Grandmother was a sweet little lady with polite and elegant language — sometimes. She could also swear like a sailor, and since this story is true, the language might be too colorful for some readers.
I squished my way up the muddy driveway from the school bus on the last school day before Christmas. When I approached the front door, I stopped and listened to the shouting going on inside the house.
My favorite Christmas tree picture with Lester.
“Shit Melinda! You bastards track mud all over the goddamned house!” She was shouting to no one, since she was alone in the house. Grandmother didn’t talk like other kids’ grandmothers. I don’t know who “Melinda” was, or how that name became paired as it did, but it was always shouted as a pair.
I couldn’t see her from outside, but I knew she had a cigarette in her mouth and was probably getting irritated with the broom for its inaccuracy and lack of effectiveness. Later, she would sweetly ask if I could be a dear and sweep the house for her before dinner.
Lester was Number 9
As I approached the door, Lester Perry (rumored to be her ninth husband) was over by the barn. He whistled and waved at me, and slowly said, “You don’t want to go in there right now.”
He always talked slowly. I saw him move quickly once when he was dodging the hind leg of an irritated dairy cow, but other than that, he moved slowly. Lester usually wore denim jeans, often with red suspenders, over a plaid flannel shirt. A baseball cap sat on the back of his round head on a thick mass of gray hair, and a pair of rubber boots covered his jeans up to his knees. He had a slim build that belied the strength of his muscular hands that developed from years of being a dairy farmer before the days of automatic milking machines. Lester always had a good sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye. I especially enjoyed his soft, slow, “Heh, heh, heh” when he thought he or someone had said something funny. “She’s gittin’ ready for Christmas, an’ we need to tread lightly till it’s all over.”
Grandmother loved Christmas
Actually, she loved some of it. She loved the family gatherings, the presents, the decorations, the lights, the food, and especially the moments when she was at center stage. However, she detested all the work required to bring about the parts she loved. Cooking, cleaning, and decorating all required more of her than she could bear quietly. Any frustration was met with “Shit Melinda!” and other colorful epithets more suitable in a ship’s galley than in any other grandmother’s kitchen.
She was born as Jessie Romaine Barrere, but for most of her life she was known as Joe, a direct descendant, so she said, of a pirate from the ship of Jean Laffite who saved New Orleans during the War of 1812.
In 1959, she was known as Jessie Perry, wife of a dairy farmer, member of the Eastern Star, the Grange, and the Ladies Aid Society, if there was one. The church ladies she socialized with had no idea that she was once an expert horsewoman on the plains of Montana, or that she was once known as the legendary “Ptomaine Joe” who ran a saloon named in her honor, or that she was rumored to have had nine husbands, not counting a few very close friends.
Her adventure at the saloon came to an end on Halloween, 1950, when she vanished during a masquerade ball in the bar on the eve of its financial collapse. (See “Ptomaine Joe Vanished on Halloween“.) There had been rumors after she vanished that she had gone to Idaho, or to Las Vegas, but the only record of her I’ve found is that she went to stay with her Aunt Cora in Washington State. I think she was looking for a new husband who owned some property, and that’s how she found Lester, whom she married in 1955.
My first Christmas on the farm
This was my first Christmas with Grandmother and Lester. Almost everything about her was new to me. I had come to Washington for a visit over the summer of 1959 and found a job at the pea vinery. A conflict with a diesel tractor put me in the hospital for about a week, but most importantly, it required me to start my junior year at the local high school so I could be close to my doctor for several months of checkups.
I had already attended eleven schools in five other states, and in four of those states (North Dakota, Colorado, California and Oklahoma), we lived in the same house. Somehow I persuaded my family that if at all possible, my last two years of school should be in the same place. After the tractor squashed me, I talked Grandmother and Lester into letting me live with them on the dairy farm. Dad, who at that time was living in the Mojave Desert, made some comment about me living with his ex-wife’s mother would certainly be an educational experience, and somehow he talked my step-mother into going along with the plan.
My mother and father had divorced in Idaho when I was barely two and when Dad left, my sister Vivian and I left with him. When I was almost four, he and Mary were married in Oklahoma, and she loved my dad with a joy and passion that burned brightly for all the rest of their lives. As a result, I was raised in a loving religious family, and although dad was an ironworker and could handle salty language when necessary, I had never been around people who yelled or used language quite the way that Grandmother did.
