jane does the laundry

In My Grandfather's House


In my grandfather's house the beer was hidden behind the kerosene barrel in the old horse stall off the summer kitchen.

The reason my grandfather hid his beer was my grandmother. She nagged about his drinking. He liked to stop at the YD Cafe on the way home from work and have a couple of beers. Sometimes he would drink his beer at the tavern in the basement of the hotel. The Snakepit, my grandmother called it. Both those beer joints were dim and smoky places, and loud in the late afternoon and early evening when the men got off work from the railroad. Loud, but friendly. I think that's why my grandfather liked to go there.

Even on the muggiest dog days of summer my grandfather wore a tie to work, a black leather bow tie with his blue workman's shirt. He always wore denim overalls and carried his lunch in a black metal lunch box, and I remember him coming down the street in the summer with his chore coat slung over one shoulder and his railroad cap tilted over his eyes to keep out the low, slanting rays of the sun and he'd be carrying his lunch pail and it would be swinging as he walked. He walked to work in hot weather and cold, and it would have to be a bad day for him to accept a ride.

He was brakeman on the Canadian Pacific Railroad and everyday for forty years he walked the mile and a half to work in the South Yard and back again. But first he'd stop on the way home and have his beer. "Oh, Marquis," my grandmother would complain, as he walked into the kitchen. "You've been into the beer. What will Mrs. Hart think?" And she'd wring her hands.

"Just a couple, Mamie, just a couple of beers," he'd say, with a tight little smile. He'd hang up his coat, empty his lunch box, and rinse the thermos in the black metal sink in the pantry before he sat down to his dinner. After eating and read of his newspaper, he'd go out to his workshop.

The old horse stall had long ago been turned into a workshop by my great-grandfather. It was a sturdy place of rough lumber with work benches on two walls, a large Dutch door and a window from which you could see South Bay through a screen of poplars and white birches. The kerosene barrel was well-secured in a heavily- braced cradle. In it was kept the fuel for my grandmother's kitchen stove. The space behind the barrel made a swell place for my grandfather to keep his supply of beer. Usually he had a couple of quarts, and when he would open one and not finish it, he'd stopper it with a rubber plunger that fit snugly into the neck of the bottle to keep out the air.

In his workshop, besides drinking beer, he made toy swords of fence pickets for small pirates and little men in overalls with painted smiles who furiously sawed wood when the wind blew. His winter workshop was in the dirt-floored cellar under the kitchen. During the long, cold northern winters he changed his drink from beer to hard stuff.

My grandmother wasn't Temperance or churchy, no, she was only concerned about the neighbors' opinions. She would take a little hard cider on occasion and sometimes had on hand a small bottle of spirits "in case of a chill" but she was careful to pencil a light mark on the label at the level of the liquid. She never realized my grandfather maintained the level with tap water.

He loved the clarinet, my grandfather, and marched in the city marching band and played Stars and Stripes Forever on the Fourth of July. And on soft summer Friday evenings he played his clarinet with the concert band on the bandstand down by the river, and all the people would honk their car horns after each set, in approval. All of us kids would be running around, playing tag and catch-me-if-you-can and drinking soft drinks and eating pop corn bought with caged nickels from the miniature snack bar under the bandstand. When we had eaten the popcorn we'd slip quietly over to the river bank and sail the pasteboard containers and they would drift away, then sink from sight beneath the dark, slow waters.

The river tumbled down from the old stone dam in the uplands to Number Eleven Power Station, and from there, robbed of its force, meandered through the valley below my grandfather's house on its way to the lake. From the north bank of the river the land rose steeply.

When my great-grandfather lived on the ridge the land down to the river was terraced and on the carefully-tended narrow strips of level soil he planted apple trees. He died, then the trees, neglected, died, and the terraces, untended, washed slowly to the river, and the brush and the poplars and the birches came back. My grandfather waged a running battle with that eroding bank as it threatened the underpinnings of house and stable. He was forever poking around back there, adding soil and stones as fill, patching and shoveling, watching and worrying after a hard rainfall. Once while working around the rear of the house he jumped just in time as a section of bank let go under him. How he cursed that bank, and sometimes the house too. For it wasn't really his house -- it belonged to my grandmother, who inherited it from her mother, a fierce old lady born during the Civil War who was given to dressing in rusty black and for years was addicted to morphia.

