My Grandmother’s house was a prefabricated home. The kind brought to a property in two parts. Whenever I see a truck carrying half of those large, assembly line houses, I can’t help but think to myself, “Who’s grandma just purchased a home?” It was longer than it was wide, considerably cheap, and had all the accoutrements a Grandmother would need. Pink, sponge painted walls, baby blue carpet, old wooden hanging lights and oak furniture who’s previous owner must have been Father Time. It was like entering the twilight zone, one minute you’re out in rural Idaho, surrounded by grass, trees and poop, the next you’re in a time capsule permanently set to 1974.
The house was put in backwards, to this day I’m not sure if it was purposeful or on accident. The latter wouldn’t surprise me, the former would. The drive way went to the back sliding glass door and the front door on the other side of the house led to absolutely nowhere. I don’t recollect ever walking through that door. I’m not sure what purpose it served, because it quite literally went to nowhere. That side of the house looked out onto the acreage of her land, no cars, houses, buildings or anything was in that direction.
And of course, there was the décor of the place. Colors that had been previously bright and vibrant now looked a dull shade of their former selves, after hitting their 30th and 40th birthdays. Everything wood was made of oak, and everything fabric was the color of snow cones. The TV was new, fast and large, according to the standards of 1971. New, fast and large weren’t the word’s I’d use in 1998.
Worst of all, she had satellite TV. The numbers of channels I had spent so long memorizing were now useless. Cartoon network had been channel 20, when it switched to 27 back home. Nickelodeon (the channel I was named after, according to many elementary school kids), was 22. Disney was channel 21.
In this bass ackwards place of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Disney channel was 794. Cartoon network was 731, and Nickelodeon must have been playing nonstop reruns of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?, because I never found it. To make matters worse, the satellite TV only allowed one channel to be played at a time.
Imagine the frustration, if you will, with this. My sister and I would be sitting there, minding our own business, watching Johnny Bravo, only to have it switch to Murder, She Wrote halfway through an episode. Angela Lansbury doesn’t hold the same captivation to a child as poor come-ons and fart jokes. There’s nothing as effective at putting a child to sleep as Angela Landsbury in Murder, She Wrote. If there’s ever a time when I can’t get a kid to calm down, I’ll just throw on reruns of that and watch it work it’s magic.
“Oh bother!” My Grandma AJ would say when we complained, “You’ve been watching TV all morning! Why don’t you go down to the crick, and skip stones!”
I didn’t know what a ‘crick’ was, and for a while I thought it was just another one of those crazy things ol’ Grandma AJ says sometimes. It wasn’t until my mom told me she meant creek and just had a funny way of pronouncing it.
The thing is, Grandma AJ never had an accent. She never sounded southern, or northern, eastern or western. She didn’t have sayings that made me go, “what?” or a drawl that kept me counting syllables trying to figure out what she was saying. It was like her brain picked and chose which words to say funny, and which words to say right at random.
Crick was creek, hot dogs were weeeenrs (like she was from England), brother (as in Oh brother!) was brrrruh-ther. And Charles (as in, that God forsaken dog that pooped on everything) was quick, sharp and loud, Charlie! She’d shout at him (suspiciously sounding like the dog she was trying to stop from barking) as if he was hard of hearing or she thought he spoke another language. “Oh, ENOUGH!” she’d scream beneath a furrowed brow. Charlie would look at her, registering he heard her, then go on barking. It was with every dog she owned, Fifi, Muffi, Tippi, Yippie, Skippie and Max.
The other problem with going down to the crick and skipping stones, was that there needed to be a crick to begin with. It was the heat of summer, the thing was nothing more than a light drizzle. I half expected to look upstream and find a moose or bear simply relieving itself. The color was off, but maybe he/she was just super hydrated.
Back at the house was no different, with Murder, She Wrote and Matlock on perpetual rerun, we were left to our own devices. Feeding Harvey the horse got old and after a while you were forced to use your imagination. But even that was limited to what was ‘acceptable.’
