I am grateful today for my grandmother, Elizabeth Dorothea Whelan Baker. She was born in Purcell, Kansas and died in Leavenworth, Kansas. I believe she was born in 1902 and I know she died in 1990. She always smiled with her mouth closed because she didn’t like her teeth. She never drove, but she was in a car accident that knocked her teeth out, so she got dentures young. She had two daughters: My Aunt Jeannie, who gave me books, and my mother, Janis, who was seven years younger than Jeannie.
Elizabeth was married on April 27, 1927 at seven in the morning. They got two flat tires on their honeymoon, and Aunt Hannah and Uncle John (a brother and sister who never married) had to bring them two new tires on the train from Leavenworth to Saint Joe, Missouri. They honeymooned in Saint Joe because my grandfather had to play the organ for the “Brer Rabbit” musical. My grandmother handled the tickets. John and Hannah enjoyed the trip on the train to bring them tires – a change in the routine to get out of Leavenworth.
That is how the story goes.
In retirement, she and my grandfather, Gerald “Jerry” Baker, used to travel to Platt City, Missouri from Leavenworth to get their whiskey and bourbon because there was no sales tax in Missouri. They would get a case every three or four months. They liked to drink high balls and watch Johnny Carson. I never saw them drunk.
When I was old enough to drink a high ball, my grandfather would make it for me in a juice glass and say, “Drink that drink but don’t get drunk on me.” Then he would laugh.
I’m working on a novel about them that I’ve been working on forever. Here is a chapter imagined from my grandmother’s point of view below. She would not approve, but she’s been gone 25 years and so I think it’s okay to try to imagine her story. Since she so rarely traveled, I want to imagine her as an old lady who suddenly realizes she needs to see once place in the world before she dies, and that is to where the Brontes wrote their novels. In the novel, I’ve moved her from Leavenworth, Kansas to Maryville, Tennessee.
There is so much work to be done, but I’m grateful to her for her stories.
Excerpt from HOP THE POND, a novel
“Big Orange Travel Agency”
Maime left a message with the travel agency to inquire about flight deals to the United Kingdom. Big Orange Travel Agency was the name of it. What had she said? Something like: My name is Maime Doherty, and I’d like a round-trip ticket from Knoxville, Tennessee to Manchester, England. For the spring. After my passport arrives. Please return my call.
A shiver ran up her spine. Why did she have to tell them about her passport? It was the first time in her life to call a travel agent. When would the Big Orange travel agent call her back?
She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Who was that old woman with the frowning jowls? What should she wear to England? What did people wear in England? Was she actually considering going? She’d only ever been to Columbus, Georgia and Phenix City, Alabama, and also once to Memphis, Tennessee to stay the night and of course to Gatlinburg. She’d never even seen the ocean. What gave her the right to think she could go all the way to England to see where the Brontes wrote their books? She didn’t even like to get in the car to drive to Food For Less.
You’re too old to cross the road. That’s what her sister Bernadette had said the night before. You’re too old to cross the road. Well Bernadette was even older at 82, sitting high and mighty at Our Lady of Mercy’s home for the aged in Maryville, Tennessee, refusing to put her teeth in – not even in public for the All-You-Can-Eat Shoney’s buffet.
Sad was what it was. Sad.
Bernadette inspected her stomach, pooching out a little of the Bermuda shorts she wore that belonged to Alfred. Should she go on a diet for England? How foolish. It was not an obscene belly for lady nearly eighty. Lose that stomach, sister. Bernadette had said that too. Lose that stomach, sister. At their age why bring up stomachs? Weren’t they past all that yet? Trust Bernadette… Sad. Maime found a towel and shampoo and moved down the hallway toward the kitchen.
Alfred was the first man to put his warm hands on her stomach some fifty-odd years ago, except for the do-gooder priest who wasn’t such a do-gooder after all. Father Whatshisname, a missionary from Blount County, but Maime didn’t count him or his clammy advances. It was a lifetime ago – she didn’t count that hot July in the barn with sharp silver dust particles swirling in the mean sunlight like summer snow. She’d ended that nonsense with a swift knee kick to the groin, and Father Whatshisname had staggered out of the barn. Was that what happened? In her mind that’s how it happened. Naturally, she had warned her sister, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter off the priests who inclined toward the touchy-feely and whooped it up on the altar putting on a show during the homily. Did something more happen that day? Maime tried to remember but saw only saw sharp silver dust particles spiraling in the sunlight.
She hunched over the kitchen sink to wash her short gray hair. She slipped off Alfred’s button-down shirt. Loose folds of skin clung to her ribs. She removed the chain with her Saint Christopher’s Medal. A brown string of Holy Scapulars swung between her bosoms. She poured a dollop of shampoo on her head, rubbing it into her scalp. She used to be stingy with shampoo, but she’d reached an age where she deserved as much shampoo as she felt like, and to hell with it. She loved smelling good when smell was about the only thing left.
