Have you ever been out to lunch with my grandma? You’d know if you did. At the end of the meal, the table would look quite bare. All of the creamer and butter and single-serve jams and jellies would be missing along with most of the silverware. Where did it go? Into grandma’s purse, of course! Where do you think the term ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ came from? It was my great aunt that came up with that expression after inadvertently glancing into my grandma’s purse as they drove home after lunch one day. Not really. I’m teasing. It wasn’t my great aunt. But wouldn’t it be funny if it were?
My maternal grandmother was a lot of things. She was a chain-smoker, an alcoholic, a wearer-of-all-things-polyester, someone that could out-cuss a sailor and, what stands out first and foremost in my mind, a kleptomaniac. She was also a lot of other things, but I’ll save that for another day. Grandma came from the generation that lived through not only World War I but World War II, periods of time when a lot of rationing was involved and people had to learn to make do with very little. But it did teach her to be resourceful and she and her family learned how to survive even during the leanest times. If that involved taking out ‘Bambi’ or ‘Thumper’ to ensure they had enough to eat for the next few days or weeks, so be it. And having a cow handy for milk, cheese and butter was not uncommon either.
My grandma lived in the Southwest region of the United States for most of her life, until she got to the point where she wasn’t taking very good care of herself. Her daily (dietary) intake consisted of primarily pastries, booze and cigarettes. And that’s when my mom stepped in. “Grandma’s coming to live with us,” my mom informed us one day. Yay? Where’s she going to sleep? We don’t have any spare rooms. “You and Grandma are going to have to share a room,” my mother replied. Share a room? I had finally gotten my independence! My older sister had just moved out. What the heck?!
I was around 12 or 13 when my grandmother became my roommate. Talk about an odd couple! And it really changed the dynamics in our home. My grandma was used to living alone and wasn’t too thrilled to have to cohabitate with me, let alone the rest of our family. I wasn’t exactly thrilled either. She wasn’t what you’d call a real ‘friendly’ type. Most of the time she sat in a little room my stepdad built off the kitchen, so she could smoke her cigarettes outside. And occasionally she’d park herself in the recliner in the living room so she could watch her favorite TV show, “Hee Haw!” The rest of the time, she’d hang out in the bedroom while I tried to make myself scarce. I don’t recall getting much sleep when my grandma lived with us. Because she was a chain-smoker, she got up all hours of the night in order to suck on her cancer stick. I remember a lot of lights being turned off and on (because she could never find the flashlight) and the sound of slippers shuffling back and forth as she made her way from the bed to the light switch to the nightstand (where she kept her ‘cigs’, lighter, inhaler and tissue) to the door (at which point, she’d flick off the light). Every time it happened, when I’d be sound asleep and having a wonderful dream and the light overhead would flicker on, I’d think to myself, “I am being punished. Surely, there must be something terrible I did in my past life to warrant this. It must have been really bad, like murder, because I am now paying dearly!”
It wasn’t all bad with Grandma. Sometimes she’d give me a couple of dollars to run next door to the drugstore in order to purchase her favorite candy, chocolate covered cherries, and then upon my return, she’d often let me keep the change. And she’d occasionally share her candy, too. And I remember a few times when she’d pluck a dollar bill out of her billfold and hand it to me (just for kicks). That was really nice! A dollar bill went a long way back then! She didn’t know who I was after a point, but I didn’t care much, as long as she continued to share her candy and ply me with dollar bills, I wasn’t about to complain. But grandma was a wily one and I knew it. She had perfected the ‘sleight of hand’. Sometimes she would accompany me to the drugstore and usually we came home with more than what I paid for at the register. Somehow, whenever the store attendant was distracted ringing up the candy I was purchasing for her, she’d more-often-than-not manage to slip a couple of items into her hungry purse (usually costume jewelry and more candy). Maybe it just wasn’t satisfied with all the silverware and butter and jam?
Grandma’s interesting ‘habit’ wasn’t reserved exclusively for restaurants and drugstores, however. No place was sacred. A common phrase you’d hear in our household was as follows, “I could SWEAR I just left such-and-such on the kitchen counter! Where could it have possibly gone?!” It was such a mystery. Small items seemed to grow legs and wander off more times than you could count. We always suspected my grandmother, but no one had actually caught her in the act, so we weren’t about to accuse her. We just lived day to day never knowing whether the salt and pepper shakers would still be on the table when we got up in the morning.
Then one day, my grandma passed away. Coincidentally, things stopped going ‘missing’ in our home around that very time. The concern you once had that maybe the mittens that you’d left by the door the night before would still be there the next day? Gone. Change that you’d carelessly tossed onto the nightstand would remain on the nightstand until you actually put it back into your pocket or purse. A strange calm came over the house.
It wasn’t long before my mom decided to clean out my grandmother’s things. First, she removed the hospital bed, followed by the bedside toilet. Then she went through the nightstand where my grandma had placed her watch, dentures, cigarettes, lighter and inhaler along with a few other odds and ends. The closet? She saved that for last. It was quite a large closet and rather daunting so I don’t blame her for taking her time getting around to it. But when she did finally tackle it, all of the suspicions about grandma’s ‘habits’ were confirmed. One by one, my mom pulled out assorted objects wrapped in tissue. “Hey!” my mother would exclaim. “Look what I just found! Here’s the cameo pendant that I thought I misplaced two years ago. And here’s the bag of tea that went missing from the kitchen counter! And here is the beautiful stationary that I had in the secretary desk. And here are some really, old, stale, chocolate covered cherries!!” I guess it wasn’t just grandma’s purse that was hungry. Apparently, the closet was hungry, too!
My take on this? Simple. It’s just further confirmation that I was adopted. I told my mother that I came from a different family. And this? This is undeniable, irrefutable, uncontestable proof!