Some women are just complex.They live life by the moment, take the hand of the wind and dance as long as they can. And they do it all with a cool, even silent, demeanor that belies the tempests of their hearts.
My grandmother was one of those women. Born in 1892 in a small town in northern Pennsylvania, she learned early just how pretty she was. Her father was a supervisor in the local tannery and lived in town. Their apartment was over a mercantile store next to a hotel which had a shady reputation around the whole county. Six year old Mabel, my own sweet granny, would dance around the front lawn as waiting men watched and laughingly gave her pennies. What the men were waiting for was why the hotel had such a reputation. This lasted until her horrified mother caught her and switched her behind all the way home. Mabel had learned something from this experience that far out lasted the sting of the switch. She had learned to dance with abandon.
By the time 1927 rolled in, Mabel was on her fourth marriage, shocking the rural society she grew up in. Along the way, she had gone from a two cow dowry with husband number one to a good sized dairy farm with husband number four, a man named Nelson. She worked hard and was shrewd with money. She got up early, made breakfast for her husband and the hired farm hands then worked the rest of day both in the house and on the farm. Nelson was the opposite of her. Grandma later told me he was lazy and a “mama’s boy.” He got up in the morning, took the buggy to town where he visited a pool hall then his parents. It was his favorite routine.
Nelson came home from this routine one day when they were a farm hand short. Mabel was in the barn shoveling manure out of the drops when he came in wanting to know where his supper was. Her response was less than civil. He told her she needed to act like a wife and get up to the house and fix his dinner. He then made the first disastrous decision of the day when he slapped her. The second disastrous decision came when he turned his back on her. She promptly struck him over the head with her shovel as hard as she could. Fortunately for him, she was a petite woman and did not kill him. Unfortunately for him, she landed a forceful enough blow to knock him unconscious. Looking disdainfully down on him as she stepped over him, she went to the house. By the time he woke up all of his personal belongings were on the porch. He came up the door, peered in to see her sitting with a shot gun across her lap glaring at him. He had never seen her use a gun but his aching head reminded him she could be very serious so he climbed into the buggy and went to his parents’ house.
An hour later, his parents were knocking on the door, calling out to her to reassure it “this could be worked out.” She resumed her seat with the shot gun. They looked in at her then took his things off the porch and left.
The next visitor was her father. He walked in, looked at her and shook his head.”I guess you are done with this one,too<” he commented. “I’ll tell them they better just let it go.” Disgusted, he left.
After everyone was gone and the dust had settled, she went down to the barn where Art, my grandfather, was working. She said “I am going to give you a choice. You can lay that bottle you are so fond of down and come stay in the house with me or you can keep that bottle and keep sleeping in your bunk.” He looked up her, startled. She walked away.
My grandmother never told me what attracted her to him or any love story. She simply told it like I said but I know she had to have been checking him out. He was twelve years younger than she. Wiry built with thick wavy hair and shockingly blue eyes, I know she had her eye on him for a bit. He was a gentle man and had a remarkable way of taming and comforting animals of all kinds. He grew up hard, his father left him and his three siblings to return to Montana. Art’s mother was a sickly diabetic. Leo, the oldest of the siblings quit school at twelve to work in the lumber camps. Art followed at fourteen, also quitting school for employment. His two sisters married young and died young during a tuberculosis outbreak. He became the typical town drunk while young with a cycle of working hard followed by binges that found him sleeping behind buildings or in the grass by roads. He knew starvation and desolation early and drowned those memories in alcohol.
Art thought about a lot of things that evening. Mabel was still beautiful. An old man once stopped in the street in a nearby town when I was fourteen and asked if I was related to her. Surprised I said yes, she was my grandmother. He said she was the most beautiful woman in the entire valley and could dance with anyone she wanted to. He had a faraway look in his eye when he told me that and I knew he was one of her admirers. He said I looked like her. Maybe Art was thinking about her beauty, a little stunned with her offer. Maybe he was wondering if he could quit drinking. Maybe he was wondering if this is what love feels like when he knocked on her door that evening and began a forty-seven year relationship. I was with her the day he died in November 1973. I watched her wilt a little that day.
I lived with my grandparents growing up. They didn’t have one of those quiet cuddly relationships. It was tumultuous and unpredictable. She was jealous of other women. He was innocent of other women. She gave up throwing things at him during their impassioned arguments when her arthritis and balance got bad. He never threw things back at her but he learned to duck. When he had enough of her anger, he would shout back, frequently standing in front of her. He didn’t do that often but when he did, she became almost demure, quiet like she knew she had gone too far. There would be peace in the house for along while after. She tested his love even into her seventies.
Shortly before Art died, Mabel was in the hospital for her heart or something. I was determined to take care of my grandfather so I got up early and set out the ingredients for pancakes.My grandmother proudly made him pancakes every day of their marriage. He stood in the doorway watching me. Finally he spoke. “You don’t have to make me pancakes. You make them just like Mabel and she makes the worst pancakes I have ever eaten.”
He got ham, eggs and toast that morning. I got a lesson in love. Over forty years of those “worse” pancakes and he never said a thing to her. Never brought it up even in the midst of an argument. What an awesome man! He really did love her. She loved him as well. May they be blessed wherever they are. I miss them both.