I learned to like ugly stuff in the 1970s. Didn’t everyone? Did we have a choice? For example, Freakies Cereal came out in the early 1970s and it was ugly. However, it was also yellow and crunchy and okay-tasting. Cap’n Crunch without the peanut butter flavor, if I remember correctly.
The Freakies were a gang of seven monsters that remind me now of the blobby ghosts in 1984’s Ghostbusters movie. The gang included BossMoss, Snorkeldorf, Cowmumble, Hamhose, Grumble, Goody-Goody and Gargle.
The Freakies plied their namesake cereal in TV commercials whose length would rival today’s never-ending pharmaceutical ads.The Freakies were always searching for the Freakies tree, which is where the cereal grew. Naturally.
For a while, Freakie fans could collect colored flexible Freakies magnets.I remember arranging the magnets on our white refrigerator. I would usually put one in the middle, as if it were onstage, and the others would encircle it. Or sometimes I would arrange them in rows.
I remember having a disproportionate number of Boss Moss magnets. He was green and bumpy, and held up one index finger as if to say, Please don’t forget us after we’re gone! I didn’t. Even though they were all friendly creatures, they were also a little bit odd and other-worldly, sorta like E.T.
The Freakies were always on a quest to find the Freakies tree so they could eat Freakies cereal. The best one, for a nine-year-old girl anyway, was the pink female Freakie named Goody-Goody. I only pulled one of those from the box. Ever.
I spent many weekend afternoons as a kid finding something to do while the adults visited (usually my parents and grandparents on either my mom’s or dad’s sides). Their conversations would interest me for about four minutes, and then I would leave to find something else to do: walk around outside, play with the dog, look through photo albums, pet the cats. Watching TV was out of the question since both sets of grandparents had only one set, and turning it on would have interrupted their conversations. As a result, I became quite adept at keeping busy until it was time to go.
So, one afternoon at my father’s parents’ house west of Rich Hill, Missouri, I improvised by playing school in a small passageway just off the main living area. This room contained a door to the backyard, a deep freezer on one wall and a large, faded National Geographic Map of the World tacked to the opposite wall. I would stand in the narrow walkway and pretend to be an esteemed teacher of world geography.
I would lecture my imaginary students about China, Argentina, Australia, pointing out those locations with a ball point pen I had retrieved from my mother’s purse before the bell. I would show my attentive students how Kansas really was in the middle of the United States. I would show them that Hawaii is way, way over there.
Eventually, I became distracted from my playing and my mind would wander off into the map and wonder about the big world beyond. Staring at that map, I would study the locations of countries and oceans. I would marvel at how the Soviet Union covered twelve time zones. I remember looking at Greenland and thinking it must be a beautiful place, with expansive, verdant pastures and backyards dotted with kids bundled up in coats and hats and gloves, chasing each other with icicles. I was certain it was a magical, mysterious place.
After contemplating the map for a short while, I would return to my imaginary class and quiz my students with questions. As I called on someone in the back row to locate Namibia, I would overhear my parents and grandparents talking in the front room about chances of rain, when the corn would top out, the recently spread asphalt on the main road, and other such news.
Occasionally, one of the grownups on the other side of the door would laugh, set down a glass, or rise from a recliner by pulling on the noisy side lever. That sound would mean the adults were finally winding up their conversations. In my mind, I would announce to the little room, “Class is over, everyone.” Then I would quietly exit the passageway and rejoin the family for the drive home.
Back in 1928, he and Grandma went to California for their honeymoon. A Ford Model T transported them on dirt roads all the way from tiny and rural Foster, Missouri to San Diego. During the years to come, he would drive combines, tractors, trucks, wagons, horses, and mules.
And then one summer afternoon in 1986, Grandpa decided to take a ride on my sister’s ten-speed bike. He had never ridden a ten-speed before, but wanted to ride it down the driveway and around the cul-de-sac in front of our house. In his pastel blue and white plaid shirt, he churned his legs and slowly headed down the driveway.
My sister, her boyfriend, my dad and I went back to washing my sister’s car. Two minutes passed and I could hear the crunch of the bike’s tires on the chat in the driveway become louder and louder. Grandpa swiftly rounded the corner, gliding gracefully toward my sister’s car with a confused look on his face. It was then we realized we had forgotten to show him the brakes were on the handlebars, instead of the foot pedals as he was accustomed to.
To avoid the collision, Grandpa suddenly somersaulted off one side of the bike and tumbled into the cool, green grass. His oiled gray hair frayed and flew about as he rolled to a stop, ending with his brown leather dress shoes high in the air and a big smile across his face. He laughed so hard he couldn’t make a sound.
