“It’s George Birthington’s Wash Day!” I can still hear Grandma saying that on her birthday – “I’m a day older than George Washington, you know.” She would have been 98 years old today. Just looking at this quarter today makes me smile.
I’ve written a lot about how inspiring my Grandmother was to me and how empowering it was to have someone who never saw a challenge too big in my corner, but Grandma also confused me sometimes – she had a slew of Grandma-isms – some of them I understood, and some have meanings that still elude me today.
“Bring the whole fam-damily” – This meant everyone was coming to dinner. I have heard other people use this, but as a teen I thought this was her best sidestep to swearing about company she wasn’t so thrilled about entertaining. Grandma always said she didn’t have company, if you were at her house you were family so you could get your own coffee. Make yourself at home and clean up your own mess. Effortless hospitality.
“If you don’t stop that I’m gonna give you back to the Indians!” – I would hear this if I pestered her for candy in the grocery checkout or if I interrupted her on the phone. I sometimes wonder if this had to do with her Grandpa Pyeatte. He was a Cherokee Indian. He chose to live as a white man instead of claiming head rights and land in Oklahoma. I guess being a Cherokee in the 1880s wasn’t nearly as cool and hip as it is today.
Other than that – I’m clueless. In my imagination she was dropping me off at those tepees on Route 66 in the middle of Arizona. I recently discovered an old hillbilly song that used the line – may be it was a song she liked. Grandma liked cowboy music. More and more I think it was the song. It’s one of those questions I never thought to ask. Maybe her grandpa said it to her and she never thought to ask. I think I should say it to my great-niece and just not explain it to her – that’s what family is about after all, passing on tradition.
“Well Happy Cigar Butts to You!” I think this was Grandma’s way of calling someone an asshole in front of the grandkids. I have no solid evidence except the tone and context of the many times I heard her use it in traffic. I heard her say it to a co-worker who she talked smack to, to her sister Muriel who she had a blunt and somewhat cynical rapport with, and to a jerk who cut her off in the parking lot at the grocery store. I left her a note on her car one time using the phrase – pretending to be someone ticked off about her parking crooked – she laughed and laughed about it, I was kinda clueless. Another enduring mystery.
My Grandma collected things – lots of different things. Most of them fell into the category of something she called “What-nots” She collected purple glass. I remember driving though Cedar City in Utah with her and Grandpa on the way to Panguich to go fishing. We stopped for breakfast and walked into a junk store because Grandma saw glass in the windows. She could pick up a piece of old glass and check out the seams and weight and tell you with absolute certainty that it would turn purple in the sun over time. Her windows were filled with this kind of glass.
She told me it was the iron in the glass, and that it was only used in glass production until 1905. In the desert people would buy old glass and put it on their roofs to make the purple come out more. Today there are dealers who expose these bottles to ultra violet light to increase the depth of the purple and it’s almost garish. I think it makes an actual antique look fake. Seeing the violet in old glass takes years and that’s part of the magic.
Grandma collected plates, not collector plates, just plates that belonged to people she knew. I remember her getting a package on her birthday in the mail, it was some dinner plates her cousin sent from a set of china that had belonged to their grandmother. She had them hung just below the ceiling though the kitchen and her living room. There were probably over a hundred of them. She gave them to me when I bought my first home and they survived an earthquake hanging on the wall – it sounded like I was inside a giant wind chime.
This is another thing I so wish I had taken the time to ask Grandma about so that I would have some clue about where they all came from. When I graduated from High School my grandparents sent me to spend a few weeks with my other Granddad in Virginia. It was a precious gift – letting me get to know my mom’s family. Grandma sent my mother’s step-mother Pearl a crocheted afghan as a gift. Pearl asked me about what my Grandma liked and I told her about the plates. She gave me a dinner plate that had belonged to my great-grandmother’s family. My mom was surprised to see it on her mother-in-laws wall after that trip.
My grandma was a knitting fool. Sometime in her 40s she went through a time when she had a lot of nervous energy. It was about the time her hands began to shake. Her doctor suggested that she find something she could do with her hands to calm her down. She decided that she wanted to learn to knit. She didn’t start with a sweater or scarf. She dived headlong into knitting argyle socks. When she went for her next check up her doctor was stunned to see the myriad of spools of yarn – but the knitting was working – her nerves were settling.
When I was born she decided to make me a Christmas stocking – not just a red sock with a white heel and toe. A stocking that had my name and birthday knitted right into it, a stocking with a Santa with an Angora beard, a stocking with a decorated Christmas tree on one side.
When my mom became a grandma, I found the pattern – it was something she made up from a really basic stocking. All of her notes and marks made perfect sense, she should have been designing these things. Each of my brothers had one too. I wish I had learned to knit so that I could carry on the tradition for her. I love my stocking so much that it cannot be stored away eleven months of the year – I need it to be out where I can see it. It makes me smile. My grandma was a freaking genius!
Not everything she made was quite so special. My grandma crocheted all the time. She made the classic granny square and put together diagonal patterns. She like to use variegated colors in the centers. I have several of these gems around the house, mostly made of wool. They remind me of Grandma’s house so ugly or not I love them.
