A New England grandmother tells about the people she knows, from salt miners in Virginia to the upper crust of St. Louis, Missouri to the neighboring surgeon who will never work again.
Jody’s grandchildren say that that you’d better get a comfortable seat if Grandma Jo starts telling you what she had for breakfast that day. Having experienced it, I’ll swear that it’s more than native chattiness–it’s what they mean by “making conversation.”
Her hands flit and swoop with the grace of Laurence Welk conducting the Champagne Orchestra, as she narrates whatever it might be–where she bought the jam for her toast, or the back story it reminds her of. Her face lights up as if she’s watching snow fall.
There’s an art to the way she converses, and it strikes me as being part of that hospitable grace thing, that the American South is famous for. Hers has survived many cold winters in New England without fading, so you know it goes much deeper than a regional custom.
The first night I met Jody, at the graduation party for her granddaughter Kelly, she asked if she could get me some wine and patted the seat next to her, and proceeded to ask all about what I was doing in New England and where I’d gone to school and where had I come from, before that.
When I told her that I went to St. John’s College, her eyes lit up in pleasure, and it wasn’t only the passing familiarity of someone who lived many years in the D.C. area. Her uncle Buck went to school there. It was prior to the college’s re-up in the 1920s…at the time he went, it was a “transitional school,” as Jody calls it; he went to St. John’s for two years, then crossed the road to attend the Naval Academy.
(This choice was later elucidated by Jody’s twin brother, Bob, who said that Uncle Buck had complained that all the girls only went for men in uniform. Some things have remained constant.)
Jody is a recent transplant to New England, herself. She moved up from Fairfax, Virginia. She lives with her son and daughter-in-law, in the apartment over the garage, which looks just like the one where Audrey Hepburn lives in Sabrina. Bedford doesn’t wear its wealth too prominently on its sleeve, but just around the corner is a beautiful lap-shingled Arts-and-Crafts home where, she tells me, a prominent anesthesiologist and his wife were brutally attacked by a home invader.
It happened last November, Jody tells me. Their two-year-old daughter was sleeping in her crib the entire time, while the invader beat the doctor and raped the wife.
“His weapon of choice,” she says, “was a screwdriver.”
They were left for dead, but both survived. At the time, Jody and her son’s family were in Florida for the holidays. Jody’s son was awakened at 7am the morning after Thanksgiving by a phone call from the Bedford police, who had found bloody handprints all over his front door. Apparently the doctor’s wife had crawled across the road in search of help. But nearly everyone in the neighborhood was gone.
The couple didn’t return to the house–understandably, Jody says. Within a few months, though, they were found again in a local apartment, both unconscious. The wife was dead; the doctor was not.
The case is coming to trial any day now, Jody says, but no one knows where the doctor is. She lifts her hands, then lets them fall. “He’ll never practice medicine again.” I ask her why not, and she gives me a gentle look of doubt of my intelligence, St. John’s or not.
“He was stabbed in the head with a screwdriver. Seven. Teen. Times.”
It comes out on an evening later that month, when Jody invites us over for fondue, that she’s encountered certain threatening presences in the neighborhood, as well. She awoke one night to the sound of voices outside her window. Two men were standing over her car, a very sensible old Volvo, debating its merits in crassly disparaging language.
They ended up deciding not to do anything with it, and left. But Jody says she wanted to shout at them, “You’d be lucky to have a car like that! It’s been running for years and gets great gas mileage!”
It’s all the people that come in and out of the house of the main house, says her son (it isn’t his house we’re talking about). Landscapers, plumbers, electricians, housekeepers–there are so many people in and out of the house all week, somebody has surely let on to someone else the number of fancy cars behind the garage doors that flank either side of the house.
Debating the merits of trustworthy attendants puts Jody in mind of the handyman their family employed, during her sons’ childhood in Fairfax, Virginia.
His name was Stanley, and he was upwards of sixty years old. He was married to Bertha who was, Jody says, a hot young piece who couldn’t have been much over twenty.
The only things Stanley cared about were Bertha, alcohol, and fishing. He couldn’t read or write his name. But he did mighty good work, it seemed.
He’d grown up on “the Mellon,” the country estate of the Mellon family, where his mother was a cook. He went off to war (“so he said,” Jody allows), and when he came back, his mother had been promoted from the kitchen to being the head horse trainer. That is a promotion, right?
Buzz’s friends called Stanley the N.N.
Buzz and Jody’s last name is Nine.
I’ll leave you to tease out the rest of it yourself.
When Stanley spoke, Jody says, you really only heard every third word. The rest was grunts and lavish gestures. He came running into the house one day, while they had people over for dinner, and implored Mr. Jerry (Jody’s ex-husband) to come with him. “Turrible! Turrible accident! Turrible!” he kept saying, in accompaniment to his gesticulation. Finally, Mr. Jerry got in the car and drove back with Stanley to wherever he’d come from. There was a Volkswagen beetle pulled over to the side of the road, with a dented door.
As hard as it was to understand Stanley, it was equally hard to make him understand things. He came bewildered to Jody with a notice from the DMV. It said that his car registration had been suspended. Stanley didn’t know what to do about it, so Jody went with him to the courthouse, stood in line for a good long while, and finally came to the desk to inquire. The reason, apparently, was that Stanley had an outstanding ticket, written up before he went to Korea, and had never paid it.
