You Poor Baby Part 2

vintage baby

Upon finding her washing machine packed to the rim with freshly laundered diapers mixed with freshly-laundered gobs of poop, Mother roused Carol from where she snored on the sofa, oblivious to her miserable, bawling baby. “Carol, come here. Let me show you how to use this washer! You can’t just throw filthy diapers in it without rinsing this stuff out.” Mother got a tub, made Carol scoop the poopy diapers out and clean the washer, then sent Carol out to rinse the dirty diapers under the faucet before bringing them back to the washer. “Be sure you dump that dirty water from the tub behind the chicken house, not in the back yard. You may as well get the rest of this mess soaking.” She pointed to the pile of poopy diapers that had not yet had a ride in her abused washer. Carol looked furiously at Phyllis and me as she stormed off to do this demeaning task, clearly much better delegated to underlings like us.

We did have to tend her poor, miserable baby while she slaved over the diaper rinsing, but that was better than rinsing out poopy diapers ranging from rock-hard lumps to runny diarrhea, depending on the vintage. The stench was horrendous, as evidenced by Carol’s retching. I have no doubt Carol was sick when she came back in. She took to her bed(our sofa) to recover. Clearly accustomed to help with her baby, she was reluctant to leave her repose to wash bottles and prepare formula, preferring to call out for one of of kids to “bring me a bottle!” when he cried. The first time, Mother let the hungry little guy have a bottle, despite the fact it was an expensive, hypoallergenic formula prescribed for her own tiny baby. She quickly pointed the case of milk she’d bought for Carol’s baby, the kind Carol requested. “Oh this will be fine,” Carol said. “He likes it!”

“Carol, you need to fix your own bottles! I bought you what you asked for. This stuff is forty cents a can!” Mother explained.

Carol was clearly offended. She dawdled a bit after he finished his bottle, put him down, and shut herself in the bathroom for a good crying session. Eventually, she came out and made a collect call to her mother, insisting she come, NOW! Mama couldn’t come, NOW! More crying on the phone. We were stuck together till the weekend. Carol had no problems leaving his bottles lying about to sour after baby was satisfied. Should he cry out when a sour bottle sat handy, she had no qualms about trying to get him to take it.

The next three days lasted an eternity. At my parent’s insistence, Carol did end up giving her baby good care while they waited for Mama, but she turned him over to Mama as soon as she arrived. His bottom had healed, he’d plumped up, and even played a bit with good care. Poor little guy didn’t get much of a pass. He was soon back home to be joined by a brother and sister in rapid succession.

Alas, Carol’s marriage fell apart, but before long she found another man and launched into her addiction to having babies she had no interest or ability to care for, eventually delivering eleven sad children. At a family reunion once, I heard someone ask how long she was going to keep having babies. She replied, “As long as God wants me to.” It was heartbreaking to see her children suffer from her neglect and ignorance.

Mixed Nuts Part 3

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When you are dealing with family, it clarifies things to have a scale. You don’t have to waste time analyzing people when you have a ready reference. This one works pretty well for us.

1.Has a monogrammed straight jacket and standing reservation on mental ward.

2.Family is likely to move away without leaving forwarding address. Has jail time in the past or the future

3.People say, “Oh, crap. Here comes Johnny.”

4.Can go either way. Gets by on a good day. Never has been arrested. Can be lots of fun or a real mess. Relatives usually will invite in for coffee. Likely to have hormone-induced behavior.

5.Regular guy. Holds down a job. Mostly takes care of business. Probably not a serial marry-er. Attends church when he has to.

6.Good fellow. Almost everybody likes him or her. Volunteers for Habitat for Humanity. Manages money well enough to retire early.

7.High achiever. Business is in order. Serves on city council.

8.Looks too good to be true. What’s really going on?

