November 19, 2008
‘’I don’t know anyone whose grandparents are divorced, that’s just weird.’’
‘’What about yours?’’ Kelly asked, always one bright step ahead of me.
Funny, I never thought of my grandmother of ever being married, let alone being divorced. When my dad was two, she divorced Angelo and cut the Torti family tree in half, letting all those limbs crash to the ground to rot. She was just Nan to me, and besides, she had Buffer, my dad’s sister. Apparently we couldn’t pronounce Cathy as kids, it came out Buffer (maybe we had mouthfuls of marshmallows when we tried to say her name? I dunno). Anyway, Buffer and Nan were a package deal, an odd Thelma and Louise if you will. They lived together in a tiny wartime house in sleepy Eagle Place, Brantford, Ontario. We were spoiled to have a Great grandmother who lived right beside us, and my mom’s mom lived just a few farmhouses further up the road. But, our urban Nan had cable, was walking distance to Mac’s Milk convenience store AND Earl Haig Swimming Pool. My mother always thought public pools were cesspools, and she’s right, this one had its share of floating band-aids, and the odd dark turd would bob around until an alert lifeguard evacuated everyone. Buffer swam with us like the biggest kid, terrorizing us by yelling ‘’shark’’ and pinching us underwater. Kiley always ended up in tears from shark attacks, but I think at that age if she wasn’t screaming, she was crying. Such a sensitive child. What scared me more was Buffer’s big toe which had no nail on it from some mysterious infection. She would wrap it up tightly in two plastic bags with elastics and wade into the pool without concern. All the other swimmers would stop mid-stroke to assess what the plastic bag could mean, and whether swallowing pool water and spitting it in someone else’s face was still okay.
We swam with Buffer and Nan everyday of the summer I think. My dad would drop us off on his way to work, bleary-eyed, and we’d park ourselves sleepily on the couch and watch cable cartoons. We loved Chili the penguin and the one with the Anteater. Nan would have chocolate milk in a carton and offer us cowboy or sailboat sandwiches. Cowboy came open face, sailboats in fours, standing erect, exactly like peanut butter sailboats would look. By the time we walked to Earl Haig we were ravenous again, and Nan always had devilled eggs and pickled beets for us. Buffer would pack a tin of Betty Crocker vanilla frosting and we’d smother dollar store Nilla wafers with an inch of the stuff. We never waited half an hour before swimming…
Our favourite days were when a storm would be brewing, foreboding clouds smudging the sky and the deadly humidity heavy in our lungs. We’d rush home, thunder at our heels, with Buffer telling us what was happening meteorologically. She should have been a storm chaser because she knows more about F5 twisters and funnel clouds than normal. Buffer often had us taking shelter in the basement because she knew when a tornado was approaching, she could smell it. But first we’d stop at the fish n’chip shop on Erie avenue and place a family size order. The fish always came wrapped in newsprint which nearly gave way with all the grease by the time we reached Nan’s and took cover.
Nan would finally put her feet up, turn on the fan to a level equivalent to that of a jet taking off. She couldn’t stand the humidity. She rarely wore shorts, and only inside. When she did my sister would ask her if she was from outer space, because of all the green bumpy varicose veins on her legs. When Nan left the room finally, we’d take turns putting on her thick glasses, because it was like being underwater with your eyes wide open. We were always caught, and she threatened us that we’d go blind if we kept doing it.
The other big Nan threat was that the house would blow if we ran around the kitchen. She made us equally paranoid of the pilot light on the gas stove. Not a day passed where Nan would suddenly flare her nostrils and say, “do you smell gas? Buffer, go check the pilot light. This house will blow if that light’s out.’’
When my dad was in a hockey tournament, we’d go to Nan and Buffer’s for the night. They let us stay up as long as we wanted, hell, why not? They were staying up too. We’d watch Hee Haw, Benny Hill and Johnny Carson eating our way through bags of Hickory Sticks and bbq peanuts.
In the morning, Nan would convince one of us to help shove her diamond or sapphire earrings in her lobes. Kiley was the most helpful, I still get queasy at the thought. Nan would do our eyebrows so we didn’t look like Brooke Shields and ask us if we wanted our hair permed like Buffer. My mother had already vocalized her opinion: no perms, especially Toni home perms. Kiley was always keen, but, I never thought tight poodley curls would be flattering on me.
We sometimes played with the city kids, but they were a different breed. A bit snotty we thought. Instead, we made homemade wet bananas in the backyard because Nan also had water pressure, something we never had living on a well in the country. We hosed down large sheets of plastic and sprinted, bellyflopped and slid across the plastic until we came to a dead-stop on the sharp grass. When we tired of that (because our ribs hurt from slamming the ground so much) we’d make some game with horse chestnuts on a string where you had to whack your opponent’s nut off. Too often it usually ended up being Dax’s real nuts… and the game would end. We’d walk up to the store, which we were allowed to do only if we held hands crossing the street (which we never did). Nan would slip us a few bucks so we could each get some candy. Mac’s had these fantastic tiny ice cream cones filled with a maple syrup kind of fudge that we all splurged on. Kiley would get a fudgesicle or sour cream and onion chips, ju jubes or Fun Dips for Dax, and I’d be stuck somewhere between Kraft caramels, Swedish fish or hockey stickers for my scrapbook. We all had scrapbooks that we were working on: Star Wars, NHL, E.T. –the stickers came with that god awful gum covered in so much powder. One day we went all out, because Nan gave us a little more, but said she wanted change. How much change we weren’t sure about—so we went a bit hoggy. We bought gobstoppers, Hubba Bubba grape, red lips, green thumbs, those invisible books with the magic pens and some Bottlecaps. We hopscotched home, thrilled with our purchases, until I gave Nan the change and she started to cry. We had spent all her pension money. Surely she was getting more than $5 for her pension? We felt sick about it, candy never tasted so rotten, but she refused to let us take our stuff back. I think that was the moment I learned how to budget and Kiley learned how to spend!
