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.
When the weather was nice, sometimes the boys in the art department would eat their lunches on the roof of the building. It was pleasant to be outside in the fresh air and sunshine after being cooped up in the cubicles all morning. For a time, the roof was the place to be from twelve o’clock until one, especially after Shuffle discovered the hole in the skylight over the fourth-floor women’s powder room. Shuffle was a big, happy-go-lucky Jewish kid from New York. He never ran when he could walk and seldom walked when he could sit still. When he did move, it was very slowly.
The broken pane in the skylight was a closely guarded secret. The men didn’t want the women to know that they were spying on them, and they knew better than to share the information with management. They didn’t tell any of the salesmen, either, fearing that if that randy bunch got wind of it, the roof would collapse from the sheer weight of the bodies.
The few employees who were in on the fun took turns watching and issuing whispered reports as to the traffic and activity in the ladies’ room. The women primped and squatted in the stalls, oblivious to the giddy observers on the roof.
The eye in the sky went undetected for weeks, or so they thought. Over time the voyeurs gathered a great deal of interesting but useless information about the female employees of the company. They could tell you a woman’s favorite color of underwear and whether so-and-so wiped with the right or left hand.
Then, however, something occurred that made all of their previous observations and discoveries seem insignificant.
What happened was that one of the secretaries told Bill and Shorty one day that what she was going to do on her lunch hour was go up to the fourth-floor ladies’ room, where there was a cot, and lie down. It was a hot day, and the girl, a shapely young woman whom the boys called “Betty Boop,” had spent the morning in the first-floor lobby wearing a bunny suit as part of an Easter promotion. She was sweltering, she said. She told the two men that she was going to take off the rabbit suit and everything else she had on and relax.
Well, the art department was deserted that day during lunch hour. On the roof, the men squabbled over who would have the first turn at the chink in the opaque glass of the skylight. One by one, they held their breath and peered through the secret portal.
True to her word, Betty appeared shortly after noon. The observers waited with baited breath; the bystanders jostled each other and giggled at each other’s lewd jokes as they impatiently awaited their turns.
But curvaceous Betty, that little minx, didn’t follow the script. She didn’t take off her clothes. Far from it! She did lie down on the cot for a few minutes, but all she took off was the head of her bunny suit.
The fellows were bitter about the turn of events. She was a tease, Bill said. But Al wasn’t so sure. Somebody blabbed, he figured. She knew exactly what she was doing. He walked back to his drawing board muttering.
When a few days later they found that the pane in the broken skylight had been repaired, Al told Shuffle about his theory. The next day, when Al came to work, he saw that somebody had put up a poster on the door of the washroom at the back of their work area. It was a color reproduction of an old wartime poster. “Loose lips sink ships,” it said.
My barber, Frank, is the world’s most talkative human being. He is a tall, skinny man with straight blonde hair, big ears, almost no chin, and the bluest eyes you’ll ever see.
Frank is smart, forthright with opinions on an endless variety of subjects, and unburdened by the handicap of a formal education. When you sit down in a chair in his shop, you never know what else you are going to get in addition to a haircut. Last week it was a lecture on Intelligent Design.
“I get a kick out of these religious folks,” Frank offered after he had draped me with an apron and wet and combed my hair. “Trying to sneak God into the schools by the back door.”
“I’ve been reading about that in the newspaper,” I said. “I heard that the President put in his two cents worth on the subject yesterday.”
“Yes,” Frank said. “Did you read the story about it in the [I]Chronicle[/I] today?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“You know what the folks in the Department of Education in Sacramento call Intelligent Design?” Frank asked.
I confessed that I did not, which pleased Frank no end.
“‘Creationism Lite,'” he said. I could see his reflection in the wall mirror, and he was grinning from ear to ear.
“It’s not that I think it’s a dumb idea; I don’t. There’s got to be something out there running the show. It’s just that I think God could have done a better job. I mean, why did he have to make two headed cows and babies joined at the hip? Why did he make Republicans?”
“Well, you’ve got a point there,” I said.
“I mean, they should call it ‘Design for Dummies.’ That would make more sense.”
“So you really think there’s something to it? Creationism, or whatever else they’re calling it now?”
“I do,” said Frank. “I’m not a Christian. I don’t go to church. Natural selection makes sense to me. I just think that somebody or something had to start the ball rolling. I don’t care what you call it. God, Allah, The Great Spirit, The Big Enchilada–it makes no difference to me. What gets me is the feud that’s going on. The Darwinists and the Creationists calling each other names. Is there anything that makes less sense than a couple of experts with Ph.D.’s arguing with each other?”
I didn’t answer, but that didn’t put an end to Frank’s harangue. He was on a roll.
“You know what Ph.D. stands for, don’t you?” he asked.
“Doctor of Philosophy,” I said.
“Piled higher and deeper,” Frank said.
“Seriously,” Frank continued, “why can’t they just say look, science is science and the Bible is poetry, beautiful words and a hell of a good message, and let it go at that? Nobody really knows what’s what, so why not stop fighting and get to work on doing what we’re supposed to be doing, making this a better world.”
“Frank,” I said, “You’re a philosopher.”
“Damn right,” he said. “I mean, does anybody really know what happens when we die? Is there a heaven or a hell? I don’t know. Do you?”
“No,” I said.
“Did you hear the one about the priest who died and went to heaven?” Frank asked.
“I don’t think so,” I replied.
“Well, he opened his eyes and looked around, and the first thing he said was, ‘My God! It really is true!’ The guy who told me that story is a priest.”
“I don’t know, Frank,” I said. “I think I have to go along with Darwin on this one.”
“Let me tell you a story,” Frank said. “I know a guy who’s in A.A. He’s one of my customers. He said when he first got into the program, he was one of those, whadayacallit, not an atheist, somebody who doesn’t believe in God but doesn’t disbelieve either?”
“An agnostic,” I said.
“Right,” said Frank. “Well, anyway, this guy said he knew he was in trouble when he joined AA because they told him that to quit drinking, he had to believe in a Higher Power. Somebody or something had to remove the obsession to drink because nobody could do it by himself.”
“Is that how it works?” I asked.
“Yes,” Frank said. “That’s what this guy told me. Well, he hemmed and hawed around for awhile, and then he had an idea. ‘What happens if I cut myself?’ he asked, and he told himself that he could put a bandage on the cut, or if it was bad, he could go to a doctor and he would put in a couple of stitches. Now, in a week’s time or maybe a little more he could take off the bandage and the cut would be healed. Did he do that? The doctor? No. There was a healing force, some kind of process of nature, which enabled him to recover from the injury.
“So this guy said he reasoned that if there was a healing force for wounds, maybe that force could also cure him of his alcoholism. So that became his Higher Power. And you know what? It worked. The guy was into the shop the other day, and he told me that the day before he had celebrated his AA birthday. He has been sober for fifteen years.
“So some unseen power cured him?” I asked.
Frank nodded. “It was pretty strange,” he said. “One day all he could think about was having a drink, and the next day the obsession was gone. It was a miracle,” he said.
I asked Frank if he thought his friend was telling the truth, and he said oh, yes. No doubt about it. “I believe in miracles,” Frank said. “Don’t you?”