Cakewalk Summers: Growing up a West Virginian (3)

Learning to Laugh

Note: This is another excerpt from my upcoming book, “Cakewalk Summers: Growing up a West Virginian.”

One of my first memories is of hearing laughter.

It burst out of Grannyred, mom’s mom. I was spending the night with her in her tiny home in Clarksburg, standing on her bed as she tried to get me undressed and into my pajamas.

I wasn’t having it. I wanted to play a game – Clutch the Sleeve! I held onto my long-sleeved shirt cuffs with all my strength as Grannyred tried to pull the shirt over my head. At first, she tried being firm, which she was an expert at, being a lifelong teacher and mom who had raised three children alone during The Great Depression. I don’t recall specific threats, just a tone of annoyance that was not uncommon to hear from her right up to her passing in 1992.

However, this night was more than 30 years previous, probably 1959. It couldn’t have been much later, for I was still short enough to walk (and hide) under the dining room table. I had to pull myself up and stand on tip toes to see the delicious dishes that tempted me from the tabletop.

So, Grannyred should have had the advantage. It turns out she did. Matching my orneriness, she held the bottom of my shirt over my head. She wasn’t going to let go until I did. I was in darkness and starting to fret over being closed in. Surrender, though, was not an option. For either of us. The first family trait I was taught was stubbornness, as we had double doses of it. Dad’s family was certainly just as hard-headed.

For the record, subsequent marriages over the past few decades have not mitigated this characteristic; rather it has only aggravated it, making for board game afternoons that bear a startling resemblance to parlor game skits on The Carol Burnett Show.

I held out. Finally, weary and wiser, Grannyred “gave in.” She might have been weakened some by the tug-of-war. I don’t know. What I do recall is that I suddenly realized she had let go off the shirt as it dropped on my head. I relaxed my grip. Immediately, she snatched the shirt over my arms, shoulders and head and blurted out, “Hah!” or something akin to it.

My startled face must have hit her funny bone, for she began to laugh. It wasn’t a belly laugh. That wasn’t Grannyred. It was more of a mischievous laugh. Even with a toddler – her own grandson – she competed and enjoyed winning. Ultimately, though, there was no question this was a laugh of a woman that had chosen the right profession (and one of the few available to women then). She loved children and was accustomed to our antics. As opposed to being annoyed, she was amused. So, she laughed.

Grannyred with me and my younger sister, April, ca. 1965

As the years went on and I learned more about Grannyred and all that she and her children, including our mom, endured during the 1930s, I was amazed she laughed at all. But she did. And so did her siblings and their spouses – my great uncles and aunts. As did just about everyone. It is indeed contagious.

And so, I was infected. Not just with laughter though.

The stubbornness was – and remains – quite real. So does the competition. But so does the ability to get up when knocked down, laugh about it – why not? – and go again.

Though capable of being stern and tough, she certainly had a sensitive side. Warm milk was a nighttime staple. The next morning, if the window was frosty, she didn’t complain about me drawing on the damp window with my finger; rather, she encouraged my “art.” Her vegetable soup, steak rolls in marinara sauce, sweet tea and seared hot dogs were delicacies. Yep, she was a great cook. It was her way of saying, “I love you.” I saw that decades later when, as a great-grandmother to our children, she reveled in fixing them chicken and noodles and then feeding them. Their joy was her joy.

And, about a decade after the battle over changing into my pajamas, a shared national tragedy revealed just how intuitive she was about the interests and needs of children. On January 27, 1967 three astronauts – Gus Grissom, Ed White and Robert B. Chaffee – died on the launch pad during a rehearsal for the Apollo 1 launch scheduled for February. It was to be the first flight of the program that was to take the first person to the moon. Instead, a fire in their capsule during the test killed them all.

I was 10-years-old. I was devastated. I was at Grannyred’s that night, watching something on television when the news flash interrupted the program. To my knowledge, Grannyred hadn’t said much about the space program. Nevertheless, as a teacher and my grandmother, she understood how rockets ships and the quest to explore the moon sparked my imagination.

Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger B. Chafee (Wikipedia Commons)

I tried to hold back the tears, but couldn’t. It all seemed so unfair. We had watched every launch since the space program had taken off. They seemed invincible. It was sudden and final. And I could not process it well. She fixed warm milk. She steered me away from the TV into the next room where we played the card game Whistle Jack. The object was to be the first person to whistle when a Jack was turned over from the deck. But I couldn’t whistle. So, if she heard air escaping from my mouth when the Jack appeared, she’d whistle for me. And she would laugh.

Yet, she didn’t pamper me. Once, when playing in an alleyway, I fell down and scraped myself up pretty good. I still have the scar on my elbow. She told me to quit crying, wash it and bandage it. In her world, it was natural to cry over the death of heroes; crying over a scrape, though, was just a bit too dramatic for her.

Grannyred was a red-headed, no-nonsense, disciplined lady. Yet, the night we struggled over my shirt, before she tucked me into bed, she let me stretch across her lap as she popped my toes. I giggled with delight. As I dozed off to sleep, I heard her laugh. It was soft, like her lap. Years later, as she whistled for me while we played cards the night of the Apollo disaster, she laughed each time I tried to whistle. She wasn’t belittling or dismissing my despair. She was helping me understand, that on good days and bad, laughter goes a long way to keeping one sane. That lesson has never been more important.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2021.

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