Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 1.8]

One night in early July, Dad and Mom went out on a rare date while I spent the night with Mom’s parents, Grandma Jane and Grandpa Martin. Grandma came to scoop me up in their shiny black van with the tear drop-shaped window on the back right side. It came with a cool tear drop-shaped strip of baby blue shag carpet, which could be Velcroed to the window to block out the sun on long trips. Kenny Rogers was blaring on the stereo. Grandma’s hair looked extra fancy—curly golden blonde with a pink silk flower tucked behind her right ear. She had lots of pretty rings on her fingers and gold sunglasses with pink trim. She was wearing tight white shorts, white sandals that she had redecorated herself with pink glitter glue and sequins, and a hot pink tank top with silver shiny words on it. I loved the way Grandma Jane often embellished her clothes and shoes with items from her own craft box.

“Hi-ya, Shellie-Bee!”

“Hi Grandma.”

“We’ve got to go pick Grandpa up at the softball park. He’ll be done umpiring in an hour.”

“What happened to your hand, Grandma?” I asked, noticing a bandage on her wrist.

“Carpal tunnel. Too much typing at work.” Grandma had worked twenty-some years for the state police, transcribing crime interviews.

“Does it hurt?”

“It’s aching today, probably because it’s going to rain.”

“What’s your shirt say, Grandma? It’s very shiny.”

Turning toward me so I could see the writing, Grandma guffawed, “It says, ‘If only these were brains!’ Isn’t it great?”

I thought for a moment. “Since you have big boobs, does that mean you want big brains?”

“Exactly! You’re such a smart girl.” She laughed and laughed. “Grandpa hates it, but I think it’s hilarious! He just needs to take that stick out of his ass.”

That image made me laugh. I couldn’t help feeling embarrassed for Grandma’s big boobs though. Grandpa was always grabbing or pinching them.

When we arrived at the park, I spotted Grandpa standing near first base in his umpire outfit. Back-to-back, he screamed two people “out,” and the inning was over. He came over to the fence by the dugout where I was waiting and said cheerfully, “Hello Shellie-pie! I heard you’re spending the night with us.”

“Hi Grandpa! Yep, I am.”

“Go tell your grandmother to take that god damned shirt off, will you?” I nodded and smiled.

“When this game is over, I’ll take you to the concession stand and up to the score booth.”

“Okay.” I joined Grandma on the bleachers where she was talking to some women about her shoes.

“This is Bobbi’s daughter, Michelle,” Grandma said to the ladies.

“Oh, don’t you look just like your mother. Look at those big brown eyes and that long brown hair.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“How’s Bobbi doing? I haven’t seen her in ages,” one lady asked my Grandma.

“Oh, fine. Fine. She’s still painting and volunteering for the March of Dimes,” Grandma said.

I didn’t know Mom was doing that, but I knew better than to ask about it right then. Either Grandma was making it up for show or Mom hadn’t told me. Either way would look bad to that lady.

Grandpa waved me over then led me back to the concession stand where I picked out a blue Freezy pop. Then I followed him up some grated metal stairs to the scoring booth. I’d never been up so high in a building before. Two old men smiled widely at me when my grandfather told them who I was.

“She looks just like Bobbi,” one said.

“Yeah, but this one’s got more brains,” Grandpa retorted, tossing a thumb my way. That stung and I hated him for saying that.

“My mom’s an artist,” I offered.

“Ha,” grumped Grandpa.

They let me push the buttons that changed the score. Then I smiled and listened to the old men’s corny Polack jokes until Grandpa was ready to take me back down. As soon as we were all in the van, Grandpa told Grandma in an angry voice that he was going to burn her shirt when we got home.

“Shove it up your ass,” Grandma chortled sarcastically.

Once we were back at their house, I asked if I could look at Grandma’s photo album while she made dinner. I turned right to my mom’s school pictures and studied my mom’s face when she was nine, comparing it to her face at ten.

“Tell me about my mom’s eyes again, Grandma.”

“Well, her eyelashes were ingrown, so the doctor had to cut a slit in her eyelids at the corners and turn them right side out,” she said not looking up from her goulash.

“Did it hurt her?”

“No. You can’t even see the scars anymore.”

Grandma was right. I could see them in her pictures only up until high school.

“Was Mom good at baseball?” I asked, looking at a picture of Mom in a ball uniform holding a bat. Her very short hair was peeking out from under a ball cap.

“No. She only played for two seasons. She hated it.”

“Why did she play then?”

“Well, your mom’s older sister, Betty, was really girly and not very coordinated, and your Grandpa wanted someone to play ball with.”

“Is that why you named her Bobbi? Isn’t that a boy’s name?” I knew Mom was irritated by her name, but I couldn’t remember the backstory.

“Well, we thought we were having a boy and we already had that name picked out. We decided to change it from a ‘Y’ to an ‘I’ and keep it.”

“When was Carl born?” I asked, looking at a picture of my mom smiling down at a newborn baby.

“When your mom was seven.”

I turned the page to see the pictures of my mom in high school. Her hair was very long. In some, she was standing in the hallway at school, wearing the senior skirt she’d painted herself. In others, she was wearing a cheerleading outfit at a basketball game or kneeling in a pyramid with other long-haired girls.

“Was my mom a good cheerleader?” I asked.

“I suppose.”

