Authors: Betty MacDonald
Tags: #General Fiction
In Placerville, my father supervised his first large placer mining project and as the work was both dangerous and hard, Mother tore the partitions out of the crackerbox house, built a fireplace and bore my brother Sydney Cleveland, all by herself. Cleveland had red hair. All this red hair caused a lot of comment in Placerville, as Mother was a blonde with brown eyes and Daddy had jet black hair and gray eyes. What no one knew was that Daddy had a bright red beard if he let it grow. When Cleve was born Mother's father wired her, "I trust you won't feel called upon to have a child in every state in the Union."
Our next jaunt was East to visit Mother's mother or Deargrandmother. The moment we arrived, we children were stuffed into a nursery with an adenoidal nurse named Phyllis, and at my five-year-old birthday party the children were instructed by Deargrandmother not to bring presents. My, how we longed for Gammy with her shoes on the wrong feet and her easy friendly ways. Deargrandmother was noted for her beautiful figure and proud carriage but she toed out and had trouble with her arches. She taught Mary and me to turn our toes out when we walked, say "Very well, thank you" instead of "Fine" when people inquired of our health, and to curtsy when we said "How do you do?" She tried hard to scrape the West off these little nuggets, but as soon as we returned home Daddy made us walk like Indians again, feet pointed straight ahead. I would like to remark here and now, that this walking with feet pointed straight ahead is the only thing about an Indian which I would care to imitate.
When we returned from Auburn, we moved to Butte and lived there for the next four years.
Of Butte I remember long underwear which Gammy called "chimaloons" for some strange reason of her own. We folded our "chimaloons" carefully at the ankles so as not to wrinkle our white stockings. I remember my new Lightning Glider sled and coasting fourteen blocks downhill on Montana Street and hitching a ride all the way back. I remember icicles as big as our legs hanging outside the windows, and bobsledding at night with Daddy, who invariably tipped the sled over and took us home bawling. Creamed codfish and baked potatoes for breakfast and hot soup with grease bubbles which Gammy called "eyes" in it for lunch. Walking to the post office with Daddy on Sunday night and holding bags of popcorn in our clumsy mittened hands and drinking the hot buttery popcorn out of the bag. The Christmas when we had scarlet fever and the thermometer went down and stuck in the bulb and we got wonderful presents which had to be burned. Creaking down the street through the dry snow to dancing school, our black patent leather slippers in a flowered bag, our breath white in front of us. A frozen cheek that Mother thawed with snow. A wonderful sleighride into the mountains at night with the bells sounding like tinkling glass, the runners hissing softly and our eyes peering from heaps of robes.
When Cleve and I used to "rassle" to see who would get the biggest apple, the most candy, or any of the other senseless things children quarrel about, Gammy would stand over us and shout, "Get the hatchet, Cleve, and kill her now. You'll do it some day, so why not now." This infuriated us so that we would cease pounding each other and become bosom friends just to "show" Gammy. Perhaps this was her underlying motive but it used to seem to me that she was far too anxious to get rid of her little namesake.
My sister Darsie was born when I was in the second grade. She was small and had dark hair. Also in the second grade a little boy named Waldo wet his panties while we were standing in the front of the class for reading and I got so red in the face that the teacher, a horrid creature who said "wite" for white and "tred" for thread, blamed me and felt my panties, to see if they were dry, in front of the whole class.
Mary and I wore white stockings to school every day and shoes with patent leather bottoms and white kid tops. Mary turned her stockings wrong side out and wore them two days which would have been all right but she told everybody and I was ashamed. Gammy made us wear aprons which she called "aperns" over our dresses while we were playing after school. She would greet us at the door with the "aperns" but if we managed to sneak out without them she would stand on the porch and call in a high mournful wail, "Giiiiiiiiirls, come get your 'aperns'" (this last a high banshee shriek). After school, if the weather was nice, we played on the Montana School of Mines dump and found lots of the little clay retort cups in which gold had been assayed.
When we said bad words, which we did as fast as we learned them, and Gammy or Mother learned of it, we were given "heart medicine." This was a dark vile-tasting liquid which while shriveling our tongues was supposed to be purifying our hearts. I learned later that it was bitter cascara and no doubt served a double purpose. We could not understand why our "hired girls," who said God and Jesus all the time, were never given "heart medicine" while we innocent little children used up about a bottle a week.
