child’s name, a number and dates. Dad had the most albums. Aunt Darline wasn’t married, so most of her albums were filled with photos of exotic trips she had taken with various friends and boyfriends. Wanda’s albums contained photos of her at multiple stages in her life, most of which pictured her perched in her rocking chair. Uncle Don’s name was scrawled on a conventional portion of them. He had been married for a short time to Aunt Lynn and they had one child, Jason, who was just two years younger than me. Jason acquired no traits from his father or grandparents and I had been told on a few occasions that Don’s paternity was in question, but that I was never to voice such slander.
                  Jason lived just down the road from Grandma and Grandpa and while he was usually happy to see us during our visits and adored my older brother, I could sense we were treading on his assumed territory.
                  “Gramma doesn’t like for you to step on these shells,” he’d say. “She’s afraid you’ll break them. She told me so.”
                  He was stout from a very young age and each time I saw him, he wore traces of chocolate on his cheeks and hands. He once sent Grandma into a rage, something I had never witnessed, because he picked the heads and clothing off of some of her peanut dolls and ate their internal organs.
                  Gazing at Grandma’s treasures triggered curiosity within me. On the second shelf from the bottom sat a head carved from wood. I studied the head and its intricate detail, wondering what could have inspired her to carve this seemingly barbaric work of art. I could see each strand of hair and eyebrow  sprig that had been diligently outlined into the wood. The hair was carved shoulder length and I contemplated whether it was intended to represent an American Indian, a world leader or even Jesus Christ. Displayed on that shelf, it appeared to be a shrine to something bigger than I could understand.
                  Sitting next to the wooden sculpture was an orange flower made of glass. The petals resembled orange candy suckers, stemming from metal roots. As I stared at the flower, trying to fall asleep, I wondered if the petals tasted as sweet as they looked.
                  “Coo-coo! Coo-coo!” chimed the clock ten times. I tried harder to fall asleep and began to empathize with The Gingham Dog and The Calico Cat, who desperately wanted to escape consciousness that fateful night. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the delicious flower. I counted the petals repeatedly, whispering “he loves me, he loves me not.” If it had grown just one more petal, I would have been satisfied with the diversion. My mouth began watering and I couldn’t shake the temptation to sample the sugary indulgence.
                  I carefully slid the covers toward my feet and rolled my body off of the cushions. I tiptoed over to my brother and saw that he was fast asleep, unaware of any mischief I was considering. I quietly crawled to the bookshelf to get a better look at the orange flower.
                  “I think that really is candy,” I convinced myself.
                  I gently stood up and leaned toward the flower, then stopped to glance over my shoulder at the door to ensure no one was going to witness my crime. I slowly focused my attention back to the flower. I could already taste the orange confection, and my mouth was filled with saliva, anticipating the sugary treat. Cautiously, I bent down and put an entire petal in my mouth, licking and sucking the delicious juices from it.
                  “Cough, cough, spit, spit! Yuck!” I yelled. It tasted of stale dust and tangy wax that had coated it for many years. My eyes watered as I continued to cough and spit, unable to catch my breath.
                  “What in heaven’s name?” I heard my Grandma call from the next room. I dashed to my cushions and covered my head, knowing she would discover that I had just licked her glass flower. The thought immediately sounded ridiculous and humiliating to admit. The light blinded me as she entered the room.
                  “Are you okay?” she asked.
                  “Cough, cough. Yeah, I think I just need a drink of water,” I said in the most pitiful voice I could conjure up.
                  “Why, your eyes are watering! Goodness gracious sakes alive, what happened?” she asked.
                  “Nothing!” I cried. “I’m just thirsty.”
                  She returned to the room with a glass of water and a tissue and I took advantage of the sympathy she was rewarding my sinful behavior.
                  “I reckon this feather pillow is causing you some grief,” she concluded. She went to my brother’s bedding where he was wide awake now and grumbling at the pesky inconvenience.
                  “Here, Corey, trade pillows with your sister,” she said.
                  “What?” he shouted. “This is so stupid. She’s faking it!”
                  “Never you mind that and just do as I say,” she commanded.
                  She robbed him of his oversized, fluffy pillow and replaced it with a flat, heavy, lumpy feather substitution.
                  “Now goodnight you two,” she said in her most authoritative voice and flipped off the light.
                  I tried to stifle my coughs, but every few seconds I would feel a tickle in my throat followed by a new cough escaping through my nose.”
                  “Shut up, stupid!” my brother yelled.
                  “I can’t help it,” I bit back.
                  “I hate you,” he proclaimed.
                  “I hate you more,” I said back.
                  “Kids!” I heard my mom yell from the other room.
                  “Way to go, dork,” said my brother.
                  “Shut up!” I insisted.
                  “Kids!” came once again from the next room. We could tell this warning was much more serious by the stern tone in her voice. We both held our breath, hoping to avoid the sound of footsteps.
                  “I hate you,” Corey whispered.
                  “Mom!” I yelled, hoping to subject my brother to weeks of torture. And with that came the angry footsteps.