“My Grandmother’s Last Birthday,” published in Mused, Volume 10, Issue 2 (Summer 2016)
For my grandmother’s last birthday, they threw her a party in the luncheon alcove of the Valhalla County Country Club. She was turning 81, and the general sentiment among the family was that anyone who’d lived to such an august age deserved to be fêted to their–the family’s–hearts’ content. In fact, they’d meant to do the honors the previous year, when she turned eighty. That was a nice round number, a milestone, another decade down and, let’s face it, almost certainly the last. But my grandmother had thwarted their plans by being in the hospital with pneumonia at the time, and they’d been put off, at least for a year. The wait had only increased their enthusiasm.
Adding to the sense of urgency was Granny’s fervent conviction, expressed on several occasions, that she wasn’t going to last another year. Taking her at her word, they reckoned they’d better get on with it while they still could. By they I mean my mother, my Aunt Johnna, my Aunt Gladys, my Aunt Rennie, and an assortment of younger, interchangeable, already quite aunt-like cousins whose names I won’t bother with. It’s enough to know the type: they post on Pinterest and wear sweater sets and speak in the voices of second grade teachers. Some of them are second grade teachers. These cousins eye me warily, and there’s a kind of forced cheeriness in our dealings, but they needn’t worry, I haven’t made a mocking remark about any of them for several years now. Not where they can hear me, anyway.
I was involved in a minor scandal in high school when a couple of my dyed-haired, Doc Marten-shod friends and I put out an anonymous little zine dedicated to the brutal ridicule of everything around us. Few were spared, least of all my cousins, and many a feeling was hurt. We managed to keep the operation on the d.l. for a few months, but eventually Old Gaither, our principal, was able to prove what everybody suspected, and my friends and I spent a grueling Saturday morning scrubbing the locker rooms, among other equally unpleasant punishments devised by our victims from among the faculty.
Somehow, though, the experience failed to sour me on the idea of being a writer, and these days I put my wits to use as managing editor of Round About Town. In case you aren’t from around here, RAT, as we affectionately refer to it around the office, is the hippest of several weekly publications in the biggest city for eight hours in any direction–that’s driving hours. But I do still get back to Selby from time to time, mostly to visit my aforementioned dear old granny, from whom I seem to have inherited all my good characteristics and most of my bad ones. I wouldn’t have missed her party for the world.
I was always my grandmother’s favorite, a fact which she never made any effort to conceal from anybody. I’m the only one in the family that she ever taught to ride, for example, and that includes her four daughters. My grandmother was a consummate horsewoman. There’s a picture of her on the living room wall at Aunt Gladys’s house–her mouth a tense line, her eyes narrowed, clearing a jump on Swamp Fox like it was the most important thing she would ever do in her life. Swamp Fox was the first of a long line of legendary Appaloosas with whom my grandmother won so many ribbons that Aunt Rennie finally sewed them together, quilt-like, into a wall hanging. There’s a fluidity to the image; it’s hard to make out where the horse ends and Granny begins.
My grandmother was the daughter of a farmer, and she married a farmer. After his untimely death (by tractor, as it happens), she ran the farm on her own. My best childhood memories are all of the place–the sweet surfeit of warm blackberries and muscadines, the cloying smell of tobacco sheaves hanging drying in the barn, touch-me-not flowers that pawed at your fingers like blind, rubbery animals, and always Granny, at the center of everything. Astride a horse with her hair blowing back, barking out orders to Winston and Skinner, lowering the stone steps to the cellar to put up pickled beans or peaches, shucking corn and stringing green beans on the back porch. Though I watched the transformation take place, it’s still hard for me to reconcile that Granny, a tough, still-youngish woman in jeans and flannel shirts, her green eyes alert under the brim of a cowboy hat, with the frail but still spirited old woman whose eighty-first birthday was to be celebrated.
