Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 1.3]

Very early Saturday morning, Dad and Mom left for their trip to Chicago. Grandma Trailer came to our house to pick me up. We were going to the lake cottage to clean and air it out for the summer.

“Good morning, Early Bird,” Grandma said cheerfully.

I jumped excitedly onto the long bench seat in the front of her forest green 1972 Chevy. Grandma had on a scratchy yellow rayon dress with small white flowers, dark brown panty hose, and her favorite chunky black leather shoes. Her chalk-white hair had just been set, so it looked fluffy and crisp. The air was warm, but the sky was overcast, and as we passed pasture after pasture, Grandma said, “Ope, the cows are lying down. The fish must be biting.”

“Are we going fishing, Grandma?”

“Nope, but I’m sure someone out there is.”

The sun peeked in and out of the clouds, and I stared out the window, waiting to see the recognizable landmarks among the miles and miles of cornfields and cows. About halfway there, we’d cross a highway, and when we were almost there, we’d see a corner store.

“Let’s stop here for some fruit,” she said. The gravel crunched under our tires as she slowly pulled the Chevy into the parking lot.

The little wooden store was not like our store back home. Outside, it smelled like chickens and maple syrup. Inside, the smells changed as you walked from aisle to aisle—onions, peppers, apples, peaches, and a waft of yeast when you hit the bread section. Our grocery store back in town smelled mostly like stinky bleach. Grandma walked around slowly with a basket in the nook of her elbow. She carefully selected two apples, three kiwis, a quart of strawberries, and a pint of blueberries.

She asked the grocer for a pound of smelt and told him “You’d better throw in a pack of Marlboros.” She said this as if the grocer had put her up to it.

When we got back in the car, she shined up an apple on her dress and handed it over to me.

“We’re having smelt and strawberry shortcake for dinner tonight. The blueberries are for our pancakes tomorrow. It’s almost blueberry-picking season. I think I’ll go pick some really big ones myself in a few weeks when the field opens.”

“Oh, can I go, Grandma?”

She laughed, “Sure, dear, but we have to get up at 5 a.m. Can you drag your sleepy little bones out of bed that early?”

“I think so!”

“Okay then. I was thinking about asking your mom and Betty to go, too.” Betty was my mom’s sister, whom we hardly saw. Mom said Betty was her parent’s “favorite” and could “do no wrong.” Betty lived on a farm, and her children—my cousins—were like “wild animals,” Mom had said.

We turned onto the road that wound around the lake. Grandma liked to take the long way around so she could gauge the activity of the seasonal people like us. We drove five miles an hour so we could get a good look into everyone’s backyards. Grandma gave me the rundown as we made our way around the circle.

“There’s Punky’s house. Her kids are coming for two weeks this summer. That green cottage there belongs to the policeman with the big St. Bernard. Don’t know who lives in that white one, but he sure keeps his yard clean, doesn’t he? The man in that yellow one owns the big pontoon with all the flags on it. That there’s the house with twin boys your age. The lady in that brick house keeps to herself. The guy next to her has the largest buckeye tree on the lake. Oh, the Fishers are here early this year.”

We pulled into the gravel driveway under a huge old sycamore tree. Grandma had her white brick cottage repainted just last year, so it still looked clean and fresh, except for the bottom bricks near the grass, which were obscured in a layer of dirt and spider webs. We walked up to the front porch, and Grandma removed a note taped to her door from the boy who cut her grass. The funny old coconut still sat by the door. Grandma said she’d brought it back from Hawaii and that it had been her doorstopper “forever.”

We took a full walk around the house. It seemed so big; both her trailer and my house could fit inside it. It was built into a slope, so we had to walk down a hill to get around the back. The cottage sat back from the lake about the length of a football field, so her yard was large and long. Her grass was green and lush. We walked down to the pier, passing Grandpa’s old fishing boat where it had been resting upside down against the trunk of a mammoth weeping willow tree since Grandpa passed away five years before.

Grandma chuckled and said, “Oh my! Will you look at that?”