Our "hired girls" were hot tempered Irish girls who hated children, especially children with red hair, and smacked us and threatened to quit if we came into the kitchen. They showed surprising weaknesses, however, like the Mary whom Mother found one frosty morning weeping into the hotcake batter. "What is the matter?" Mother asked, thinking it was probably a man. "Jesus-God, Mrs. Bard, I can't get the damned things round," and she tearfully pointed out a heap of oblong and oval hotcakes she had thrown into the sink.
Butte had no budding trees, no spring flowers and no green grass, but we knew when spring came by the raging torrents that ran in the gutters. In one such torrent I found a five-dollar bill. I thought it was a shoe coupon—I was collecting them—and carefully scooped it out with the toe of my rubber and took it home to Gammy, who ironed it dry and told me that it was five dollars. This was the first paper money I had ever seen, as silver and gold were used exclusively in Butte, and I didn't really feel that I had found five dollars until Daddy exchanged it for a gold piece which I put in my copper bank with the picture of the Anaconda Smelter on the front of it. Later Cleve and I hacked this little bank open with a mining pick and spent the five-dollar gold piece on penny candy.
In the spring Gammy took us for walks in the hills and we were careful not to fall in "prospect holes" which suddenly appeared at our feet, black, scary and bottomless. Gammy told us stories of heedless children who scampered off into the hills to play but never came back and years and years later their little white skeletons were found in "prospect holes." We gathered bluebells and bitterroot daisies and wild garlic. The bluebells were a deep clear blue like fallen sky against the bare black rocks. The bitterroot daisies, the Montana State flower, had little foliage and no stems and lay flat and pink and exquisite on the brown hard earth. We painstakingly dug them up, careful of the roots, carried them home and planted them and they immediately died as all the topsoil of Butte was washed away years before in the placer mining days, and our yard was nothing but decomposed granite. We had one patch of grass in our front yard about the size of a pocket handkerchief. I played there with my dolls, but was very careful not to sit on the grass or injure it in any way. (What would a life-long resident of Butte think if he could have seen the country surrounding our chicken ranch—where fenceposts sprouted, vines crept into the house and everything was so green, green, green, it made me feel bilious?)
One winter in Butte, we were taken to see a play at the Broadway Theatre. The play was
The Bird of Paradise
and we all clung to Gammy's hands and bawled when the beautiful heroine threw herself into the erupting volcano. The next spring we climbed Big Butte, a bare, brown mountain, a thousand feet high and almost in our backyard and were horrified on reaching the top to find a large crater and to have Gammy explain casually that this mountain, the very one on which we lay panting, was a volcano. We ran every inch of the way home, peering back over our shoulders expecting to see the top of poor old Big Butte a fiery furnace with white hot lava oozing down its sides. We never would go up there again and when the sulphur smoke hung low over the city, veiling the top of Big Butte, we were sure it was erupting.
The sulphur smoke smelled awful but Gammy made us breathe deep and suck it down inside of us. She said it disinfected our insides. She also made us drink gallons of vile-tasting water at White Sulphur Springs. Between the "heart medicine" and the sulphur water and smoke we should have been as pure as angels, but unfortunately this was not the case, for we worked diligently to find out where babies came from, until one fateful day when my sister, Mary, proclaimed to the assembled neighborhood children, from a little platform we had erected in the backyard, "Ladies and Gentlemen, babies are born out of people's stomach holes." I can still taste the heart medicine.
Gammy used to walk us downtown but as she made us close our eyes every time we passed a saloon the walks were valuable to us more for the fresh air than for the sights we saw. Once she had us open our eyes to see a hat in Hennessy's store window which cost $105. We could not get over it. One hundred and five dollars for a hat! We made three trips to see that hat but I haven't the faintest recollection of what it looked like, no doubt because I kept my eyes glued to the price mark. We had heard from Mother that Hennessy's, the company store, also sold Paris gowns but they didn't put these in the window so we never saw one.
