Po' Smedley's Life And Brain Drippings
Published on March 9, 2008 By PoSmedley In Life Journals

 

It was only my second week as a freshman in high school. My second week in freshman German. I don't know why I found myself asking a question that would only result in more peer abuse being rained down upon me. Yet, there I was. Looking at Mrs. Henry, our German teacher and asking her what 'Dumesel' meant.  She looked at me for a brief moment and asked where I had heard it.

 "My grandmother." I replied.

 "Was your grandmother German?"


 "Oh, no!" I snapped back, as if that was the most absurd question she possibly could have asked. "She was Irish."

 "Then why..."

 "She used to pinch my cheek all the time, when I was little, and call me her little Dumesel."

 Mrs. Henry smiled. Actually, it was more of a broad grin that spread across her wrinkled face like something I had seen the Grinch do. "It means 'Dumb-Ass'" she said rather cheerfully.


 My grandmother had struck again. Going through roll-call and hearing the response that came after my name, 'Hansell', was bad enough. I had heard 'Hey. Hansell, where's Gretel?" for nine years now. Being the four eyed, buck toothed, 80 pound little geek I was didn't help. Now, for the rest of my freshman year, it would be 'Dumb-Ass Hansell'.


 My grandmother was an amazing woman, with one of the quickest wit's I have ever come in contact with. Ever. She had a witty and almost always cutting or sarcastic response for everything. By the time I was six, I was leery of asking her anything. Her name was Katherine, and I have often wondered if anyone dared to call her Kate as they do my Aunt and cousin. She was tall. To me, she'll always be at least six feet tall, but I'm not sure any more if that was the reality. She had piercing, bright blue eyes and red hair. When she walked into a room, you knew she was there. She could sit and listen, quietly, blending into the background of a room full of people, but you were always aware of her.

 

 "I want something to drink." I would toddle into the kitchen at five years old, which is where she spent most of her time, cooking, drinking coffee, and smoking her Kent Golden Lights.

 "How does it feel?"

 "How does what feel, Mom-Mom?"

 "How does it feel to want?"


 That's how a lot of our conversations went. She would stop you dead in your tracks. At five, I didn't know if she was mad, being funny, or telling me that I was going to die of thirst. As the years past, I realized it was just her way. She liked to keep you off guard or on your toes. Sometimes, I think she yearned for some one to have at it with her, verbally. A battle of wits, as it were. I pity the person or persons who ever picked up the gauntlet.


 "What's for dinner?"

 "Air Whip Stew and Dream Pie for dessert."

 "Where are we going?"

 "Crazy and we're half-way there."

 "I don't like corned-beef hash, Mom-Mom."

 "I don't like making it. So, we're even."

 There were the 'physical' assaults. I would be walking by her and get a resounding 'pop' in the back of my head.

 "Mom-mom! What was that for?"

 "That's for when I didn't catch you."

  I never responded to that. There was always something I had yet to be 'caught' for. Considering the guilt trips she would inflict on me for the things she did catch me at, it was better to leave well enough alone.

 Then there was the outright verbal assaults.

 From as far back as I can remember, to the last time I saw her, I could not enter her house without knocking something over. This usually took place in the kitchen. Now, I have to put some of the blame on her. Around the kitchen door frame, she had those cute little plaques you get at tourist traps all over the country. Little 3x3 squares of wood and cast iron that said things like 'Today is the first day of the rest of your life'. You know what I mean. Of course, there was the 'Lord's Prayer' and pictures of several popes, JFK, the Virgin Mary (At sixteen she overheard me refer to that one as Mary With The Cherry. The back of my head still stings where she popped me.) and others. I swear, sometimes all I had to do was walk through the doorway and one of them would leap off its little nail and take a swan dive to the floor.

 "Klutz!"

 "Well, you shouldn't put them where every one can knock them off." I would say oh-so meekly.

 "You are the only one who knocks them off. Klutz!"

  I lived with my grandmother for a couple years, around the time I was fifteen. My 'making my way to the kitchen' became quite the dramatic event. Especially if she had guests or other family over.