Lily pads—hundreds of them—and those little yellow ball plants surrounded the entire pier and had crept up into our yard so imperceptibly they probably thought we wouldn’t notice. Their tenacity scared me a little.

“We’ll have to get someone out here to clear a path through these devils before anyone comes to fish.”

I looked across the blue-green lake. I could see the tiny outline of houses on the other side. I felt a burst of excitement, thinking about our summer here. Fourth of July fireworks looked beautiful over the lake, even the store-bought kind.

On the way back to the cottage, we passed the Catalpa worm tree. Grandma stopped and looked up. I didn’t want to stand directly under the tree, in case a worm fell into my hair again.

“Do you see any, Grandma?”

“Nope, but it’s still early for those little guys.”

Phew,” I thought.

As we walked up to the back porch to enter the house, Grandma said, “Well, the boy did a good job on the yard. We’ll have to trim back the bushes by the front porch though.”

Grandma opened the door and said, “Shellie-bird, why don’t you go inside and bring out the cushions for the chairs. I’m going to get some bags out of the car.”

As I tied on the orange-flowered plastic cushions, Grandma carried the groceries in and pulled a six-pack of Budweiser from one of the bags she brought from home. She offered me a sweaty bottle of root beer, and we each took a chair facing the lake. Grandma always sat in the chair on the left side of the back door and the next oldest adult got the seat on the right. Today, that was me. Grandma cracked open her beer can and took a long drink. After each drink, she smacked her lips and said “aahh” or “mmm-mmm.” She put together a plan for what we’d do inside to get things ready.

I swept the floors and dusted while grandma plugged in the appliances, removed the boards from the windows, and ran water to “flush out the pipes.” She left the water running while she went upstairs to change the sheets and scrub the bathroom sink and toilet. The last thing Grandma did was fill a bucket with sudsy water and hand me a scrub brush, wooden spoon, and towel to take over to the back wall. Each winter, that wall grew mold and layers of fungus that needed to be chiseled off and disinfected in the spring. It was my favorite job. I liked feeling the mushroomy scales break loose under the pressure of my spoon.

******

Once we’d left the lake and returned to Grandma’s trailer later that day, we started cooking dinner. I loved her cozy little trailer, with her undersized furniture deliberately shortened by Grandpa to accommodate her low ceilings. No matter which room of the house she was in, I felt close to her. Grandma cut up strawberries on a small wooden board while I snapped the stems off the green beans she said came from Betty’s garden. When that was done, she let me dip the smelt into the egg batter and coat their little chunky bodies in bread crumbs. She fried them in a skillet while I set the table. After dinner, we ate two strawberry shortcakes apiece, cleaned up, and sat down to play a game of solitaire. Grandma told me to “keep her honest.”

I looked at Grandma’s hands holding the cards and asked if I could wear her mother-ring. While she wiggled if off, I asked her to tell me who everyone was again. She pointed to each stone one by one and said, “The blue is Grandpa Martin, the white is Grandma Jane, the pink is Betty, the green is your mom, the white is Carl, the yellow is you, and the red is Brandi.”

I stared at the last two stones. The red and yellow made a beautiful contrast, but there was one problem.

“Why is mine yellow? It’s the ugliest.”

“I don’t think it’s ugly at all,” Grandma protested.

“Can I switch with Brandi? I’ll have the red and she can have the yellow?”

“You can’t trade like that. The stone represents the month you were born. They’re all equally special.”

“How come Brooke’s not on there?” Brooke was Brandi’s new sister.

“Well, I ran out of room. I hope Brooke doesn’t notice.” She winked. “Let’s go watch the news.”

Grandma could only get three fuzzy channels on her TV, but the news came in the best. I went over to the toy box in the corner that held the toys that had been my mom’s and her siblings’, or my grandpa’s when he was a boy. There was a large tin robot that had been my Uncle Carl’s, a worn cardboard canister full of tiny plastic Legos, some parachute men with partial parachutes, and a tin of wooden dominos. I reached for the handles on the two black leather cases full of my mom and Betty’s old Barbies. One case held two dolls, a brunette and a blond. The brunette was my favorite. It had been my mom’s. I had mixed feelings about the blond; her right eye was dented in and one of her boobs had been gnawed into a pointy triangle by a young Carl, causing her slip-over shirts to snag sometimes and not fit straight.