To celebrate the Bicentennial she decided to crochet me a granny square sweater out of red, white, and blue yarn. It was heinous. The only place I ever wore it was to her house. I always told her I loved it. I always lied. She loved to see me in it so I pulled that thing out a couple of times a month. A part of me wondered if she was messing with me. You know, I’m pretty sure she was messing with me.
Happy George Birthington’s Wash day to you and yours, and if you don’t like it you can kiss my Cigar Butts!
Over a Labor Day weekend in the mid 1970s we went to the Fort Bridger Rendezvous as a family. Pop’s best friend Steve, aka. “Poore Boy” joined us on this adventure. We didn’t have a lodge (teepee) yet. We had been going to rendezvous and shoots and camping in an old cab over camper. We pulled up to the Fort at about 10:00 at night and were politely directed away from the majestic circle of lodges in the parade grounds. Instead we were sent to the other side of the highway. Through a gate, across a cattle guard, and down a rough road – we were told to pull in and find a place. No assigned spaces, no campfire ring, no fires allowed – just any place you could find to pull in and get out-of-the-way without being too far out-of-the-way.
In the morning we learned that we had been directed to the infamous “Alcoa Village” – a place between the centuries where those not committed enough to the 1830’s could lay their down heads inside their Mini Winnies or Six-Packs. To get the action we had to climb a step-ladder up and over a barbed wire fence and cross the highway, then it was only about a hundred yards to the lodge circle.
The only lights at night were those at the fort. There were no lights to guide you back to Alcoa Village, nothing to light the path the port-a-podies, nothing to mark the location of the step-over along that barbed wire fence except the light of the moon in the Wyoming sky. None of these modern-day mountain men would dream of carrying a period inappropriate flashlight to make the trek – a real frontiersman would be able to backtrack their own moccasin prints in the dark to find his way back to the camper, right?
After supper we all headed over to the lodge circle. It was stunning. The lodges all were lit like lanterns on the parade grounds. Their campfires glowing from inside. About a half hour after dark Mom sent my brothers and I back to the camper. Wwe complained just a bit, but to no avail – back to the camper while there was still some light left. We went back and went to bed. We were all dressed in our earliest versions of leathers and it seemed odd to leave that circle dressed as we were only to climb into a camper to sleep. We all had red woolen long-handled underwear to sleep in – not so practical in combination with a port-a-pody in the dark, but warm and toasty for sleeping inside the unheated camper.
Mom had made the trip back to the camper and I had finally fallen asleep in my sleeping bag when I heard a loud thump and a growl. I looked out the window and saw my pop had not quite hit the top rung on the step-over and had his foot tangled in the top wire of the fence. He had fallen face first over the fence with an open bottle of wine in one hand, and he had somehow managed to keep the bottle upright – not spilling a single drop. He was nearly incoherent and probably could not have crossed that fence in the daylight in that state – even then he had his priorities – even if you’re upside-down, make sure you keep the booze right-side-up!
Poore Boy was right behind him – Steve was only about 150 pounds, but he managed to get Pop untangled and upright. Pop did his part – smoothly rotating that open bottle while Steve rotated him back into an upright position. The two men moved to the tail gate of the pickup and decided that rules or no rules, even an Alcoa Camp deserved a real campfire. They scrambled around in the dark in between the other campers looking for firewood and rocks to build a ring, waking up half the camp. By now my brothers and I were up and sitting on the tailgate watching the action.
They drank, they foraged, they made fire – even if they were condemned to Alcoa Village, there was no disputing they were powerful mountain men, part of a tribe, even brothers – that’s it! They hit upon the idea that they should become blood brothers. Not tomorrow after they sobered up and bathed, right now at the illegal camp fire in Alcoa Village with no disinfectant save that precious open bottle of wine.
Pops was a big guy and he always carried a big knife when he was playing the part of a mountain man. He pulled his bowie-knife from the sheath on his belt and handed it to Poore Boy. He extended his wrist and Steve sliced it open. Steve handed the knife back to Pops and he did the same to Steve’s wrist. Poore Boy said, “Damn it Harold, that’s not gonna be deep enough, it’s hardly bleeding.” Pops took another swipe at it, and at Steve’s urging a he took third pass. Now it was gushing. I remember seeing the white tendons visible through the open wound on Steve’s wrist. Mom was freaking out looking for the first aid kit that we left on the kitchen counter back in Vegas. Steve and Pops were perfectly calm as they pressed their wrists together over the campfire. Once they were officially blood brothers Pops began to panic Steve was bleeding all over his shirt. He was feeling no pain, but pain wasn’t the immediate problem.
Someone in a neighboring camp made a suggestion – Steve’s wound could be effectively wrapped in something we were bound to find available from one of our neighbors – all we needed was some duct tape and…a maxi pad. Pops took charge and went from camper to camper asking if anyone had a maxi pad – Imagine a 250 pound guy in fringed leathers covered with blood pounding on your door at 3:00 am looking for feminine hygiene products – would you open the door? Finally he found a neighbor willing to open the door who had a pad to spare. They poured some whiskey over the open wound and mom wrapped his wrist with the pad and secured it with duct tape.
The next morning we tried to get Poore Boy to go into town and get stitches, but he was having none of it. Instead they sent me and Mom, the women folk, into town to get more pads. Steve spent the rest of the rendezvous wearing his “period appropriate” dressing – and a blood stained shirt.