We unwrapped Christmas presents around the tree, as usual, as a family. It was just a couple months before my grandfather Bompy died. Booth told me to hand him a small, square package that had been placed deep in a pile of packages. I cried and whined and was sent to my room, because I didn’t understand why he should get to open a present before me. Booth came to my room later and explained that the package contained a bottle of Anacin tablets that Bompy needed to ease pain of a disease that I had yet to understand. After I was let out of my room, I hugged him and said I was sorry, but he still died. It took me a few years to figure out that no amount of Anacin could have kept Bompy alive.
Even though his health had him living in a back bedroom for the last couple years of his life, Mickey mourned Bompy’s passing with a sorrow that consumed my family for a long time. It was during her extended mourning period that Mickey resumed her church-going ways. Her absence from weekly masses was a frequent source of guilt, so in the years to follow she paid penance for her backsliding ways through many Hail Marys and Our Fathers. She also started collecting prayer cards. Every Catholic saint imaginable had a small cardboard presence on her bedside table. She kept the cards close at all times. She even kept a tattered image of the Sacred Heart of Christ folded and tucked in her right brassiere cup, along with a white handkerchief. This bra-storage habit was passed on to Booth. She kept a lucky penny, wrapped in tape and notebook paper, pinned to her bra strap for many years.
Mickey held the unwavering belief that compulsive praying worked miracles for everyone in the family. She murmured the Unfailing Prayer to Saint Anthony to help me find a little play purse, after I’d carelessly dropped it in a shopping mall parking lot. She soothed my crying by rubbing a small piece of copper between her hands, and praying: “O holy Saint Anthony, gentlest of saints … I implore of you to obtain for me [Joy’s purse].”
I never believed for a second that Saint Anthony had any involvement in delivering my purse and its contents to the mall’s Lost and Found desk. Grandma Mickey called me a blasphemer, and despite my doubts made me go to mass the following Saturday, and give thanks to the Holy Father and cross myself with holy water.
When Mickey’s Pall-Mall smoking era ended with a diagnosis of acute emphysema, her fervent, habitual devotion to Catholic roots didn’t slow one bit. She faithfully watched Mass for Shut-Ins every Sunday morning. Booth would bundle her up in wool scarves and carry her portable oxygen tank to the car, so she could attend a real mass on holidays. Wrinkled hands folded, chapped lips silently murmuring a prayer, Mickey would ride in the back seat of Booth’s Ford Pinto to St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord in with Thee. Blessed are thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
“You mean you’re not smart enough to know that a can of beer doesn’t cost $4.29? The sticker’s just one that one can. I didn’t grab the whole damned six-pack.”
The grocery cashier looked up from the register, opened her lip-glossed mouth as if to offer a retort, then simply rolled her eyes and stayed silent.
“You are being very rude to me. I’d like to speak to the manager,” said my father.
“Sir, I don’t think they’ll let me sell you a single can of beer, anyway.”
“That might be right. You should have told me that in the first place. Just take it off my bill.”
The cashier grabbed the beer, pushed a few keys on her register, and then set the cans back down on the conveyor belt. With an electronic beep, the offending item was removed from my father’s grocery bill. The cashier chewed on her upper lip as she rung up the remaining items: a ham, a loaf of bread, some chocolate marshmallow cream cookies.
She rang the total, and handed the slip to my father for inspection. He took a quick glance, and shoved it back into her hand.
“Aren’t you going to take the deposit off too? That’s my 10 cents there, you know.”
The cashier sighed and crumpled the paper into a little ball.
“Why don’t we just start again, sir?”
My father, coming from a third generation of drinking Burnetts, was essentially alcohol-free. He’d tried to buy a single can of beer on many occasions to cook the yearly beer-basted ham. To his first wife, my mother, he was known at times as “Two Beer,” for his habit of buying her and himself one beer apiece while on a date. These habits extended into his eating and cooking as well. He loved to eat, make no mistake about that, but one of his favorite phrases was: “Let’s split one.” Splitting could occur at any event, with any food – French fries at the drive-through, hot dogs at the ballgame, or the smallest bag of popcorn at the movies. Home-popped popcorn, smuggled into the theater under a zipped coat, was the snack of choice. The proper amounts of salt and butter (light and generous), and the right price (cheap) were always guaranteed with the homemade method.
As for the single beer can incident, my non-alcoholic father’s ham preference presented a dilemma: what does a non-drinker do with the remaining five beers, if you’re forced to buy a whole six-pack, and the ham has been cooked? An answer would have been easy for me a few years later, older and a beer drinker myself. I could even have supplied him with a beer from my fridge, because his dirt-cheap lagers weren’t my beers of choice. His solution to the problem when I was young, however, was to bully nearly every grocery clerk and party store owner in our small town into selling him a prized single can of beer.
