It's been too long, of course, to remember anyone's exact words in a conversation that took place in the early 1950s, so I did the best I could to capture the essence of each person's speech patterns. In some cases I did use specific words or phrases I remember hearing them say, although they may have said them at a different time. Anyway, with the exception of the inexact dialogue, the story is true.
Sis, this one's for you:
My sister, Judy, and I grew up as part of a multi-generational family in our grandparents’ home in Springfield, Missouri. In addition to the two of us, the family included our mother, Wanda; her parents, Lola and Lewis, whom Judy and I called Mammaw and Packy; Mother’s much younger brother, Joe; and Mammaw’s mother, Dora, known to us as Grandma.
Linda, Judy, and Wanda
Most of the time there were a couple of college students in the house, too. We lived catty-cornered across the street from Southwest Missouri State Teachers College, and Mammaw and Packy rented out one of the upstairs bedrooms for five dollars a week to help make ends meet. The house was big enough that we didn’t feel crowded except when we gathered around the small kitchen table at suppertime. Thank goodness the college boys didn’t eat with us.
Mammaw and Packy (with Sugar, the parakeet)
Judy and I set the table every evening, and Mother washed the dishes after supper. Mammaw, a short, plump woman with dark curly hair and kind brown eyes, did all the cooking by herself, although Grandma offered assistance. Tall and slender at age eighty, her waist-length hair pulled back into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, Grandma would walk into the kitchen every evening and ask sweetly, “What can I do to help?”
Mammaw would answer, “Well, I reckon you could peel the potatoes if you don’t mind.” Grandma, who had senile dementia, would stand there for a minute, her posture erect while she studied the potatoes, then she’d mutter that she was a little tired and needed to rest, and she’d bow her head and leave the room. Minutes later we’d hear two voices raised in laughter as Grandma, her hands upraised and curled into “I’m-gonna-get-you” claws, chased Judy through the house. When they made a pass through the dining room, Grandma would spot Mammaw through the kitchen door. She’d stop chasing, walk through the door and ask again, “Could you use some help?”
Mammaw would say, “Yes, Mama, thank you, can you peel those potatoes?”
That happened several times every evening. I never saw Grandma do a single helpful thing, unless you count entertaining Judy, but if Mammaw ever lost her patience with the endless repetition, I didn’t see that, either.
Mammaw always tried to have supper ready to put on the table as soon as Packy, Mother and Joe came home. Mother and Packy both worked, and Joe usually stayed after school for football practice. Joe was more like an annoying older brother than an uncle. When Judy was five, I was nine, and he was sixteen, Joe was already over six feet tall. He was growing so fast that his body could almost be mistaken for that of a man, but his freckled face and mischievous behavior marked him as all boy.
Packy sat at one end of the supper table with Joe on his right. Mammaw sat on the other side of Joe, then, counter-clockwise, came Grandma, Judy, Mother and I. I sat between Mother and Packy. Thinking about that seating arrangement now, I suspect it was planned so that Judy and I wouldn’t sit next to each other, Joe would be separated from the two of us, and Grandma and Judy would both have someone close by who could help them cut their meat.
Our normal suppertime conversation wasn’t what most folks would consider stimulating. Mammaw might pass along some news she’d heard from a neighbor: “Miz Belisle says Cecil’s mama had the stomach flu four days last week. I swan, that poor ol’ lady’s sick all the time nowadays.” If nobody else expressed an opinion about Cecil’s mama or the stomach flu, Mammaw might turn to me, as she did during most meals, and urge me to at least taste the vegetables. “Linny Lee,” she’d begin, using the nickname I detested, “try this salad; it’s so fresh and good.”
“I hate salad,” I’d say sullenly, irritated that she’d called me that baby name.
Mother would quickly swallow whatever was in her mouth so she could remind me with her words as well as her eyes, “You need to watch your tone of voice.”
Mammaw would try again to make conversation: “Joe, what’d you do at school today?”
“Nothin’,” he’d mumble, then shove half a roll into his mouth, hoping it would deter her from asking any follow-up questions.
