When I hear interesting things about my family, the first thing I do is not run to the computer and blog about it. Believe it or not. I keep a lid on a lot of stuff because some stories aren’t mine to tell, and I’m not sure if it would be kosher for me to air the family laundry — dirty, dingy, cleanish, indifferent, or otherwise — to the internet. And yet, I feel the need to write some of this stuff down, if for no other reason than to help me remember things that happened before I ever had a chance of existing. These things matter.
So, with that in mind, hopefully my grandmother won’t mind me telling some of her stories. Hopefully I won’t fudge the details too much.
Today as I left my parents’ house to head back to Memphis, I stopped, as is the custom, by my dad’s mom’s house next door. She opened the door and said “I’d sure love to visit with you but you need to get your butt on the road!” The temperature was plunging, there were whispers and rumors about sleet and frozen rainwater in the cracks of asphalt along the highway. But I know better than to merely get a glimpse of your grandmother, tip your hat, and be on your way. Grandmothers deserve sit-down meetings, informal conferences where you shove sweet, homemade treats in your mouth (in this case, peach cobbler) while you two discuss the weather and the latest scuttlebutt around town. These particular conversations can be especially enlightening if your grandmother is the town’s gossip columnist for the local paper. You’d be amazed how much the woman knows that she just can’t bring herself to print. It’s a feel-good column and scandal is kept to a printed minimum.
But tonight, as the last huff of daylight seeped out of the atmosphere, despite her protestations of my staying long (I’ve traveled that road to Memphis a hundred times; I know my way. There’s no rush, I assured her) my grandmother scooped two lumps of ice cream into a bowl atop her homemade peach cobbler, handed it to me with a spoon, and pushed a print of an old photograph across the table. It was of my grandfather, her husband, standing tall beside his first cousin, whose neck was adorned with unironic dog tags.
She tried to pinpoint exactly when that photo might have been made; there was no date scribbled in the margins. To help jog her memory, she headed back to the office for an album that might have had related photos in it. The first album was of my father’s birth — or right after, when he’d been cleaned up and wrapped up in a sweet little white dress, which Grandmaw says all the babies were clothed in back in the day. My dad was such a cutie. He had a big, unruly grin with white teeth, a little button nose, and the sweetest baby flat-top hairdo. It’s amazing and humbling to see my adult features in the face of a baby in 1955. We all use borrowed parts, don’t we?
The album followed my father from infancy to post-toddlerdom, around the time he was about four and got thick, plastic glasses to help him see. If there’s anything cuter than four-year-olds, it’s four-year-olds with plastic Buddy Holly glasses. He was a happy baby, who wanted to be Elvis and a cowboy and, probably, just like his daddy.
Grandmaw didn’t find the photo she was looking for in the album of my dad’s baby pictures. So she ferried albums back and forth between the back rooms and the kitchen, bringing out book after book of old, scallop-edged black and white photographs from around the time she was setting up house, becoming an adult, having babies, and growing up.
My grandparents went through a pretty horrific time early in their marriage. They were young when they married in the early ’50s — she 21 and he 20. They were so handsome, both of them — he with politely greased-back hair and dreamy lips, and she with conservative, dark curls and a chin dimple that I imagine drove the men crazy.
Almost immediately after the wedding they headed to an Army base in North Carolina. They took off after the wedding and stopped at a shabby little roadside motel. My grandmother had picked out a pretty nightgown for her wedding night, and she went into the motel bathroom to change into it. She seemed slightly embarrassed, but also defiant, telling me this. “How things have changed,” she kept saying. “Lord, how things have changed.”
Apparently my grandfather had been in cahoots with my grandmother’s friends, who coaxed him into letting them into her suitcase out in the car. As my grandmother tried to slip into her new nightgown, she realized that her friends had sewn the waist together so that she couldn’t put it on. So, as my grandfather waited just outside the door, my grandmother sat on the motel toilet and picked every last stitch out. She tried once again to put the gown — which “was more thin than I had thought when buying it,” she said — only to realize that her friends had stitched another part of the gown together, making it impossible for her to get in. Frustrated and embarrassed to be taking to long, she sat on the toilet and picked out the next set of stitches. She tried to put the gown on again, and her body knocked against the motel hangers dangling from the rod in the bathroom.