Theatre of her mind
“Christmas at Grandmother’s Farm” was an imaginary theatrical piece that was alive in Grandmother’s mind. It was drawn from Currier and Ives, Walt Disney, Coca Cola ads, and Perry Como holiday television specials, as well as every other sappy feel-good story and poem she had ever read. The starring role of “The Grandmother” was a role for which she had lived her entire life. There were other roles, too: “Grandfather” (although Lester was more of a Grampa than a Grandfather), “The Loving Family,” “The Turkey,” and so on.
The script for the theatre in her mind did not include cooking, cleaning, or the other stuff of reality. As I said, these tasks were endured outside of her performance, and not very quietly, in order to make the performing parts possible. When she was in her role of “The Grandmother,” she was sweet, eloquent, charming, and supportive. However, the real Ptomaine Joe could emerge suddenly, so we had to be on our toes.
Yeah, this is Michael at 16. Wish I still had the hat.
I still had to do chores
Lester and I stood there by the barn, looking at the house, listening to her cussing out the broom. His advice was well taken, but I had chores to do, which required me to get into the house and change clothes.
I made it into my room without her seeing me, but on my way out, she spotted me. While I stretched into my old coat and put on my cowboy hat, she put down the broom and crunched out her cigarette. She was wearing a flowered “house dress” with a white apron. I guess that’s what she thought farmers’ wives should wear. Her hair had been bright white for years, often permed up with lots of tight curls. Her face had more wrinkles than anyone I knew, and her eyes had heavy folds over the eyelids that made her squint when she smiled. When she laughed, it was loud and hearty, except when she was around the ladies in town.
She came over to me, smiled sweetly, and said, “Mike, dear, Christmas will be here next week. What’s on your wish list for Christmas?”
I thought for a second (obviously not long enough) and noticed my old coat was in pretty bad shape, so I replied, “Grandmother, I don’t really need much of anything. How about sewing a new button on my coat?”
Now this seems like a simple request, but it didn’t fit her idea of my role as part of “The Loving Family.” Her sweet smile immediately disappeared. “Hell, do it yerself! I don’t sew for shit! Let me know when you know what you want for Christmas!” And with that she turned to light up another cigarette. I escaped to the barn.
The characters of Christmas
Christmas Eve was Grandmother’s day for baking pies. She never baked cakes because cakes don’t do well when the cook kicks the oven door shut. Early on Christmas morning, she would start banging pans, smoking cigarettes and swearing at the damn turkey. During the cooking part of the day, she referred to it as “the damn turkey,” but when it was placed upon “The Christmas Table,” it was “The Turkey.” After watching her bang and puff her way around the kitchen, mixing up the ingredients for the dressing, I was convinced the dressing probably included some cigarette ashes. I shook my head to get that thought out of my mind. I knew we would eat the stuff anyway.
The role of “The Loving Family” had several sub-roles. My mother was born Aileen Lane, from Grandmother’s first marriage to John Denver Lane. She grew up as an only child in the shadow of her mother’s enormous ego. Grandmother was known as Joe, and mother was known as Little Joe. When Grandmother was basking in the warmth of attention and admiration from fans and friends, Mother was required to stand quietly aside and fend for herself, both physically and emotionally. Still, she admired her mother for all her good qualities, and was resigned to occasionally being required to play her role as “The Daughter.”
Jessie with Great-Granddaughters Leanna and Patty.
“The Grandchildren” role was assigned to my sister and me, except that Vivian and her husband, Gene, had children of their own, so you would think they would be “The Great-Grandchildren,” but no, Leanna and Patty were part of “The Grandchildren.” I remember her specific instructions: “You must always call me ‘Grandmother.’ Not ‘Grandma,’ ‘Great-Grandma’, or ‘Gramma,’ and especially not ‘Granny!’ ” The latter name was snarled with a bitterness that indicated pretty clearly how she would react if addressed carelessly. No one in their right mind would do such a thing.
Language and poetry
“Where’s the goddamned turkey pan? Mike, have you cleaned your room yet? Oh, and straighten up that crap on the back porch! Lester, go park that damned truck on the other side of the barn! We’ll need room for Aileen and Harold to park. They’ll be late anyway! Those bastards didn’t get here till 4:30 last year, and the damn turkey was almost dried up. That’s piss-poor manners, if ya ask me!”