My grandma hadn’t had kids – her kids – in her home in well over thirty years. Even then, when my mother looked back on her childhood, she didn’t fondly remember my grandma being a patient woman. Any activity we came up with was either too loud, too roudy, too rambunctious or too fun.
“Oh, stop that!” she’d cry from the other side of the room, “Why don’t you go down to the Barn and feed Clipper?!”
And when we were out of earshot, out of eye sight and even beyond the range of smell, we were kept in line by watchful eyes. There were pictures of Jesus in every room, and in every picture he had that same look upon his face, “Should you really be doing that?” it said with a calm look of disapproval. “You want to go to heaven, don’t you?” His eyes were cool and calculating, “Maybe you should put those frosted flakes back, you already had four bowls of cereal this morning.”
Even the grandfather clock that bellowed in her living room kept us in line. Like a tyrant over his people, the clock believed it was better to be feared than loved. I dared not stay awake, in the dark of night alone while the clock echoed it’s bellowed, ghostly chimes. Each tick and tock reverberated in the tiny manufactured home, like nails being slowly driven into a coffin. The nights I spent on the couch in the living room always started with the ritualistic killing of the clock’s chimes. After everyone was in bed, I’d walk over to the giant fear producing clock and open it’s door. Reaching in, I’d stop the pendulum from swinging, in hopes of staving away a night riddled with nightmares about time keeping.
And every morning I’d be woken by my grandmother, she stood with her back to me, facing her clock. “This Gol’darn thing keeps stoppin’!” she’d cry to no one in particular. She’d grumble to herself, reset the pendulum and reset the time on the clock, not knowing she’d be doing in four or five more times that week.
We’d wake up for breakfast and eat cereal from single serve boxes. The kind that came in 10 packs, almost the same one’s we kept in the RV. The only difference was there was about 30g of sugar in every box with the cereal in our RV, while there was probably 3g or 4g between the 10 boxes in the pack she bought. It was like she went to Costco, walked up to an employee and said, “Excuse me, young man. I’m looking to buy some variety cereal for my grandkids.”
“Well of course,” he says, “this one is very popular, it has Lucky Charms, Apple Jacks, Cinnamon Toast crunch, Fruit Loo –“
“Do you have anything that they’ll get super excited for, only be have their dreams destroyed upon seeing the kinds of cereal?”
He’d pause, contemplating for a moment, “Well, yes… we have the soul destroying varietal, but –“
“Does it have Cheerios? You know, the kind that taste like bland cardboard and old noodles?”
“Sure.” He’d nod.
“What about just raisins, any just Raisin?”
“Corn flakes? The kind without sugar.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the Costco employee says politely. “Although just so you know, the recipe has changed. They decided to move away from IAMS cat food, and went with a process where they ground up old, dead straw, then mold it into little, frustratingly-crunchy balls.”
“But it still tasted like dirt, right?” She asks, haltingly.
“Absolutely, and they guarantee to dry out your mouth in two bites or less, or your money back.”
“Perfect, I’ll take a few of the geriatric variety packs.”
“Just out of curiosity,” the Costco employee asks, “When will your grandkids be in town?”
“Oh, not for another three or four months,” Grandma AJ says and waves her hand dismissively. “I need to make sure the cereal is nice and stale before they arrive.”
There’s no other explanation for why or how she could have gotten ahold of thirty small boxes of cereal, and all thirty, months past the expiration date. They contained so little sugar, even a diabetic would say, “well come on now, a few more grams won’t kill the kid.”
To make matters worse, there was a constant fear of abandonment for me. Just after my brother, Sam, was born, the entire family drove to Grandma AJ’s house. We spent the week there, enduring the same Matlock, stale cereal, and terrifying clock hardships. Then, on one fateful morning, my world was turned upside down.