“She said you and Grandpa made her quit because she burnt your favorite popcorn pan.”

“Oh, that’s bullshit. She needed to focus on her grades. She never liked schoolwork and was our only kid who didn’t make good grades.”

“I bet she made good grades in art,” I said, but Grandma didn’t answer.

The next page in the album was my favorite. It held pictures of Mom with Dad dressed up for the Christmas dance and senior prom. They looked younger in the Christmas one. Mom was wearing a white, floor-length dress with a dark green sash and was standing next to Dad, who was wearing a dark green suit. Neither of their baby faces were smiling. Dad’s hair was short and Mom’s hung long and wavy around her shoulders. In their senior prom picture, taken the next year, they were smiling and looking more sophisticated. Mom had on a crushed red velvet gown with a white satin sash accessorized with pearl earrings, a pearl necklace, white shoes, and white satin gloves that came up above her elbows. The red material was rich and plush. Mom had a beautiful chunky braid of hair woven and twirled into a crown on top her head, which made her look even more beautiful than Princess Leia. My father wore a brown suede suit and white tie. His long hair was combed from one side and tucked behind the opposite ear. They looked dreamy.

“I LOVE Mom’s dress, Grandma.”

“Oh? I made that for her.”

“Really? Could you make me one in my size?”

“I haven’t sewn anything in years. Besides I don’t think I could find the fabric anymore. Why don’t you ask your mom if she still has hers?”

“Were my mom and dad in love in this picture?”

“They better have been. It’s the night you were conceived—or so they said.”

I stared at my mom’s flat stomach and then at their faces some more. Were they smiling because they knew already or because they didn’t know yet?

“Dinner’s ready, you big oaf!” Grandma called to Grandpa. He’d been in the TV room watching a Big Ten basketball game, cussing loudly at Bobby Knight’s coaching.

After dinner, I helped with the dishes and then Grandpa told me to come in the TV room and scratch his head.

“Can I put curlers in your hair?” I asked. It felt like less of a chore if I could be a hair dresser.

“Whatever you have to do, kid. Just scratch it good when you take ’em out.”

I went into the bathroom and got the box of bristly wire curlers, plastic pink curler pins, a water bottle, and a black comb. Grandpa got on the floor with his back against his favorite chair. I grabbed four red Jujyfruits from the glass jar near the sink and hopped in the chair to get to work. Grandma turned on The Love Boat, which I loved. I acted slowly and professionally, sectioning strips of Grandpa’s graying hair with the comb. I sprayed each strip with water from a spray bottle Grandma had given me, rolled it, and pinned it, fiddling with the strays that kept escaping from his stick-straight thick hair. Each time I made it through four curlers, I rewarded myself with a Jujyfruit.

When he was fully set, I asked Grandma to spray him with the “magic solution.” She got the hairspray and waved it around Grandpa’s head while he closed his eyes tightly and ducked, like a turtle. After I was sure it was dry, I ate my last Jujyfruit, took a deep breath, and began taking the curlers out. His hair stuck up in large cylinders I could peer through. I combed him out for about five minutes then dug into his scalp with my fingernails. He “oohed”’ and “aahhed,” telling me my nails were the perfect length. After begging me for five more minutes, and five more minutes, he told me I’d earned some ice cream.

Fantasy Island was about to begin. Grandpa reclaimed his chair and I sat on the loveseat next to Grandma. Grandpa’s belly was so big he could rest his ice cream bowl on it while he ate. As soon as he was done, Grandpa said he’d had enough “girly shit” and that he was going to bed.

I asked Grandma if I could play with her matchbook collection. She brought out one of the eight large hat boxes she had full of them. I hadn’t examined this one before. I sat on the floor with the box in front of me and methodically removed row after row of tiny designed books, boxes, tubes, and bags full of matches and then sorted them by shape and color. Grandma had collected many of them from pen pals overseas and the rest on her trips with Grandpa, who travelled a lot to softball games. I couldn’t get them all to fit back in the hat box, so Grandma said she’d fix it in the morning.

She placed a silk sleeping bag on the plush blue couch in the front room. I’d forgotten to bring a stuffed animal, so Grandma let me borrow an old Raggedy Ann Doll. I asked her if she’d read a book to me and she said the only book she had I might like was a Garfield comic collection. She read one page to me, handed it over, and kissed me good night.

The next morning, Grandma boiled eggs and fried bologna while I sat at the table reading more Garfields. After breakfast, Grandma said it was time to fill up her pill box for the week. She took a shoe box full of medicines from the pantry and placed it next to her blue plastic pill organizer on the table. She flipped open the lids for each of the seven days of the week and then screwed open the first bottle of medicine, telling me to count out seven pills. Then she told me to place one in each of the little boxes. We worked together until she had six different pills in each box.

“Grandma, what are all these pills for?”

“Well, this little yellow one is for migraines, this blue one is for my arthritis, this big yellow one is a blood thinner, this red one is for heartburn, this pink one is for my sugar, and the little white one is for my nerves. And I forgot the Tylenol. Can you hand me that bottle there?”

“That’s a lot of medicine,” I said.

“It’s hell getting old,” she replied.

“But you don’t seem that old.”

“I’m forty-six. But Grandpa’s forty-eight, so HA!”

“I wonder if Dad and Mom had fun on their date last night.”

“Let’s hope so. You ready to go home?”

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