Grandma and my mother came through the screened door from the kitchen, wondering what all the excitement was about. We told them Grandpa was merely adding to his list of vehicles he could operate. Two years later, when he was 82, he flew in an airplane for the first time, albeit as a passenger. I don’t think operating an airplane was on his list. He preferred to keep his feet on the ground. Or at least on the pedals.
When I was six years old, I had a friend named Sheila. Sheila wore dresses every day. Her favorite one was the color of a mimosa blossom. A magenta satin sash with a rhinestone placed in the center accented her waist, but also got in the way when she lifted buildings. One late summer afternoon, Sheila lifted – a full two feet off the ground – the garage behind the United Methodist Church downtown. She strained and grunted to hold it up for about five seconds before gently setting it back down.
Even though Sheila and I were good friends, no one else had ever met her. I had spoken proudly of Sheila and her weight-lifting feats to my mother and my older sister, but they never had the pleasure of meeting her. She was my own secret, elusive – and muscular –friend.
Two months passed after she lifted the garage. School started and Halloween came around again. The Saturday before Halloween, my mother, sister, and I went to Whitson’s Grocery. As we drove down Judson in our big, red Bonneville, I saw a house I had never noticed before. I blurted out, “Sheila’s grandma lives in that house.”
My mother turned and looked at me intently. “She does?”
“Which house?” she asked.
“That one. The plain one.” Peering from the back seat, I pointed to a small, white bungalow sitting squarely in an unkempt yard. The shades were pulled in the windows and an empty swing hung at one end of the porch. I justified the home’s bland appearance. “Her grandma is really old and likes plain houses. And she uses a cane.” My mother rubbed her forehead as she stopped at the corner and checked for oncoming cars. I decided to press on.“We should go trick-or-treating there on Friday.”
“Well, I guess . . . we could do that,” she hesitated, and then glanced over her shoulder to my sister riding next to her in the passenger seat. My sister shook her head.
The week continued and the thought of my impending visit to Sheila’s grandmother’s house crossed my mind often. Friday arrived. We donned our hand-me-down clown and hobo costumes that we had dug out of the trunk in my mother’s sewing room.
At dusk, we followed our regular trick-or-treating route, walking door-to-door to neighbor’s houses, then driving to our friend’s houses beyond our neighborhood. As I climbed back into the car after our last stop, I reminded my mother that we still needed to visit Sheila’s grandma. “Well, let’s go before it rains,” she said.
Just then, a gust of wind rattled the leaves in the oak trees, the cool freshness of an approaching storm entered the car, and I suddenly dreaded the idea. Sheila’s grandmother was a real person, after all. We ventured down Judson anyway, looking for the plain white bungalow in the dark. “There it is,” I said.
My mother applied the brakes, pulled over to the curb, and put the car in park. “Make it quick.” Thunder rumbled from east of town.
My sister and I climbed out, carrying our bright orange plastic pumpkins. We trudged across the yard. My plastic clown mask, still wet with sweat from our last stop, dangled around my neck as we strode up the sidewalk and ascended the steps. The windows were dark, but the porch light was on. Apparently, Sheila’s grandmother did not observe Halloween. There was no jack-o-lantern. No colorful fall cut-outs taped to the windows like we had at home.
Standing on the porch, I looked down at our car to see my mother leaning over in the seat watching us. I pressed the doorbell. We waited. The house was quiet. My sister rolled her eyes, set her pumpkin down, and crossed her arms. She had had enough. “Sheila’s grandmother doesn’t live here,” she said aloud. “Come on. This is dumb. Sheila’s not even real.”
But then the porcelain knob rattled and the door opened. A woman stared blankly back at us. “Yes?”
“Trick-or-treat,” I said meekly. My sister was silent, forcing me to follow through. Without a cane, the woman stepped toward us over the threshold, into the glare of the porch light. Her thin lips glowed an unnatural poppy red color. She wore a gray cotton house dress and her hair, stiff and dark and streaked with gray, was fashioned in a youthful flip.
“Oh, I don’t have anything to give you,” she replied in a no-nonsense way, her eyes studying our tired, well-worn costumes. She craned her neck forward, and squinted beyond us to the street to see who on earth had brought us to her home late on Halloween night.
“Oh, okay,” I said. “Well . . . bye.” I decided not to mention her granddaughter and our unique friendship. My sister swiped her pumpkin off the porch, pivoted, and ran down the steps to the car. I followed. Behind me, I heard the woman close the door, and turn the deadbolt with a click. I tumbled into the backseat, relief washing over me.
“She wasn’t ready for trick-or-treaters,” I said.
My mother smiled knowingly and shifted the car into drive. “You girls have plenty of candy anyway. Let’s get home and sort it out. Hot chocolate sound good?” We both nodded.
As we headed back toward home, I stirred the mound of candy in my pumpkin, feeling the crinkly foil, plastic, and paper wrappers, envisioning how much floor space it would occupy when I dumped it out later on the carpet.
