In the midst of the hardest time in my life, during my teen angst years when I spent my days in high school as an unpopular kid and my evenings slopping corn bread and rolls at Black Eyed Pea, my grandmother came to live with us. Most teenagers would be okay with this arrangement. I was not.
It’s not that my grandmother was mean. She was just different. She was not a typical grandmother that baked cookies and spoiled her grandchildren. I can’t really fault her for that though, seeing as she spent the chunk of her life with her evil older sister, my great Aunt Martha.
We called my grandmother “Dellie” which was a shortened version of her maiden name Delaplaine. From the time that I was a baby, Dellie and Aunt Martha always lived together. They were both married early in life and when Aunt Martha’s husband died and Dellie’s husband left her, the two of them decided to live together. My mom and her brother were essentially raised by both Dellie and Aunt Martha. As my dad later said, it’s amazing that my mom turned out so normal having been raised by both of them.
As a child, I hated visiting their house on Hummingbird Lane. There was a certain odor in their house that I could never place, but it almost knocked me over every time the door opened. It was a mixture of very old things and maybe moth balls. I can’t say for sure.
Aunt Martha was “short and round like a cannonball” as my brother described her. Even as a 9 year old, I realized that Aunt Martha never wore a bra although she needed one badly. When she would sit at the table, she had to make a choice whether to put her “ladies” on the table or whether she needed to pull her chair back a bit and have them lay in her lap. It was frightful either way.
The thing that I hated the most about visiting their house is that upon entry, Aunt Martha greeted us while in a rolling chair in the kitchen wearing only a bathrobe. There was no way around her; she required everyone to take a look at her leg before moving forward to the rest of the house. You see, her leg had basal cell carcinoma, and for whatever reason, she made us all gawk at it. When she lifted her robe to show us, she would say, “Isn’t this the MOST DISGUSTING thing you’ve ever seen in your life?” Looking back, I think my Dad probably threw up a little bit in his mouth every time, but he was always so gracious. I mean, what is one supposed to say about a nasty looking leg? “Oh yes, Aunt Martha, that looks SO freaking nasty! Put your robe back down please!”
Aunt Martha was also a name dropper. I could always count on her talking about how much she donated to so-and-so or to some cause and then she would show us letters from some random person that she was somehow related to. I didn’t care about the Roosevelts or the Kennedys or the Johnson Pierre’s from wherever. The only thing I cared about was not having to look at her leg again.
Aunt Martha was terribly mean to Dellie throughout the years and ordered her around like a paid servant. You could often hear Aunt Martha screaming, “Marion <Dellie’s real name>, BRING ME MORE WINE!” That was just the least of Aunt Martha’s demands. She constantly barked orders at Dellie and belittled her. It’s no doubt why Dellie ended up the way she did.
The two of them brought Ziplock bags to restaurants and they would take every little thing home, down to the sugar and salt packets. If they had 4 french fries left, they would bag that up nicely in one of their ziplocks as well. I’m pretty sure they even swiped the parsley. Their fridge was always full of little ziplock bags full of tiny little leftovers.
My poor grandmother had terrible teeth. One of my first memories visiting them on Hummingbird as a child, I remember saying, “Dellie, what’s wrong with your teeth?” I wasn’t trying to be mean, I was just a curious child. However, she really did have bad teeth. And they were her real teeth. When she laughed, she hissed like a snake right through her teeth.
Dellie was not a big believer in deodorant or really hygiene in general. You could probably say that she lacked most manners, although she expected them from others. She chewed food with her mouth open and things would fall out. It was a sight to see. She also took her clothes off before she even got to her bedroom. That was also a sight to see.
So, when Aunt Martha died and Dellie moved in with us during my sophomore year of high school, I was less than thrilled.
One night I stopped to say bye to my parents and Dellie in the living room. She remarked, “Oh my, you’re going to go out in that?! You look like a WHORE!” She said it while hissing through her teeth. The hissing laugh really pissed me off.
Dellie also had a massive snoring problem. It sounded like a fully-operational lumber yard was in her bedroom at night. In between her snores, I could hear the muffled sounds of the radio program that she kept on all night long coming from her earpiece.
When Dellie wanted to go on a long trip but couldn’t go by herself and I had to be her travel companion, I was absolutely horrified. I was sixteen years old so I would have rather been in a Russian prison than travel alone with my strange grandmother. We took a train all the way from Vancouver through Chicago and down to Houston. She reserved a sleeper car for us, so I got the top bunk and she got the bottom. One morning I woke up to a pair of her large white underwear dangling about a foot away from my face. She had hand-washed her underwear in the sink and hung it up near my face to dry. The air conditioning vent made her underwear flutter back and forth and I had no way to escape it.
I think we spent about 5 days on that train trip. It was the longest 5 days of my life. She cheated at Scrabble and card games like I was playing against one of my young nephews. And when she “won” whichever game we were playing, the hissing laugh reared its ugly head again. It took every ounce of restraint not to throw her off the train.
She asked me to be her travel companion again when I was 18. Against my better judgment I went along. Honestly, I didn’t really have a choice. It just happened to coincide with my summer break. We spent roughly 30 days on a cruise ship and saw quite a bit of the world. I was the youngest person on board the ship by about 50 years. I was miserable.
One night on the cruise ship I met a Turkish waiter and we went out on the town in Stockholm. When I realized he was not at all interested in my personality, but more interested in getting some action from me (silly me), I quickly came back to the docked cruise ship. I happened to find Dellie in our stateroom and she knew right away what had happened.
“He had roaming hands, huh?” Although she hissed through her teeth as she laughed, I didn’t get irritated this time.
“What?” I asked, partly confused.
“He put his roaming hands on you, didn’t he?” she muttered as she once again hissed. She wasn’t even looking at me as she asked the question.
I didn’t even have to answer her. She already knew. It was as if suddenly my grandmother was a real person with real understanding of the world. Up until that moment, I wasn’t so sure. It wasn’t as if suddenly Dellie and I were best buddies after that, but there was definitely a new understanding between the two of us.
And while I wasn’t looking forward to her living at our house, I did have some amazing experiences solely because of her. I was able to travel to some really cool places and see things that I wouldn’t have been able to see had it not been for her. Although she wasn’t a typical grandmother who baked cookies and spoiled us in the usual grandmother-y ways, she taught me a few things. One main thing– bring more underwear than you need on a trip so you don’t have to hand-wash a pair in the sink.