Hands Like Feet and The Company of Knuckleheads: A Comment or Two on the Playing of Cards

Coffee cup and cards

It is a cool, gray, wet day; summer has suddenly broken.  I pull open the second drawer of the lowboy in the dining room, looking for a pen, and I notice all the decks of cards jumbled in the back, neglected and patient.

The cards.  This rain.

I am transported to a summer, back when I was ten or twelve, and my family had a cottage on the lake, a cottage in kind of a swanky little rustic resort area not far from my hometown.  People from Squirrel Hill–people with money–came there to summer, or to rent a place for two weeks or a month; they roughed it in ramshackle little cottages with no insulation, no dishwashers, slapping screen doors, and sand in every cranny. Those folks had drinks in the backyard every night; their glasses, full of amber liquid and melting ice cubes, wobbled on uneasy little metal tables. They sat on old enameled metal lawn chairs, talking about the boats they docked at the marina.  Their kids spent their days on the beach or in those boats, hair bleaching out, their tanned hides growing progressively darker.

We were there only because of an ad in the paper–“Cottage free for two weeks if you’ll paint.”

“Why not?” agreed my parents. “It will be an adventure.”  The cottage was tiny; my brothers were old enough to help.  Painting would be the work of a day or two, and then we could kick back and enjoy a beachy break from the same-old, same-old.

We jumbled shorts and t-shirts and swimsuits into boxes; we planned food for two weeks. We bundled up the dog, her chain, and her kibble, and we drove off in the packed Buick, on a sunny Sunday, to take possession of that little kingdom for that little limited time.

And then, of course, we woke up Monday and it rained.

So I baked cookies in the tiny electric oven–an adventure in itself; I’d never used anything but a gas oven.  Is this how other people live? I pondered. I put the cookies on a tray–peanut butter cookies with squares of Hershey bar melting onto their tops in lieu of chocolate kisses.  I washed my dishes.

The cookies were gone by lunch, and everyone was bumping into one another, and the rain poured down and threatened to ignite a family rebellion.

And then we found the card drawer.

Seems to me most every home had a card drawer, in those days–usually in the kitchen, top row, right next to the thing drawer.  The card drawer had decks of cards neatly stored in their cellophaned boxes. It had pads of paper for keeping score.  Sometimes those were official score-keeping pads from card parties, or they could be little tablets given out by the local gas station at Christmas, with “Ron’s Texaco: We’ll pick you up” and a picture of a tow truck printed in blue ink across the bottom.

There would be a handful of pens in a tightly rubber-banded bunch–Bic Stics, three-quarters used up, or click pens with advertising on their barrels.  There might, in that drawer, be a handful of change.  That would be in case you were playing skat, or even, for the really serious and daring, poker—pennies and nickels stashed to reward your prowess.

The cottage’s card drawer saved the day; we set up two card tables on the rickety screened-in sunporch, pulled out chairs, put two decks together, dealt out hands of seven, and started, as the cool rain fell noisily around us, on the first of many hands of 500 Rummy.  Someone put a single on the record player, with one of those funny yellow puzzle piece/grabby things in the hole in the middle of the record. It seems to me we listened to a lot of “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am” that summer, music collections being limited.

And we played cards and laughed and complained, and we crowed at our own genius and bitterly resented the good fortune of others.  I remember a shifting group with friends arriving and brothers going off to work, and at night, the teams changing to grown ups with ash trays and cigarette smoke and maybe a beer but certainly a never-ending pot of coffee perking on the stove, and cheap thick white mugs balanced on the corners of the card table–half of them smudged with lipstick prints.

Playing cards seemed like the universal past-time then; playing cards saved the day until the sun, finally, came out, and the painting got done, and the blue waters of Lake Erie pulled us to the sand.

I realized, remembering this, how deeply embedded card playing was into my growing up years.  Back then, toddlers watched the big people laughing uproariously, dealing cards, slapping them down on the dining room table’s glossy wooden surface, and they knew, from their very first knowing, that those mysterious, shiny-coated, rectangular cards contained fun in their shapes and pictures.  Toddlers learned, when they finally got those cards into their own pudgy fingers, that the cards were to be respected. Fat little hands got slapped for folding cards or throwing cards or dog-earing them.  Growing up, all of our jokers were marked in ball point ink–the ‘J’ crossed off, and “7-Clubs” scribbled in, because some little one (or even some big one) had carelessly lost a card.

We learned to play War, the very first game, where someone split a deck roughly into two stacks, and the pair of participants flipped cards over.  The high card took all until you ran into a tie, and then someone would intone, in a mock English accent, “Of course, you KNOW: THIS means WAR!” On top of your ‘tie’ card, you put another face-down, and then another on top of that, face up.

The person with the greater third card flipped first.  Whoever had the higher buried card took the whole pile of six, made sure they were all top side up, neatened them, put them at the very bottom of the pile.

To win, you must gather in ALL the cards, every single one; there were always cries of ‘No fair!’ along the way. (You weren’t supposed to pull from the middle; you weren’t supposed to know where your high cards were; but sleight of hand was always taking place.) Sometimes it got so bad a grown-up had to intervene; that was chancy because the whole game could be cancelled if the hostilities had escalated beyond a civilized, controllable point.

We would not tolerate cheating in others, but we hoped things would not progress to that dire pass; a good, satisfying game of War could take all afternoon.

Once War was mastered, a kid could progress to Crazy Eights, Go Fish, and, finally, 500 Rummy, a game that called for skill and finesse.  Should you lay down cards as you go? Maybe it was better to take a chance and save them, lulling the other players into complacency as they saw your burgeoning hand, awaiting your turn to slap them down with a flourish and shout, “I’m out!”  Keeping score was a complicated business; aces were fifteen (even if used as 1’s, a point sometimes bitterly argued.) Everything up to the 10 card counted as five; the rest were worth ten points.

If you weren’t the one to go out, you counted up your lay-downs and subtracted from that total the amount of cards in your hand.  Discerning eyes examined your math and that of the scorekeeper.  Some days, no matter how smart you played, your luck was awful, and the cards didn’t play. Some days no one could touch you.

By the time you mastered Rummy, you might be ready to learn a little poker from older card sharps with an eye for your nickels.

I learned a lot playing cards, learned about honesty and negotiation, how to stand up for myself, when to consult the rule book, when to call on an ultimate authority.  I learned to try not to crow at victory and to lose like a champ.

And then, around age 11 or so, the opportunity arose to learn the REAL game.  My parents taught me (probably because they needed a partner, but also because it was a true rite of passage out of Little Kid-dom) to play pinochle.

Oh, the magic of that game–with its two chances for points, meld and tricks.  There was the mystery of trump and the fact that points were NOT unlimited–I could win here, but I had to deal with reality.  Bidding to 36 when I only had eight meld was a certain path to failure.