9.Over-achiever. Affairs are in order. Solid citizen. Dull, dull, dull. Could end up as a 1

We had plenty of other interesting relatives, too. Dogs were off limits inside our house. All we had were hunting dogs, dogs with a purpose. People with house dogs were considered silly and weak-minded. Cookie and Uncle Riley (#4 People say, “Oh, crap. Here comes Johnny.”)never came to visit without bringing a couple of fat, shiny, little house dogs. You can guess what category this put them in. Daddy grudgingly tolerated their dogs as long as the dogs didn’t bark or mess up the house. They chattered endlessly about their dogs. Uncle Riley frequently assured us his dog, Jackie, was, “just like a person.” Daddy agreed the dog was as smart as Uncle Riley.

Unfortunately, Jackie got some kind of skin infection. Cookie and Uncle Riley showed up for a visit with poor Jackie, bald as an egg, the skin on his entire body irritated and red. Uncle Riley had been too cheap to take him to a veterinarian and concocted his own home remedy. He would dip Jackie in a Lysol and pine-oil mixture, reasoning it would kill any bacteria. The best we could tell, Jackie was bacteria and hair-free, but itching miserably with blistered skin. Uncle Riley felt badly about his medicine gone bad, and lovingly coated Jackie with Calamine Lotion several times a day. While Uncle Riley told us of Jackie’s troubles, he was unaware of Jackie sitting at his feet, licking his wounds. Not surprisingly, the harsh home remedy inflicted the most damage on Jackie’s sensitive nether portions. As he licked his little doggy privates tenderly, Uncle Willie reminded us Jackie was “just like a person.” Three-year-old John was watching Jackie’s ablutions intently and remarked, “I never saw a person do that!”

Uncle Charlie , another #3, was a compulsive liar. It didn’t concern him that no one believed him. He just lied because he was so darn good at it. Uncle Charlie would climb up on the roof to tell a lie instead of stand on the ground and tell the truth. If Uncle Charlie told you it was raining, don’t bother with your umbrella. He worked at the paper mill with Daddy, and had such a reputation for lying, that anyone repeating one of Charlie’s stories had to buy coffee for the group. One afternoon on coffee break, Charlie came rushing by the fellows in a big hurry. “Charlie, stop and tell us a lie!” one of them called after him.

Charlie never looked back, “I can’t!” he called over his shoulder as he rushed on. “Ray Pierson fell in Smokestack #2 and I’m going to call an ambulance!” They all rushed to see about their buddy and found Ray Pierson in perfect health at his usual work station, Smokestack #2.

Cousin Vonia #5 and her husband Joe #4 (Oh, Crap! Here comes Johnny) came to visit a lot, bringing their three little kids. Joe was “disabled” and didn’t have to get up early, so he just wouldn’t go home. Mother sent us on to bed, but Joe wanted to sit till midnight, even on a school night. Their little kids would have been drooped over asleep for hours. Finally Daddy started telling Mother, “We’d better to go to bed so these good folks can go home.”

Joe would look disappointed, then get up and shuffle toward the door, saying, “Well, I guess I better get my sorry self on home.” Vonia would trail behind him, carrying two sleeping kids and guiding the other staggering kid to the car. Joe couldn’t carry kids. He had a “bad back.”

Joe had a few other quirks. He had been fortunate enough to hurt his back at work and land a nice settlement and a monthly disability check so invested in a few cows and took care of them from then on. For those who know nothing of cattle farming, it is extremely hard work. Joe and his disabled back spent many hours building fences, making hay, stacking hay in the barn, unstacking that same hay later and loading it on a trailer, then taking it off and feeding it to the cattle, herding cows, wrestling soon-to-be steers to the ground and helping them become steers. He spent hours on end driving a tractor. Hard, hard, hard work.

Joe had a strange quality for a farmer, eschewing all healthy foods and existing on a diet of peanut patties, banana pudding, and milk. He also smoked like a smokestack. This careful attention to diet paid off for him. He didn’t have a tooth in his head by the time he was thirty five. He refused to get dentures. He just dropped peanut patties from his diet. He said he didn’t need dentures for just milk and banana pudding. The smoking finally killed him when he was seventy-eight. He dropped a cigarette down the bib of his overalls and pulled out in front of a train.