It started like any other morning, the encapsulating smell of moth bombs assaulted my senses. The smell came from the comforter and gave me a headache, but I dare not sleep without it: Grandma AJ liked to keep the house at a brisk 33 degrees Fahrenheit. Just cold enough to condone wearing that two piece turtle neck sweat suit 12 months a year. There was movement in the house, and lots of it. It sounded like someone was moving furniture. Someone was moving with purpose – diligently and on a time crunch.
I left the room, rubbed the sleep from my eyes and breathed in the rich smell of oak and dog hair. My mother moved passed me, her toiletries bag in hand.
“What’s going on?” I ask her, there’s a childlike innocence in my voice, innocence and trust I’ll never get back after this morning.
She stops in the hallway and crouches down to my level and grabs my by the shoulders, as if she’s about to tell me the most important thing in the world. “Your father and I are taking Sam back home, and you and Alison are going to stay at Grandmas for another week!”
Now, dogs generally understand tone best, and if our dog was here to hear what she said, he’d think he was going for a walk, being taken to the dog park or getting a 12oz sirloin steak, just based on her tone.
“Who wants to go to the vet?!” we’d ask our dog enthusiastically. “Who’s gonna get a shot!? You are! What a bad, and terrible dog you are!” He’d wag his tail and smile, in the way dogs do, because he listens to tone. It wasn’t until we pulled into the vet parking lot that his expression changed, that he looked at us in such a say that said, “You lying bastards.”
My mother’s tone was off, in the same way ours was when we liked to our dog. She made it sound like it was the best thing that had ever happened to me, but the words my brain was analyzing told a different story. Not just one week at Grandmas, not just with the family, but for two weeks, and my baby brother Sam got to go home and do whatever babies did. At least show me some respect and be sad for me, I wanted to say. Don’t treat me like the dog back home. When they left, I chased them down the driveway with tears in my eyes, begging them to let me go with them. They only smiled and said, “You’ll be fine.” The same way the I’m sure sergeants told their soldiers they’ll be fine before the D-Day landing.
The fear of being left behind again always gnawed at me. My bag was always packed, I was always ready to leave at a moment’s notice. I kept my eye on my parents, untrustingly, accusing them of leaving at the donning of a jacket.
“I just saw you put your toothbrush back in the bag mom…” I’d say, “Going somewhere?”
“Yes, to the bathroom. Get out, I gotta pee.”
“Dad, I see you’ve put on your tennis shoes, plan on doing any driving?” I’d ask, arms crossed.
“No, I thought I’d go for a walk.”
“Ha!” I shouted, pointing my finger at him. “Walk to the car! So you can drive away and leave me behind again!”
But they never did leave us there, after that one year. Whether it was because of my incessant complaining, or my grandmother’s, I’m not sure. I was grateful when the time came to leave and my parents included me in the process. We packed our bags together and placed them all in their designated locations in the RV.
The kids sat in the back of the RV, resting our knees on our parents bed, we looked out the rear window and waved goodbye to our grandma. She was smiling, her eyes gleamed behind her blue gigantic glasses. As she grew smaller and smaller in the distance, she reached down and grabbed one of her terrible, tiny dogs. I think its name was Fifi… or Tipi. Or was it Muffi? I can’t recall.
“Get those dirty shoes off the bed!” my mother calls from the front of the RV. “And keep your hands off the windows, I just cleaned those.” Even in the reflection of my father’s immaculate rearview mirror, we could see the intensity in her eyes that said she meant business.
“Where are we going now?” we asked.
“Now,” my father said triumphantly, “we go to Yellowstone.” He displayed a toothy grin. His face beamed with excitement as the trip was now finally going to begin. I looked back at him and emulated the same eagerness, thinking about the things Yellowstone might have to offer. I smiled naively, not knowing the trauma that lay in the road ahead of me. Not knowing that the next week of my life would keep me away from Yellowstone and its stories for a decade. For Yellowstone isn’t a walk in the park, it’s not a safe place and its history is rich with danger and death. And there’s one person who will help fuel the terror that will take residence in my heart; one park ranger who will forever change my view of hot springs, geysers and the rotten smell of sulfur.