While drinking happily evaded my father, military service did too. This was lucky for him, given the rather patriotic yet unfortunate timing of his birth. My father was three months short of entering the world when Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. At Christmas Eve mass in 1941, with my father ripe in her belly, Mickey prayed to the Holy Spirit to deliver her firstborn child from evil and the cruelty of men. She got her wish 18 years later, when my father was pegged “4F” and barred from military service due to epileptic seizures, and nervous tension. He was a little flat-footed too. His childhood friends Jerry and Richard graduated from high school and were shipped off to Germany and Cuba, but my father was shipped off to his first full-time job as a grocery-store manager.
The days of his early adulthood began and ended with food. log the shipments, stock the shelves, check the inventory, take leftover meat home for mom. When he’d wake up the next morning, the food fantasy would all begin again. The post-war years brought a food boom to the Burnett home, with Mickey’s economical yet creative culinary ways being accented by my father’s grocery-store clerkship.
Mickey’s menu? Fried cucumber sandwiches. Meatloaf patties. Fried green tomatoes. Fried apples and onions. Southern fried pork chops with brown flour gravy. If any piece of food would let flour and egg stick, it was promptly dipped, fried, and eaten. When Bompy and other migrant workers moved up from southern Ohio to work in the bomber plants, some of the finest collections of hillbilly recipes also followed them northward.
Booth, who at the time was known as Beth Ann, passed the hours between her brother’s leaving and returning to their little box of a farmhouse by learning to ride horses and ponies. She attended school occasionally, whenever she couldn’t get Mickey to write her a sick note. Her low level of interest in school indicated that she wouldn’t last there for long. The day after she turned 16, Beth Ann collected her school books and left them on the principal’s desk, with a hand-written note from Mickey. A year and a half later, she had her cosmetology license, and was washing, cutting, coloring, and permanent waving the hair of all the ladies in town.
My father’s vocational path eventually left the grocery store and led to trade school and an electrician’s license. Five years, one marriage, and one daughter later, he’d made a partial and temporary break from his close-knit immediate family. For Booth, still living at home and having bloomed into somewhat of a shrinking violet, my grandmother was family. Booth’s success as a hairdresser came to an end when Mickey starting having panic attacks when she was left alone in the house. Her sisters responded to countless desperate phone calls from her in the middle of the day, asking for them to come over, bring an ambulance, and call the priest. Aunt Aggie eventually said she needed a break, and asked for help.
Booth found a new job at the local D&C five-and-dime, and Aunt Renee moved in to help soothe my grandmother’s threatened nerves. Mickey had an old-fashioned player piano that Renee loved to play, the kind you pump with your feet to get going. Renee hit the garage sales and collected enough paper rolls to create a block of boxes two feet high atop the stand-up contraption. The boxes were rectangular, and covered with a fine, textured red paper. The gold-accented labels on the end of each box presented title and artist in bold black lettering: “The Old Piano Roll Blues,” “Blue Danube,” “Alley Cat,” “The Rosary.” When Renee and Mickey napped in the afternoons, I’d steal a song or two and take them behind the closed door of Booth’s bedroom. I’d unroll them inch by inch on her bed, and study the patterns of tiny rectangular holes in the paper. “Alley Cat” unfortunately didn’t cooperate with me, and the cardboard tube rolled off the bed and onto the floor. The dry brown paper ripped with a jagged diagonal tear. I escaped trouble by convincing Mickey that the roll had gotten jammed in the player.
I didn’t get to play those piano rolls as often as I would have liked. Renee exercised her legs on that early version of a stair-stepping machine for hours each day and evening, cranking out tunes new and old, to my grandmother’s delight.
Mickey’s frequent visits to this or that doctor often left me without a guardian in the house on Centennial Road, so I had to spend days at work with Booth. I thought I was working at my first job. Booth and her co-workers Dorothy and Virginia treated me just like any other clerk. I played the part by writing up invoices for imaginary transactions, and Booth even occasionally let me ring up some customers on the old metal cash registers. Stacks of old vendor catalogs were stored in the musty basement, and they were a hunting ground for pictures of my own line of products. I tore photos of doilies, coasters, and other household items from those catalogs, and pasted them into wire-bound notebooks. My own catalogs.