Even though Great Uncle Albert was only a #4.5 – 5, he had given Daddy a place to stay and let him work for his keep during the terrible times of the 1930’s when Maw Maw was struggling to feed seven children alone. Daddy appreciated this and was loyal to Uncle Albert all his life. Old, grumpy, and hormone-depleted by the time I knew him in the mid 1950’s, it was hard for me to imagine him in his younger, randy days. He was dull, and full of good advice, a habit he’d developed since he’d gotten too old to set a bad example. Aunt Jewel wasn’t his first wife, and frankly, was on pretty shaky ground as a #2, but as far back as they lived in the sticks, there weren’t any airports, so she was hanging on. I heard whispers she had broken up his first marriage to Mary. Even more shocking, Uncle Albert was entertaining her when Mary tried to force her way in to the marital bedroom. Uncle Albert slammed the door, breaking his poor wife’s arm. Mary got the hint, took the baby, and left. Smart girl.

I had trouble envisioning this. I had never met Mary, but she had to look better than the Aunt Jewell I knew. I had heard Aunt Jewell used be really pretty, but she had gotten over it. By the time I knew her, she had smoked over forty years, had nicotine-stained fingers and teeth, wrinkles around her mouth from drawing on a cigarette, and her mouth pulled a little to one side. She had a thick middle, thin hair in a frizzy old-lady perm, and bird legs. She wore stockings rolled to her knees and cotton house dresses. She wheezed constantly and never spoke except to whine, “Albert, I’m ready to go now.” Or “Albert, give me a puff off your cigarette.” Oh yes. One time they came to visit after she’d fallen and broken a rib and she started crying and said, “Albert, I want a puff off your cigarette, but I’m too sore to cough. “ That was kind of interesting, but I couldn’t imagine a man choosing her over anyone else.

It was interesting to see my father treated as a kid. Uncle Albert felt free to give his opinion about whatever Daddy was up to. He arrived for a visit one day before Daddy got home from work and was inspecting the place. Daddy aspired to #8 or 9 (8. High achiever. Business in order.

9.Looks too good to be true.) despite struggling to maintain a #6 (Regular guy. Holds down job. Mostly takes care of business. Probably not serial marrier. Attends church when he has to.)

Uncle Albert kept all his stuff organized and in perfect repair. Daddy’s barn was a disorganized mess. He tossed things wherever he got through with them. Uncle Albert walked around, examining items and commenting. “This is a good old singletree. It just needs a new chain.” “This is a good rasp. It just needs to be cleaned up.” “This is a good axe-head. It just needs to be sharpened and have a new handle put in.” Before too long, Daddy came striding up, delighted to see his uncle. He was smiling broadly and thrust out his hand.

Uncle Albert looked at straight at him and pronounced, “Bill, you need to get the junk man out here and get all this #^%$ hauled off.”

I’m pretty sure I can pass for a #5 most days.

Mixed Nuts Part 2

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When you are dealing with family, it clarifies things to have a scale. You don’t have to waste time analyzing people when you have a ready reference. This one works pretty well for us.

1.Has a monogrammed straight jacket and standing reservation on mental ward.

2.Family is likely to move away without leaving forwarding address. Has jail time in the past or the future

3.People say, “Oh, crap. Here comes Johnny.”

4.Can go either way. Gets by on a good day. Never has been arrested. Can be lots of fun or a real mess. Relatives usually will invite in for coffee. Likely to have hormone-induced behavior.

5.Regular guy. Holds down a job. Mostly takes care of business. Probably not a serial marry-er. Attends church when he has to.

6.Good fellow. Almost everybody likes him or her. Volunteers for Habitat for Humanity. Manages money well enough to retire early.

7.High achiever. Business is in order. Serves on city council.

8.Looks too good to be true. What’s really going on?

9.Over-achiever. Affairs are in order. Solid citizen. Dull, dull, dull. Could end up as a 1

My family is as much a mixed bag of nuts as any. As a kid, I was most fascinated by the ones on the fringes. My favorite was Uncle Chester, not because he was friendly, funny, or even seemed to notice me, but because he was the first solid #3 of my acquaintance. (Family likely to move away without leaving forwarding address. Has jail time in past or future.) As a young man in the depression, he started out as a moonshiner and petty criminal, lounging a bit in local jails. He never really hit the big time and made the Federal Penitentiary till he got caught counterfeiting quarters. His technique was sloppy and his product unpolished. He was fortunate in getting caught red-handed passing his ugly quarters. In 1941 he was sent up to Fort Leavenworth for some higher education where he made good use of his time by apprenticing himself to a cellmate who was doing time for making twenty-dollar bills.