 "Here it comes! Here comes the Klutz! Grab that! You, hold that down! Someone get the dog!"

 I had joined the volunteer fire department that my grandfather had founded. The same one my Uncle Ted was in, whom I idolized. I went through all the training and passed the test. Got my locker and gear. I also got my radio. This huge, bulky grey thing with a giant red lightning bolt on it I would sit on my nightstand. When it squealed, squeaked, and squawked the first time I had it home, I was lying in bed next to it, just like I hoped I'd be. I had this so rehearsed. Unfortunately, I had only rehearsed it in my head. I had never actually made a test run. But, I had seen my uncle do it a dozen times.

 I flew down the stairs. They were steep and countless, I kid you not. I know there were over 20 stairs from the first floor, straight up to the second. The house was actually some kind of row-home slash duplex my grandfather had converted to accommodate him, my grandmother, and all seven of my aunts and uncles. I flew down the stairs. Hit the landing. Eight steps straight to the door. Whipped it open. Kicked open the screen door. Pulling the main door shut behind me, I took two giant steps and leapt over the porch railing onto the yard four feet below. Bolting over the lawn, I sprung over the narrow flower bed and bushes, and came down on the sidewalk. I came down on my left foot. My left foot that turned all the way inward, forcing me to actually land on the outside ball of my ankle. As the sudden bolt of pain forced me to push off on the ankle, I went up and came back down, this time my foot rolling outward and landing on the inside of my ankle. There was no jumping up again. I crumpled to the ground.

 Holding my leg, right above the ankle, I crawled back to the house. This time, up the sidewalk, up the porch stairs, across the porch...I had to use the screen door handle to pull myself up and open the door. Tears streaming down my face, gritting my teeth, I heard the lone siren of the firehouse a few blocks away calling "Where are you? I don't see you running down Main Street, yet? There's a FIIIIiirrrrrre!" I took 2 hops into the foyer and collapsed on the carpet. "Mom-Mom" I stuttered.


 She came running from the dining room with half of the ceramic class she was teaching. All elderly woman, who looked down on me and gave me the feeling that I was some poor animal and a decision needed to be made quick as to weather or not they should put it down.

 "My ankle."

 She reached down. She reached down and grabbed it. Grabbed my ankle. My grandmother grabbed...GRABBED my now swelling ankle and said 'Let me see'.

 I think it was the first time I ever swore in front of my grandmother. And the only time. It was definitely the first time I had sworn in front of entire group of elderly woman wearing paint smeared smocks and smelling of Jean Nate.

 She let go of my ankle. "You'll be fine. Put some ice on it." She corralled the women back into the dining room. I heard her explaining.

 "..all the time, He can't help it. He gets it from his mother's side. He's a six foot two inch accident waiting to happen. He almost killed Kate's boy Michael. He's a Klutz."

 Now, I didn't almost 'kill' anyone. My cousin Mike and I were in his basement. Who would leave us alone down there when we were only four is beyond me. So, I was only doing what any four year old boy might do when staring up at a giant china closet. I tried to climb it. I almost made it to. I would have. If it hadn't tipped over. Falling on top of me and my cousin Mike, who had been sitting on the floor watching. If you ask me, it seems there was more than one instance that he was 'watching' and I was 'doing'. I can't prove it, but I think he used to put me up to all of that stuff.


 As for anything coming from my 'Mother's' side.. Well, I've seen her dance, so it's possible. But, I learned years later, that it was actually my Dad's side. The men in my family apparently just grow to damn fast for their bodies  to develop proper coordination. My father put it this way. He used to run numbers with my uncle Ted. My father was six-four. Ted was six-nine. I'm actually short in my family. Anyway, one of the bars they had to stop at was the Berwyn Tavern. My father said this place had these beautiful, heavy, oak tables. Big round ones. About thirty or so. However, for some unknown reason, they had one table with a glass top. My father said "...and out of all those tables, your uncle Ted found that one with the glass top. And properly knocked it over and broke it."

