Authors: Betty MacDonald
Tags: #General Fiction
Our "hired girls" often came in late and I've wondered since if this stamping of manly feet upstairs in the dead of night, when they knew that Mother and Daddy were in New York or Alaska, didn't lead them to believe that Gammy had a secret love life. To the casual eyes of a maid this idea might have been plausible, as Gammy was a very pretty woman, small with large blue eyes, delicate regular features and tinselly curly hair. But to those of us who knew her there were several good reasons why this wouldn't, couldn't be. In the first place Gammy hated men—all men, except Daddy. "Just like some big stinkin' Man," she would sneer as she lapped up the account of a rape or murder in the paper. Or, "The whole world's run for Men and don't you forget it," she would warn us as she inspected us to see if our eyes were shut before marching us past the Silver Dollar Saloon. Or, when we were having mining men, friends of Daddy's, to dinner, which we did six nights a week, Gammy would caution the hired girl, "Don't make it so awful good. Men'll eat anything. The pigs!"
In the second place, any lover of Gammy's would have had to equip himself with enduring desire and a bowie knife, for Gammy was well covered. She thought nakedness was a sin and warned us, "Don't let me catch you running around in your naked strip!" and for her own part, she merely added or removed layers of clothing as the weather demanded. On top she always had a clean, ruffly white "apern"—during the day this was covered by a large checked "apern." Under the aprons were a black silk dress, a black wool skirt, a white batiste blouse with a high collar, any number of flannel petticoats, a corset cover, the upside-down corset with the bust part fitting snugly over the hips, and at long last the "chimaloons."
In the third place, a lover of Gammy's certainly would have had a lumpy couch with her nightgowns, bed jackets and several extra suits of "chimaloons" folded under the pillow, her Bible tucked under the sheet at the top right-hand side, any book she happened to be reading tucked under the sheet on the other side, little bags of candy, an apple or two, current magazines, numerous sachets and her bottle of camphor just tucked under the blankets or scattered under the pillows within easy reach. We children thought this an ideal arrangement, for when we were lonely or frightened Gammy's bed was as comforting as a crowded country store.
Gammy was an inexhaustible reader-aloud and took us through the Bible,
, Dickens, Thackeray, Lewis Carroll, Kipling,
The Little Colonel
The Wizard of Oz
The Five Little Peppers
, and all of Zane Grey, which we adored, before we left Butte. She changed long words to ones we could understand without faltering, but after an hour or two with
The Little Colonel
The Five Little Peppers
she would begin to doze and we would be dispatched to the kitchen to ask Mary the Cook for some black coffee. Usually this revived her completely and she would continue until lunch or supper or bedtime, but sometimes, especially during the nauseous antics of the Little Colonel or the continual bawling of the Five Little Peppers who cried when they were happy, Gammy would drink cup after cup of black coffee but would still fall asleep and when she awoke would read the same paragraph over and over. We would make several futile tries to wake her and then would give up and go out to play.
Gammy was patient, impatient, kind, caustic, witty, sad, wise, foolish, superstitious, religious, prejudiced and dear. She was, in short, a grandmother who is, after all, a woman whose inconsistencies have sharpened with use. I have no patience with women who complain because their mothers or their husbands' mothers have to live with them. To my prejudiced eye, a child's life without a grandparent
would be a barren thing.
Battre L'Eau avec un Bâton
hen I was nine years old we moved to Seattle, Washington, and the pioneering days were over and preparedness for the future began. At least I'm quite sure that is what Mother and Daddy had in mind when they started Mary and me taking singing, piano, folk dancing, ballet, French and dramatic lessons. If they had only known what the future held, at least for me, they could have saved themselves a lot of money and effort because for my life on the chicken ranch a few hours a day shut in the icebox contemplating a pan of eggs would have been incalculably more useful early training than, say, French or ballet. French did come in handy in reading books by bilingual Englishmen and women, but conversationally it was a washout, as I did most of my talking to myself, and only Frenchmen go around talking to themselves in French.