It was the first and last time I ever saw the woman I called Sheila’s grandmother. Over the next month, whenever I passed by the plain white bungalow, I thought of how meeting her had allowed me to separate from Sheila. Sometime around Thanksgiving, I just told everyone that Sheila had moved to California. I haven’t heard from her since.
Mildred Sneigel liked dogs. She had always owned at least one dog, even before her husband had died. Her dogs tended to be lapdogs, smaller, terrier-sized breeds that she could easily care for, groom, and converse with. Cats were another story and the two little girls who lived across the alley knew it.
One morning, on the kind of lazy summer morning that allowed them to stay in their pajamas longer than they should have, the younger of the little girls was playing with her older sister in their backyard when they heard the old woman across the alley talking.
They dropped their spoons into the mud and crawled on the damp grass each to the base of a skinny poplar tree. They listened.
The old woman said “Good doggy,” and “Be a good little doggy.” She carried a shovel and took small steps around her own backyard in her gray rubber rain boots and long, floral raincoat. Her head bobbed among the wisteria and rose bushes and was enveloped in a clear plastic headscarf, the kind that folds up into the size of a business card and then has a little snap to keep it all together.
The girls, who were not naturally inclined to torment others, nevertheless chose to torment Mildred Sneigel on this particular morning. If only they had known her better.
Their plan: crouch beneath their respective poplar trees, send meows into Mildred’s backyard, wait for her response.
At first, the sounds they made were the tiniest, tenderest of mews, the sort you might hear from a three-day-old kitten. Mildred gave no response, continuing to scrape at the topsoil to the right of the iris patch with a rusty, claw-shaped hand rake. No fun.
Then, their mews became bolder, less tender, akin to the sounds one might hear from a gangly, mildly dissatisfied teenage cat. With this, Mildred paused and looked into the branches of the elm tree above her. That was better. The girls’ eyes met and they stifled their mouths into shrugged shoulders.
Then, the older sister took the lead and lobbed the final grenade. What began as a tiny kitty mew lengthened into a quite realistic, prepubescent meow, which evolved into the gruff, gravelly howl of a geriatric feral tomcat. The duration of the meow was impressive. Its tone rose and dipped and curlicued around the older sister’s tongue, into her chest and then out through her mouth, which guzzled with silent laughter as she collapsed into a ball on the dewy grass.
By that time, her younger sister was also engulfed in secretive, red-faced laughter. Her cheeks streamed with tears. Dirt plastered the two sisters’ knobby knees and legs, grass clippings mingled in their bangs, and tears and dew dampened their pajamas.
That final lob did the trick. Mildred’s eyes tore over her shoulder, she raised her claw, and she stomped in her rubber boots to the back edge of her yard, headed directly for the girls’ poplar tree seclusion. She scanned the length of the lot, and stooped to peer into the darkened rows of shrubbery, weeds, and decrepit lawn ornaments frosted with molds and lichens.
“Out of my yard, you cats!” she barked. “Out.”
Seeing no feline trouble-makers, she stood back up, transferring the hand rake to her other hand. “Just leave,” she spoke quietly into the shade.
She returned to the iris bushes and settled to her knees. She patted the soil with her hands, and leaned into the earth. The girls, who had by then righted themselves to their spying positions, watched Mildred pull two wooden paint-stirrers from a nearby bushel basket. She arranged the slats into a cross and then held it together with one hand, while the other rummaged through the basket and pulled from it a length of wire and a pair of wire cutters. She wound the wire around the center of the cross several times to secure an “X” and then with a click, snipped the wire in two. She gently submerged the base of the cross near the far end of the little plot of soil. “Good doggy,” she said. “You were such a good little doggy.”
The girls watched in silence, then glanced at each other. Their glee turned to regret, and grief, too, since they had remembered seeing Mildred’s little dog prancing about the yard following its owner.
They stood, brushed off their dirty knees, straightened their pajama tops, and went back inside their house to change. They left their spoons in the drying mud.
I cut the grass today. I cut the grass with one of those old-fashioned rotary cutters that require nothing more than two legs and two arms to maneuver. No jerking on the starter cord. No gasoline. No loud engine noise. A cool breeze stirred the humidity of the afternoon and tiny brown needles sprinkled down from the cedar branches. I looked up into the tree to see two steel hooks that in past summers held the blue plastic seat that my son and daughter swung in when they were babies and toddlers. The yard was lush then, twenty years ago, when the tree was small. Over time, as the cedar has inched skyward, its toxic needles have infected the grass below, causing it to thin, grow scraggly, and yet still require a trim. The cutter jammed, shoving the handlebar against my hip. I stepped back and tugged and twisted the machine to jar the immobilized blades. Out dropped a twig, and I finished cutting the grass.