Sometimes I played three-handed, on my own ‘team’; then there might be the chance of three cards in a kitty–the chance that one of those cards would be exactly the one I needed to give me a perfect hand.  There was also the chance that I’d turn over three nines and have nothing–nothing!–and have to throw the hand in, disgraced and undignified.

Sometimes I had a partner, and her cards would shore up my weaknesses and I would gather in the tricks and try very very hard not to gloat.  And sometimes my partner’s cards and mine did not sync in any way, and we fell short of our bid and watched the scorekeeper use the minus sign to tally our points.

Sometimes when my Uncle Bill stopped in to visit, the cards would come out. Dad and Uncle Bill would bid each other up, out of sheer brotherly competition; Bill would be moaning all the while, “Oh, I got a hand like a foot!” and then he’d one-up my father.  My mother, who had a good solid hand but had dropped out of the bidding when it left the land of realistic expectations, would grow more and more white-lipped.

Occasionally, one of the men and his partner would make the outrageous bid; but more often, with roars of laughter, they would throw the hand in, take the hit in points, delight in the fact he’d kept his brother from a big score.  My mother would stomp off to the kitchen to perk a new pot of coffee, thoroughly disgusted.

Card parties were a thing in those days; at the church we attended, they were the fund raiser of choice, not just a way to make some money for the Altar and Rosary Society or the Holy Name Club, but a chance for grown-ups to go out and have fun.  They brought home prizes–a table prize might be an African violet or a bottle of good booze; the door prize might be something more valuable–a twenty-five dollar gift certificate at the Acme Grocery Store, or a free lube job at the Gulf station.

My mother was often a planner in the card party world; I learned that playing cards was not only fun, but it could be a serious, disciplined enterprise, as well.

I sorted friends by their ability to play pinochle, or not–my good buddy Liza and I often started our weekend adventures playing a couple of games of pinochle with my parents before heading out, wits sharpened, to find whatever passed for action on  Friday or Saturday night.  I married a pinochle player, and that was one area of the union that always played out right for the three short years we struggled on.

We played cards in the break room of the little parochial school where I taught middle school English (and sometimes history, art, and phys ed) and, post-marriage, I invited friends and family to my tiny efficiency apartment for weekend card nights.

And then, having married Mark, weekends settled down; other events often provided entertainment.  Eventually, though, the need to play cards bubbled back up and a group of us women banded together to indulge our pinochle habit. We met once a month, taking turns to host.  The party of players ebbed a little and then became steady. We were a group; we named ourselves the Knuckleheads. We had a motto: “What’s trump?”–because, so often, we would lay our cards down flat to listen to one of Rosemary’s stories–stories that made us rock with laughter, stream with tears,–and then have no idea where we were when finally we picked up our hands to continue.

And then a move, and another–and changes in everyone’s circumstances—and the landing–a happy landing, at that–in a place where the game of choice is not pinochle. It is euchre, and I have yet to learn.

But the cards still wait in the second-down drawer–some packs have never been opened.  Once in a while, a whim will catch the three of us, and we’ll deal out hands of three and roll nickels around and draw from the pile in the center of the table, playing skat–trying to last each other out till we reach that magic 31, or trying to capitalize on a same-suit hand right after the deal.

Once, even, the Knuckleheads did a Wild Ohio Tour, sharing two queen beds in a hotel around the corner so we could stay up until two playing hand after hand of pinochle at my table, catching up on the events of our lifetimes.  The next day we had lunch at a bar and grill called Knuckleheads, where the staff beamed kindly at our gray heads bobbing over our hamburgers–more used to bare-armed, tattooed, bottle-babies who pull up on noisy bikes than to well-trimmed ladies of a certain age pulling out pictures of grandkids and pets.

But for the most part, the playing of cards has slipped away–it’s a special event now rather than a regular fact of life.  That’s because, I’m sure, of many factors–the fact, for one, that I need no longer break open an actual deck to play a game of solitaire, Spider or otherwise.  I have electronic opponents against whom I can test my skill at hearts.  The busyness of life has changed our modus operandi.  It’s been ages since I’ve heard of a card party fund raiser, and these days, people would think it rude to just stop in and visit on, say, a Wednesday night.

I am blessed with a wonderful life and not at all bemoaning the past, but I admit to feeling a great nostalgia when I pulled open the drawer on this rainy afternoon and saw all those lonely, lovely decks of cards.  I think that maybe I need to invite my grandkids to visit, and have a rummy old afternoon; I think that when I go to see my godchild next month, I’ll slip a couple of decks into my luggage and do my best to co-opt her kids. Everyone should, I think, hear the slapping of the cards in one little corner of her memory, remember the raucous echoed laughter, the moaning exclamation, “Oh, I got a hand like a foot!”, and know the joy of being the one, for once, whose cards are in line with the winning.

Tonight is family movie night; we’ll pull up a NetFlix film on the Apple TV, or maybe even go old-school and pop in a DVD James has borrowed from the library.  But this weekend, I think, come Friday night, I’ll make some popcorn, pull out the cards, and challenge the boyos to a rousing game of Skat, no holds barred.

Life bids me to firmly let go of some pleasures; others I simply outgrow.  I cannot fit them all in my limited luggage, after all; I sort the lasting from the lost and move on.  But I know this: as long as I have the skill to deal, the wit to count, and the will to laugh,–as long as I have the daring partners with whom to collude, and I can take joy in the possibilities as yet to be turned over–as long as those things are all in place, I’ll still be playing cards.

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Ah, Happy Feast of St. Nick!

Blessing the children from photobucket.com/st%20niholas#1

Blessing the children from photobucket.com/st%20nicholas#1

December 6th is, most places, celebrated as the feast of St. Nicholas. Maybe there’s something to be learned from a saint dead yea, these 16 centuries.

In my own experience, St. Nicholas was a capricious kind of saint.

Some years, on December 5th, my mother would remind us: “Put your shoes by the fireplace!” The next morning we’d get up, and there would be a little something there–a game, a coloring book, and maybe some foil covered chocolate coins (wrapped securely in plastic—we were often directed to find them on the side board–to protect them both from the prowling dog and from the stinky insides of the well-worn shoes.)

Other years, the day would slide by and somewhere around December 15th, someone would say, “Hey, isn’t St. Nicholas Day around now sometime?”

“Hmm,” my mother would say.  “You must not have been very good this year.”

I could always, as a child, find enough guilt in my hidden thoughts to explain the saint’s missed visit.  Only later did I imagine my harried mother, having said her prayers, climbing into bed just before midnight on December 5th, the house finally neatened and quiet.  I picture her just getting settled down…then bolting upright to say, “Oh, BALLS! [That was her favorite cuss word; I often wonder what exactly she thought was expressing when she used it.] St. Nicholas Day is tomorrow.”

And my half-asleep father would rumble, “Ahhh, don’t worry about it.  They’ve been little yi-yi’s, anyway.”

