It’s funny how selective memory is. I can remember so many things about my Grandmother Kate: a mole on one cheek, the softness of her skin, the warmth of her body when she comforted me. I remember going to sleep in the curve of her back at night, spelling every object in the room. “Window,” she’d say. “W-i-n-d-o-w,” I’d repeat after her, utterly happy, utterly sleepy. Somehow I shut my eyes, and in the next instant it was morning. The thing is, I can’t remember the color of her eyes.
She had gray hair, thick and straight and short, and she wore cotton housedresses with a short apron tied around her waist. Not very bohemian, but there was that side to her. She smoked cigarettes when she thought no one was looking (this was the 1950s, after all) and she loved witty conversation. Her name was Kate, but we children called her Kakie, because it was easier to say. Young men found her conversation fascinating. I can remember her pouring coffee for a distant cousin’s son at loose ends after Korea, trying to wrap his head around Detroit.
We were new to the city ourselves. There were 11 of us, recently arrived from Tennessee: my father and mother, two aunts and uncles, my little sister and two cousins, all four of us little girls with long, skinny legs and sun grins. In winter we wore snowsuits our mothers zipped us into, scarves around our necks and mittens pinned to our coat sleeves. (Despite having lived there nine years, in my memory it is always winter in Detroit.) In our coats and boots we were the image of Russian nesting dolls. If someone had pushed us over, we would have rolled in the snow like cookie dough in confectioner’s sugar.
Our parents were young and full of energy and charm. They were anxious to explore Detroit, and in my grandmother they had a built-in babysitter. At night, my mother and my aunts would put on black cocktail dresses and their best costume jewelry, while the men wore double-breasted suits and wide silk ties. Off they would go in a whiff of Emeraude cologne spouting last-minute instructions (You girls mind your grandmother), and laughter. “Mother, don’t forget that Sam’s Drug Store is delivering my medicine tonight,” Aunt Dot said to Kakie one Saturday night. She was wearing a beige coat with a huge shirred beaver collar which we were forbidden to stroke.
“Don’t worry about a thing,” my grandmother said and locked the door behind them. (Everybody locked their doors in Detroit, except my father, and he never in his life was robbed, not once. My uncle, who lived just down the street, was in a state of perpetual lockdown, and he was broken into three times.)
That night we were in luck, because Shock Theater was showing a double header: Dracula and Frankenstein. My grandmother had made old-fashioned sugar cookies which she called tea cakes. Once I asked her what her favorite foods were, and she said, “Cookies, pies, cakes, and candies.” Another reason to adore her.
My two cousins, my sister, and I were dressed in our flannel pajamas, our house slippers and socks, with a layer of Vicks salve on our chests. The grown-ups didn’t want us to “get the sore throat,” as they put it. In fact, preventing us from getting sick was their mantra. We had all had our tonsils out at the same time, a horrible ordeal. I was the oldest and the most responsible, I guess, since I was the only one who’d take her medicine. The rest of them refused to open their mouths.
Watching scary movies was entertaining for us. For some reason children like to be frightened. Maybe it’s as close as they come to being thrilled. In any case, we had cookies and popcorn, the kind that you heat in a skillet until the kernels grow into white blossoms, and we lined up on the couch with our grandmother in the middle and watched as Shock Theater came on, its trademark skeleton-head appearing first. We were so excited we began to scream before anything had even happened.
Dracula began. This was the original movie with Bela Lugosi starring as the oily Count who shut himself up in a coffin at the first light of day, drowsy from the blood he had sucked from his unknowing, innocent victims. The movie had great music. It was a pipe organ playing something in a minor seventh chord, the kind of chord that makes you think that something big is going to happen. Count Dracula was standing near a lovely blonde woman, and as the organ swelled he moved closer until the veins of her neck were close to his grotesquely long teeth. We screamed at the same time, and Kakie laughed, her hands over her mouth. We were trying to get inside the couch. We stopped watching at the climax. All of us were shaking. My little sister’s hair was standing on end.
In our coats and boots we were the image of Russian nesting dolls. If someone had pushed us over, we would have rolled in the snow like cookie dough in confectioner’s sugar.
We started giggling and eating popcorn to calm ourselves down for intermission.“You sure you want to see the next one?” Kakie asked, still laughing at us. She told us a story about my father going to the movies back in Paris, Tennessee, when he was about 5 years old. According to my uncle, when the MGM lion came on the screen, Daddy screamed and ended up under the seat. Next to her choice of high sugar food groups, we loved my Grandmother’s stories. It was clearly impossible to us that our parents had ever been as young as we were, not to mention as vulnerable.