It’s poetry, ain’t it? Some of what she said really didn’t make sense if you thought about it. Calling her own daughter a bastard seemed to reflect more on herself than “The Daughter.” Oh never mind.
Timing was always off for someone
Christmas Dinner was always scheduled for four in the afternoon, but it never happened then. Vivian and her family would arrive an hour or so earlier with a vegetable dish, and she was allowed to help out in the kitchen. Men weren’t allowed in the kitchen during the holiday meal preparations, and for lots of reasons, the men were very glad. They sat in the living room watching football and drinking beer, except for me, who didn’t get any beer. Not that I wanted any. As I said, I grew up in a religious family where beer virtually did not exist, although it was beginning to have a little bit of interest for me.
As the afternoon approached four o’clock, the noise in the kitchen grew and the air grew more blue from a combination of her smoke and her language. “Shit Melinda! I knew those bastards would be late! Lester, can you see ‘em yet? The goddamned dinner is almost ready! I’m not putting the damned turkey on the table until they drive up the road!”
The men put the kitchen table in the living room and extended it to its full length, then added a couple of card tables to the end of it, making a long table with lots of room for food, plates, glasses, and elbows. As we worked, we looked out the window for Aileen and Harold’s car. Finally, we saw them coming up the road. “Here they come!” someone shouted, and we all looked at our watches: four twenty-five.
Just watch her transform herself
“Shit Melinda!” She exclaimed as she quickly wiped her hands, put down her cigarette, and ran out the door shaking her fist. “I knew you bastards were going to be late! What the hell did you think we were going to do with that damned turkey?!” As she approached the car, she slowed a little, began to smile, and you could see her change to her role as Grandmother.
“Merry Christmas! I’m so glad you could come! How have you been feeling, dear?” Then over her shoulder, “Mike, get yer ass out here and help carry their things into the house!”
Mom and Harold have arrived
I was already reaching into the back seat, gathering presents to put under the tree. After Grandmother finished with her sweet greeting for Aileen and Harold, she hurried back into the house to take charge of getting the food on the table. I gave Mom a hug and Harold gave me a smile and a gentle slap on the back.
Looking a bit like a larger version of Harrison Ford, my mother’s second husband, Harold, was a Norwegian longshoreman who drank very strong coffee with a teaspoon of butter in it. They lived in a houseboat on Lake Union in Seattle, in the neighborhood where Tom Hanks would have lived if “Sleepless in Seattle” were about real people. In those days, boathouses were not the charming, upscale neighborhoods they are today. It was definitely a working class neighborhood for longshoremen, sailors, and factory workers. Their house was tied to an abutment for Aurora Bridge, which essentially meant that they had free moorage for their house. Harold was a good man. He was kind to my mother and took good care of her. Considering she had over thirty major surgeries in her life, often suffered long periods of dark depressions, and also couldn’t cook worth a darn, his devotion was especially appreciated by everyone who loved her.
Every year on Christmas Day, Aileen and Harold spent the morning with his kids and grand kids in Bellingham, then drove out to the farm near Sumas later in the afternoon. It isn’t always easy to get away from family on time, so they were always late arriving at Grandmother’s for dinner.
When they came inside, there were handshakes and hugs all around. The food migrated from kitchen to table, and finally Harold was called to carry in “The Turkey.” We sat around the table in a sort of pecking order with the kids, Leanna, and Patty sitting the farthest from the head of the table, where Grandmother sat next to “The Turkey.” This was the real beginning of the meal. Grandmother stood, beaming at feast and family gathered before her.
Let the play begin!
“It’s so wonderful to have my family together for Christmas,” she said warmly, clasping her hands in front of the brightly colored Christmas apron she wore over her house dress. A tear was almost visible at the corner of her eye, and her voice had a slight quake of emotional sincerity.
“It’s time for The Blessing,” she said with her eyes closed opening her arms wide as if to enclose us all in a huge hug.
“Heavenly Father, thank you for bringing our family together at this wonderful time of year. We ask that you continue to be with us and bless us as we walk the journeys of our lives. Bless each person here today, and especially bless those who aren’t able to join us. Thank you for this wonderful meal, and we humbly ask that you bless it to the nourishment of our bodies. We ask this in His holy name.” Then after a pregnant pause… “Amen.”