The years St. Nick DID come though, it was kind of a mini-miracle, the better, I think, because it was one that could not be depended upon.

At Catholic school, we learned about the saint, intrigued by some blood-soaked legends. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor, in the fourth century.  He is, Wikipedia informs me, the patron saint not just of children, but also of coopers, sailors, fishermen, merchants, broadcasters, the falsely accused, repentant thieves, pharmacists, archers, and pawnbrokers.  Quite an assembly for kids to be hanging out with–no wonder we loved the guy!

St. Nicholas also had many miracles to his credit.  Most famously, he saved three daughters of a poor family from what the nuns described as spinster-hood by tossing sacks of dowry gold down their chimney one night.  The chimney tossing is explained as either the saint’s personal modesty or his discretion–an anonymous gift is harder to refuse, after all, than face-to-face charity.  Legend variously has it that the girls had left their shoes by the fire and the money fell into the shoes, or that they’d hung their socks to dry from the mantel.  One of the flying money bags, it is said, slipped smack down a stocking, stretching out the toe.

The kindly gesture explains the tradition in some countries of putting shoes by the fire, and in our own country, of hanging stockings, on Christmas Eve. And good St. Nick, of course, morphed over many long years into Santa Claus.

I only read later,—the nuns never mentioned this particular wrinkle—, that, had the three poor virgins NOT gotten the dowries, they might have been forced into lives of prostitution, the only available work for unmarried women of the day.

So that was a very nice miracle, with very nice traditions growing from it, but there was a different miracle story we all clamored for in the second grade classroom at St. Joe’s. I remember it as the story of a traveller staying at an inn owned by an unscrupulous butcher.  In the night, the butcher attacked the man, chopped him up, and put the pieces in the pickle barrel.  The next day, St. Nicholas came to call, and asked about the missing visitor.  The butcher was all unknowing innocence, but, at a few words from the Saint, the traveller jumped from the pickle barrel, intact and unharmed. Woe to the greedy butcher!

When I looked the story up to get the details straight in my mind, I was surprised to find that the most common versions have the butcher chopping up either three children or three clerks.  The children went into the pickle barrels, but the clerks, on the advice of Mrs. Butcher, were baked into meat pies.  But again, a visit from the Saint, the power of prayer: victims restored, butcher’s guilt established.

What a horrible tale to tell children!  How we loved it! In the early ’60’s, in my Catholic school, saints and martyrs were our rock stars.  We reveled in their ultimate and gory sacrifices.

One of the churches we visited occasionally had a statue of Saint Lucy with her luminous face raised to heaven. [We’d go there  for the later Saturday confessions when we missed 3:00 confession at our own church.  I hated confessing there, because the priest gave whole decades of the rosary as penance. My brothers would taunt me–What did YOU do?  It took you half an hour to say your penance!  But they were only done faster because they went first…and then they abbreviated.]   She was holding a plate on which her eyeballs rested.

One of the reasons it took me so long to say my penance was that I knelt and stared at those glassy eyeballs.  The story was that Lucy, determined to live a virginal life as a bride of Christ, removed her eyes to give to a suitor who’d admired them.  An extreme  interpretation of “If your eye offend you, pluck it out,” for certain.

But I digress: St. Nicholas. When Jim and Matt were little, and when I remembered, I got them usually-banned sugary cereal as a special St. Nicholas Day treat–Christmas Lucky Charms, maybe, or red and green colored Cap’n Crunch.  Or sometimes, when I happened upon them in the store, I’d surprise the boys with those foil wrapped coins on the morning of December 6th.  We never made a big deal out of it, never left shoes by the fireplace; there was no disappointment when the Saint didn’t visit.

That was fun and low-key and a nice way to honor the Saint’s gifting tradition.

Revisiting the story, though, I am drawn by the saint’s anonymous distribution of dowry funds; his method of helping was one that enabled the parents to be the benefactors of their daughters’ good luck.  I like the dignity given to the family in need.

Several years ago, in a different town, at a different church, we were involved in a wonderful project the youth group put together. We shopped for an unknown family every Christmas. We put together a meal and gifts based on information from the family’s adults, who then were able to pick it all up and put it under their tree, serve it at their own table.  That’s how it should be–no strangers’ expectant faces waiting to be properly thanked; just a warm and loving, I hope, family holiday.

Hmm. Maybe there’s a way, this year, in this town, to toss a bag or two down an unsuspecting chimney.

So, anyway. Happy St. Nicholas Day!  Whether you put out shoes, hang stockings, or go through your day unhampered by the fact that the Bishop of Myra had it named for him 16 centuries ago or so, I hope this season of light brings lots of little miracles your way.

May we be miracles for each other during the darkness, too.

A Day All Pies Would Fly

This week, WordPress’s daily challenge (http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_writing_challenge/pie/) was to write about pie…That and the upcoming holiday remind me of a story my youngest son used to demand over and over again. It is a true story, but I told it to young James so many times that memory and embroidery morphed and blended.  I got so I wasn’t sure what was real, and what I’d added–but Jim, aged two, knew every  told detail and would brook no changes. Others who were there might argue things happened differently…and they might just be right.  But…here is my pie story.

******

I put the Tom and Pippo book on top of the stack.

“That’s it,” I tell my almost three-year-old. “Seven books. Time to sleep.” I am aching for that half hour, the time when the boy is asleep and there is absolutely no pressing work to be done, when a book or a TV show is a beacon at the end of the day, a luxurious choice.

But.

He looks up at me with big brown pleading eyes—beneath eyelids that are not in the least bit heavy. “Tell me a story, Mama,” he pleads.

I sigh–a martyr in the making–and say, “What story would you like? Pete Pete with the Stinky Feet?”

“Tell me,” he says, “about when the pies fly.”

Again. Ah, me.

I squelch another mama-martryr sigh and begin.

“It was Thanksgiving day, and your grandma–the grandma who’s in heaven now–had been cooking all day. There were stacks of cutout cookies shaped like turkeys and autumn leaves on one counter.”

“With sugar topping,” murmurs my boy.

“That’s right,” I say. “The cookies were frosted and sprinkled with colored sugar–orange and red and yellow: autumn colors. And next to them were two big beautiful pumpkin pies. They were a rich orange-y brown; there were little beads of moisture clinging to their shiny surfaces. The crusts were just that right kind of gold-y-brown, ready to explode into buttery flakes.”

“You didn’t like it.”

“That’s true–not all of us liked pumpkin pie, but the ones that did,–well they couldn’t wait for Thanksgiving to come when they could eat one, two, three–maybe even four!–pieces. The house smelled wonderfully of turkey roasting and other good things, and we pottered around in the living room, watching the parades on TV, playing games, reading, until finally Grandma called me to set the table.”

“There was a tablecloth,” he prompts.