She let the water run hot and steamy in the fragrance of lavender. Let me be thirty-years-old in Heaven, God, don’t forget. Please?
The priest’s face ran into her mind again. Bernadette didn’t know the half of it, but Maime had made sure Father Whatshisname never touched her sister. Maime wished for a clean-slate memory to remember nothing instead of these jagged fragments tumbling loose in her head. It might be nice to be more like Alfred who was as happy as the day was long with his living-in-the-moment brain. How fast was his brain going? Hard to tell – he was definitely repeating himself these days.
What was on the Baptist Church sign down the road? A SHORT MEMORY IS NOT CLEAR CONSCIENCE. It was in Alfred’s case. Nothing ever bothered him. His nerves were steady as she goes as the saying went.
She soaped up her hair some more, lavender masking the scent of old age in the hot water and steam. Alfred’s eighty-year-old body was fit as a fiddle, but he didn’t smell right anymore – no doubt because he slapped on after-shave instead of bathing. Silver dust particles swirling in the mean sunlight…
A knock and bells came at the door interrupting her thoughts, doorbells chiming, ding-dong, knock-knock, ding-dong, knock-knock, ding-dong. Everyone thought they were old AND deaf. Maime looked at the clock by sink. Who was that? Where was her husband? “Alfred! Answer the door.” No answer. The knock came again, more bells. Ding-dong. People had no patience these days. It was probably “Meals on Wheels,” which meant two pitiful sacks of not-much.
“I’m not decent,” she shouted to the front door, covering her bosoms.
“Meals-on-Wheels. I’ll leave them here inside the door, Mrs. Doherty.”
“That’ll be fine.”
“Nice day out today.”
“I wouldn’t know about that.”
Maime wasn’t about to invite the do-gooder inside even if he was a real do-gooder, delivering food. But if the do-gooders didn’t try to assault you in a barn, once you started inviting them into your home, they sat on your couch, broke the springs, and didn’t know when to go.
She called her husband again, “Alfred!” Nothing. Hell’s bells.
Alfred was in the basement fooling around on the organ with the music for a wedding or funeral or organizing his reel-to-reel tapes of catchy renditions of “The Valentino Tango,” “Friday Night Boogie,” and “A Kiss In The Dark” for a skating rink order. He spent hours getting arrangements right. A Bossa Nova beat here, a swish there, a drum snare. Decades ago, a Hollywood person paid Alfred fifty bucks to use his roller rink music in some dirty movie with a famous movie star. There was a skating-rink scene, and they needed authentic roller rink music. Pat had called up all excited to yell in Maime’s ear, “I saw Alfred’s movie. He’s famous! His music is in a real live Hollywood movie! R-rated too!”
Maime had no intention of seeing the R-rated movie, which meant one thing. S-E-X. Maime used to take the “Legion of Decency” pledge every year from the Bishop, which meant not seeing filth. But then she thought of that joke she’d heard recently after church from a teenager lurking around outside.
Q: Why are sex and Campbell’s Soup alike?
A: Hmmm…Hmmm good!
It made her laugh. Maybe she would tell the joke to someone. She reached for the cumbersome bottle of shampoo to do one last wash. Fiery pains shot up her bones. What decree called for shampoo bottles to be so heavy nowadays? And why were tops so hard to screw off of everything. From the window, she spied the St. Francis of Assisi Statue buried in a pile of pitiful leaves.
Make me an instrument of your peace.
On the other side of St. Francis was their neighbor, Tarzan Danny Shelton, dragging his trashcan to the curb, no shirt. Common as dirt, that one, a prison guard who worked at Brushy Mountain State Prison about an hour-commute from Maryville…a terrible place where they kept that James Earl Ray locked up tight and threw away the key. Alfred also played the Sunday services at prison for the Protestants and the Catholics, but he and Tarzan Danny did not carpool. If she and Alfred lived in Knoxville, maybe they’d have lived next door to a professor, but here in Maryville, it had to be a prison guard even though there was a pitiful excuse for a college up the road. Maime watched Tarzan Danny park the trashcan at the curb. She stiffened for she knew what was coming next. It never failed. That shirtless man took a breath and let out a Tarzan yell and beat his bare chest with his fists.
Then a voice said, “Would you get inside, you idiot!” It was Tammy or Tracey, Tarzan Danny’s wife who looked like a refrigerator with her square-shaped body and a little-bitty head on top.
“In a minute, honey,” Tarzan Danny yelled to the house.