Since she wasn’t at all certain that she’d still be around come October, Granny thought the party should be a late-night masked ball. But, as the rest of them didn’t feel that a costume party would convey the appropriate gravitas for such an occasion, and as it wasn’t in fact Halloween yet, that idea was scrapped early on. I put in my vote for an open bar, or at the very least pitchers of mimosas on the tables instead of lemonade, but as most of my kin are teetotalers, these suggestions too were shot down. In the end it was to be a Saturday brunch buffet: fresh fruit, French toast, a preponderance of casseroles, fresh-cut flower arrangements, and a whole bunch of other Southern Livingesque accoutrements that I forgot just as quickly as my mother rattled them off to me over the telephone. She’d taken to giving me weekly updates on their preparations, though it was all about as tangled up in my mind as a sackful of live bait. From what I could tell, plans were being made, unmade, and remade constantly according to the four of them’s differing visions. The only thing they all agreed on was that Granny was the showpiece, to be trotted out (teeth in and hair combed, it was stipulated) at the appropriate moment to smile sweetly for the photos, and not to talk. This last was particularly impressed upon her, that she need not say a word; it was her day, and she ought to sit back and enjoy it… quietly.
The day of the shindig finally dawned, sunny and unseasonably warm for April. I took more pains with my appearance than I’m generally inclined to do, achieving a rather Elizabeth-Taylor-as-Cleopatra make-up effect, though I did abandon the predominant color scheme in favor of my habitual black. By luck, my arrival coincided with that of the crew they’d sent out from the Star to do a special interest piece. The photographer–it was Junior Banks’s youngest boy–had captured my likeness from a number of angles by the time a phalanx of my pastel-colored cousins whisked him off to admire the general décor–and not without a sulky look or two in my direction. To pass the time I pulled up a seat at one of the tables that afforded a view of the front patio and vestibule, surreptitiously spiked my lemonade from a flask in my handbag, and watched the blitz of hugs and handshakes outside. The invitees were primarily the extended family, with a smattering of the pillars of the First Baptist Church. That included the Reverend Maynard J. Hunt, who’d done most of our marrying and burying over the years and was always good for a fire-and-brimstone sermon, and Lester Blanton, our illustious county commissioner. In they came, by twos and fours except for the Silases and a horde of little old ladies–my grandmother’s cronies from the Senior Center–who had sallied forth together by bus. They gabbled and cackled like a flock of geese as they negotiated the front ramp, tapping along with their canes and walkers. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday clothes and bearing gifts for Granny, who, thus far, was conspicuously absent.
The first item on the agenda was the buffet, which went off without incident except for Scooter Harwell dropping a serving-spoonful of grapes in the maple syrup and little Abigail Folk getting her fingers in the chocolate fountain and smearing the back of her mother’s dress in a way that called to mind intestinal difficulties. Partway through the meal, Aunt Gladys ushered Granny in on her arm with a slightly anxious mien, like the escort to a foreign dignitary whose unusual customs might not go over well in the homeland. There was a standing ovation from the guests–though to be fair half of them were already standing, still waiting their turn in the buffet line.
They’d done Granny up in the lavender suit and lacy-collared white blouse my mother bought to bury her in the previous year, before Granny came through her pneumonia. Her hair had been curled, Shirley Temple-style, and I thought I might even have detected a trace of purple eyeshadow, though that may’ve just been a trick of the light. Aunt Rennie fixed Granny a plate–to keep her out of the buffet line, I reckoned–and Aunt Johnna planted her at the front table behind a lilac and lily centerpiece of such proportions as to remind one of the Birnam Wood scene from Macbeth. It was at this point that I excused myself from the back corner table I was sharing with all eleven of the Silases and took up a seat on Granny’s right at the table of honor. It was empty except for her.
“You gettin’ a load a this?” she asked me in a low voice. Her beady eyes gleamed.
“They’re all here for you, Granny.”
“Hn!” she snorted. “They’re here to get their pitchure in the Star.”
As if on cue, the Banks boy strode over, camera in hand, and asked, “Mind if I take a few photographs for the paper, ma’am?”
“Naw, I don’t mind,” Granny said politely. He pushed the centerpiece out of the way, the shutter went to clicking, and sure enough, several of the guests queued up as if Granny had been a department store Santa. The unctuous reverend was first in line.
