Everybody called her Grandma Scott, but Eliza Scott (nee Lingstad) was nobody’s grandmother. The Scotts didn’t have children. Eliza was the eldest of three sisters, and she treated her younger siblings’ offspring with grandmotherly affection. My mother fondly recalled spending several weeks each year at the Scott farm helping to tend and feed the animals and taking baskets of food and water to the fields for the threshing crews at harvest time. She and her older sister Nora helped Grandma Scott make the sandwiches for the noon meal for the workers. And every morning she and Nora were dispatched to the barn to search for eggs deposited in secret places by the Scott’s brood of laying hens. My mother said there was nothing like having fresh eggs for breakfast. Eliza’s sugar cookies, as big as dinner plates, were a special treat as well.
I was five years old when Grandma Scott died, and I vividly remember the day of her funeral. The family gathered at the farm and traveled from there to a small country church for the service. After the funeral, a meal was served for family and friends at the farmhouse. I don’t remember a thing about the church service except that it was long and tedious, or so it seemed to me, but I was used to that. Every Sunday I attended church services with my parents, and that year I had begun Sunday School.
I remember what happened afterwards, however, with searing clarity, thanks to my second cousin Joy Ann, a precocious and unpleasant seven year old whom I passionately disliked. I had experienced her treachery at a previous visit to the farm. We had been playing in the barn, and I found an egg in the corner of a stall, picked it up, and promptly dropped it. When we returned to the house, Joy Ann reported what I had done to the women in the kitchen. I heard no more about the incident, so I guess my mother did not think it was a grievous sin, although I had a few anxious moments while awaiting the outcome.
My mistake the day of the funeral did not have such a happy ending, and once again I had my obnoxious second cousin to blame.
After the funeral, they brought the casket back to the house and placed it, open of course, as was the custom, in a small sitting room next to the parlor. After the meal–a repast of homemade bread, an escalloped potato and ham hot dish, carrot sticks, celery, and Jello–the gathered guests went into the sitting room, one by one or in small family groups, to pay their last respects to the dead.
I went in with my parents. I stared at the white and powdered face of the small figure in the casket. It didn’t look like Grandma Scott at all. Her nose with its gaping nostrils looked like some monstrous bird’s beak.
Later, it was my mother’s cousin and Joy Ann’s turn. When they returned to the parlor, Joy Ann, smug in her tartan jumper and shiny, patent-leather shoes, had a rapturous expression on her face. To my surprise, she was smiling. She approached me and said, “Oh, isn’t it wonderful? Grandma Scott is sleeping so peacefully!”
When I had digested this, I replied in a loud and scornful voice, “She ain’t sleeping. She’s dead!”
There may have been a few “is nots” and “is toos” after that, I don’t remember. What I do remember is my father, a very large man, swooping down on me, picking me up and covering my mouth with his hand.
Painful as it was, I learned a valuable lesson from that incident. What I learned is a truth that has smoothed the path of life for me many times in the years that followed, and that is that honesty is not always the best policy.
That night, on the way home, I got back at Joy Ann. My mother’s cousin asked if they could ride back to town with us, and of course my parents said yes. Joy Ann and her mother sat in the back seat, and I sat between my parents in the front. It was after dark when we headed for home. After some initial chit chat, our passengers fell silent. As we reached the outskirts of town, I looked over my shoulder to see if Joy Ann and her mother were asleep. Joy Ann’s head was on her mother’s shoulder and her eyes were closed. Of greater interest, however, was the fact that Joy Ann had the thumb of her left hand in her mouth. I turned around and reported what I had seen. “Joy Ann is sucking her thumb,” I said.
“Shush,” my mother said.