“Yes, there was,” I agree. “There was a lace tablecloth the color of pale, weak tea. We used the special plates, the ones with fluted edges and old-fashioned scenes on them–Cousin Shaynie has those plates now, and she still uses them every Thanksgiving.

“We put water glasses by each plate. We used the fancy salt and pepper shakers, the special platter with a turkey painted on it, and the big people–Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Dennis–had wine glasses by their places.

“For the Duck,” he says, knowingly.

“Yes! Cold Duck was what Grandma thought, back then, was a really special drink, and she bought it every holiday. So there’d be TWO birds on the table,–a turkey and a duck.”

He nods. “What else?”

“There was a huge bowl of mashed potatoes, white and piled up like soft mountains. There was a pat of butter melting on the top. There was another big bowl of stuffing, straight from the bird; it smelled like celery and onion and sage, turkey and bread, all jumbled up.There was a sizzly casserole of orange sweet potatoes. There was a bowl of steaming peas—”

“CORN,” he corrects, impatiently.

“Ah, you’re right,” I agree. “It was corn. That had butter melting on it, too. And there were two baskets of crescent rolls; that was the only time we ever got those, and we thought that was a really big treat.

“Grandpa came in from his half day at work at the power plant; he washed up and changed, and came right down and carved the turkey. Your uncles started drifting in from the living room or their bedrooms or wherever they were, and Grandma made people pour water and wine, get the cranberry sauce from the fridge, and put serving spoons in all the good food. It was time to eat.”

I look at my boy. He is quiet now, but bright-eyed, waiting for the good part.

“We said our grace and Grandpa passed the turkey, and we loaded our plates with potatoes–making a little hole in the middle so we could pour in a lake of turkey gravy. We dug in to corn and stuffing.”

“But you didn’t eat the sweet potatoes.”

“I didn’t. Back then I was a kind of picky eater, and I didn’t eat sweet potatoes. OR the cranberry sauce.

“We cleaned our plates and we filled them again, and we all said how good, good, good everything tasted. And when we were done, we helped clear the table. The tablecloth was splotted with gravy, and I bundled it up and tossed it down the cellar stairs. Grandma would wash it the next day and iron it and put it in the cabinet drawer until the next feast at Christmas. And we helped with dishes.”

“Uncle Dennis washed,” he says.

“Yes, he did,” I agree. “And Uncle Mike dried. Your Uncle Sean and I put away, and Uncle John helped Grandpa take the trash out. Grandma, for once, got to sit and read.

“Pretty soon, all the mess was cleaned up, and everyone drifted…some went for walks and some watched football. I drew pictures at the kitchen table. Grandma read her book.”

“An hour passed, or maybe two,” he whispers, the cadence of the tale memorized.

“Yes. Time passed. Grandma put her book down and came out to the kitchen. She plugged her little handmixer in, and she took two little cartons–they looked like little houses–of cream from the fridge. She poured those into a big metal bowl–a bowl that had a little ring to hook your thumb through, so it wouldn’t fly away when you used the electric mixer. She added a capful of vanilla and a couple of heaping spoonsful of powdered sugar, and she beat up frothy peaks of whipped cream. It was beautiful.”

“It was time for pie,” he says, a grin beginning.

“Yes!” I say, “and everyone was ready. Your grandpa came out and put the two pies right in the middle of the table. Grandma handed him the bowl of whipped cream, and he joked that maybe he’d just take a spoon and eat the whole bowlful. ‘No!’ everyone yelled. Grandma got out the knife and the pie server, and the little dessert plates, and she cut pieces of pie for everyone but me and Uncle Sean.”

“He didn’t like pie either,” says my boy, and I hear in his voice, at last, the edges of sleep tugging.

“He did not,” I agree. “So Grandma cut pieces for everyone else, and plopped little clouds of whipped cream on top, and put a fork on each plate, and when everyone had a piece, they each picked up their forks, sliced down to cut off a big bite and they raised the forks to their mouths, closed their eyes, and tasted…”

“And it was awful!” he crows.

“It was! There was no sugar in that pie! Grandma had been in a hurry and she mistook her big bag of salt for her big bag of sugar and those pumpkin pies were salty, salty, salty.

“There was a huge and deafening silence. My brothers and my father were frozen. They did not want to hurt Grandma’s feelings–but they sure did not want to eat that pie.”

“And then GRANDMA said–” he nudges, hurrying toward the good part.

“GRANDMA said,” I continue, “‘Dennis, I know how you love pumpkin pie. Here. Have mine.’ And she scooped up the piece of pie–the piece with one bite missing–and she threw it at your Uncle Dennis!

“Uncle Dennis froze in shock, and the pie hit him on the side of his head, right above his ear!

“There was a moment of stunned silence, and then Uncle Dennis recovered and said to my mother, ‘I could never leave you pie-less. Please. Take mine.’ His pie flew through the air at my mother, but she was quick and ready, and she ducked. The pie hit the wall, quivered for a moment, and slid.

“And then it was flying pie day. Your uncles and your grandpa threw their own slices of pie, and then they grabbed the pies left on the table, and the battle was on. I ran out to the living room–I didn’t like to eat it, and I didn’t want to wear it–and I hid behind the ottoman while the laughing and the splotting went on.”

“Finally it got quiet.”

“Yes, it did,” I say. “In the kitchen they couldn’t stop laughing, all those crazy pumpkin-covered people. But when they finally did, they took turns in the bathroom, washing the pumpkin off themselves, and we all helped clean up the kitchen. And then Grandma made a pot of coffee and we all sat down and ate those wonderful sugary cookies.”

“It was the day of flying pies,” he says, satisfied.

“It was the day of flying pies,” I agree. “And now it is the night of sleeping boys.”

He yawns at me and grins, too tired to argue. The eyes flutter closed, and I escape into the living room, where I pick up my waiting book,–and fall instantly, soundly asleep.

 

Greaty’s Cookbook

 

Time tested sources of favorite recipes...
Time tested sources of favorite recipes…

 

 

 

Greaty and I are making jubilee jumbles in her warm, sparkling little kitchen, with its organized and well-stocked cupboards. I love it that she always has things like canned milk on hand–she tells me that, when I set up housekeeping, I should always keep canned milk or powdered milk in my cupboard, just in case I’m in the middle of a recipe and realize the milk is gone–or gone bad.  (Of course, she adds thoughtfully, if you’ve got milk gone bad, you can make a cake, too.)

She’s thrifty, my Greaty, born in 1925, a child of the Depression.  She likes to tell stories about that time; I like to hear them.  They say that communication and understanding skip a generation, so that kids and their grandparents click when kids and their parents don’t.  With me, it’s two generations; I love my mom and my grandma to pieces, of course, but Greaty is the one who really gets me.

I like everything old and weathered and seasoned; Mom and Gram say, if it’s old and doesn’t work, chuck it and buy new.  Greaty tells me stories about the making-do she and her family did during the twenties and thirties.  They never threw out a piece of cloth; they’d turn a shirt inside out, make it into a smaller shirt for a younger child, salvage the buttons, save the bits and scraps to make quilts.

