Saturday, May 12, 2012

Grandmother and the Rat

In an effort to understand why my children don't enjoy my Chicken Pot Pie Story (my eldest assures me she does. In fact, she says she loves all my stories. Have I mentioned what a brilliant daughter I have?), I recalled my favorite story from and about my grandmother. Why did it mesmerize me so? Why did I beg to hear it whenever I saw her? It wasn't O. Henry. It was better.
It was my grandmother's.

You may not be aware of it, but my grandmother was the most wonderful person ever in the history of the world. Others may disagree, but they'd be wrong.

My grandmother was Irish. Her father was born in Ireland. Her mother's parents were born in Ireland. There wasn't a drop of non-Irish blood in her veins, and it showed.

I was born just days before my grandmother's 60th birthday. By the time I knew her, her hair was mostly silver. If you asked her what color hair she'd had when she was younger, she'd tell you she had "ugly red hair." If you asked anyone else who knew her when she was younger, they would tell you that she had beautiful, wavy, auburn hair. My grandmother wasn't exactly full of herself. But, by all accounts, she was exceptionally pretty in her youth.

Since Grandmother was only a year younger than flight, there are no color photos of her taken when she was young. I've seen black and white pictures. From them, I could tell that she was lovely. Sadly though, while they showed that her hair had been long, dark, and beautiful, I couldn't get a clear idea of the gorgeous shade of auburn it had been. 

Not that it mattered much. I didn't love Grandmother for her hair. I loved her for her laugh. The twinkle in her eyes. Her sweet voice. Her kindness. I loved her for how soft and warm her hugs were. I can still feel those hugs, and remember the scent of her perfume when I was wrapped in her arms.

Most of all, I loved (love) Grandmother for how much she loved me.

So, where does the rat come in? I'm getting to that. Show a little patience.

I have no clear memory of the first time she told me the story. What I do remember is me at her feet while she sat on her forest green couch, my arms crossed on her lap. I would say, "Please, Grandmother, please tell me the rat story." Try to imagine an angelic, child-like, English-accented voice a la Oliver Twist (that's not at all what I sounded like, but humor me). Grandmother would say, "That old story, again?!" Then she would laugh, her eyes would twinkle, and she'd tell me my favorite story in the whole wide world.

"When I was young, after I had moved to Detroit (Grandmother was from Terre Haute, Indiana), I worked at the switchboard in a big department store.
The switchboard was in a back room. There was an employee stairway behind me, and a door that opened on to the alley. We'd keep it open in the summer, for the breeze. There was a Chinese restaurant across the alley and I smelled Chinese food all day. I hate Chinese food. 
I had long, red hair back then, and I guess the men kind of liked it. I don't know why. When they went up the stairs behind me, some of the men would tug on my hair. I'd bat their hands away and tell them to stop it, but they just kept doing it. Men are like that, you know.
One day, I had the big boss on the line, he was asking me something when I felt a tug on my belt. I covered the mouthpiece and said, 'Stop it, will you?! This is important!' I tried to listen to what the boss was saying, but this guy just kept tugging at my belt. I tried to bat him away, but he wouldn't stop. I twisted around to pull his hand off of me, but it was a RAT! (The reader is expected to infer that the rat had come from the Chinese restaurant. My grandmother would have told you that plainly, but I try my best not to cast aspersions on ethnic eateries. I am confident that the proprietors of the restaurant did their best to keep the premises rodent-free.)
I let out a blood-curdling scream right into my boss's ear. All the salesmen came running. I had managed to knock the rat off, and it went scurrying out the door. In the meantime, I had forgotten about the call, but we could hear my boss yelling, 'WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON THERE?!!'. So one of the salesmen got on the line and told him what had happened. He calmed down, I wasn't fired. But I was sure shaken up. After that, I jumped out of my skin whenever someone tugged on my hair." 

Grandmother would always shiver a little at the completion of this tale.

As previously stated, it wasn't O. Henry. Grandmother couldn't understand why I loved that story so much. Why did I?

I think I loved it because it depicted my grandmother in her youth. I enjoyed the mental image of her as a young woman in the 1920s. Professional. Pretty.
With hair so lovely that the men she worked with couldn't resist touching it. 
Then, there was the showdown with the rat. She was terrified, but triumphed, and, thank goodness, wasn't fired for screaming in the boss's ear. 

I am glad I listened to her story the first time. I'm glad I asked her to tell it again and again.

My grandparents never had much money or valuable possessions. Very few material goods were passed down. But I have my grandmother's rat story. I've told it to my children, and I will tell it to my grandchildren.

I can picture the little darlings, arms crossed on my lap, begging, "Please Grandmother, tell us your grandmother's rat story. And, please, when you're done, tell us the Chicken Pot Pie story again."

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