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.