In addition to our injections of culture, we children were suddenly tumbled into a great health program. We ate no salt, never drank water with our meals, chewed our food one hundred times, got up at five o'clock in the morning and took cold baths, exercised to music and played tennis. Also, to keep our minds healthy, I guess, we were not allowed to go to the movies or to read the funny papers. One of the houses we lived in had belonged to the Danish Consul and had a large ballroom in the basement which Daddy immediately turned into a gymnasium with horizontal bars, basketball hoops and mattresses. Every night he forced us into this torture chamber for a workout. We leaped over the bar without hands, swung by our knees, played basketball, did back flips and hated Daddy. We did not want to be healthy. We wanted to go to the movies, read the funny papers and relax like all the other unhealthy children we knew. Fortunately Daddy left home on mining trips quite often and the moment the front door closed on his tweed-covered back we got out several months' supply of funny papers and settled down to a life of hot baths and blissful slothfulness until he returned. His mining trips kept him away from home about six months of the year, off and on, and it is a wonder that our muscles withstood this business of being hardened up like flints, only to squash back to jelly. Only the lessons kept on while Daddy was away, as Mother and Gammy weren't any more anxious to get up at five o'clock and take cold baths and exercises than we were.
I have been told that I was directly responsible for this dreadful health complex of Daddy, for I was a thin, greenish child who caught everything. Up to this time I had brought home and we had all had measles, both German and Allied, mumps, chickenpox, pink eye, scarlet fever, whooping cough, lice and the itch. Every morning before sending me off to school, Mother and Gammy would examine me in a strong light to see what I had broken out with during the night, for I looked so unhealthy all of the time that they were unable to determine if I were coming down with a disease until the spots appeared.
We always lived in large houses because Daddy had a penchant for inviting people to stay with us. He would casually wire Mother from Alaska "Meet the
on Thursday—Bill Swift and family coming to Seattle for a few months—have asked them to stay with you." Mother would change the sheets on the guest-room beds, heave a sigh and drive down to meet the boat. Sometimes Bill Swift and his wife and children were charming and we regretted to see them go, but other times Bill Swift was the world's biggest bore, his wife whined all the time and we fought to the death with the children. After the first day, we could tell what the guests were like from Gammy, for if they were interesting, charming people Gammy retaliated in kind and was her most fascinating and witty self, but if they were dull or irritating in any way, Gammy would give us the signal by calling them all by wrong names. If the name was Swift, Gammy would call them Smith, Sharp or Wolf. If one of the children was Gladys, Gammy would call her Gertrude or Glessa, and a boy named Tom would become Tawm. Gammy had other subtle ways of letting them know they were in the way. From her bedroom on the second floor she would call to us children playing in the basement, "Cheeldrun, please come up and see if those bores are still in the bathroom. I've been waiting an hour to get in." We thought this very clever of Gammy as we knew that the guests knew that there were other bathrooms and we would look knowingly at each other and giggle and let her call about five times before we answered. Mother must have drawn heavily on her wealth of charm and tact during those days, for in spite of Gammy's remarks all of our guests stayed their full time and all seemed sorry to go.
When I was eleven and just about ready to go up on my toes in ballet, we bought a house in Laurelhurst near the water. This was a fine big place with an orchard, a vegetable garden, tennis courts and a large level lawn for croquet. We immediately bought a cow (which obligingly had a calf), two riding horses, two dogs, three cats, a turtle, white mice, twelve chickens, two Mallard ducks, several goldfish and a canary. Our animals were not very useful and too friendly and hovered in the vicinity of the back porches day and night. We had a schoolboy who milked the cow, fed the calf, curried the horses and tethered them all out, but either he was weak or they were strong, for the minute he left for school they would all come galloping home to the back porches where Gammy fed them leftover batter cakes, toast and cocoa. We loved all of our animals and apparently our guests did too, or if they didn't love them they didn't mind them, for our house overflowed with guests and animals all of the time. Guests of Daddy's, guests of Mother's, guests of Gammy's, and our friends and animals. There were seven of us, counting Daddy who was rarely home, but our table was always set for twelve and sometimes forty. Dinner was an exciting event and we washed our knees, changed our clothes and brushed our hair with anticipatory fervor. Mother sat at one end of the table and Daddy at the other, if he was home, Gammy sat at Daddy's right and we children were spaced to eliminate fighting. Daddy had made a rule and it was strictly enforced, whether or not he was home, that only subjects of general interest were to be discussed at the table. This eliminated all such contributions from us, as "There is a boy in my room at school who eats flies," and "Myrna Hepplewaite stuck out her tongue at me and I said bah, bah, bah and she hit me back and I told her mother. . . ." In fact, it precluded our entering the conversation at all except on rare occasions which I think was and is an excellent idea. I resent heartily dining at someone's house and having all my best stories interrupted by "Not such a big bite, Hubert," or "Mummy, didn't you say the Easter Bunny came down the chimney?"