“What are you doing in there?” my grandfather asked her.
Her third attempt to put the gown on proved unsuccessful too. Her friends had cinched together the chest part of the gown to make it too tight to pull up. She patiently removed the last of the prank stitches and then insisted my grandfather turn out the light before she would come out of the bathroom.
Life in North Carolina came by way of luck, as they had moved without any guarantee of housing. Before long, they were transferred to a base near El Paso, which is where their whole lives would be complicated by a random, freak accident.
My grandfather was riding in the back of an Army truck with a bunch of other guys. I’m not sure where they were going or if it was official business or they were just fooling around or what. Something went wrong and the truck wrecked, killing one guy and injuring pretty much everyone else. My grandfather — still just a kid, at 22 or so — was one of the most injured. He was nearly killed. A piece from the truck — a long pole, I think — impaled my grandfather.
IN THE TAINT. (This part is still so hard for me to comperehend. I mean, how random and awful.)
They rushed him to the Army hospital and my grandmother was pretty much kept in the dark about what was going on and who was hurt. She heard that someone was dead and everyone else was injured, but she had no idea who the dead guy was. She hung around their apartment for a bit when the base told her to sit tight, but then a neighbor egged her to come with her to the hospital to see what they could find out.
“It’s a good thing I decided to go or I guess they would have let Bobby die.”
When she arrived, my grandfather was lying practically lifeless on a gurney. She tried raising some hell when she realized how hurt he was and how much blood he was losing. The hospital decided to rush him to El Paso’s big hospital, and they told her to just go home. She demanded to ride in the ambulance or be permitted to follow. She said she told them she was Army property — just like her husband — and they had an obligation to take care of her no matter what happened to her husband. So she and some other Army guys fled down the highway behind the ambulance, watching for directions via hand signals from a guy sitting near the back window.
They saved my grandfather — Grandmaw says that we they untucked the sheet from beneath him once they got there, blood started pouring like she’d never seen before. It took pumping more blood into him than his body held to begin with. Grandpa was being held in intensive care for a while, but intensive care in the early ’50s was very much unlike how it is now. He was in a large room — a ward, really — with beds lined up like you see in Patch Adams or Cider House Rules. A few beds down, Grandmaw says, was a man who had been burned so severely that, even as he recovered, you could smell his cooked flesh. He would moan and scream at all hours because anything — even the open air on his skin — tortured him.
My grandfather healed, of course, though I’m sure it seemed like it took him forever. My grandmother told me that he had his fair share of trouble with poor care from the nurses. They finally moved Grandpa to another floor — the floor for “dirty surgery,” involving private parts — and he was the only patient there for a while. There was one particularly bitchy nurse who liked to spend her time among the less sick soldiers elsewhere, flirting. One day my grandmother came to visit and, as she walked down the hall toward my grandfather’s room, she heard him hollering out in pain. He had a bedsore on his ass so bad that you could see the bone beneath, she said. The nurse had set up a heater next to the bed to dry the sore out, but she’d set it up too close to my grandfather, and while she was away doing other things, the heater had begun to burn my grandfather, who couldn’t move away from it.
Grandmaw knocked the heater aside and ran to get the nurse, who called my grandfather “a big baby,” and said he was just being finicky. My grandmother almost wailed on her ass but decided not to, because the nurse would just make it worse for Grandpa.
He had to begin physical therapy to learn how to do everything again — sit up, walk, go to the bathroom — everything. He lived with a colostomy for weeks, maybe months. She showed me pictures of my grandfather, groomed and smiling, where the bulk of the bag can be seen, if you look hard enough, beneath his pants.
And, though he had been hurt in a very vulnerable and painful place, my grandfather soldiered on (no pun intended … okay, maybe a little). Five months after the accident, in June (or so), my grandparents had been driving along the highway, headed somewhere on vacation, I think, and it was so hot that they pulled over and checked into a motel for the air conditioning (the car was sans). My grandmother rushed into the bathroom and spent the evening squirting into the toilet and puking into the tub, simultaneously.
She thought she was getting a virus or some sort.
Turns out she was busy making my dad.