I have one of those quilts on my bed; Greaty made it with her mom and older sister Gwyn; it’s a crazy quilt with tiny pieces of everything from cloth flour bags to Aunt Gwyn’s best velvet dress.  The stitches are infinitesimal and regular; the pattern is wild; the colors blend and flow.  I love that those three women, challenged by the economy, chose to create a thing of lasting beauty from the little that they had.

Another thing I love is the cookbook we’re using.  It’s one of those fund-raiser cookbooks, from the Town of Wales Old Regular Baptist Church, and it was published in the 1950’s.  It was a time, Greaty tells me, when people were finally realizing that all the ingredients they needed were on the shelves–you didn’t have to make up substitutions for eggs or butter or sugar.  If you needed the stuff to make cookies, it was available.

That, says Greaty, and the fact that the women were home again, their overalls traded in for housedresses, made cooking and baking very popular in the 1950’s.  She and Grumpy had just moved to Ohio then; and in their small town, it was a big deal when the ladies of the Baptist church decided to put a cookbook together.

It wasn’t her church, Greaty–a confirmed Congregationalist– hastened to inform me, but her best friend, Ardyth was a member, and Ardyth, whose job was to collect all the recipes, kept her apprised.

Greaty tells me the stories behind many of the recipes.  Bertie Bohldocher and her daughter Lillibeth, when they heard about the cookbook project, went right to the library and took out some French cookbooks.  So the recipes for vichyssoise and bouillabaisse are from Bertie and Lillibeth, but, says Greaty, neither one of them ever cooked such a thing in their entire lives.  They just wanted to go on record as being aficionados of grand taste.  And so the recipes are their testament…and probably, says Greaty, those are the only two recipes in the book that have never been tried.

Greaty’s book has fallen apart so many times the tape has been taped and taped again; finally she pried apart the yellowing pages carefully, copied the backs at Staples, and pasted all the recipes into a notebook.  That notebook is open on the counter today.  Like a greased baking machine, we work together, reaching for measuring cups, passing over the eggs, grabbing flour and brown sugar from the pantry shelves. We have been doing this since before I can remember.

“You’re 16, Ash,” she says to me, “and I’m 89, but we don’t need words to talk to each other.”  It makes me glow.  I love my Greaty, and I know I am lucky, lucky, lucky to have her, healthy and funny and a vital part of my life.

The cookies are in, and we sit with tea.  One of us gets up every few minutes to rotate the trays in the oven, then a few minutes later to put the bottom tray on the top shelf and vice versa.  The cookies will be perfectly done, with those nice crisp buttery brown edges.  When they’ve cooled, and we’ve eaten a few each, we’ll make a batch of browned butter frosting, a recipe in Greaty’s head, not her book, and frost the ones we haven’t eaten.  I’ll take a plate to Mom; Gram will visit Greaty and get her share.They like their modern conveniences, Mom and Gram do, but they always love our home baked goodies.

Greaty leafs through the cookbook.  “Look,” she says, “here are ‘MAB’ brownies.  That’s a recipe from Mabel Ann Brown, and there’s no chocolate in ’em.  She always said, MAYBE they’re brownies..and maybe they’re not.  Hence, the name, which she thought was a good joke on her initials.”

We’ve made that recipe–they’re buttery good, with pie filling spooned over the crust layer, and then little splots of dough melting on top of that.  When we have bake sales at school, people beg me to bring MAB brownies.  I always say, “MAYBE I will,” and laugh to myself.

There’s a recipe for what Greaty and I call buckeye krispie treats…crisp rice cereal mixed with a boiled concoction of corn syrup and peanut butter and spread in a pan.  We top it with melted chocolate and butterscotch chips, and we melt them in the microwave, which was not a foreseeable option when Greaty got this book.  But the recipe still works perfectly.

There’s a recipe for the most wonderful fudge in the world, which has become a family treasure.  Even non-bakers Mom and Gram can’t let Christmas go by without making a batch of that special fudge.

Greaty and I usually head right to the ‘Cookies and Candies’ section, but she says there are great meal time recipes in there too–a wonderful method for Swiss steak, and a no-fail recipe for roast chicken.

“When the Baptist ladies finally got the book together and ready to sell,” Greaty tells me, “I bought three copies.  I sent one to Gwyn, who loved it too.  I kept one to use.  And I bought one for your Grammy, but she said, ‘Oh, poo, Mom; I’m not using those old lady recipes.’  She hurt my feelings, I’ll tell you.  I asked your mom if she would like it, when she first married your dad, and she laughed.  Cooking wasn’t on her list of things to do, she informed me.”

I think of Greaty putting the book away, hiding her hurt feelings with a laugh and a shake of her head.  I imagine her selling the book at a Congregational Church rummage sale, picture one of the Baptist ladies finding it, getting HER feelings hurt because nobody wanted that very special collection.

I don’t know why–it’s such a little thing–but it makes me ache. I put down my tea, and lean forward to give Grammy a big hug, but she’s bending away from me, reaching into her capacious black purse.

“And isn’t it,” she says softly, “a good thing those women said no?  Because you’re the one that will appreciate it.  If they’d taken it, it would just have gotten thrown away or left behind.  But now, I can give it to you.”

She hands me a manila envelope.  I open it and slide out a perfect version of the Wales Township Old Regular Baptist Ladies’ Guild Cookbook, 1952.  It’s in pristine condition, although the edges of the pages have turned a rich golden color…almost the color of the edges of our jubilee jumbles.

“Oh, Greaty,” I breathe, and it’s a moment too big for awkward, fumbling gestures.  So I just grin and say, “I promise I will use this and use this and use it, until it’s in worse shape than yours.”

She grins back and gives me a quick hug, and we start to make the frosting.

 

*************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

 

I was looking through cookbooks this week, and, in one my retired colleague Crisanne (a great colleague but not, as yet, a great grandma) gave me, I found a recipe called ‘Marietta Cookies.’ I made the cookies—they’re different and delicious. The name intrigued me, though—was ‘Marietta’ a person? Were these cookies that someone from Marietta always served? I couldn’t discover any answers, but I did find the same exact recipe, under ‘Potato Chip Cookies’ on cooks.com.

The recipe for MAB brownies follows, too; we’ve often speculated about the name. That comes from a book my mother-in-law, Pat Zanghi, was kind enough to share many, many years ago. The cover is falling off; I may soon have to go Greaty’s route and take this book apart in order to save it. The recipes, of course, remain tried and true.

The directions here are just as they appear in the cookbooks.