Aunt Jenny #5 (Can go either way. Gets by on a good day. Never been arrested. Can be lots of fun or a real mess. Relatives usually will invite in for coffee. Likely to have hormone-induced behavior.) was short-sighted about Uncle Chester’s situation and ditched him while he was imprisoned, but realized she still loved him when he came home with his enhanced earning capacity. They let bygones be bygones, got back together, and had three lovely children. Their eldest son Lynn and daughter Sue were solid #7s from the start. (Good fellows. Almost everybody likes him or her. Volunteers for Habitat for Humanity. Manages money well enough to retire early.) Uncle Chester was perfectly willing to give Lynn a good start in business, but Lynn was ungrateful, distanced himself from his father’s dealings, joined the military, and avoided the family business altogether, even seeming to resent his father. One Sunday dinner, when Uncle Chester was dropping names of the interesting people he had been in jail with at various times, Lynn rudely interrupted, “Daddy, you’ve been in jail with everybody at one time or another.” Uncle Chester did step up and keep Cousin Lynn from making a mistake. Lynn came home on leave from the military and met a girl he wanted to marry; love at first sight. She was a pretty as a spotted puppy and even she noticed how much she looked like Ross. Uncle Chester got her off to the side and asked a few questions about her mama and daddy and where she was raised. He was waiting up for Lynn to get home. “Son, I sure hope things ain’t gone too far. I hate it, but you can’t marry that li’l old gal. She looks just like her Mama did when we was running around together. There’s a real good reason she looks just like yore brother Ross – a real good reason.”

By the fifties, Uncle Chester had branched out a little. He did a little research and decided lawsuits paid well and weren’t too much work. He captured some bees, applied them to his leg. When his leg was good and swollen, he got his buddy to drop him off downtown at a trolley stop. As the trolley approached, Uncle Chester carefully stumbled into the path of the trolley, suffering a knee injury in front of numerous witnesses. He collapsed to the ground, moaning and groaning. Suffering terribly, he was transported and treated at the hospital. Now Uncle Chester was set with a fifty-thousand dollar settlement, a tidy sum for that time.

Their daughter Susie turned out real well, became a teacher, and married a Baptist Preacher, lending Uncle Chester a much appreciated touch of respectability. Uncle Chester and Aunt Jenny were very generous toward her church, and the legitimacy of their donations was never questioned. Sadly, many years later Susie’s daughter a bona fide #3, embarrassed them all by stealing from her employer.

Ross, Uncle Chester’s youngest son, a gifted #3 (Family likely to move away without leaving forwarding address. Has jail time in past or future) followed in Uncle Chester’s footsteps. He dabbled in moonshine, petty crime, and scams but just never rose to Uncle Chester’s level. He initiated a few crooked lawsuits but lacked the brain power and organization to pull bigger things off. All went well till he got too big for his britches and tried setting up business in Texas. When he got caught moon shining in someone else’s territory, he called the old man for help and Uncle Chester had to admit, “I’m sorry son, but I can’t do a thing for you. I don’t have any influence with the law out there.” Uncle Chester felt bad about one of his boys getting in trouble till the day he died,” but sometimes you just have to let kids make their own mistakes.”

Aunt Jenny was stingy. You would think she got her money in the usual way. Or maybe she just got tired of hearing Uncle Chester complain how hard it was to make money, but she would even make her own mother pay for a ride to the grocery store. When Maw Maw won some groceries in a weekly contest she had to share with Aunt Jenny since she rode with Aunt Jenny to the grocery store every week. Aunt Jenny sold eggs and tomatoes and charged Maw Maw the same as everyone else.