Maime closed her eyes and prayed to St. Francis to take the contempt from her heart. Make me an instrument of your peace. St. Francis was probably sick of him too. Maime loved St. Francis, patron saint of animals. It upset her that his pitiful statue was so neglected. Billy had promised to come rake weeks ago, but she wasn’t holding her breath. Her yard was an ocean of leaves, and St. Francis stood adrift in it.
She reached for the sink hose and squirted more hot water all over her head, feeling the soothing suds. The hot suds ran into her ears, and then, all at once, she felt Alfred behind her, waiting with a towel. As she straightened up, Alfred wrapped the towel around her damp hair and rubbed her scalp.
“What do you say we have some lunch, lady?” He smiled at her as she tucked the towel around her head.
“Meals on Wheels came.”
“Then we’re all set. Let’s eat, Maime.”
Lord, she still loved him. Would he miss her much while she was on her trip? They sat down together at the green Formica table to peek inside to find out what “Meals on Wheels” had brought. Maime pushed away the unopened record of CATS that Shelly Grace had given her as a good-bye present.
“I got news. Dutch is getting out of prison,” Alfred said after a few bites.
“He’s reformed, according to Brushy Mountain State Prison.”
“Don’t count on it.”
Maime knew all about Dutch. Alfred still drove up there once or twice a month on Sundays to play the organ on Sundays even though the eye doctor told him he had no business driving. It was Dutch, a colored man, who had been his choir director for twenty-odd years. Alfred hadn’t been up in a while due to cataract surgery, so Dutch was probably wondering what happened to him. They were a team at Sunday services and good friends.
“Fine sandwich,” Alfred took another bite of peanut butter and jelly.
“Hard to believe Dutch as a free man.”
“Don’t invite him here. I don’t want convicts paying social calls.”
When Alfred didn’t answer, Maime said, “I mean it, Alfred. Not here.”
“Too late. All he wants is a ride to the airport. So he can go out to California and stay with his son. Wait. Almost forgot. Here’s another letter from Shelly Grace all the way from England.” He slid a new blue aerogramme across the table, and Maime snatched it up.
“I don’t need a convict sleeping in my house.”
“Dutch is my friend, Maime. He was my choir director for the Protestants and the Catholics.” Alfred looked out toward the St. Francis statue. “I’m changing the subject now. Did you know Danny Shelton says he is going to rent his back room to World’s Fair tourists. City’s gonna be crawling with them just itching to attend the 1982 World’s Fair.”
Maime sipped her milk. “Big dreams.”
Alfred drank his coffee. “They say that Sunsphere restaurant is going to have real twenty-four carat gold dust sprinkled in the windows with a restaurant that spins around real slow to give you a new view by dessert. Knoxville’s changing. Everything’s changing. It’s a new world.” Alfred finished his sandwich.
“I might go to England, Alfred.” It just burst out of her. She couldn’t help it.
“To visit Shelly Grace.”
“Now Maime. England is too far away. Too far. Across the ocean. Everything you could ever want is right here in Maryville. We got it all right here.”
“What? Dutch is getting sprung, right? Why not me too? To see England? It’s a new world, remember?”
Alfred blinked as if he were trying to wrap his mind around such a concept. He looked so worried, Maime said, “Got a joke for you, honey. Why are sex and Campbell’s soup alike?”
“Hmm. Hmm. Good.”
Alfred laughed and took another sip of soup, while Maime picked up the blue aerogramme, savoring it. What news would her granddaughter bring from across the ocean? She would read Shelly Grace’s letter first, and then some chapters of Jane Eyre again and say the rosary before napping. They would have an early supper and go to five o’clock Mass over at the newer Catholic Church, Our Lady of Fatima, instead of St. Andrews. Maime intended to boycott St. Andrews since Bernadette was leaving them all of her money in her will – thirty-five thousand dollars, which was a sin in Maime’s book. A sin.
I never had an Alfred.
That was another favorite saying of Bernadette’s.
I never had an Alfred.
At Our Lady of Fatima, Maime would light candles for Shelly Grace in England, Billy, her grandson, who was in trouble again for skipping his DUI court date, and for Dutch too. She hoped Dutch would do better this time in the world, and she hoped Billy would not go down Dutch’s rocky path. But she did not want Dutch or grandson at her house. Was she prejudiced? She didn’t think so. She just didn’t want company, colored or not, spending the night. She remembered that it was Tuesday and that meant two-for-one chili-dogs at the A&W. Maybe they could eat there after Mass. They always took extra condiment packets from the A&W and put them in empty orange juice cans lined up along icebox shelf in case they ran low. Condiments. Shelly Grace wrote that the Brits put salt and vinegar on their fries, not ketchup, and they called their fries “chips” and their chips “crisps.”
Live and learn, Maime thought, live and learn. It’s a new world and at age seventy-seven it was high time for her to partake. Now if only the Big Orange Travel Agency would call her back so she could get the ball rolling.