 Then, there was the fact that I could never do anything right. Too many things to list. The one that still stands out is the 'oyster spoon'. She had a silver spoon that was shaped like half an oyster shell on the end. It rested in the sugar bowl, that rested in the tray with the napkins, the pepper shaker, the salt shaker with its grains of rice in it, and the Creamora for coffee. No matter how hard I tried, I could never get that damn spoon dry for coffee, so that when you put it back in the sugar, you didn't get clumps of sugar clinging to it. She could. I don't know how. She refused to share this little secret with me. But she had no problem sharing her frustration over the fact that I kept messing up her spoon and sugar bowl.

 It wasn't long after my ankle healed that I had a falling out with my grandmother. Not because of anything she did. Part of the reason was what brought me there to begin with and the other part was just dumb luck and fate working against me. When I left, we were on bad terms. We never got to make up. I don't know that she ever forgave me. My grandmother could hold a grudge.

 Over the next few years, I had call to visit. Her words began to cut deeper as time passed. But they weren't the usual quick jabs and such. The one that stands out was when I went to meet my sister there. My sister and I had been separated since I was fifteen. I never made a lot of effort to keep in touch. It was Christmas Day and I had left my mother's house after visiting, to see my sister. As we stood in the doorway, my sisters arms wrapped around my neck as she cried openly, I looked over her shoulder at my grandmother, who stared at me. She made no effort to hide her anger and distasted. Or her disappointment.

 She asked my girlfriend at the time, who was witnessing all of this, if she would like to come to the kitchen for some coffee. As they both made their way, so my sister and I could have some privacy, without even looking back, my grandmother said to the room "All you Hansell men know how to do is hurt people." I don't think there had ever been or has been anyone in my life who's disappointment in me hurt so much. In my heart, a voice whispered "She doesn't love you. Not any more."

 I wouldn't see her again until I was twenty-six. My sister, while in college, was living with my grandmother. She invited me to Thanksgiving dinner. I asked about Mom-Mom and she said it was fine. No problem. She told me to come the day before. I could spend the night and go home Friday morning. I asked again about my grandmother. My sister said it was fine. All taken care of.

 The Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving, I arrived around five or six that night. My sister told me that my grandmother was bowling. It surprised me a little to know she was still bowling after all these years. She had been on a league for as far back as I could remember.

 We had coffee and talked. Sitting in the kitchen with my sister, and a couple aunts, relaxing. Then we heard the front door open. My sister got up and motioned for me to follow. As we made our way through the dining room to the front foyer, I saw my grandmother taking her coat off. She started to smile at my sister, until she saw me behind her.

 "What's he doing here?"

 "Mom-Mom!" my sister shot back.

  My grandmother opened the closet and took out a wire hanger that was probably as old as the house itself.

  "Mom-Mom, I told you he was coming for Thanksgiving."

  My grandmother hung her coat in the closet, not looking at either of us. "Thanksgiving is tomorrow."

  "Mom-Mom, I told you he was coming today and spending the night."

  My grandmother looked at me. "So, he's leaving tomorrow night after dinner?" By this, she meant right after dinner. No dessert. No coffee. Smoke you after dinner cigarette on your way out the door.

  "He's staying until Friday. You know that, Mom-Mom."

  "Oh." She looked at me. Then she looked at my sister and smiled. That smile was so full of love. It hurt me. She then walked around the other side of the foyer through the living room to the kitchen. To avoid me.

  "Look, I'm just gonna go home now."

  My sister grabbed my arm. "Stop it. You know how she is. She knew all this. She's just trying to mess with your head."

 Yeah. And she was doing a great job.

 I said I was tired and went off to bed. I barely slept. My room, my dreams, the insides of my eye lids, were full of memories, pictures, faces, voices that had filled the house over oh so many years and decades. I would try to chase out the bad memories with good ones, but the good ones seemed afraid to come out. The pain in my heart scared them. So did the fear I had. The fear of not being welcome in my grandmother's house. The fear of her forever being disappointed in me. Of being the one who always let her down.

