Grandma has been sitting with me for an hour with a jar of peanut butter trying to loosen up the wad of gum that Sadie stuck in my hair. My aunt Kate barks, “You two are the reason I’m not having kids.” She is my mother’s younger sister and has just appeared on the cover of a body building magazine. She always adopts the look of her new boyfriend, the former one being a hairdresser with a long frosted mane. The newest claims to be a professional body builder, but behind his back everyone thinks he’s with the CIA. Kate is the polar opposite of my mother’s older sister, Martha, a soft-spoken Christian wife and stay-at-home mother to my two perfect cousins. We all meet up at my grandparents’ house on Maple Street, only three doors down from ours on the corner of Chestnut.
Grandma and Grandpa bought this house just after they got married at the ages of fifteen and sixteen when it was nothing but farmland on all sides. Bluegrass music can always be heard when you walk in the door, and Grandpa breaks out into song with the Stanley Brothers while Grandma walks around the house talking on the wall-mounted kitchen phone with its long spiral cord that reaches all the way to the bedroom or out on the porch. A clock on the living room wall tic-tocks constantly and chimes loudly the proper number of times every hour.
Grandma hangs their clothes outside on the line to dry and tends a vegetable garden with the biggest tomatoes I’ve ever seen. She swears that Dale Earnhardt is my mother’s second cousin. She also sweeps up after people as they walk and has tried to spit-wipe the freckle off my face on several occasions.
“Tell me the story about the poison ivy again,” I request. Grandma grew up with twelve brothers and sisters. She says they all had a lot of children back then to help run the farms. Her closest sister was Dot and after their chores were done they roamed freely. Dot tantalized her, just like Sadie always does to me, until one day it came back on her. Dot pulled two handfuls of leaves from a vine and pretended it was poison ivy and chased my grandmother around with it. Eventually Dot said, “Ha-ha, it’s not even real. See?” as she rubbed it on her own skin. “Watch, I’m going to eat it too,” she said as she shoved some of the leaves in her mouth, chewed them up, and swallowed them. The next day Dot woke up with a rash on her face, in her mouth, and all the way down her throat. It really was poison ivy. I laugh again like I’m hearing it for the first time.
Grandpa wears a green camouflage hat and carries around a little white Styrofoam cup in which to spit tobacco. A retired fireman, he hangs out at the hardware store during the day and knows all the customers by name. During hunting season, he leaves with a rifle in the back window of his truck for weeks at a time and comes home with the meat we will eat for the rest of the year. Although usually venison, we all know we could be eating bear or rabbit and will only be informed after the fact. Wonder bread and soft butter is served at every meal, along with a torturous green vegetable like kale or okra. Sadie chew hers up and spits it into a napkin, but I am usually left at the table long after it has been cleared until someone takes mercy on me for not wanting to clean my plate. We all watch Wheel of Fortune and then play spades until it’s time to walk home.
Grandma and Grandpa have a house in the mountains as well, which rustic does not begin to describe. Wood has to be collected from their forty acres and chopped for the stove that will heat the chilly house. A white ceramic pot with a red-rimmed lid sits in the corner of the hardwood floor, designated for peeing in the middle of the night when it’s too cold to use the outhouse, but roughing it is worth getting to wake up in the morning to the smell of scrapple cooking on the wood stove. Grandpa sits me on his lap and tells me how proud he is of me.
Summertime consists of visits to their beach house on Chincoteague Island, where I learn how to cast a spinning reel from Grandpa’s boat on the Chesapeake Bay and never, ever, in all the years of doing this, come home with a fish. But Grandpa is a pro and we rely on that for our meals each night, which Grandma fries in about an inch of lard. On crabbing days, the ladies go to the beach. Sadie and I get so distracted playing in the ocean that we don’t realize how far down shore the waves have carried us or in which direction. We are little brown bears running around in our underwear, reaping the benefits of Grandma’s Native American genes. I keep watch for the wild ponies that swim across the channel, one of which trusted me to get so close once that I was able to braid a lock of its mane.
In the evening, no matter how many times I’ve seen it, I cry when the live crabs crawl on top of each other in the pot as they whistle and cook to their death. “The little bleeding heart,” Henry says and presses my cheek into his side.
Mr. Whippie’s ice cream truck comes around just before dark, followed by a game of telephone around a neighborhood bonfire. The wind chimes and the bug zapper lull me to sleep at night.