“Tell us something scary,” we begged.
“I don’t know,” she started. “Well, when Jack was just a toddler we were playing at the back of the house: me, Dorothy, and Jack.” They were sitting on a pallet quilt, which is just a quilt spread out to sit on. Daddy had long blonde curls—we found that idea uproarious—and he wandered off, playing with his rubber ball, as it rolled away from the quilt. Daddy chased it, his little legs pumping, his hands curled into fists. Kakie was looking at him admiringly. Aunt Dot was his big sister. “As soon as he was born,” she used to say, “I thought he was mine to play with.”
Daddy toddled farther away and suddenly there was a sound that brought Kakie and Aunt Dot to their senses—a train, the noise far away but gaining volume. “I didn’t think that line was still running,” one of them said, nonsensically, the way one talks just before panic hits. Daddy’s ball started rolling, and he began to run faster, and the train was coming closer. Aunt Dot and Kakie looked at each other wildly.
“Run, Dorothy,” Kakie yelled. “Run fast!” Aunt Dot took off in high heels running through the back of the property, her heart in her throat, she said later. To hear her tell it, she snatched Daddy from the jaws of death, and Kakie backed her up. “I’ve never had anything scare me as bad as that,” she told us.
We were all sober then, thinking of what our lives would have been like without Daddy, but Kakie went and played the piano a little bit and got us back to being jolly. She played the “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” and ended it with her trademark treble roll. Somebody said “Hush,” and it was time for Boris Karloff and Frankenstein.
We refreshed our popcorn and settled in to wait for the thrills to start. We watched the man who was building Frankenstein limping through his scenes. When he had put all the screws and bolts in place, Frankenstein lay on the great table wearing a top that looked a bit like a dentist’s coat.
“He’s just plain ugly,” my cousin Sandra said, but we quieted her down. “If he hears you he might come and get us, too.”
Kakie chuckled. “Don’t forget this is only a movie,” she said.
Just as the organ music began to play, the lights in the sky began to flicker, and the thunder began to roll. “Here’s the good part,” Sandra said, as the monster began to rise off the platform, his head pulling against the restraints.
“He’s getting away.”
My sister was chewing her hair, and the rest of us were jumping up and down and screaming.
Just then, out of nowhere, the doorbell rang. We were as silent as the tomb. “You go,” they said to me, but I wasn’t going anywhere.
“It’s not my house.”
It rang again, short and sharp, and a voice called out something through the edges of the door. At that, Kakie gathered her house dress around her and took off, squalling like a scalded cat. We knew she wasn’t kidding when she flattened the delivery boy in the doorway. Off she ran, out the front door and into the night.
“Sam’s Drug Store,” the boy finally said, and although we were more scared than we had ever been, we all remembered that Aunt Dot had said we should expect the package. The boy was about 15, with pimples. He didn’t have any scary aspect to him at all. We gradually calmed down, and one of us signed for the delivery. He looked like he was anxious to get away from us. The wind was picking up outside, and the dried autumn leaves whirled. We stood there a while longer, feeling a little foolish.
Kakie didn’t come back for a long time. When she did, the grown-ups were waiting for her. “God a’mighty, Mother,” Aunt Dot said, not really angry so much as she was trying not to laugh. “You’re actin’ just like James Simmons.”
We all knew that James Simmons was a strange boy back in Tennessee who lived in the backwoods with his father and mother. Daddy said they’d march out of the trees in a straight line, Will in the front, Blanche in the middle, and little James bringing up the rear. According to Daddy there was simply no explanation for the Simmons family, and that’s what made them so funny. At the mention of James Simmons’s name, my father started laughing until the tears came to his eyes. Next the uncles joined in. Pretty soon, Kakie started laughing, too, her hand in front of her mouth, the creases around her eyes deep and full of fun. The thought crossed my mind that she might not have been as scared as she acted. She could have just run down to Daddy’s house and smoked a cigarette. You never knew with Kakie.
The story was told often after that, with the emphasis on Kakie running over the drug store delivery boy. It was told at every Christmas party or birthday get-together we had. My family never got tired of the stories they told, and though the stories changed here and there, maybe got exaggerated, or a character’s name altered occasionally, the cozy humor with which they were told remained the same, and repeating one of these tales even now is enough to make me feel I’ve been with them for the evening, enveloped in laughter and love and warmth.