Gram and Auntie with great granddaughter Sarah

Chapter 22: Passing the Time

While Mary Ellen was living out her dreams in the Country Club District, her mother, Bessie, and her aunt, Nettie, were living out theirs in their parents’ old house at 3032 Woodland. Time had stopped in that house. Literally. The clock on the mantel framed by the figures of Jacob and Rachel hadn’t worked for years. Neither had Bessie. Nettie, of course, had never worked at all.

Their neighbors, though, must have thought the sisters had jobs, because every weekday morning, rain or shine, they were out at the bus stop along with the salesladies, cashiers, waitresses, and clerks. They all rode downtown together. But the sisters weren’t going to work. They were going to a movie. They saw a different one every day, Monday through Friday, except when one was so popular it was held over. That would set Bessie to grumbling: “Ever since Roosevelt ever’thing’s gettin’ t’ be a big mess.”

Sometimes, to get me out of her hair, Mother sent me downtown on a trolley bus and allowed Gram to take me to a movie. Gram and Auntie would be waiting at 12th and Walnut, staring anxiously into the windows of every passing bus until they spotted me and started waving. We would walk though Woolworth’s, checking out what was on sale. They always bought a few monogrammed handkerchiefs or a bag of candy for the grandchildren. Then we walked over to the Forum where we had an early lunch, finishing just in time to arrive at the theater before the prices changed at 11:45.

Before addressing their lunch, however, they folded the plush, oversized paper napkins provided by the Forum to underline its status as the city’s premier cafeteria and put them in their purses, from which they removed one-fourth of a previous day’s paper napkin, which they had cut up at home. They had thousands of those napkins—drawers and drawers full of them. Sometimes Nettie would show them to me and my sister and brother. Then she would wail, “There’s so much to ’em. There’s no way a fella can get the good out of ’em.”

Getting the good out of things was Nettie’s goal in life. To that end, she collected only canceled postage stamps and advised us “little folks” to get our false teeth early. We didn’t think the sisters were crazy. They were our Gram and Auntie. But even as small children, we realized that they were accumulating napkins faster than they were using them up. But we had been taught to mind our own business, and this was definitely not our business, so although we wondered, we said nothing.

Finishing her lunch at the Forum, Nettie would wipe up her last bit of gravy with a ladylike scrap of bread, while complaining softly that she didn’t have “a speck of appetite.” That was because she hadn’t had “a wink of what a person could call sleep for years.” Bessie never answered. Her hearing aid was turned off because all it produced was static in even a moderately noisy place like the Forum cafeteria. Now and again, she would stop eating and glare about with a misleadingly stern expression—misleading because in any situation that she didn’t understand, Bessie could be intimidated by a pause, panicked by a frown. When that happened, she pulled herself into herself like a turtle and neither spoke nor moved. Unfortunately, there were many situations that she did not understand, especially with her hearing aid turned off. Hence, the counterfeit glare. She was preemptively intimidating unidentified but vividly imagined intimidators.

In surly subservience to fashion, Bessie decorated her face with haphazard smears of rouge. Nettie used no rouge. She was “delicate,” so she made herself pale with repeated dustings of face powder. As a rule, Bessie spoke only when spoken to, but if she saw a crippled child on the streetcar, she would turn up her hearing aid, march up to the child’s mother, get her address, and for the next year or so, she would mail the child five or ten dollars as the spirit moved her.

Nettie disapproved of this. She called those children “Bessie’s crushes.”

In a way, Bessie had crushes on her grandchildren, too, even though we weren’t crippled. I’m sure she loved us, but she rarely touched or spoke to us. A hug from her was unimaginable. But she took us to movies, gave us bags of chocolate covered peanut clusters or candy corn, and made us “Jersey Cows” (Coke poured over ice-cream).

She favored darkish dresses patterned with tiny dots or murky flowers. Nettie wore white and light blue dresses to match her eyes. Both sisters wore glasses. Bessie’s were often broken. She held them together with adhesive tape: “They’s still good. I kin still see outa ’em.” Nettie’s glasses had thin silver frames and tinted lenses. Nettie took her tonics and languished. Bessie, with a do-rag on her head and an apron over her dress, barged around till her socks sagged, cooking, cleaning, ironing, and stoking the coal furnace.

Between chores, she rocked in her mother’s rocker, muttering, apparently to herself, and as she muttered, she would roll the knuckles of her right hand on the chair-arm and tap her thumb. Roll and tap. Roll and tap. Sometimes she’d grunt and smile thinly or blush.

To take the curse off the pure pleasure she got from going to the movies five times a week, Bessie “saved” her movies. Every evening, she wrote in a ledger the name of the one she’d seen that day and the names of the stars. Occasionally she added, “Wonderful,” or “Beautiful scenery.” This transformed “a waste of time” into something that could be saved like her collections of string, rags, rubber bands, and paper napkins.