Often cowboys in chaps and ten-gallon hats rode cayuses down Main Street and several times Indian braves on ponies, followed by squaws on foot with papooses on their backs, filed slowly past the one-hundred-and-five-dollar hat window. These were the Blackfeet Indians and they wore beautifully beaded dresses and chaps and terrific feather headdresses, and had long noses and cold Indian eyes. As Gammy had read us the stories of Hiawatha, Pocahontas and Sitting Bull and told us many hair-raising tales of massacres, scalpings and running the gantlet, we thought these Indians were simply wonderful, so strong and brave, and would run for blocks to see them. I still harbored these romantic notions about Indians when I moved to the chicken ranch, and it was a bitter blow when I learned that today's little red brother, or at least the Pacific Coast variety which I saw, is not a tall copper-colored brave, who, clad only in beads and feathers and brandishing a bow and arrow, bounds around in the deep woods. Instead, our Indian, squat and mud-colored, was more apt to be found slouched in a Model T, a toothpick clenched between his yellow teeth, a drunken leer on his flat face. On the reservation he was orderly and well behaved and, we were told, used to engage in dangerous pursuits like whaling and seal hunting; but in appearance, at any rate, he resembled the story-book variety and my childhood Blackfeet Indian, about as much as a mud shark resembles a Beardsley trout.
Our summers were spent camping in the mountains. Usually we had a camp man and slept in tents and followed Daddy about while he examined mines, but other times we had cabins on a lake and stayed with Gammy while Mother and Daddy did the travelling. My still-smoldering hatred for and distrust of wild animals were implanted on these camping trips. Once we almost fell on a large bear, placidly eating huckleberries on the other side of a log. Another time Daddy pointed out a mountain lion lying in the sun on a ledge above our heads. Bears were always knocking down our tents and eating our supplies and at night the coyotes and timber wolves howled dismally.
Mother and Daddy fished incessantly and we had Rainbow trout, which we children loathed, three times a day. Sometimes Gammy came camping with us but only when we had cabins and didn't spend our days "traipsing" through the mountains. Gammy stayed with us while Mother and Daddy took trips and fished and although they were considerate and always asked if we cared to come along, we always refused because Mother and Daddy loved danger and were always walking logs over deep terrible ravines; walking into black dangerous mine tunnels; wading into swift turbulent streams and doing other scary things. Gammy, on the other hand, carefully avoided danger and was constantly on the alert for it.
Summer days with Gammy were spent in her cabin with the doors and windows shut tight against the dangers of mountain air. We would all crouch around her rocking chair while she read to us out of
and fed us licorice drops out of her black bag. This routine was varied occasionally by a thunderstorm, whose first clap of thunder sent us hurtling under the bed clutching feather pillows and praying, or by very short walks during which Gammy called us all to a halt every few feet to listen for rattlesnakes. She had us whipped into a state where the rattle of a leaf would turn us white and sweaty and send us scurrying home to the safety of the cabin. Gammy impressed us with all of the dangers of outdoor living. She warned us against eagles, hawks, bees, flies—horseflies which bit—mosquitoes and gnats which might attack from the air; ticks, snakes, leeches, and bugs which might spring snarling from the ground; and she had us convinced that the trees along the edge of the clearing where our cabins were, were like the bars of the cages at the zoo and just behind them prowled hundreds of timber wolves, grizzly bears and mountain lions fighting for a chance to eat us.
From the summers we spent with Mother and Daddy camping in tents, we returned to town brown and healthy, but from the summers spent with Gammy, we came back as jumpy as fleas and pale and scraggly from the hours of lying on feather pillows under the beds praying during the thunderstorms and the days crowded in the close cabins out of the reach of groping fangs. We, of course, never told brave, fearless Mother and Daddy about Gammy and the dangers of outdoor life, and they probably wondered why they, so strong and daring, should have produced this group of high-tensioned rabbits.
When Mother and Daddy went away from home on long trips, which they did frequently, we stayed at home with Gammy. She had us all sleep in her room on army cots and folding beds which she hastily and carelessly erected and which were always collapsing and giving us skinned noses and black eyes. Gammy kept a pair of Daddy's shoes beside her bed and when she heard any noise in the house she leaned out of bed and stamped the shoes on the floor so that the robber or killer, whichever one happened to be downstairs, would think that there was a man in the house instead of "a lone helpless woman and several small children" all huddled upstairs waiting to be killed.