Sunday, May 27, 2007

Weeds never sleep

Late summer in the Willamette Valley was like living at the bottom of a dirty hot tub. Each August a weather condition known as an inversion would squat over the valley like a fat lady in polyester pants and everything would steam and wilt and stink. The humidity simply could not be described. You could see it. Distances were vague, foul and pissy yellow, and the air tasted like mown grass and car exhaust.

Very few people had air conditioning. It was expensive back then, and after all, it was Oregon and you'd only use it that couple of weeks out of the whole year. Instead, people used to sit outside late into the night and wait for the air to cool off, usually in vain...smoking and drinking beer, listening to transistor radios and talking in the darkness. Even at 3:am the metal of the lawn chairs still felt warm and the leaves of the trees would stick to your skin if you brushed against them. I remember the stars even looked hot. For the first few days the kids viewed this as a real treat, being able to stay up until wow-o-clock in the morning, although after about the third hot, sticky, miserable night of it you just endured. It was just too hot and too thick to play. We'd sit around on towels feeling headachy and slow while the humidity soaked our thin cotton clothes and secretly envy the little kids who got to scramble around in the grass naked until they fell asleep in a crabby pile.

I was in by myself watching television one night, some black and white horror movie, when my father and mother came tiptoeing in from outside all whispering and nervous.
"Come look out the bathroom window." said my mom.
"Why?" I yipped. The white must have been showing all around my eyes. Watching monster movies at 3:30 a.m. cast my imagination in the direction of alien spaceship landings. Let it stay out there! I don't want to see the damn thing!

But my dad and mom were insistent, and I was curious because of all the whispery-whisperyness, so I went with them. We all tiptoed down the hallway (past the open front door facing the same direction) and crowded in around the toilet to peer out of the tiny bathroom window.
Some distance away a white figure was glimmering between the apple trees. I almost swallowed my tongue.

" Take a look at that. Is that a person? Someone's over there! Why don't you go take a look?" my father said.

Why don't I WHAT?

" Why don't YOU take a look!" I said indignantly and got hushed and shhhh'd.

"Because its, we think its, its probably your grandma. We think it is, it might be. Just go see."

This made as much sense as everything else up until this point had, which was none.

" Go on, go on now, go see. Get out there and go see!" he insisted.

I still didn't get it.

" We think she's out there walking around. Just go say hi and ask if everything's all right," explained my mom.

" Why don't you?" I said.

" Oh, we, we, we don't want to embarrass her, you know, we don't wanna make her feel bad or anything like that. You go. She won't thing nothing of that. Just go say hi."

OK. It was almost 4: am. Now why would a 7 years old be out roaming around in the yard at 4:am?* This is not the usual time for casual 'Oh, hi!' type chance encounters between old ladies and first graders. I dug in my heels, now convinced that I was being set up to star in another contrived 'cute' situation that I'd never hear the end of.
My father got stern and my mother got angry, and I got sent outside.

Well, it looked like a lady, out there in the apple trees.

I got closer. Intermittently the figure bent over for a few moments and then stood up. I could hear things swishing.

I stepped out past the iris border and into the open, and there stood my grandmother, sure enough.

Now I will never forget this picture: The moon, the stars, my tall grandmother, barefoot, wearing only a white silk slip, her long white hair loose down her back, holding a shiny butcher knife.

" What are you doing up?" she said, flinging aside a handful of dandelions.

" Mom and dad wanted me to ask you what you were doing" I replied. "We could see you from the house and they were scared to come over."

This cracked her up.

I wonder how it might have looked to another person, this elderly woman in flowing white holding a knife and laughing, and the moon overhead.

" Go tell em' to come over!" she laughed. " I couldn't sleep cos the house is too hot so I thought I might as well come out and garden!"
I turned towards the house and yelled as loud as I could "Hey Mom! Hey Dad! She's OK! Come over!"

My father was in an absolute lather of embarrassment. He was stammering out his usual 'what will people think' comments, telling her to get inside and where's your slippers and what in the heck did she think she was doing and why didn't you put on a robe and somethin' could happen to her out here in the middle of the night!
"Oh who cares? I'm covered!" she laughed. This whole thing just tickled the heck out of her. "And I've got a knife, see?"

This was the same woman who took a 'sleepy eyes' dolly head and stuck on a tree limb near her front door in such a way that the breeze would move it and make the eyes blink (which never failed to crack her up.) So this explanation seemed perfectly reasonable to me and still does. Hell, its hot, it's the middle of the night, nothing's on television, why not garden? What was she supposed to do, rob a convenience store?