When Aunt Jenny got older, she got dentures. She liked them so well she saved them for special occasions. She wore them when she had ladies over for coffee, church, and Sunday dinner. Being toothless didn’t hold her back a bit. She could take a bite off an apple as well as anyone and could have won a fried chicken eating contest hands down.

Rubbernecking Duckie

Rubberneck 1Rubberneck 2Original art by Kathleen Holdaway Swain

We endured periodic visits from Mother’s bizarre  relatives, Cookie and Uncle Riley. Whether or not they were actually deranged was debatable, they definitely teetered somewhere between eccentric and maddening. Most people who had to interact with them on a regular basis held out for just plain crazy. Both held Master’s Degrees, Cookie’s in Education and Uncle Riley’s in Mathematics. Cookie was head of a large public school system in Texas. Uncle Riley worked for the government as a mathematician in the 1950’s. I won’t press that any further, except to say that somehow, they miraculously collided and produced Cousin Barbie, The Wonder Baby. On their way to an Easter visit in 1957, Cookie and Uncle Riley made a few stops.

 

I digress, but needed to set the scene for their visit. Because my mother had married a blue-collar worker, a man they considered “beneath her” and had three children, Cookie and Uncle Riley held the impression that my parents ran an orphanage and would be grateful for any gift of apparel, no matter how useless they might drag in. This particular trip, they came bearing refuse from a fire sale: ten pairs of boys black high top basketball shoes in a wide range of sizes, six identical but slightly singed, size eight, red and green sateen dresses trimmed with black velvet collars and waist bands, six dozen pairs of size two cotton satin-striped Toddler Training Pants, and three six-packs of men’s silk dress socks in a nude tone, a color I’d never seen anyone wear. In addition to these useless prizes, they’d stopped by a fruit stand and gotten a great deal on a box of fifty pounds of bruised bananas and an Easter duck for Barbie. By the time they’d reached our house many hours later, four-year-old Barbie, Easter Duck, and Bosco Dog had romped in the back seat and pretty much-made soup of the bananas. Fruit flies circled the old black 1943 Ford merrily as it rocked to a stop. Uncle Riley, the mathematician, anticipating breakdowns didn’t believe in wasting money on new car parts. He always carried a collection of parts extracted from a junker in his back yard to keep his old clunker running. He also split the back of his old jeans and laced them up with shoe strings when they got too tight, but that’s s story for another day.

 

I know Mother must have dreaded their visit, with its never-ending pandemonium, especially since for some reason, the only thing they shared with Daddy was a healthy contempt and barely concealed animosity for each other. The five of us kids were always delighted to see them, in spite of their bizarre offerings. One pair of the smoky-smelling shoes did fit my brother, but shredded in a few steps, due to its proximity to the fire. The dresses were put back for “Sunday Best,” Thank God, never to be seen again, since neither of us girls was a size eight, nor was partial to singed, scratchy dresses. Fortunately, for my parents, at the moment, they had no size two toddlers for the training pants, though they did manage to come up with a couple just a few years later. Easter Duck, however, deeply interested four-year-old Billy.

 

Sensing misfortune in his future, Mother tried to run interference for Easter Duck, fearing for his health. For some reason she was distracted by the madness of intervening between Daddy and her whacked-out relatives, getting dinner ready for the whole crowd, dealing with out-of-control kids, and finding places to bed everyone down for the night. Not surprisingly, her concerns for Easter Duck were pushed to the bottom of the list. Never having been deprived of anything she wanted, ever, Barbie had no intention of being parted with Easter Duck. Billy needed a better look, and having had plenty of experience dealing with mean kids, patiently waited for his chance. Forgetting Easter Duck, Mother and Cookie went back to their visit, leaving the two four-year-olds to play. As you might expect, before long, they heard the screaming. Barbie held poor Easter Duck by his head; Billy had him by the feet. Between them, they had stretched the poor duck’s neck way past anything God ever intended, even for a swan. Neither exhibited the Wisdom of Solomon and was determined to maintain possession, at all costs. Poor Easter Duck paid the price! Though he was rescued, sadly his neck was not elastic and did not “snap back.” He didn’t get to spend the Easter holidays with his new friends, Barbie and Billy.