She opened her eyes and for a long moment smiled at each of us with warmth and love. A bright twinkle in her eye indicated this part of her performance was over. She said crisply, “Let’s eat!” Then she sat.
‘The Turkey’ serves its purpose
Harold carved The Turkey and dishes were piled high with food and passed around the table. Conversations clattered along with the silverware and plates, and like families everywhere, we hummed when the food tasted especially good.
Harold loved little practical jokes. One of his favorites was passing the butter. Even though each of us knew he would do it sometime, he was always able to catch someone off guard, and it was my turn. “Could someone pass the butter, please?” I said, looking around the table to see who had it. Harold grunted and held out the butter dish, pretending to look the other way. I reached out to take the dish, and when my hand was in exactly the right position, he quickly moved it about two inches closer, burying my thumb in the soft butter.
“Oh! Yecch…” I said, grinning and wiping my thumb with a holiday napkin. Everyone reacted to his prank with chuckles and smiles. The little kids thought it was hilarious, and covered their mouths when they giggled.
From Lester, came a slow, “Heh, heh, heh.”.
“The Christmas Dinner” wound to a close. Pies were cut and passed around, accompanied by more hums and the older men performed the traditional belt-loosening. Afterward, we gathered around the scrawny little tree for “The Gifts.”
Time for the tree and Santa and a story
She loved playing Santa, kneeling beside the tree, reading the tags and handing out the presents. She always made a special event of handing her own gifts to their recipients, and would smile and glow in the appreciation and praise offered to her in return. She enjoyed receiving gifts, too, but that wasn’t as important to her as the appreciation and attention she received for her gifts to others.
Grandmother loved poetry, and every family gathering included pleas for her to recite some favorites. I don’t remember her ever reading a poem to us, she always shared them from memory. Her preferences were epic adventure poems like “Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, or “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service. Although this was my first Christmas with this part of the family, her poetry wasn’t new to me. Over the years, every family visit had always included one or more sessions of Grandmother’s poetry. Even my dad, who had no fondness for her, remembered many evenings after she closed her Montana bar when she would invite the remaining patrons of cowboys and ranchers to gather around the fireplace for literally hours of stories and poems performed by the famous Ptomaine Joe.
She never just recited the poems. Her voice made them come alive for us and we felt every emotion, every fear, every longing, every triumph, and every failure. We held our breath when she expressed terror with quiet intensity. Our hearts leaped to our throats as she shouted the pounding “Charge of the Light Brigade.”
When she finished the poem, there was never thunderous applause, but there was a long moment of silence, then soft exclamations of “That was wonderful, Grandmother.” Both the adults and the children nodded their heads and stared into the distance of their imaginations. If there were a crowd of thousands, she would give no less. She would give her all for even one listener, much as the soldiers in the Light Brigade gave their all.
Finishing the day
After “The Dinner,” after “The Gifts,” after her wonderful poetry, and after the cows were milked for the evening, there was still some food on the table. The refrigerator never had enough room for the remains of the damned turkey, so its carcass stayed on the table and folks picked at it as they walked around that end of the table. None of us ever died from salmonella, but the longer the turkey sat on the table, the more risky it was to eat any of it. Thankfully, there wasn’t much left after dinner. My sister and her family went home after a while, and being new, I expected the evening’s festivities to end.
Grandmother pushed whatever was still on the table to the far end by the turkey carcass, and threw the tablecloth back over the food and dishes. She went into the kitchen, brought back a deck of cards, an ashtray, some glasses, and a bottle of whiskey. She put them on the table and issued her order, “Deal!” She laughed and sat down. Harold, Aileen and Lester pulled their chairs up to the card table, and began an all-night binge of Canasta, jokes, and laughter.
I climbed up to the attic, my temporary quarters for the holiday, where I had a sleeping bag and an old army cot. I liked it up there. It was quiet and dark, even with the light on, and yet I could hear the continuing merriment downstairs. As I sipped the beer I smuggled into the attic, my part of “Christmas at Grandmother’s Farm” had come to an end, but from faraway downstairs, I heard a hearty laugh and “Shit Melinda!”
© 2000-2015 by Michael Kysar
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