“Missus Viola!” he boomed, dropping into an empty chair and wrapping a tentacle around Granny’s shoulder, “I swear, you don’t look a day over twenty-nine!”
“Y’ain’t ‘posed to swear,” Granny muttered under her breath, but that was all she said until the photo session was over.
When everyone had eaten, the children, who’d been straining under the yoke of sitting still and behaving, made a mass exodus to the playground, leaving clip-on bowties and frilly hair ornaments in their wake. After that it wasn’t long till the teenagers, as if convoked by some unheard voice, began to amble toward the back steps, and the men made their way to the vestibule, thumbs through beltloops and bellies stuck out over dress pants. That left the women, who in any case were the target audience. Aunt Johnna gave a satisfied look around the room before installing herself at the podium they’d set up to the left of Granny’s table, where she commenced to alternately blowing into and pounding on the microphone.
“Is this thing on? Psssss, psssss. Is it on, y’all?” Several women’s voices answered in the affirmative.
“Well, then, let me tell y’all about my mama, Missus Viola Mae Hicks Washburn!” Aunt Johnna sang out, giving her frosted hair a winning little shake. “Y’all wanna hear about my mama?” Cheers and hoots from the crowd.
“To begin with, my mama was supposed to’ve been a man!”
General laughter from the women, though I’m sure that many of us had heard this story before. I had, a number of times, with new embellishments at each retelling. I glanced over at Granny, who was looking dourly into her lap.
“My mama’s mama, Missus Vaughtie Jean Gardner Hicks, was eight months pregnant when she climbed the hill up Mine Fork Holler to find out what her baby was gonna be. People told that the longer you waited, the more likely Miz Zelda was to give you a correct answer. For you younger ladies that wasn’t around back then,” Aunt Johnna paused dramatically before going on in a stage whisper, “Miz Zelda was a witch.”
Oooos from the audience.
“We’re talking about a woman without the first tooth in her head, and the snuff juice would ooze into the corners of her mouth when she was talking. Am I right, y’all that knew her?”
Another pause as my aunt looked around the room with palpable gratification to see who was testifying, who ewwing or pretending to gag.
“She dressed like an old gypsy woman, with a big shawl wrapped around her no matter what time of the year it was, and she had these long red fingernails–” Aunt Johnna languidly waved her own perfectly-manicured lavender nails in the air. “But people flocked to her. She had a reputation for knowing things, and part of that was being able to tell the sex of babies. The first thing Miz Zelda did when a pregnant woman turned up at her door was to take her money–it was a quarter back in my grandmaw’s day–and then she’d lay her out on an old cot and hold a gold chain up over her belly.” Never one to disappoint, my aunt produced just such a gold chain from the pocket of her pantsuit and swung it before our eyes. It gleamed in the track lighting.
“Miz Zelda held that chain over my grandmaw’s belly and solemnly declared that baby to be a boy. When my mama was born, the only way Miz Zelda could account for it was to say that another woman out in the western part of the county lost a boy baby that same night, and she figured there must have been some switching around of the two babies’ souls.”
Aunt Johnna went on in this vein for a good twenty minutes or so. She tallied up my grandmother’s achievements, most of them to do with horses, but she wasn’t far into it before I’d tuned her out and let my mind wander instead to a conversation I’d had with Granny a few years back. It was on a Saturday, not long after they’d sold the farm and moved her into Aunt Rennie’s house. Just to be kitschy, I showed up with my hair tied back in a handkerchief adorned with dozens of little horse heads that I knew Granny would get a kick out of. I’d smuggled her in some candy, and though I didn’t much like circus peanuts myself, I was eating a handful with her for solidarity’s sake.
“You feeling alright?” I asked her. She was quieter than usual, I thought.
“The pitchure of health,” she answered dismissively. She had something on her mind.
“Whatcha thinking ’bout, Granny?” I prompted.
She turned her watery green eyes on me. “Bailey,” she said. “I never interfered in your upbringing. I let Thelma raise you how she thought was best, and she did a decent job. You’ve done something with yourself, and you always was sharp as a tack. But I’m a tell you something. I know Thelma don’t approve of you.” It was the closest she’d ever come to mentioning my sexuality. “But you just be you,” she finished, grinning at me. “Because that’s who the good Lord made you to be.” Then she reached over and patted my hand, which was sticky from half-melted circus peanuts.
