Odd #4: Minding Your Ps and Qs

by teresalaynebennett

photo of mole-infested yard

Don’t know what this is, do you? Read on.

When you grow up surrounded by adults, as I did, you have little chance of becoming anything but odd, not that I minded much. In that arena, at least, Mr. Stork had done well: he’d dropped me smack in the middle of a world almost completely populated by adults: mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, and great-grandmother. (Finally! Something for which I can be grateful to bungling Mr. Stork, proving that even bunglers get it right sometimes.)

Our local school had no kindergarten, so I spent my first six years surrounded by adults 98 percent of my waking hours. Three times a week for only a couple of hours, I played with a handful of children my age after church services. Sporadically, there was the occasional family reunion, where I got my fill of cousins for a few hours.

Living in the country, as we did, meant there were no kids right next door for me to play with, either. The only options for play-dates were two boys who each lived a half-mile’s walk away.

I wouldn’t have walked across the room to see either of them, let alone trudge half a mile through the clouds of limestone dust that hovered over our rock-surfaced country road after every passing vehicle. They were, after all, boys. Ick. I’m betting they felt the same way about the very odd little redheaded girl (ick) living on the old Sinclair farm.

Since my early days were pretty much kid-free, the die was cast by the time I entered first grade. Even spending eight hours a day nine months out of the year with other children didn’t change me or my perspective. The oddness had made itself comfortable and was not budging.

Each summer, I went back to a world filled exclusively with adults, and their world always looked far more interesting than the world of children. Childhood was limited to play things, while adults were allowed to “play” with the real thing.

While I was messing about with a pretend tin kitchen sink, oven, and refrigerator, my mother was using the real things – with running hot and cold water, gas heat, and ice-cold ice cubes. I was paying attention and it was not lost on me that kids fiddled around and never accomplished much of anything, while adults got things done.

No doubt my parents were a little concerned when they realized they’d given birth to a child who had become so serious. It was never their intent, I don’t think, to raise a little adult. But if you think about it, how could a child surrounded by adults 98 percent of her time be anything but a miniature adult?

Consequently, I was a very serious little girl, with little understanding of or tolerance for the childishness of my peers. Now that I think about it, this could account for why my parents waited nine years to bring my only sibling into the world. They had to think long and hard about the possibility that another one might be just like the one they already had. An unnerving thought, to be sure.

My Childhood “Peers”

All these adults who stood in as my “peers” had much to teach me and most of the time, I was a ready listener. Of course, I had two live-in adult peers. And just a short walk over a hilly field were my grandparents’ and great-grandmother’s homes: three more adult “peers.”

When you live that close to grandparents, you can gather an incredible wealth of goodies and stories all in a single day’s work. One of my favorite summer activities was to whine until my mother allowed me to walk over the hill, show up at Grandma’s back door, hint around for a Popsicle, and get her to tell me about “the good old days.”

One hot Indiana day, I’d been successful at all four. I’d traipsed through waist-high wheat in ninety-degree, muggy weather, feeling I was earning what was about to come. Grandma and I had settled ourselves comfortably on the back step, with the hulking form of their 1840s red-brick house shading us from the late afternoon sun.

Popsicle juice dripped deliciously off our chins and ran in rivulets down our elbows. It was exquisite. Not the Popsicle, silly. Simply having a grandparent pay attention to me and me alone was heady stuff. But having a grandparent who was willing to take the time to tell stories: that was the exquisite part.

Grandma was feminine, mild-mannered, and kind. She was also happy-go-lucky – even jolly – and a very hard worker. That day, she was explaining how she’d made peach leather during her family-rearing days. Even my inexperienced, eight-year-old mind could see this was an incredible amount of work. I was totally absorbed in the intricacies of her making-peach-leather story.

She, it turned out, was not.

Somewhere in the spreading-out-the-peach-goop-to-dry step, she jumped up from the porch step and ran to the garage. In two seconds, she came storming out with hoe in hand and charged over to the fence separating her back yard from the field behind the house.

Before I could even think to jump up and follow her, she had whacked, whacked, whacked at the ground, swooped up the bloody carcass of a copperhead with her bare hands, and flung it over the fence to suffer a pungent, undignified decomposition.

Coming back up to the garage, she carefully rested the hoe against its wall, went inside the house to wash her hands, came back out with a fresh Popsicle, and continued her story about peach leather as if nothing had happened. Though it was certainly a mangling of a Little Red Riding Hood quote, this little red-headed granddaughter sat there that day thinking Grandma, what a good snake-killer you are!

I hadn’t seen anything yet.

Not long after, on another toasty summer day, I’d conned another Popsicle. It was grape this time, always our second choice, but we’d eaten her stash of orange ones. We were seated in a wooden swing which looked out over Grandma’s favorite part of the yard, with its edging of annual and perennial flowers: it was her nine-to-five job in the summer.

