Tuesday, May 12, 2015

My Grandmother and the Orangutan

My grandmother, a very petite and attractive lady, was in her sixties when I came into the world. She was born on a farm in Armstrong County, PA, in 1880 into a very large and poor family. She managed to attend school through the eighth grade, and because she was a bright and excellent student, was permitted to teach in that one-room school house after she "graduated". I recall her telling me that she wrote poetry, though unfortunately, I never found any examples after she passed. What I distinctly recall was her penchant for correct spelling and grammar, and had computers existed when she was alive, she would have been one of the original "grammar police" so many detest. I can say as I went through school, my grandmother's determination that I should speak and write properly, not only was a great help but also set me up as a future "grammar cop", too. She also taught me that ladies do not raise their voices, but maintain a ladylike decorum at all times, and that probably wasn't a good thing for me. Mimmi, as everyone called her, was a woman who led an interesting life. She was married twice, and the first marriage ended in divorce-a rare occurrence at the beginning of the twentieth century. Her first husband worked in the oil fields in Vincennes, Indiana, and earned a lot of money which he spent lavishly on his beautiful wife. He gave her jewelry and fur coats, as well as two sons. Unfortunately, he also had a weakness for alcohol, and periodically would go on a "bender". When he ran out of money during his drunken binges, he would gather those expensive gifts and sell them for the cash he needed to purchase booze. My grandmother soon tired of his behavior, and after he came home drunk one night and passed out on the bed, my tiny grandmother tied his hands and legs to the bed. She waited until he awakened the next morning and literally beat him with a broom, took her two sons and the few belongings she could carry, and returned to Pennsylvania. For a time, she lived with and worked for a sister who owned a boarding house in West Virginia. The story goes that she eventually also operated a boarding house in Pennsylvania, and that is where she met and married my grandfather. Together, they had one son, my father. My grandfather was a plasterer, just like his Irish father and grandfather before him, and he built a very nice Craftsman-style home for them. Eventually, he joined the police department, and that is how I remember him. He was a good man and a good provider, though I often wondered how my grandmother was able to dress as fashionably as she did. I will never know. Perhaps because she was an avid canner of fruits and vegetables and was able to save the family a lot of money. You are probably wondering about the title of this piece, so I will end with the story of my grandmother and the orangutan. My grandparents often traveled with us to various venues around the greater Pittsburgh area. One summer, we all went to the Pittsburgh Zoo, and were having a grand time visiting all the exotic animals. My grandmother, dressed to the nines, had been making fun of all the primates. When we approached the outdoor pen of the zoo's only orangutan, she approached the bars and began to make faces at him. As she pointed at him, giving him the raspberries and laughing, he suddenly retaliated, with a remarkably accurate aim, by spitting at her. The spittle struck her directly in the face. It was one of those moments I have never forgotten. My grandfather pulled his hankerchief from his pocket and wiped her face with it while the rest of us struggled with conflicting emotions: wanting to cheer for the orangutan, trying to keep from laughing at the surprise and pure comedic nature of the moment, and feeling acutely embarrassed at the entire episode. I have attached a pencil portrait I drew from an old photograph of my grandmother with her sisters. She was about forty years old in the 1920 photo, and this would have been the year she first was permitted to vote.
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