To understand Grandma Thompson’s story, you need to know a little about Grandpa’s.
Grandpa Thompson was the grandson of Marietta Ackerman, who was half Cherokee. Though he was 50% Dane, he looked like a chief: tall and straight, with an angular face, deep set eyes, and a prominent nose. He had a tough time staying in one place, which must have been the source of Mom’s restlessness, and perhaps my own. They moved from one family household to another during the depression. Mom had a survivor’s spirit and claimed to always have had fun with her cousins, no matter which family took them in.
This must have been a challenge Grandma. One of triplets from a wealthy Minnesota family, Esther Welliver was the smallest of the three and was not expected to survive. I don’t know much about her life, but I remember her as a presence who came and went, though not as someone with whom I had a strong bond. Her bitterness toward Grandpa was apparent, however. That woman was a master at holding a grudge. I believe that her grudges both held her up and destroyed her.
At family get-togethers, Dad would often dance with her, twirling her around the room, doodle-dee-dee-ing a tune as Grandma laughed in embarrassment and delight. She would call for him to stop as she caught my eyes and laughter at this remarkable spectacle. Her religion forbade dancing, so this must have been quite the thrilling experience for her!
Grandma was a fire-and-brimstone Christian who followed the evangelist Oral Roberts’ weekly radio and television programs, much to Mom’s annoyance. He was a true and actual Bible-thumper. I generally ran from the sound of his voice, but recall a few mesmerized moments of horror and fascination at the anger and righteousness pouring out of his mouth as he described the punishments awaiting the sinners and fornicators of the world.
In spite of this influence, Grandma had a mind of her own. She divorced Grandpa Thompson in 1950 or so. This was back in the day when divorce was still an utter disgrace, so it must have been pretty bad and showed a lot of spirit on her part.
I recall visiting her in her tiny house on the road between Willamina and Sheridan, Oregon. This was little more than a cabin, with one large room and a bedroom in the back, with a chicken coup and an outhouse, which could only be reached by traversing a path through an impressive patch of wild blackberry canes. Given this awe-inspiring obstacle course, one learned to ‘hold it’.
She was more than a bit of a pack-rat and would likely fall into the hoarder category of today’s list of personality disorders. Every inch of window-sill and available surface was covered with knick-knacks, buttons, thimbles, and all manner of odds and ends. Her bedroom was a wonder of stuff, and even though I was forbidden to go in there, it was the first place I crept into on the rare moments when I was alone. Her dresser was covered with jewelry boxes, figurines, and powder puffs, both for face and after the bath.
Grandma was a believer in powder and baking soda and green tea. She had an armoire filled with dresses for church, old-lady shoes, and a mysterious mink coat.
Tucked in among the dresses and encased in a zippered plastic bag, was a luxurious mink coat. Soft and lustrous and smelling slightly of moth balls, I was enchanted with it. I believe it was a reminder of a more prosperous past and, no doubt, helped to fuel her mighty resentment toward Grandpa.
She wasn’t the greatest cook, either. I recall observing her cooking pork chops one summer evening, watching in concern as they turned from pink to brown to black. My eight-year-old observation that they were burning was met with a confident: “Oh, they’re just nice and brown.”
Years later when I shared this story with Mom, she let out an uproarious laugh, having her own memories of “nice and brown” food as a child.
Another memory of Grandma Thompson centers around the time when my older brother Jimmy spent a weekend with her and came down with a severe intestinal flu. This could very easily have been food poisoning now that I think about it. Whatever it was, he ended up spending a few nights in the hospital.
Her remedy: peppermint tea, which grew wild and abundant down by the creek. To this day, my dear brother avoids the taste of mint.
Grandma Thompson died from a stroke when I was in high school. It was traumatic to see this spirited woman without the ability to move or talk. Her eyes were absolutely alive, however, and communicated volumes: frustration, loneliness, sadness, and rage at her predicament. It was a blessing that she lingered in this state for a relatively short time, but it still makes me sad. I regret not knowing her better and wish that we had done more to include her in our lives.