  I woke up for what seemed like the hundredth time around four in the morning. I decided I wasn't going to fall back asleep this time and put on my sweat pants and a t-shirt and went downstairs. I walked into the kitchen in a daze, not paying attention to the fact that the light was already on when I heard "Good Morning."

 It had been so long, I had forgotten. My grandmother was often up at three in the morning. She would be one her first pot of coffee and first pack of cigarettes, sitting at the table doing her crossword puzzle. "Uh..good morning" I replied. It croaked out of my throat.

 "There's coffee made."

 "Thanks." I muttered and made my way to the coffee. I thanked God the kitchen was as huge and oversized as it was, and that the coffee pot was on the opposite end from where she sat. I reached for the 'mug-tree' to get a cup.

 "Did you sleep okay?"

 "Huh?"

 "Sleep. Did you sleep?"

 "Yes. Yes, I slept."

 I sat my mug down and reached for the coffee pot.

 "When are you leaving?"

 'Here it comes. ' I thought.  :Uh, I can go tonight. I really should get.."

 "Sandy said Friday. You'll stay til Friday."

 "Oh. Okay. "

 I poured my coffee and put the pot back on its burner.

 "Are you working?"

 "Huh? Working. Yes. Yes. I'm working at.."

 "Where?"

 "Uh, I'm working at Sunoco. I'm a manager."
 

 "Manager? Is that good?"

 "Actually, yeah. It's very good. I get bonuses, insurance..."

  And on we went. Like nothing had ever happened. AS I made my coffee, she plated catch-up. Question after question. I was nervous. I didn't know how to take it or what I should say or do. Would anything come up that would stop the flow and bring back the chill I felt last night?

 As she came at me with questions about my job, what kind of car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, I finally had my coffee made and was able to turn and face her. She sat there, one arm on the table, its hand around her coffee. The other hand poised before her face with a half burnt up cigarette, legs crossed in her nightgown and robe, looking at me like nothing in the world was wrong.

I was answering her and between words, attempted to sip my coffee. I yanked my right arm away as I felt hot coffee run down my shirt, catch my leg, and then my foot. "Oh my God" I thought. Now, she would let me have it. I quickly turned to get a paper towel, still holding my coffee, waiting for her to comment on my spill.

 "What kind of car did you say it was?"

"Huh?" I'm dabbing my shirt, sweat pants, foot, and the small spot on the carpet. (My grandmother can't have tile floors like everyone else. she had wall to wall carpet in her kitchen) I throw away the paper towel and turn to face her. I go to sip my coffee for a second time. I really need it now. I feel a headache coming on and I'm not sure that it's not due to this early morning stress and lack of caffeine.

 

 "It's a VW.." Coffee runs down my shirt. I hear it 'splat' on the carpet. I'm looking at my shirt and the fresh spot on the carpet.

 "One of those Rabbits, is it?"

 "Uh, yeah."

  Again, I grab some paper towels and start to blot my shirt and then the carpet. She should be commenting, now. My mind says she should be all over me about the mess I am making. But as I blot, she asks more questions or comments on a friend who had a VW back in "..what was it? Sixty-seven? Your father had the Corvair and Sue had.."

 I throw away the second paper towel. I turn to face her for a third time. As I raise the cup in my right hand she asks "Do you have any children...that you know about?"

 I sip and spit coffee at the same time. I managed to spit it back in the cup, but not before I feel it on my shirt and foot again. For the third time, I go to clean the mess. This time I grab the dish cloth, because I believe I spilled more than the first two times combined. I'm convinced an aneurism is going to burst in my head any second now. I'm a complete and utter basket case, waiting for her to start telling me what a spastic waste of skin I am and then bring up 'everything' else.


 "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way."

 "Did she just actually apologize...to ME..for something?" I think.

 I put the dishrag back and notice my cup is somewhat depleted. AS I turn to get the coffee pot to try and top off the cup of coffee it would appear I am not meant to dink, I see it. I see it, and I can't believe it. As I raise the cup in my right hand to get a better look, I hear her talking.