Sometimes we took the city bus to the mall, which was always a roar for us. We thought city kids were so cool, being able to take a bus around town. We couldn’t even get pizza delivered! The worst bus day was when we had done a marathon shop at No Frills, and when we climbed on the full bus, one of our plastic bags broke and all the canned goods rolled to the back of the bus. Cans raced and rattled back and forth as we took sharp turns and went through the streets of Strawberry Hill. Nan found a seat and I found the cans. My face was red hot as I reached behind legs and begged my pardon.
Nan never did travel beyond Buffalo. Never really wanted to either. When Buffer got her license she started renting cars, usually Ford Tempos because she had read that they were good vehicles. We’d pack the Tempo up with a cooler and head for the border to Walden Galleria mall to go cross-border shopping. Funny, we never minded wearing two or three lace teddies back under our clothes. Not even Dax, but, then again—look how he turned out. I don’t know who wore the teddies that we smuggled back, both my Nan and Buffer I think. Most of them were purple, which was both their favourite colour, so it’s hard to know. Buffer told us to keep mum in the back when we crossed the border, and we were never caught.
Every summer we’d take a road trip to Komoka to visit Nan’s “fucking sister Ruth.” Ruth had always wronged her in some way, but we loved her. She made the best chocolate milkshakes in her Hamilton Beach mixer. Ruth lived alone on a dill farm, her husband Jack had died when we were young. There were always little kittens, a few German Shepards and a giant barn that we played in until we were beside ourselves with rashes and itches from the hay. We swung from the rafters, found old chewing tobacco tins, bullet casings, and carved our initials in secret places. Ruth and my grandmother fought the whole time, and both of them would be crying at some point. We didn’t care. However, this is where we learned how to swear. Not so much from Ruth, but from Nan. Oh, she could get on a tangent calling Violet a hussy, and so-and-so a whore. Yeah, Nan spoke all sugary to my dad, but we saw another side. The exposure became evident when Kiley walked up our driveway at home after one such Komoka road trip clippity-clopping in her new much-longed for Dr.Scholl’s wooden sandals. She was maybe seven. “These fucking shoes hurt my feet.” Dad was in earshot. Nan was in trouble.
Kiley was always after Nan, for her language, the ‘bad things’ she was doing. And, my nan was secretly afraid of Kiley and her tell-all ways. Once, in the backyard when Nan sat on the wooden lounger and it collapsed to the ground in pieces Nan told Kiley, “don’t you tell your mother.” But, Kiley had already said her piece, “I’m telling my muddah on you!’’ And, she always did.
So, Nan wasn’t exactly a traditional grandmother (most of them don’t say fuck). She liked Def Leppard, Poison, Wham, Boy George, rollerskating at the roller rink (so long as we didn’t tell my father ) and frying hot dogs and hot dog buns, all in butter. One winter, Nan, probably in her 70s by then, decided she wanted to have a go at the hill, and ride down on one of our red plastic flying saucers. She urged us to give her a push and ohmygod, there went Nan, spinning in fast, tight circles, until she was going completely backwards and then, just somersaulted right over. Of course, we were no help, all of us pissing our snowsuits at her crooked glasses and cries for help. She was only mad that she had lost her diamond earring. I don’t think she went tobogganing again, but she was always game for trying something new. Like having Buffer to teach her how to drive, even though she didn’t have her glasses with her. Of course she nearly ditched the rental Tempo at the first sight of headlights coming from the other direction.
Nan was eccentric in every possible way. She loved her patent leather heels as high as Tina Turner’s, crushed velvet stirrup pants, leopard print sweaters and Christmas pins that preferably lit up and sang. She loved her gold chains, Christmas, and crossing her eyes at us. We always seemed to be laughing in her company. Our nicknames stuck for years—Chucky, Wheatman (Dax??) and Kiley was Nimmers. I was Horse, because I could run fast, but it never seemed very flattering to me.
I think of Nan’s house, and how it remained virtually the same, years after our childhood time had paled. There was still the ketchup bottle explosion on the kitchen ceiling, and the piece of pink foil behind her livingroom door that I gave her when I was two. At Christmas all the treasures would come out again, and the house would become congested with crumbling gingerbread houses that should have been demolished years ago, popcorn trees with mere kernels left on the construction paper, broken clay gifts, yellowed cards—she had kept everything we had ever made for her.
Nan loved Christmas the most. All she ever wanted was a homemade card from me, to add to her collection. I probably should have written this sooner so she could have added it to her collection too, but, I think we were collecting the same things—shiny memories of a life lived well. She spent all her pension dollars on us, and we ate like kings. Those jell-o cubes at Woolworth’s with the dab of whipped cream seemed like the finest dessert going. And we always seemed to be eating buckets of KFC in a leafy park. Nan was so adaptable that when she was told to watch her cholesterol she ordered macaroni salad to have instead…and when the cashier forgot to pack her a fork, she resorted to eating her macaroni salad with a hair pick.
Nan died two weeks ago. Before I left BC in September she sent me a Christmas card with my Christmas money so she could be sure that I received it. She told me not to go in any boats, and not to swim in any lakes and for god sakes, don’t get eaten by a lion in Africa. ‘’If God spares me I’ll see you when you come home and visit your parents.’’ She had talked about God sparing her for as long as I remembered.
The world is a different place without Nan in it. It’s a little quieter, that’s for sure. But the memories of her are just at the surface, in the smell of a pan of melting butter, in twinkling Christmas lights, pool chlorine on my skin, hair picks, fast toboggan rides and vanilla icing. She is never that far away, even when I’m in Africa.