I also became closely acquainted with an incredible assortment of candy, knickknacks, and sewing supplies. The D&C candy counter was my favorite, stocked with every color in the rainbow, sugar coatings on hard, spongy, and chewy candies. Jellied orange slices were Mickey’s favorite, and my father liked chocolate peanut clusters. Booth often took home handfuls of waxed, white paper bags full of candy.
Mickey hoarded her candy like a chipmunk with a tree stash. A wood-and-metal cupboard that leaned slightly to one side dominated the west wall of her kitchen. Her everyday green-flower dishes were stacked in size order, from the largest platter to the smallest bowl, on the eye-level shelf. The good china was wrapped in brown paper and carefully tucked behind the cupboard doors near the floor. In a small area intended for a hand-crank flour sifter, Mickey hollowed out the perfect spot for her stash. Over the years, this small rectangular cupboard hid away plastic and paper bags of peanut butter toffees, red and white hard candy mints, and of course, jellied orange slices.
A tiny crystal candy dish held mints on her coffee table. This dish was knocked over and its sugary contents spilled just prior to one of my grandmother’s many visits to the local hospital. At first the doctors diagnosed an acute case of hypochondria. Mickey started collecting more books: How to Master Your Thoughts, The Road to Happiness and Well-Being. Her stack of pill bottle grew right along with her library. The names on bottles that I liked to stack up into a brown plastic pyramid were strange to me, with lots of Zs and Xs and Os. As a young girl armed with the naive conviction of a devoted grandchild, I would gladly have testified in front of any terrifying group of adults, to inform them of the evil effects of grandma’s tiny white pills.
Of all the tablets and capsules she’d separate out and put into her portable pill container – one compartment for each day of the week – one drug in particular gave Mickey the most trouble, and me the most nightmares. During the hours of the night when Booth would have to bring out my monster spray, Mickey would often speak in what I thought was tongues, and cackle like a witch in her sleep. My mother’s church had taught me that only “heathens” spoke in tongues, so I wondered how my Catholic grandmother had gotten so far out of line. By the time I figured out that Mickey’s powers of language weren’t supernatural, but instead brought on by a serious drug interaction, I’d also found out that my monster spray was only scented water and blue food coloring. Fake as it was, it worked – I never saw a single monster in Booth’s closet, or under the bed.
Mickey’s room had real monsters though, so I would never sleep with her anymore. During her healthier days, I’d snuggle up against my grandmother and listen to the low hum of the AM transistor radio she always tucked beneath her pillow. I found that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t sleep with a cackling witch. Sleeping in Booth’s bed, I could always hear the other hum of Mickey’s oxygen generator. She wheezed and the pump’s air bladder made a loud hissing noise every time it pushed the pure oxygen out into my grandmother’s lungs.
Mickey’s body shape came to resemble Booth’s more than ever as she aged. Instead of growing a back shelf, my grandmother had a potbelly that was just the right size so that I could get my arms around it, and clasp my hands together. This was the last thing I did before I left the Centennial Road house, on the last day I ever saw my grandmother, when I was 15 years old. I squeezed just hard enough, and gave her a peck on her tissue-paper cheek. My father drove me back to my mom’s house for the weekend.
The next morning, I was standing on the front porch holding some helium balloons for my cousin, waiting for a ride to a birthday party. Mom came out onto the front porch with me, eyes red and puffy from crying. After a pause, she said:
“Your Grandma Mickey is gone, Birdie.”
Gone. Where? Gone, so final. Hugged and then just gone.
I twisted the balloons’ curly ribbons with my fingers, and closed my eyes. Gone. Mom hugged me and whispered something into the phone to my father that I could not make out. She hung up the phone, and ushered me back into the house.
Sleep. Car ride back to the Centennial Road house.
Yes Daddy? Two grapefruits. Funny thought for a woman who spent hours peeling and sectioning the pink citrus into breakfast bowls. Sprinkle a little sugar on top. Your grandmother had tumors the size of grapefruits. Ovarian cancer, late detection. We’re sorry. Grapefruits.
Two days after hearing the news, I awoke in Booth’s bed and slowly dressed to wait out the last few hours before Mickey’s funeral mass. In the living room, Booth and my father were sitting on the couch alone. Booth was dressed in black polyester, and my father in a suit that hadn’t come out from the closet in years. All four of their hands were clasped together, holding on so tightly I could see the veins and tendons. Their eyes remained motionless as I moved across the living room floor, trying hard not to make clicks with my black leather shoes. I pulled back the tapestry curtain that covered the door to Mickey’s room, and went inside. Lying on my grandmother’s bed, wrapped in her homemade quilt, I silently repeated my first collection of Hail Marys.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee … pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”