 

 

Best of the Worst of Evil Larry

imageSince a lot of you seemed to enjoy hearing about my cousin Evil Larry who tormented my poor brother so, I thought I’d give you a little more. Like I said, we were periodically subjected to cousinly visits, whether or not we wanted them. Hence, Evil Larry was often around to inflict mayhem. Once he stood on a fence post in our front yard shouting racial epithets at black people passing by. Naturally, we flew in the house to report it. Mother would have murdered us for this type of behavior. She came flying out in a fury, snatched him off the fence, and dragged him back in the house. I was in high hopes, she’d kill him, at the very least, but all she did was threaten him with death by fly swat if he dared show his face in the front yard again. She must have scared him, since he spent the rest of the day out of public sight. That was quite an intimidation act for her, but still disappointing for us.

Another time, when Bill was in high school, he had the bad judgment to let Evil Larry drive his 1949 Ford Truck. Evil Larry took a curve too fast and tore out about a hundred feet of the neighbor’s barbed wire fence. Typically, he said, “Oh ^%#*@ let’s get out of here before the old #@^% catches us!”

Knowing there was no hope, Bill said, “I don’t think that’s gonna work. There’s his son right there, watching us.” It would have been useless to hope for escape anyway. In our community, everybody knew everything that was going on. Besides, it didn’t take a genius to put the scrape marks on the truck and the track marks together. Bill went home and ‘fessed up to Daddy before heading back up the road to face the neighbor and do fence repairs. Of course, Evil Larry had done his part when he tore the fence up.

Evil Larry lived up to his early promise. He never really worked, engaged in petty crime, though he lacked the organization and skills to get into anything really impressive. He was involved with numerous women, fathering several unfortunate children along the way, none of whom he supported. He greatest gift seemed to be a high sperm count. He has made some claims about getting into big time drug-dealing and organized crime and being in the witness protection program, but unfortunately still shows up from time to time, so that achievement seems unlikely. Not too long ago, Evil Larry’s son called up his grandmother asking for money to go to Evil Larry’s funeral, but when she checked, it turned out the whole story was a sham. I guess the bad apple doesn’t fall too far from Evil Larry’s tree.

I spoke to Evil Larry’s mother recently.  She doesn’t really keep up with him but did recently hear that Karma bit him on the butt.  Somehow, through the years, Evil Larry worked enough to qualify for Social Security and filed for disability, the only steady income he ever enjoyed.  When he turned sixty-two, Social Security kicked in.  The State of Louisiana caught up with him then and docks him $100 a month to repay the state benefits his kids got when he was a deadbeat dad.

Some people can’t catch a break.

Cousin Barbie Gets Married

imageA few years ago Mother got the thrilling news that her cousin Cookie’s daughter was getting married. When Cookie and Mother were young, they were dear friends, but time and circumstances had come between them.   Now the wedding of a distant cousin’s daughter normally doesn’t make a widowed lady in her late seventies jump for joy, but Continue reading

Hysteria in the Night

man and womanMother awoke to the chilling realization that someone was trying to break in the house. “Bill! Bill! Wake up Bill! Somebody’s trying to get in!!”   Daddy didn’t normally sleep: he went into a coma, but adrenaline jolted him into action. He grabbed his loaded shotgun and crept to the window.  In the darkness, a tiny light glowed in the darkness of the front porch.  It wasn’t just Mother’s imagination!  Someone was trying to get in! Continue reading

Cousin Barbie Gets Married

imageA few years ago Mother got the thrilling news that her cousin Cookie’s daughter was getting married. When Cookie and Mother were young, they were dear friends, but time and circumstances had come between them.   Now the wedding of a distant cousin’s daughter normally doesn’t make a widowed lady in her late seventies jump for joy, but Continue reading

Relaxing Weekend in the Country With Family

family6cousinsparents wedding pic

My mother found this hilarious letter among her things today.  My grandmother was in a foul mood when she wrote it.  I recalled this weekend like it was yesterday when I read the letter.  Grandma was nosy.  She like to get right behind Daddy, quizzing him about his business and his family.  He wasn’t a patient man.  That certainly didn’t endear her to Continue reading