In times of epidemic in those nineteenth century days, the sick were isolated from the rest of the village. My great-grandmother nursed the sick and to keep going took increasing quantities of morphia. She took it all the rest of her life, and at the end of the month when the money was gone and she couldn't get her drug, life at her house was very hard. She was a hard woman, but she cared about people, in her fashion. One person she cared about was a village character: Maggie Little.

Maggie was 4'6" tall, wore boys' trousers, delivered beer around the village in a horse drawn van and was commonly thought to be a hermaphrodite. And she was a good friend to my great-grandmother.

She was a mystery, this strange tiny woman, but this much is known: Maggie Little's grandfather was born during the Revolutionary War, her father in the War of 1812. She was six when they found gold at Sutter's Creek in California, 15 when Lincoln freed the slaves. She knew of Custer's Last Stand, Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, the first steam engine, telegraph, electric light bulb, the telephone, Gatling gun, machine gun, the war forced on Spain and the War to End All Wars. When she died Hitler was designing the ovens. I missed her by a year.

Maggie Little died a pauper in 1934, when she was 92, and the Overseer of the Poor arranged that a small unmarked grave be dug at the far end of the cemetery in a narrow piece of land between the last paying customer in the final row before the land pitched down to the river, and the fence separating the burying ground from my great-grandmother's house.

"They can't do that," stormed my great-grandmother. "She was a good person." She secured a small stone, faced smoothly on one side, and had it carved deep and well: Maggie Little, 1842-1934. The family story is that she stole the stone. Yes, she was a tough old bird and hard, but she looked after others who need looking after.

When my grandmother had scarlet fever as a girl her hair fell out in patches and she was hard of hearing the rest of her life. "Poor Mamie," they would say. "She's terrible deef." When she was 17 she became pregnant. In 1906, in a Vermont villages a single girl who "got in trouble" was marked for the rest of her life. So was the baby. My grandmother left town alone on the train and had her child some place downcountry. She brought her infant daughter home and her mother, a middle-aged drug addict, raised the baby as her own. The child grew up among snickers and hints but she never really knew for certain until she was an old woman that the elder sister she loved so much was her mother.

Two years after the birth of her daughter my grandmother got pregnant again; this time she defied her parents and married the little Frenchie from Quebec.

My grandfather was baptized Hormidase Felix Marquis. He was born in a log cabin on Roxton Pond in the Eastern Townships in 1885. The wolves, he used to tell me, howled around the door at night when the moon was bright and full.

His family joined the flood of French Canadians that moved south to the river towns of southern New England to work in the textile mills, and by the time he was 12 he had been orphaned twice. Then he was on his own, peddling newspapers and pulp magazines on the railroad. He used to tell me how he once saw Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show when he was a boy. That's as close as he ever got to a red man yet he had Abenaki blood. He was short and dark and had a hooked nose; he didn't look like a noble savage; the nobility was all inside.

There was a small, deep pit in his right cheek and every time I asked him: "How did you get that hole, Poppy? Is that from an Indian arrow?" he'd laugh and touch the hole with a stubby finger and say "That's right, Johnny, it was an Indian arrow that put that hole there."

I always thought the flint arrowhead in my grandmother's cookie tin was the one he pulled from his bleeding cheek. The cookie tin was round and painted violet. The cover was embossed with a delicate floral pattern in white. The tin contained no cookies, but was crammed with good stuff: Indian head pennies, buffalo nickels, exotic coins on brass with odd-shaped holes in the center, a keyring with a 48-star American flag, a pair of torn theater ticket stubs, a long-rooted tooth, yellowish brown and showing decay in the crown, here's an earring, three white marbles and a glass eye with a blue iris, an empty brass rifle cartridge, black wire-rimmed spectacles missing one temple piece, a pair of broken scissors, a Boy Scout buckle, weel-scratched, a knot of rubber bands, some red and blue chalk.

I loved that round tin and all that was inside and used to play with it for hours but best of all was the attic over the summer kitchen. My grandparents kept the family treasures up there.