“Why do you save that stuff, Gram?”

“Oh, it could come in useful.”

Nettie wasn’t compelled to pretend that going to the movies was work in order to justify her existence. For her, simply living was work, what with all the tonics and pills she had to take.

Hannah had inherited most of George’s money, plus the house. Bessie and Nettie received smaller bequests. When Hannah died, all of her money went to Nettie. So Nettie was “better off” than Gram. But neither sister understood anything about money, and their capital was dwindling because they wouldn’t invest it. To do so would have required them to trust strange men. Instead, they put any extra cash into savings accounts. By switching their accounts from one thrift institution to another, they collected whatever premium was being offered to new depositors. This, they regarded as financial legerdemain of a high order. Did they not thereby fill their cupboards with free—free!—toasters, mixers, twelve-piece ovenware sets, alarm clocks, shish-kabob skewers, and steak knives, which they could then dole out as Christmas and birthday gifts?

When Gram died, my parents found money stashed in books, teapots, drawers, coat pockets, and shoes.

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Pearl Harbor was bombed. Corregidor fell to the Japanese. The Allies fought their way across France. Berlin fell to the Soviets. Atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, and, “of an evening” the sisters “radioed.” Their favorite program was “One Man’s Family.” Once with a delighted grin, Bessie told me, “While we was listenin’, Claudia called.”

Claudia? For a moment I thought she was a friend of Gram’s who had telephoned while Gram was listening to the radio. But, no, Claudia was a character on the show who had telephoned another character on the show. Did Gram think “One Man’s Family” was a slice of life—reality radio? I thought it prudent not to ask and possibly disillusion her.

Late every afternoon, the sisters had “tea.” This, however, did not involve any tea. In the summer they each drank a 12-ounce bottle of Coke and divided a plate of cookies. In the winter, they drank coffee.

Bessie made coffee the same way Hannah made it back in Aspatria, which was not all that different from the way it was made in the seventeenth century. She could have bought a percolator or a drip or a vacuum coffee pot, but she saw “no need fer ’em.” Instead, she put scoops of ground coffee into a pot of boiling water and added an eggshell (which she’d been saving) to absorb the bitterness. After the coffee “settled,” she strained it through a cloth to get rid of the grounds, and then filled our cups.

“What’s the matter, doncha like it? I likes ever’thing,” she boasted.

In the 1950s the number of people going to the movies declined. So did the number of movies that were released. It was no longer possible for the sisters to see five new movies a week. So the Wilson sisters bought a television. They watched baseball, a game they did not understand. They watched Jack Benny, whose jokes they did not always get. Later, they watched Lawrence Welk.

They started “skipping” some of the new movies.

“All they do’s anymore is take their clothes off and shoot somebody,” complained Nettie. She consoled herself with her stamp collection and her magazines: the National Geographic and the Reader’s Digest, both of which she passed on to our family, but not until she had scissored out the risqué jokes from the Digest—the ones she recognized as such. (“Not fit for the little folks.”) I was still receiving censored Reader’s Digests from her when I was in Korea, but curiously enough, she did not censor the Geographic’s photographs of bare breasted women in Polynesia and Africa. I suspect this was something a lady was too refined to notice, and to cut those pictures out would be to acknowledge that one had seen them.

Bessie had her own magazines: Photoplay and Silver Screen.

Nettie liked movies about England.

Bessie liked romances.

When Mary and I got married, the first letter in our mailbox was a note from Bessie. It said:

Dear Children,
Lots of love and good wishes
with your first mail as Mr. and Mrs.
Now all you have to do is live happily ever afterward.

Inarticulate, deaf, stout, grim-looking, aggrieved, and uneducated, she was a thwarted romantic heroine, longing to be free—but afraid to leave the safety of her prison house—Hannah’s house. (She’d tried it once and look where it got her.)

Next door to Gram and Auntie’s house was a large, weedy vacant lot. Mary Ellen told me that when she was a girl there was a “big house”—“a mansion”—there, surrounded by an iron fence. It was torn down before I was born so I never saw it. On the far side of the lot, fronting the cross street was a bar and a dry cleaner. Empty beer cases were always stacked behind the bar, waiting to be picked up. Delivery trucks used the missing mansion’s old driveway to leave the street then drive through the weeds to the back of the bar.

The sisters “took no notice.” Bessie sat at a card table in her living room fitting picture puzzles together. Nettie sat at “the big table” in the dining room, fiddling with her stamp collection, or her postcard collection, or her collection of Roman coins.

“What are you doing, Auntie?” I asked one Sunday.

“Oh, jes’ passing the time.”

“Ain’t nothing fer passing the time like a picture puzzle,” shouted Gram competitively from the living room.

Her hearing aid worked perfectly at a distance.