Marietta Cookies

1 c. butter or margarine
½ c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
¾ c. crushed potato chips
½ c. chopped nuts (I put mine in the food processor and pulsed them fine)
2 c. flour

Cream together the butter, sugar & vanilla. Add potato chips & nuts. Stir in the flour. Roll dough into 1” balls. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Using the flat bottom of a water glass dipped in white sugar, press each cookie until flat. Bake at 350 degrees for 15-18 minutes.

Contributed by Betty Stover

–from Iliff United Methodist Church’s Sharing Our Best (2009, Morris Press Cookbooks). The church is in Crooksville, Ohio.

 


M.A.B. Brownies

1 c. margarine
2 c. sugar
3 c. flour
4 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 can fruit pie filling (or make your own)

Cream 1 and 2, add 1 egg at a time beating after each. Add flour and vanilla. Spread ¾ on greased cookie sheet. Spread on pie filling, then spoon on remaining batter. Bake 350 degrees, 30 minutes.

Contributed by Bev Barnes

—from Cooking With Love 1987, compiled by members and friends of the Laona United Methodist Church, Laona, New York (Walter’s Cookbooks, Waseca, MN)

Let Go, Let Go, Let Go

 

 

I open the back door of the Escort, and Ella peers at me from her car seat.  Her eyes well tears; her bottom lip quivers.

“Come on, baby,” I say.  “Let’s go meet the other kids!”

“No, Mama,” she whispers.  I unbuckle the belts and lift her from the car seat.  She clings to me, clamped on, across the crowded parking lot.

Inside, the hallways gleam with back to school brilliance.  Ella’s preschool starts at 9:15, an hour and fifteen minutes after the big kids start regular school, so there is a buzz, a hum, an underlying energy that vibrates in the very floor as we walk down to the preschool classroom.

We are early, but other children are already there.  The smiling teachers, Miss Claire and Miss Betsy, have a tempting array of toys spread enticingly throughout the room.  There are crayons and fresh sheets of drawing paper and books  on each of the small round tables.

“Look, Ella,” I whisper, “there’s Clifford and Emily!”

“No,” she says into my neck.  A brown-haired, bowl-cutted, boy, rubbing his red crayon back and forth on a yellow sheet of paper, looks up briefly and shrugs.

Miss Betsy comes over.  “Good morning, Ella!” she says, and she peels my three year old off my body. “This is going to be a great day,” Betsy tells Ella, “and you will make new friends.”

“NO,” says Ella with great finality as Betsy lowers her to the ground. With startling quickness, Ella is wrapped around my right leg, and she is into full tantrum warm up.  “No mama no mama NO MAMA NO! NO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” and she is off and wailing.

Betsy looks at me sympathetically and mouths, “Go quickly.” She removes Ella with seasoned dexterity.

“Goodbye, Ella!” I say.  “I will see you at 11!”

I flee, tears starting in my own eyes, rushing out the door on a tidal roar of, “NOOOOOO, MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

I stand in the hallway for 30 minutes listening to my child wail, and then I go out to the car and cry for half an hour myself.

***************
I pull the Vibe into the parking lot of the middle school and ruffle Ella’s newly cut hair. She turns to look at me; her twelve year old eyes are bottomless.

“I don’t know, Mom,” she says.  She eyes a couple of other girls meandering up the walkway to the big old brick building.  I know she is checking out their clothes–Did I pick right? she is asking herself.

Her little plaid skirt and long sleeved black top will do.  The other girls have very similar outfits.

“We walked this out,” I remind her.  We had come to the open school two days running and followed her schedule–from home room to math class to English to Gym. She knows how to get to the cafeteria. Her afternoon classes are next door to each other.

We have arrived early so she can get to her locker through hallways that are not tumultuous with first day mayhem.

Her hand is on the door handle, her body tensed.

“You can do it,” I whisper.  “You’ll be great.”

She leans over and gives me a quick, self conscious peck; she grabs her not-yet-full backpack, and she bolts out the door.  Head down, she scurries up the walk.  At the big shiny red door she pauses, hand on the heavy metal handle.  She turns to look at me pleadingly.

She looks suddenly tiny next to the massive door, which must be eight feet high, my big girl shrunken and frightened by this new challenge.  She is all long legs, knobby knees, and tension.

“You can do it,” I mouth, and she shakes her head, almost angrily.  Then she pulls herself up, yanks on the door, and disappears.

I sit there for  moment, leaving my twelve-year-old Ella in a nest of strangers.  She’ll be great, I think.  I pull myself up, an echo from a moment ago, and restart the car.

****************

As we are pulling the crisp new blue sheets over the mattress of the bed on the right-hand side of the room–a predetermined arrangement–Abby and her mom Mary come in.  There is hugging and squealing, and the girls dig treasures out of their bags, laughing.

A coffee maker;  I’m learning to drink it!

Oh, very cool–a bagel slicer; we can go to the bakery over on Downing Street on weekends. 

They unpack their clothes neatly, folded things in dressers, hanging things behind the closets’ louvered doors.

They put toothbrushes and soaps, hang towels and washcloths, in the bathroom.

Mary and I hang the curtains we’ve collaborated on, smooth matching duvets, plump up new pillows. We fold afghans over the foot of each bed. The girls flit around, putting books on shelves, supplies on desks, saying tentative hellos to neighbors who poke their heads in to meet them.

This is 210 McHenry Hall: Ella’s new home for the next academic year.  She is 18, still leggy, but the knobby colt-like quality is gone; this is the classy legginess of a young woman.  And this is her dream school; this is where she’ll decide between the physics degree and the writing degree.  She will take her intro physics course, her calculus, her two English classes, and begin determining: Do I want to be a scientist? Or a writer?  Can I do both???

She and Abby, another bright, ambitious, over-achiever, have met twice, corresponded and emailed all summer; she is ready.

But–as Mary and I look around the room, knowing it’s all set, knowing it’s time to go, both girls begin to shimmer just slightly.  I feel Mary doing what just I am doing, girding for goodbye.

We hug our girls hard, we demand that they call that very night.  They roll their eyes,–eyes that threaten to leak.

I pause in the parking lot  as I dig out my keys to the Scion, and look up.  Her face is pressed to the second floor window, a hand flattened on either side.

You can do it, I mouth.  She gives me a thumbs up, peels herself from the window, and I climb into my car and start the ignition.

*****************

I love Andy; he loves Ella.  He is kind and good and smart and hard-working.  She glows when she looks at him.

She has lived in the city for three years; she is independent and savvy.  But when she emerges, changed from her tulle and lace extravaganza into a beautiful flowy top and tight and trendy jeans for the start of the honeymoon, her eyes are the frightened, sorrowful eyes of my little girl.

I hug her hard, rock her back and forth, make her giggle.

She and Andy open their Jeep doors–my liberated baby is driving; she looks at me long and hard over the roof of the car.

It’ll be great, I mouth, and I see that little shimmer; then she grins and slides inside, and they’re off to begin a marriage.