You got up there on a rickety stairway that was raised and lowered with a counterweight. It was a spacesaver. "Be sure that stairway is hooked down, Johnny," my grandmother warned me, everytime. "Be careful up there." I learned basic anatomy up there, eagerly devouring stacks of National Geographics and marvelling at the breasts and bellies of the natives of the jungles. They had all the back issues of Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post. My grandmother's brothers, Harry and Arthur, stored their mementos of the First World War in the attic, and the stuff was fine. Their old khaki wool uniforms hung in a dusty corner. There was a doughboy's shallow steel helmet that had been artfully decorated with a campaign map of France, where they drove trains and fought the Hun. The German officer's helmet was made of stiff black leather, trimmed in silver, and had a pointy metal decoration on top. It was the perfect Prussian helmet. On one temple there was a small, neat hole; the hole on the opposite side was larger, and the edges were ragged. It was great fun to wear the helmet and stick your fingers in the holes. The gas mask was too large and too hot and uncomfortable to wear for long, and it smelled of old rubber and dirt.

The attic floor was made of rough boards and the surface was irregular and so was covered with well-worn rag rugs and battered congoleums from the house. The congoleums went from the house to the summer kitchen to the attic. That was the normal progression, On the south wall, high up under the peak, there was a small cobwebby window that admitted less light each year. On the wall facing the lane there was a door hinged on one side through which you could pass things, and drop model parachutes made of handkerchiefs, string and washers for weight.

Up there amidst the old chairs, the gilded frames containing images of family members long dead and gone, the boxes and cartons, trunks and suitcases, coats and dresses and old suits on rusty hangers, up there was a fine place to be on a rainy day when you couldn't be out playing baseball. My grandfather loved baseball and hated the Boston Red Sox.

"Yeah," he'd say in disgust, "it's all over the front page when they win. Big splash! But watch out when they lose. A couple of paragraphs in the back of the paper."

So he rooted for whatever team was up against the Red Sox.

The one time I ever saw him really angry was during a radio broadcast of a Boston game. He jumped from his chair by the radio console and punched the woodwork. "God damn it," he yelled. "Goddamned Red Sox."

"Oh, Marquis," said my grandmother, looking up from her crocheting. "What will Mrs. Rhodes think if she hears you?"

Rubbing his injured hand he stalked out to the porch, slammed the screen door behind him while muttering "Goddamned Red Sox. Goddamned bastards."

The porch floor was green, as was the screen door and the latticework hiding the underpinnings of the porch. The house was painted white. In summer there were hollyhocks and scarlet runner beans he planted around the porch. They were pollinated by bumble bees which made a fine sound as they moved in and around the flowers. The hollyhocks had thick, tall stalks; the beans climbed butcher's twine my grandfather stretched from nail to nail. On hot summer afternoons behind the hollyhocks and climbing beans we drank sweaty glasses of iced tea and cold bottles of Moxie cola.

My grandfather never owned an automobile or even learned to drive. He rarely went anywhere he couldn't get to by walking. Then he would take the train. When the hard times came and stayed and half of the men in town lost their jobs, he had steady work on the railroad and could have had an easy time of it. But he booked off work regularly so other men could work and their families eat. With his reduced earnings he saw to it that his daughters' families, their men out of work, too, had food on the table. He never spoke of this.

The day he died the neighborhood doctor was in the livinq room examining my grandmother, who had been feeling poorly. My grandfather was in the kitchen, scrubbing the walls and the woodwork. He was 73.

He stumbled into the living room and fell on the couch.

"Doctor, can you do anything for me?" he asked.

My grandmother, sick, lonely, and nearly deaf, lingered for a year.

" Oh, Marquis," she would cry. "Why did you leave me all alone to face this?"

And then she died and the things of their lives were divided and scattered and the house sold to strangers. We buried them in the family plot along the cemetery fence nearest the house. The grave markers are small and simple and fitting:

Armadase Felix Marquis 1885-1958
Mamie Hildreth His Wife 1886-1959

I go there sometimes to visit and I walk up to the place where they buried Maggie Little hard against the fence. The old worn path where we took shortcuts when I was a boy is still there and well-trafficked; the fence still sags from many crossings. The house, only a stone throw away, has been remodeled and is nicely maintained. The steep bank that drops to the river has been stabilized with concrete and stout wooden shorings.

When the day is right, the sky blue and clear overhead and the sun low in the west across the lake so the shadows are long and the light is warm on the green lawns and neat white homes of Spring Street, there above the river, I stand at the sagging fence by Maggie Little's grave and I can see him coming home, his coat slung over his shoulder, the brim of his cap well down, swinging that black lunch box, and how I want to cross that fence and run to him.

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Copyright © John Mahoney 1997
jane does the laundry