Now I look back and recall the fantasy story that my parents had concocted about my grandmother pining away after the death of her last husband a year before and getting senile etc etc. It had nothing whatsoever to do with reality. The reality I remember was, that once he was in the dirt and the crying was over she hit the ground running and never stopped, always had plans, always had projects, always had visitors, always smiled and laughed and joked and sang. She was damned relieved to be rid of the burden of caring for grandpa's evil demanding ass and have her life back and she'd told people as much. I know that in the same situation nocturnal yard care is the very LEAST of what I'd be up to.

We all trudged back to the house as my grandmother waved bye with a big grin on her face. "We got to watch her, you know, got to watch out for her now that dad's gone"" said my dad. "I tell you what, I don't think much of that. It don't look right, you know" he continued. " People might not think we take good care of her or something."
" Oh don't worry,", I said. " She's got a knife."

*that didn't start until I was eight.


  1. Ha! The butcher knife is a very nice touch.

  2. Hey! I think I'd have liked your granny.

  3. Anonymous3:55 PM

    a woman after my own heart. i always carry a knife with me. especially when i was in college and worked on campus in the dead of night.

    and people in mississippi still do the sitting outside smoking and drinking beer thang.

  4. alala: she gardened with one, I do too. it's just the thing to get out the monster buttercups and the canary grass. it would have been so cool if the police would have seen her first!

    dinamow: i bet you'da gotten along fine. she was a great woman and had friends all over the place.

    pink: I used to be a crowbar person till i put a dent in the truck making a point emphatically. now i carry an aluminum bat in the truck and my passenger car. i take the pistol hiking and the 'cuttings' lockknife is on my keychain! ise packed up!

  5. i like these stories about great gramma. I am beginning to understand more and more why I turned out the way I did and why you are the way you are, and I like that very, very much.

  6. Anonymous7:40 PM

    damn, fn. who you gawn jack up?

  7. Blimey! You hike with a pistol? See, this is why I'd be skeered to walk on the wild side over your way.
    But the blade is the best for despatching unwanted stuff.

  8. I thought the story was going to be it was yer granny but she had passed away a year before. Yeah hike with a pistol if more people did the Australian serial killer Ivan Millat wouldn't have got so many backpackers.

  9. "ise packed up!"

    What, no grenades?

  10. It sounds as if some of her character has skipped a generation, which happens quite often I think.

  11. I had a dream about you last night. (seriously) Something to do with a couple of kids joyriding in a quary full of some caustic mineral. They were getting their skin burned. I've no Idea how you were tied in to all this but I'm sure there would be a logical explanation.

  12. Oh, and good on granny for 'ploughing her own furrow'.

  13. harlette: she woulda liked you a lot. the goonybird too.

    pink: you never know. sometimes something just comes over you......

    dinamow: yes, and it's damned inconvenient too. i'd have more luck dropping a rapist with the sawed-off.

    knudie: what a saw something i didn't intend but yeah, it does read like that too! i had more the 'strange and unholy rites performed by moonlight' thing in mind. how cool! hazmat smooches!

    fatty: hey, you live in cali. don't start. not all the nuts in the woods grow on trees.

    realdoc: i hope i'm that lucky!

    tick: i was skateboarding down the dumpslope in full hazmat gear bombing them with chunks ofcopper oxide.

  14. i like your grandma, too.

    your parents were such a couple of boobs.

    i remember nights like that in michigan when i was a kid. it was like being a walking glue-stick; everything stuck to your skin.

  15. FN , cool story....your parents sound a bit uptight.....

  16. That was a "What, no grenades," implying that you are probably underarmed, not overarmed.

  17. she was the best eh? Nothing wrong with a bit of nocturnal activity if you can't sleep - and gardening is better than my granny who was given to vacuuming in the early hours if she couldn't sleep - now that did piss everyone off!

  18. My grandma had mad hair and sleepwalked.

    All kitchen implements were kept under lock and key at night.

  19. You know sometimes when you read something and it feels like you're being wrapped up in some warm arms and made to feel all snuggly and at home? That's what the stories about your grandma make me feel. It's lovely - may it never stop :-)


    p.s. tit-fucking is such a funny word - how can anyone take it seriously anyway?

  20. I think you take after your Grandmother, who was obviously a magnficent woman. Great story!

    The squatting fat lady in polyester pants was an especially nice touch - you always find a way to draw me in.