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Like a damn Unitarian

07.21.06 | 7 Comments

After that time, when I was twelve-years-old, when grandma made me put that “this car stops at all garage sales” bumper sticker on the second-hand Cadillac, I was ashamed of grandma and grandpa.

They smoked and cussed and drank. They yelled at each other. They kept weird friends who’d come over to play gin rummy till after midnight, snubbing their noses at their little Nazarene suburb. And they certainly did stop at every garage sale they came across. You could tell by looking at all the junk in their yard, the junk that wouldn’t fit in the “junk room” (my uncle’s old bedroom) or the 800 sq ft portable building in the back that was supposed to be grandpa’s workshop but was too filled with junk to be usable. After spending no more than five minutes with them, folks would start calling them “Archie and Edith.” I didn’t know what that meant. I just knew it made grandpa cuss, and everyone else laugh. That embarassed me too.

My other grandparents weren’t like that. They lived across the street—that’s how my parents met—so I invariably saw both pairs if I saw one. My other grandparents were quiet and told stories about Model A’s and life before the Dust Bowl. When I’d stay over, they’d let me stay up to watch Carson’s monologue before switching over to M*A*S*H. My other grandparents were comfortable and quiet.

When grandpa died from gut cancer, I was still ashamed of him. He’d never quit cussing or yelling. True, he’d quit drinking, but that was from the diabetes. He hadn’t become the man I thought he should be.

Then my dad surprised us all with a story from his childhood. One night when my dad was over playing with my uncle, a hobo walked by the house asking for work. “What in the blankety blank do you need work for, you sonnovagun?” (This is my non-cussing father translating here.)

Something or other had happened, and the man was trying to get across the country to be with his wife and kids. He had sold everything he had trying to get there, but he still wasn’t there yet. He just wanted to work for food. He was walking the rest of the way across country.

“Well, don’t just stand there, you lazy sonnovagun,” and with that grandpa put him to work in the front yard. “Lanier!” he yelled, “put on another goddamn chicken!” Grandma asked why. “Cause I goddamn said so!” (It’s tough to translate my grandpa via my dad. Try imagining what Col. Potter might have really said during a M*A*S*H episode and you’ll get an idea of the difficulties my dad encountered in his efforts at translation.)

Grandpa was a union electrician. He traveled around central Oklahoma for Ma Bell during the week and came home on weekends, and his feet were a constant source of trouble. Just that week he had finally found a pair of shoes that didn’t hurt. They were twenty dollars, and that in the 1950s.

The man finished his work. He was asked, or commanded, to eat dinner with the family (and my dad, too, that night). They sat up to talk for a while before grandpa sent him on his way with a ten dollar bill and that twenty dollar pair of shoes.

I don’t know how my grandparents counted themselves theologically. We were all members of the same Methodist church just over the line of that small Nazarene suburb. My other grandparents were there most Sundays, unless they were at the big Baptist church with my uncle and aunt, their favorites. My other grandmother even volunteered as a switch board operator at church—that’s what she’d called it when she’d worked at the department store, the job she got when they moved into town from the farm looking for regular work.

Oh, now, we’d see grandma and grandpa at church every Christmas and Easter and every now and then. They certainly knew everyone there was to know, and my mom would fill grandma in on the gossip whether she wanted to know or not. Which is when grandma would start cussing. “Those damn Methodists.”

Turns out grandma had started the church’s Mothers’ Day Out around when my dad saw grandpa give away that twenty dollar pair of shoes. It was the sort of thing forward thinking church folk did back then to help mothers out a couple of afternoons a week so they could run errands, but certainly not so they could work, not just outside of a small Nazarene suburb.

I don’t know what happened after that, but there was a falling out with whoever she’d started it with, and grandma didn’t spend any more time at church than she had too for our sake. The Mothers’ Day Out grew into a part-time daycare some years later. Then a preschool. Then a full-time daycare. When I was in school, my mother worked her way up to running it after starting out as assistant to the kindergarten teacher. By the time she left, the daycare had almost 200 kids there every week, probably half of them on DHS and most of the rest close to it.

I don’t know what grandma and grandpa believed. I know they were disappointed with my fundamentalism. Grandpa never said much about it, but I’d overhear grandma say something about “those damn Methodists” when she and mom thought they were out of earshot. They might well have been unitarian or universalist in persuasion. They might have just had some grudges with some folks down at the church. They might not have cared one way or the other. I never found out.

My grandparents might well have been unitarians—who’s to say?—but they wouldn’t have made very good Unitarians. They were too uncivil, too uncouth. Too much gin rummy, not enough Robert Frost. Too many dirty jokes, not enough Sartre. Too much picketing management, not enough protesting Vietnam. Too much Mark Twain, not enough Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Grandma died from gut cancer too, between my first and second semester of college. We knew it was coming.

She knew too. She gambled away a good deal of grandpa’s pension down at the horse tracks, more for the thrill of it than for the hope of winning. I would never take her to the tracks when she asked. Some she gave to a preacher hoping to be healed. She knew better and did it anyway. Maybe it was to make my mom feel better. Most of it she just plain gave away, like that car she bought for my cousin Bobbi Jo, the one who wore flannel shirts and combat boots and had that same roomate for years, but who everyone said was “just raised to be a tomboy.”

She’d also taken to hanging out at the Hardee’s across from the Nazarene college. She’d drink her coffee, steal a smoke, and tell dirty jokes with the truckers, and likely other tax collectors and sinners. That it made the Nazarenes feel uncomfortable was probably no small bonus.

Grandma made the Methodist preacher promise to tell one of her dirty jokes at her funeral. I wish to god I remembered it. But mostly I wish I hadn’t refused to give her a ride to the horse tracks, like a damn Unitarian.


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