Again, I was hanging on every word of her story, this time about how my ancestors made the bricks for the red brick Sinclair House on a clay-filled embankment not 200 yards behind us. How was I to know she was thinking just as much about her precious yard as she was her story?

She suddenly jumped up from the swing, sending the swing and me into wild orbit and eschewing the hoe this time, ran to the middle of her immaculately manicured lawn. Without a word, she stomped the fire out of a slightly moving hump of grass with the heavy heel of her black, lace-up, no-nonsense, old-lady shoes.

One dead mole, comin’ up. Moles made a mess of her lovely yard (see photo above), and she was having none of their nonsense. After the swing had settled and my vision had cleared, I could tell from the determined set of her jaw and the uncharacteristically clenched teeth, this was Very Serious Business to Grandma. It was scary. Grandma, what a good mole-killer you are!

That wasn’t the last time I witnessed a mole murder. There were plenty more to come. The intensity with which that usually gentle and jolly soul hated moles always startled me, or maybe it was the lightning movement and vigorous, most unladylike heel stomping that got my attention. Though I eventually became accustomed to this startling behavior, I’ll tell you, the first time was a real shocker.

How could it be that my grandmother –

  • gentle nurturer of two generations,
  • patient story-teller,
  • maker of yummy, home-made goodies,
  • spotless housekeeper,
  • hospitable entertainer,
  • mild-tempered elder’s wife, and
  • daily Bible reader

was also a mass mole murderer – one who took such great satisfaction in it?

Even More Shocking Behavior

Shortly after that, I witnessed another episode, one that many of my generation probably saw and you may have heard about. Hearing about it is one thing. Seeing it up close and personal is something else.

One summer my parents had the bright idea of raising a lot of chickens and adding chicken meat to their freezer, typically filled only with beef and pork. Grandma was invited to help with the slaughter of hundreds of chickens. Well, maybe not hundreds, but it did seem that way. That was the day I watched her take an ax to their skinny little necks.

Now let me just say right here, I was no fan of chickens because they didn’t like me. Most animals didn’t. Still don’t. Chickens pecked when I was sent to gather their precious eggs. The milk cow charged me. Yes, I know, milk cows are docile, but I’m telling you, Betsy charged me when I was sent to bring her in for milking. Same story with the pigs. When I was recruited to help round up pigs for market, the vicious things turned on me and chased me to the far corners of the field. (See? All perfect examples of how I really didn’t belong on a farm.)

Anyway, in spite of holding no love for chickens, I certainly didn’t think they deserved the degrading execution I was forced to witness. Maybe you’ve heard chicken stories from your own ancestors? The matriarch of the family places one foot on the bird’s neck and gives a fierce, swift chop with an ax. Then comes the proverbial running around of a chicken with its head cut off. Grandma, what a good chicken-killer you are!

After watching a few more chicken murders, l slipped inside for the less violent but equally revolting experience of watching my mother fish around in a kitchen sink full of gray chicken intestines. (My parents never felt the same about chicken after this unfortunate summer. In fact, it was many years before chicken in any form was permitted inside our freezer. When it was finally pardoned, it came in neat little packages from the local grocer.)

Watching this much carnage at such a tender age was bound to have an effect. Indeed, it did. I resolved, given this savage side to my sweet grandmother, to stay clear of her precious flower beds and to dance lightly on her grass. I didn’t want to meet the same end as the copperhead or the moles or the chickens. Though I knew she loved me, I knew she loved her yard and flowers a lot, and I wasn’t planning on forcing her to choose between us.

I also knew her standards for little girls’ behavior were pretty high, and so merely avoiding messing up her yard or flowers could be only part of my plan. Minding my Ps and Qs whenever I was around her seemed most prudent.

After all, this was the Grandma who also watched TV wrestling, believed it was real, and really got into it. No, being very, very, very good around her seemed the wisest plan. While I would’ve easily parted with my flaming red hair, it was attached to my head and I didn’t want to part with it.

The Pay-Attention Tip

Odd children pay attention to and, therefore, usually learn far more from the adults in their lives than not-so-odd children. If you’re around an odd little child much, don’t screw up. She’s paying attention.

I’m warning you, we don’t miss much and will likely tell stories about you sometime in the future. So you, dear reader, had better mind your Ps and Qs, too. You never know if the child who’s watching you is odd or not and so you have no way of knowing just how much of your behavior is being documented – for future reference. A word to the wise….

Odd #5 is ready, so pay attention. In this one, I continue what is becoming a tiresome little habit of mine: contradicting something I’ve already said.

© 2014, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: “Don't worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.” – Robert Fulghum

From the “All I Really Need to Know
I Learned in Kindergarten” author