*********************
They call me when they’re ready to go, and I meet them at the hospital.  Her contractions are three minutes apart; she’s in her fuzzy robe, her long legs hunkered up in the wheel chair, her hands on either side of her big belly.

She breathes like they taught her: Huff.  Huff. Huff.

Andy signs papers and answers questions and a cheerful, motherly nurse pads out in pink and blue patterned scrubs.  The woman at the desk smiles at me and shows me where to sit; the motherly nurse rounds up Andy, deftly turns the wheelchair around, and starts to roll my Ella away.

She cranes her head around, looking for me.  There is panic.  I don’t think I can do this, she telegraphs.

You’ll be GREAT, I telepath back, and she disappears to birth my beautiful granddaughter, mysteriously named Devon after an English river neither Andy nor Ella has ever seen.

****************************

Ella arrives at my door; she has just taken Devon to her first day of preschool.

“Oh, my God,” she says.  “How did you ever do this?” and she tells me about the teacher peeling her four year old from her leg and shooing her, (Goodby, Mom! We’ll be fine!) out the door, and about standing in the hallway listening to her baby cry for her.

I do all the right things: I smooth her hair, I cradle her cheeks for an instant; I plant a firm kiss on her tensed up brow, and I take her out for coffee.  I tell her stories about her own stubborn little self until she is laughing shakily.

“Does it get easier?” she asks, and I tell her that it does, little by little.  And that Devon is great, so smart, so ready; she’ll do really well.

I don’t tell her everything, though, as I look fondly at my daughter, a mature woman, a wonderful mother, who is right now surreptitiously stealing half of my warm and oozey chocolate chip cookie.

I don’t tell her that I’ve decided each leaving is like having a stitch removed. If the skin is healthy–if the child is ready–it hurts just when  the stitch is pulled.  Sometimes, in fact, it stings like hell, the sudden pain vibrating up and down my body.  But then under the pain, as what was stitched together starts to separate a little bit, I discovered, there is a tiny glowing orb,  a little pearl-like nugget–a little jot of freedom.

I don’t tell her that in a month, Devon will be bolting out of the car, anxious to see her friends, forgetful of the mama dragging in behind her with a Hello Kitty backpack, a Scholastic book order form, and a signed promise to send in two dozen cupcakes for the UnBirthday Party the following week. Or that she will say goodbye and drive off and feel a rush of joy at having two hours to herself,–two hours in which she can take her tablet to the coffee shop and pound the keys in blissful quiet, or–what luxury–when she can take a deep, sucking-in- sleep-like-a-parched-runner-downs-water, nap.

I don’t tell her that each leaving signals a growth in her daughter…and a little more freedom for her, the mama.  She will savor that freedom, feeling a guilty pang for doing so, and she will help her daughter reach and grow and get sturdy and strong.  And each time they say goodbye, she’ll know: Devon is ready for this. She’ll be great.

If I told her this, she’d be brought up short; she’d think, Mom!  You were GLAD when I was gone???

I’ll let her discover the flip side of the leaving on her own.  Right now, I grab her hand, studded with dots of melted chocolate, and we laugh.  It’s these moments, I tell her, the moments between the leavings, that we savor.

Parsing the Puppy: A Tale Told to Family

Image taken from open Internet source
Image taken from open Internet source

By the time the day—lazy hours on the beach, chasing kids in the water; late afternoon browse through the shops; a long walk with Martin; and then dinner at the restaurant,–had wound itself into almost sunset, Dell was beat. The family had spun off into single cells; she could hear her daughter-in-law Jillie bathing Shaylynn, a raucous, splashy event. Nessa was out for a walk with her aunts and the girl-cousins. The men, Martin included, had scattered.
Maybe there was a game on, she thought. In the quiet of the kitchen, sifting through the debris of five families bunking in one big rental house, Dell found a clean glass, loaded it with ice cubes, and poured white wine over the top. She found her Louise Penny mystery and, cradling that and her drink, she stepped through the sliding doors to the deck.
She slid into a comfortable Adirondack chair. There was a breeze; she felt deliciously cool after the heat of the day, a degree above goose bumps. She put her feet up on the little metal table, testing its pebbled glass top. The water shimmered, sooshing softly. On the horizon, the sun limned clouds with the special rosy peach glow of setting sun. Her brother Kevin, alone on the beach, stacked wood for a fire.
Dell opened her book, took a long, sweet sip of wine, and, savoring the quiet and the opportunity, began to read.
She was two chapters in, the sun just poised to dive, when she realized suddenly her solitude was busted. A little face peered up at her, framed by a fuzzy glow of fine blonde hair, rubbed dry and flying, staticky, fresh from a bath.
“Tell me a story, Grandma Dell?” said Shaylynn, and Dell pulled the sweet smelling three year old, toweled and jammied, onto her lap.
“What story would you like?” asked Dell, and Shaylynn, whose current passion was puppies, replied immediately. “Tell me the time Grandpa Joe brought Pantry home.”
“Oh,” said Dell, “that’s one of my favorite stories, because I was there, and Pantry was my best buddy for a long, long time.
“It was a crisp Fall day, and I was four years old, just a year older than you are now, punkin pie. Just before dinner, my mom–your great grandma,–called us all into the kitchen. We were watching TV–the Three Stooges, I think–and my brothers–those are your uncles Little Joe and Lyle and Anthony–thought she wanted us to turn off the TV and get ready for dinner. But instead, here’s what she said:
“’Your dad is coming home in a few minutes, and he’s got a big surprise. A big surprise that’s kind of little.’”
Shaylynn sighed contentedly, and Dell saw Martin rounding the corner of the house, swinging his espadrilles. With him were Lyle and Anthony; her son Nathan’s infectious laughter followed them. They stopped at the beer cooler, and she heard the ‘cha-chooch’ of bottle caps turning; then the men settled onto the bottom step of the deck where they could watch the sun take its plunge.
“Well, imagine,” Dell continued. “We were all in a tizzy. We begged and begged for her to tell us what she meant, but she just said it might be a good idea to get the table ready for dinner so we didn’t have to worry about anything when the surprise got there. So you bet we set that table as fast and as nice as it’d ever been set. My job was to put the silverware by each place and I made sure the knives and spoons were neatly and nicely on one side, and the forks lined up straight as soldiers on the other.”
“Huh,” scoffed Lyle. “I don’t remember you having any jobs.”
“And we hadn’t any more than gotten done than Grandpa Joe’s big blue Buick pulled up the long driveway, crunching on the autumn leaves,” Dell continued.
“Dad had the woody wagon that year, not the Buick,” said Lyle.
“Shush!” warned Shaylynn.
“We all yelled, ‘Dad’s home! Dad’s home!’ [“We didn’t ALL yell ‘Dad’s home!’” said Lyle, darkly] and Little Joe and Lyle and Anthony, who had their sneakers on, went flying out the back door. I was in my stocking feet, so I stood by the storm door, so close my breath made steam clouds on the glass, and waited anxiously.”
“I believe,” said Anthony, “that Little Joe was out delivering papers that day.”
Dell sighed. “Grandpa Joe climbed out of the Buick and your three uncles were bouncing all around him. He took his time; I could see him putting his hands out like this” (Dell extended her arms, palms out flat, and made a puzzled face) “and I knew he was saying, ‘Surprise? What surprise?’”
“He was saying, ‘Get your little asses out of my way,’” said Lyle.
“Lyle! Hush now,” said Mary Rita, his wife, who’d just come out on the deck. She settled in on the step behind the men. She poked her husband in the back.
“Anyway,” said Dell. Shaylynn was glowering at the interrupters. “He bent over to reach back in for his battered old black lunch pail, and my brothers had their heads every which way around him, trying to find the big surprise that was little. But they couldn’t see it. They clustered around your Grandpa Joe as he walked across the yard, through the late afternoon sunlight, to get to the back door.”
“Wasn’t it winter?” asked Anthony. “I believe there was snow on the ground.”
“I held the door open for him and he tousled my hair and leaned over and kissed my mother.
“And we were all clamoring: ‘Where’s the surprise? Where’s the surprise?’
“And my father looked all surprised himself—“
“–Make the face, Grandma,” said Shaylynn, and Dell pulled on a mask of comic shock and stared down, wide-eyed at Shaylynn, who mirrored the same exact face and stared back.
“…and he said to my mother, ‘Claire, was I supposed to bring a surprise home?’
“And she said, ‘Oh, you remember, Joe. The big surprise that is very small?’
“ ‘Oh. Oh, THAT surprise,’ said your Great Grandpa Joe, and he said to Little Joe, ‘I think I put it in this pocket.’
“Grandpa Joe had on his big working coat, a kind of golden color, so thick and hard that it could stand up by itself in a corner if my dad forgot to put it on a hanger in the back hall closet.”
“Oh, now,” said Anthony. “That’s not right. He had a blue denim jacket. Remember that, Lyle? It was a long denim jacket with a black corduroy collar.”
“The pockets,” said Dell firmly, “of the gold jacket were big and deep and your Uncle Little Joe reached into the one my dad pointed to, but all he pulled out was a balled up plaid handkerchief.
“‘Uck!’” said Little Joe, and he threw the used hankie down the cellar steps toward the washing machine.
“‘Huh,’ said Grandpa Joe. ‘Not there, eh? Try this one, Lyle,’ and Lyle reached into a chest pocket, and all he found was a stinky old pack of Camel cigarettes.
“‘Bleahhhh’, said Lyle and he tossed the pack on the table. Our eyes were all on my father, not missing a blink.”
“Another piece of revisionist history,” said Lyle.
Shaylynn sat up, extended her arm, and shook her stubby forefinger. “SHUSH!” she said.
Lyle tilted his beer and drank.
Dell continued. “‘Well,’ said your Grandpa Joe, thoughtfully, ‘I only have one pocket left, Anthony.’ And Anthony reached into the other big, deep pocket. His expression, first all excited and wound up, kind of melted into a sweet surprise, and he left his hand in my dad’s pocket for a long moment. We were holding our breaths, and finally Lyle said, ‘Come on. Come ON!’
“And Anthony slowly pulled his hand out of Grandpa Joe’s pocket and there, curled up like a little furry ball was a tiny little puppy dog.”