Mother occasionally talked about her day at work or her plans for the evening. Mother was a pretty woman, and she worked at the stock exchange. She was surrounded all day by old men who had nothing better to do than sit around and keep an eye on their investments and her stocking seams. “That old coot, Mr. Henderson, patted me on the fanny when I walked by today,” she reported. “He may be as rich as King Midas, but I don’t care; I told him he’d better keep his hands to himself if he knows what’s good for him.”
Mammaw, frowning, said, “Good for you, Wanda June!” Grandma smiled--she mostly smiled all the time--and took a sip of Judy’s milk, prompting an expression of righteous indignation to flit across Judy’s face before she remembered that Grandma couldn’t help the odd things she did and we were supposed to always forgive her.
Packy, dressed as always in khakis, his pants held up by suspenders, slowly shook his head and weighed in with a bit of borrowed philosophy: “It takes all kinds of people to make the world.” That was a longer sentence than Packy usually ever spoke at suppertime. He followed it up with an utterance that was more familiar to us. “Harumph,” he grunted, then nodded so that his head, his eyes and one index finger pointed at the green beans. Hands reached out from three sides of the table to get the bowl and pass it to him.
Things got quiet for a moment, except for the clinking of forks against plates, until a barely perceptible thumping noise started at Joe’s end of the table. Joe was using a knuckle to rap out the rhythm of “shave and a haircut, six bits” on the underside of the table.
Judy screamed, “I am not!” and erupted into sobs. Jaws dropped and all eyes turned to her.
“Judy, Judy, what’s the matter?” Mother asked at the same time Mammaw slapped a hand to her chest and exclaimed, “Oh, land’s sake! What in the world?”
“Joe said I’m fat!” Judy cried, tears falling on her round cheeks.
Joe raised his eyebrows and feigned an innocent expression, looking first at Mammaw, then at Mother, and lastly at Judy, whom he asked, “Are you nuts? I never said a word.”
Mammaw took up for him. “He didn’t,” she said, sounding relieved about it. “I didn’t hear him say anything at all.”
Mother agreed. She pulled Judy close as if to comfort her, but what she said was, “Stop it. Straighten up right now. Don’t be silly.”
Packy looked from one person to the other without commenting, his fork moving back and forth between his plate and his mouth in an unbroken rhythm. Grandma also looked from one person to the next, her pleasant smile seeming to say I’m so happy to be here. Aren’t we all having a lovely time? I pressed my lips together in a tight line and aimed my meanest glare directly at Joe. He blocked his face from the grown-ups by pretending to rub his nose with both hands and sneaked a smirk back at me. I knew what he’d done, and he knew I knew it.
Judy took a deep breath between sobs and tried to explain: “He did this,” she sniffled, demonstrating by tapping her spoon on the table: tap-tappa-tap-tap (pause) tap-tap. “That means I’m fat.” Again she drew incredulous stares from everyone but Grandma and me.
I backed her up. With the self-important air of a key witness testifying at a murder trial, I announced, “She’s telling the truth. I was there yesterday when Joe tapped that noise on the wall. He told Judy that every time she hears that from now on, for the rest of her whole life, she’ll know it means she’s fat. I heard him say it.”
Judy screeched, “I told you!” and her face crumpled up again.
Joe scowled and said, “Linda, you’re lyin’ and you know it,” but by then he was so pleased with himself and his acting ability that he couldn’t keep a straight face. A big grin fought its way past his scowl, and as soon as everybody saw it, the jig was up.
A chorus of adult voices began fussing at Joe. They scolded him soundly, then they all apologized to Judy and assured her that she wasn’t fat and that nothing Joe could ever say or do would make it so.
Joe’s in Minnesota now. He’ll be 78 in January. I bet he’s forgotten all about that incident. Judy remembers it, though. Every now and then, when she and I have managed to bridge the gap between her home in Texas and mine in Louisiana, one or the other of us will ask, “Remember this?” and tap out that little seven-note sequence. Then we both burst out laughing and start looking around for someone new to tell the story to.
One of these days, when we get really old, if you happen to see Judy or me sitting alone, rocking maybe, and smiling for no apparent reason the way Grandma used to do, it could just be that we’re thinking about that.