There was a pause while I got ahold of myself. “Thank you, Granny,” I said.
“And don’t ever get old, Bailey,” she added wryly. “It sucks being old.”
We both sat chewing reflectively for awhile longer, then, after scraping orange goo off our teeth with a finger, we played some Yahtzee and a couple hands of Spades. When I left, she was snoring noisily in her rocker under one of Aunt Rennie’s homemade macrame afghans.
Aunt Johnna was still holding forth with spirit when something of particular interest to me began to take place behind her. An unsavory-looking fellow with a receding and rather greasy-looking hairline had quietly arrived and was connecting up a spotlight behind my oblivious aunt. If the others noticed him, it never occurred to them that he might be part of any scheme of Granny’s. They admitted as much afterward. Aunt Johnna finally wrapped it up, to wild applause from the ladies, and my mother was just pushing her chair back when all at once the lights went down and pulsing electronic music burst from the speakers, sending rhythmic vibrations through everyone and everything in the room.
All eyes followed the spotlight toward the main entrance, where a young man was beginning a suggestive dance, biting his bottom lip seductively and swiveling his shoulders from side to side. He looked like something off the cover of a romance novel, all feathered hair and muscles, in a sleeveless black t-shirt and tight, satiny black pants. As the music throbbed, he slithered and come-hithered his way across the floor, gyrating his hips and turning his smoldering gaze around the room. I guess he was sexy, if you’re into that sort of thing.
He frisked down the aisle between tables, stopping midway to remove his shirt with one deft movement. He swung it over his head, shaking his hips suggestively, and let it fly–right onto the blue head of one of Granny’s Senior Center chums. A couple of the old women hollered, a sound that frankly conveyed more alarm than excitement. As he neared the front of the room, the spotlight snaking along with his every move, in a final coup de grâce, he wiggled himself free of his satiny pants. He made a lascivious production of balling them up, then they too went flying. Underneath he had on some Speedo-style drawers decorated with the American flag, stars up one side and stripes down the other.
Now I ought to stop and explain at this point that Kathleen doesn’t usually come to these things. She can take my mother in small doses, but the synergistic effect of all four of them together can be overwhelming. This time, however, she turned up just before the music got going to help me with Granny. The old gal’s not as spry as she once was, but I bet you the three of us were out the door in less time than it takes to throw your britches at the elderly, which is saying something.
We took our leave surreptitiously, by way of a side door, but I did turn around one more time to survey the hubbub we were leaving in our wake. The last glimpse I got, Junior Banks’s boy was snapping away, Uncle Bird, red-faced and grinning, was slapping his prodigious thigh, Aunt Johnna was thrown back in a chair fanning herself, and the good Reverend looked positively apoplectic. By the time we were missed in all the excitement (I knew because my cell started ringing off the hook), the three of us were down the road a pretty good piece en route to Myrtle Beach. I’d promised Granny.
“Well, I guess we gave them old biddies an eyeful!” she’d sung out gleefully as soon as we slammed the car doors.
The best part of the whole thing was the next day’s edition of the Star. There we were, in full color, all over the front page: me in my above-the-knee rat-stomper boots and form-fitting cocktail dress that left little to the imagination, sleeveless to reveal arms as toned as Michelle Obama’s and covered with vintage 1950s tattoos, Granny with a mischievous grin on her wrinkled old face, and the stripper in his patriotic undies. It was something to behold.
I reckon we gave Selby plenty to talk about for the foreseeable future, but the one person who was not talking–not to me, anyway–was my mother. I think it was disappointment, as much as anything else, that no one got to hear her speech. It took a good bit of groveling on my part, but I was finally able to convince her that the only thing Kathleen and I did was provide the getaway car. It was all Granny, conception to execution.
Still, I was mighty glad to see her get her jibe in, because, true to her word, Granny made her grand departure before the summer was out. So you see it was my grandmother’s last birthday after all.