“What color was it?” asked Shaylynn sleepily.
“It was black and white with tiny golden brown spots. The tip of its tiny black tail was white,” said Dell. Shaylynn sighed and snuggled deeper, having nailed down this important fact.
“The brown spots,” said Lyle, “didn’t show up until later.”
Shaylynn growled, deep in her throat.
“‘Put him on the floor, Anthony,’ said my mother, and Anthony lowered the puppy to the floor. The little thing just wobbled there for a minute and then it seemed to find its legs, and it scrambled around in circles.
“‘What will we call it?’ asked Little Joe, and my mother said we’d have to start thinking of a name, and we all sat and watched the little mite explore. It went this way and it went that way.”
“Was it a BOY dog or a GIRL dog?” asked Shaylynn, prodding, reminding, the arbiter of essential detail.
“Thank you, darling,” said Dell. “It was a girl puppy, and it skittered around and then suddenly it made a straight little bee-line for the cupboard we kept the canned goods in, the cupboard we called the pantry.”
“It didn’t make a BEE line,” said Anthony. “It came to me first, and I POINTED it toward the pantry.”
“That dog,” said Lyle, “didn’t even LIKE you, Anthony.”
“The hell you say!” said Anthony. “That dog LOVED me.”
“BOYS,” said Mary Rita.
“‘It’s a PANTRY dog!’ I said, and my mom said, ‘Maybe we will call her Pantry.’ And we did.”
“Oh, so YOU named the dog?” said Kevin, helping himself to a beer.
“Shut up, Kevin,” said Anthony. “You weren’t even born yet.”
“Did you FEED it?” nudged Shaylynn, and, “We did,” replied Dell. “Your Grandma Claire poured a little saucer of milk and put it on the floor and that hungry little puppy did an about face–she knew that milk was all hers–and she lolloped over and put her tiny little head down, and she drank every single bit. She drank so much, her tummy got so full her little legs couldn’t touch the floor. Grandpa Joe had to pick her up and put her softly into a little nesty bed of newspaper and a soft old rag, and she curled right up and went to sleep.”
“And did Pantry have to pee?” asked Shaylynn.
“Oh yes,” said Dell. “There was pee-ing and there was pooping and all of that stuff, and she had to be trained and walked and cleaned up after, but she was a good, good dog, and she lived a good long life. She was 16 years old and that’s a very long time in dog years. She went from a tiny puppy to a grand old lady dog.”
“And we have pictures,” said Shaylynn.
“Yes,” said Dell. “We have pictures. And it’s time for a mama to put a sleepy little girl to bed.” She planted a kiss on the cotton candy hair and boosted the snuggly little body to Jillie, waiting patiently.
Jillie hefted her daughter and turned to head back into the house, but Shaylynn’s sleepy voice made her pause.
“Grandma?” asked the little girl.
“Yes, darlin’?”
“Did they live in your same house?” asked Shaylynn, jutting her chin toward the uncles.
“Well,” Dell said slowly, “not always and not exactly. They lived in a place called Silly Uncles Fantasy Land. But we let them come to visit once in a while.”
“Okay,” said Shaylynn. “GOOD.”
Jillie maneuvered the sleepy child through the sliding door and into the dark, quiet house.
The sun plunged. The water was glints in the darkness; Kevin’s fire snapped and shimmered on the beach.
Lyle and Anthony both opened their mouths. But before they could speak, Mary Rita put a bare foot on the small of each back. She rocked backward for traction, and then she kicked them, firmly, onto the sand.