As soon as we were settled in Laurelhurst, Daddy decided that in addition to Mary's, Darsie's and my singing, piano, ballet, folk dancing, French and dramatics and Cleve's clarinet lessons, we should all have lessons in general usefulness and self-reliance. His first step in this direction was to have Mary and Cleve and me paint the roof of our three-story house. The roof was to be red and we were each given a bucket of paint, a wide brush, a ladder and some vague general instructions about painting. It seems that there was a shortage of ladders so Cleve and I were on the same one—he was just a rung or two ahead of me and both of us biting our lips and dipping our brushes and slapping on the red paint for all we were worth. We weren't working hard because we liked this job; we didn't, we just thought it was another one of Daddy's damnfool notions and we wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. Cleve and I had just finished the small area over the back porch and were moving up when something went wrong and Cleve dumped his bucket of paint over my head and down the back of my neck. Gammy cleaned me off with turpentine but she grumbled about it and said, "It's a wonder to me you aren't all dead with the ideas some Men get." We finished the roof, though, with Daddy lowering me by the heels so that I could paint the dormers of the attic, but it was a scary, slippery job and was an outstanding failure as far as a lesson in self-reliance was concerned. Daddy's next step was the purchase of a .22 rifle and a huge target. Gammy had hysterics. "
," she bawled, "Guns are for Huns and heathens. Those children will kill each other—please, Darsie, don't give them a gun." So we learned to shoot. Mary and I were both rather nearsighted and very poor shots but Cleve was a good shot and practised all the time. Cleve became such an expert marksman that he took up hunting when he was only ten years old and Daddy thought it was a fine idea until Cleve drew a bead and fired at a quail that was perched on the sill of a huge curved bay window of a neighbor's house. None of the neighbors was killed but the bay window was very expensive and so the gun was put away for a while and Daddy bought us an enormous bow and arrow and a big straw target. While he and Cleve were practising archery, Mary and I were learning to cook. Mother supervised this herself as she was a marvellous cook and Gammy was the world's worst. Mother taught us to put a pinch of clove and lots of onion in with a pot roast; to make French dressing with olive oil and to rub the bowl with garlic; to make mayonnaise and Thousand Island dressing; to cook a sliver of onion with string beans; never to mash potatoes until just before serving; to measure the ingredients for coffee; and always to scald out the teapot.
Gammy taught us that when you bake a cake you put in anything you can lay your hands on. A little onion, several old jars of jam, leftover batter cake dough, the rest of the syrup in the jug, a few grapes, cherries, raisins, plums or dates, and always to use drippings instead of butter or shortening. Her cakes were simply dreadful—heavy and tan and full of seeds and pits. She made a great show of having her feelings hurt if we didn't eat these cakes but I really think she only offered them to us as a sort of character test because if we were strong and refused, she'd throw them out to the dogs or chickens without a qualm.
Gammy said she did not believe in waste and she nearly drove our maids crazy by filling up the icebox with little dishes containing one pea, three string beans, a quarter of a teaspoonful of jam or a slightly used slice of lemon. If Mother finally demanded a cleanup and began jerking dishes out of the refrigerator and throwing stuff away, Gammy would become very huffy and go out and get a twenty-five pound sack of flour and hand it to Mother, saying, "Go on, throw this away too. Waste seems to be the order of the day." Gammy made great big terrible cookies, too. Into these she put the same ingredients she put in the cakes but added much more flour. These cookies were big and round and about half an inch thick. They stuck to the roof of the mouth and had no taste. What to do with them became quite a problem when we finally settled down and weren't moving around any more. They were stacking up alarmingly in the kitchen and lying around the back porch untouched when the Warrens moved across the street from us. The Warrens had a beautiful colonial house and two cars, but their children—there were four of them, two boys and two girls—ate dog biscuits. Why, I don't know, but they did. Mrs. Warren kept a one-hundred-pound sack on the back porch and the little Warrens filled their pockets after school and nibbled at them while playing Kick the Can. We tried some once, and they weren't much of a shock after Gammy's cakes but we didn't care for the rather bitter tang they had—it was no doubt the dried blood and bone. One day the Warren children stopped at our house before going home for their dog biscuits and Gammy happened to be baking cookies (she happened to be baking cookies about six days a week—she said that they were cheap and filling and would save on the grocery bill) and she forced us all to take some. The Warrens liked them. We were amazed and took a few tentative bites ourselves to see if these cookies might be different. But they weren't. They were the same big stuffy, tasteless things they had always been, but I guess compared to dog biscuit they were delicious because the Warrens begged for more and the suckers got them. All they could eat and all we couldn't eat. From that day on they ate all Gammy's output and we didn't have to flinch as we watched her pour the rest of the French dressing and a jar of "working" plums into her cookie dough.