 "How long did it take you to drive here from...Where did you say you lived?"

 There was a hole in the side of my mug. Not just a 'hole'. This was a 'HOLE". I used to teach ceramics as well. I was certified at fourteen with some company called 'Ceramichrome' or something. I could run the kiln, teach a wide variety of techniques with glazes, under painting, clay lifting... I was looking at a hole that was deliberately made in the mug I held. It had been made, had glaze applied to it, and fired in the kiln. It was about the width of a pencil. It was huge! As I held the mug in my right hand, staring at it, I slowly turned my hand to see the part of the mug facing away from me. I started to see the letters.

 "I remember the motorcycle your father had. That was a BMW. One of those 'police' motorcycles."


  "I read the words. Big, black, bold letters.

  'LEFT HANDED COFFEE MUG'

  I turned around, still reading it, and looked over the top of it at my grandmother who was staring at me. Smiling. She took a drag of her cigarette and blew the smoke very 'purposefully' out as if it might reach me from all the way across the kitchen. She put out the cigarette, looking away from me for all of a second. When she looked back, she stood up and walked out of the kitchen saying just one word.

 "Dumesel."

 I snapped back to attention. "You knew!"

 'KLUTZ!"  she called from the dining room.


 She still loved me.

 I cried right there in the kitchen. It wasn't forgiveness. It wasn't even "let's just put it all behind.' It was just "I love you. Dumesel.'

 I didn't see her again until a few months later when my sister called to say my grandmother was dying. It was a tumor. It was an evil thing, from what my sister said. Big. Poking through her side. It would have had to be, to take my grandmother. Anything less and she would have kicked it's ass to hell and back and then gave it a good 'what-for'.

 After the funeral, the entire family gathered back at the house. It was my Aunt Kate who came to me and asked if I wanted anything. People were grabbing photos and pictures off the wall. Little things. We were never a greedy bunch. I told her I just wanted one thing. I wanted that Left Handed Coffee Mug. I heard my Aunt Sue as she walked in from the living room. "The one with the hole in it?"

 "Yeah. That's the one."

 "I threw it out."

  I stared at Sue. "She got me with that damn cup so many times. I threw it out two days ago. I didn't think anyone would want it."

 I said it was okay and left it at that.

 A few years later, I spoke to my sister on the phone. We still weren't keeping in touch as often as we should. We were even living in the same state at that time. She told me she had found the coffee mug. I told her the story and why I wanted it. Well, not really. I didn't tell her what it meant to me and how I cried that day. I wondered, although I have never asked, if she or someone has that damn spoon, too.

 She said she had it in a box and would ship it out with some pictures she had. She would ship it out that week.

 It's been over six years since my sister said she would mail it. We've talked a handful of times, since then. She'll call to tell me someone is sick. Then, she'll call to tell me they have passed. I've decided the next time she calls, only to tell me someone has passed, it will be the last. I can only take so much hurt these days. She has two boys now. I've moved to another state, a few states away and have a step-son and a bay girl, now. She always remembers to tell me she has the mug, wrapped in a little box. Over the years, it has made its way from her kitchen, to the table by her front door, to her car, and to her office at work. But not to the mail box. She apologizes and says she will send it soon. I say its okay and I say good-bye. Until the next person gets sick.

 I think about the mug a lot. Even more than usual over the past year. My wife and I were blessed with a daughter over a year ago. I kid my wife that it must be the mail man's baby. You see we both have brown hair. Grey, green eyes. Our daughter has bright red hair and blue eyes. Even after a year and two months. If I believed in reincarnation...well, I don't need the mug. She's right here. And I can't wait until she can talk. Til then, when no one's around, I tell her all the stories I can remember about her grandmother, Katherine. Just in case she's forgotten.

 

 


Comments
on Mar 10, 2008
I really enjoyed reading this story. Thanks for sharing it. I'm glad to see you back.
on Mar 11, 2008

I really enjoyed reading this story. Thanks for sharing it. I'm glad to see you back.

Thank you. That means a lot.

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