A second leather case held clothes that my mother’s mom had sewn for them to match the latest styles of the 1950s and ’60s. There were tiny purses, shoes, fur wraparounds, belts, hats, coats, pants, skirts, and jewelry. It reminded me of what they wear in the old movies my mom sometimes watched. As I dressed them up and styled their hair with Grandma’s comb, Grandma watched the news, wrote in her journal, and picked up her crocheting, just as she had every night for fifty years. This night Grandma was working on a light blue coat for someone’s new baby boy.

I asked Grandma if I could get inside her curio cabinet where she kept all her breakables and knick-knacks. She fiddled with the latch on it and told me to be gentle with the glass animals. I moved the porcelain thimbles out of the way to get to the red and green Matryoshka doll in the back that had six dolls inside her. Each of those dolls wore a yellow shawl decorated with pink flowers. The painted outfits of the smaller ones were merely simpler versions of their mother’s. I un-nested the dolls and put them in a row from biggest to smallest, then smallest to biggest, then organized them into circles and triangles, staging them in patterns on different pieces of furniture.

As it turned out, the two middle dolls could wear Barbie’s hats. I pretended to be Jane from my Dick and Jane book. “Oh! New dolls for my birthday! Seven new dolls for my birthday! Now I have a big doll family. Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is a happy birthday! A happy, happy birthday for me!” I found a jar of marbles and filled each doll with them. Then I asked Grandma if I could get into her uncooked popcorn canister so I could fill each doll up with corn. I liked the weight of them when they were filled with corn. Before I knew it, Grandma said it was time to clean up for bed. I nested the dolls back up and placed the thimbles back in order.

Together we washed our faces and brushed our teeth in her tiny lime-green bathroom sink. I sat on the side of the tub and watched Grandma put eight pink foam curlers in her fluffy white hair and cover her head with a hair net. Then we went into the bedroom to put our pajamas on. Grandma took off her shoes for the first time all day and unhitched her garter. With her back to me, she removed her top and slipped on her silk peach nightgown.

I snuck a peek at the hump in her back, which was bony and crooked from a fall she’d had at an airport ten years earlier. She said that—and “the old age”—was making her shrink. I went back into the living room to dress the Barbies in their pajamas and bring them into the bedroom. I thought about leaving the blond in the living room, but I didn’t want the little freak mad at me. Grandma said I could let them sleep in the cubby of the headboard. I borrowed two cotton balls for pillows and covered them with a tissue. After we were all settled in bed, I had a few questions.

“Grandma, were you an only child like me?”

“Heavens no. I’m the oldest of thirteen.”

“Did you all get along?”

“We didn’t have much choice. Our parents wouldn’t tolerate any fighting. As the oldest, I had to make sure everyone did what they were told.”

“Was that hard?”

“Oh, I don’t know. It was important for me to keep things going. I didn’t think about it. My mom was sick and my dad was a drinker.”

“So, you helped your mom?”

“My mom was quiet and afraid of my dad. I always felt bad for her, and when she got sick, I tried to do all the work so my father wouldn’t get angry with her. He had a temper, especially when he drank.”

“Why was she sick?”

“She bled a lot after her last child. She was anemic and very weak all the time. But Dad had no patience for it.”

“But, did you want to take care of your brothers and sisters?”

“No. I suppose, not really. But they had to be taken care of. When I turned sixteen, I quit high school and took a job at JC Penney to help support my younger brothers and sisters.”

“What did you do?”

“I was a cashier. I liked the job and the women I worked with.”

“You’re smart, Grandma.”

“I like to read and I do a LOT of crossword puzzles. I think I learned enough in school to get by. Now go to sleep, Chatty Cathy.”

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