As long as it took to work all this out, between Stanley and the DMV, Jody finally offered to pay the fine herself, right then and there. It wasn’t as easy to work out when Jody’s ex-husband started getting concerned about the number of children Bertha was bearing Stanley. (Buzz has his doubts that they were all Stanley’s.) Mr. Jerry was leaving town on business; before he went, he made Stanley an appointment for a vasectomy and left Jody in charge of getting him there.
“Yassum,” he said. (I’m writing it how she pronounced it; this is no reflection on Stanley, who was not present to speak for himself.)
She asked, “Do you know what they’re going to do, when you get there?”
She tried a few different ways to probe his understanding; to everything, he offered with the same ellided response.
So they arrived; she dropped him off; she came to get him, and he was limping. But he didn’t ever say a word or otherwise express any surprise, indignation, or regret about the matter.
When Stanley’s mother died, he enlisted Jody’s help planning the funeral. He kept insisting on the DuPonts being invited…when Jody asked what DuPonts he meant, he said “The DuPonts with the mushrooms.” The only thing she could determine beyond that was that his mother had worked for them, and so had Stanley, before he came to Fairfax. He gave her a phone number to call–a woman answered, saying “This is Mrs. DuPont,” and asked how she could help with the ceremony and the picnic supper afterward.
But it wasn’t until after the funeral, when they were all exiting the church and saw a big car pull up, unleashing servants with white damask tablecloths and silver candelabras to prepare for the picnic supper afterward, that Jody realized which DuPonts she had called.
As it turned out, Stanley’s mother had been head horse trainer for the DuPont family. Eventually she was hired to be their cook, at the same time.
Jody’s fondue tastes mostly like wine and butter…the way I remember from the first time I ate fondue, in Switzerland (as opposed to the kind I once ate in a tarted-up strip mall in La Jolla). Jody has been making it since it came into vogue in the 1970s, when it came into vogue. The recipe comes from her aunt’s Swiss friends of her mother, the opera singer, and it had been a family favorite since she started making it the 1970s, when her boys were in high school.
Her mother was Josephine Walsh, a famed opera singer who made an illustrious career for herself in St. Louis, Missouri. She grew up in Chester, Illinois, a city on the bluffs of the Mississippi River, the home of Popeye and of a federal penitentiary. The prisoners in the yard would hear an angelic voice singing every morning, while doing their exercises. They asked the warden to find out who it was; turned out that it was eleven-year-old Josephine, passing the prison yard on her way to Catholic school. The warden asked Josephine’s mother (also named Josephine) if she would come sing for their Sunday church service. Before long, little Josephine was leading the prisoners in weekly worship, accompanying herself on a pump organ.
The warden saw so much potential in Josephine that he asked her mother if she’d be willing to let him see about getting her a scholarship to study music in St. Louis. Josephine’s mother gave him an eager yes, but her father said no. Girls were supposed to get married and have babies when they grew up, not go to school and have careers. So Josephine the mother–whom, Jody tells me, she’s been told she’s very much like–packed up her daughter and all her furniture onto a riverboat, and headed up the Mississippi without her husband.
Josephine Walsh grew up to be not only a renowned soprano, but also a remarkably independent woman for her time. Even after marrying Jody’s father, a geologist from Virginia, she kept her apartment in St. Louis to live in during the opera season. Even after she got pregnant, she didn’t plan to give up her career or her way of life. She would simply have a live-in nanny to watch the baby while she was working. It wasn’t until her second pregnancy turned out to be twins that she decided three kids would be too much to handle as a single parent for part of the year. So she left the opera, and followed her husband to a new job managing a salt mine in Virginia.
Jody’s father had grown up in the sandy soil of North Carolina; it was this, she said, that fascinated him so much when he saw rocks for the first time that he ended up studying geology in university. One of his first jobs was managing a salt mine in Illinois, which was how he met Josephine Walsh. They had a very modern courtship for the early 1900s…he would come up the river to see her in St. Louis for the weekend, and she would take the train down to the salt town where he worked.
Once they moved to Saltville, Virginia, things were different. Jody’s father was determined that they not be looked as the boss who lived on the hill. He wouldn’t allow his family to dress fancy or go to a different school from the people who worked in the mines. And every Saturday night, he and his wife would roll back the rugs and push the furniture against the wall, and invite everyone from the mines to come up to the house and eat, sing, dance and play cards.
When Jody was about ten, her mother’s friend Hailey Lambert invited her to come out and stay in St. Louis for the summer. Hailey was the wife of Albert Bond Lambert, an aviator who had trained with the Wright Brothers and went on to help establish McDonnell-Douglas aircraft. At the time, though, he was merely a test pilot. (Though what he was testing was, in fact, part of the groundbreaking of aviation that led to Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight.) From the time she was ten until or thirteen, Jody spent the summers at the Lambert mansion, mixing with the high society her mother used to know.
Albert and Hailey had a son named George who was mentally disabled. In those years, there was hardly anything people knew to do for disabled children. But he loved watching the trains come in and out, and one of the conductors was really nice to him. Hailey ended up arranging with the conductor during the summers to take her son George on the train with him. George would ride all the way to the end of the line, and the conductor would take him home, where his wife would give George his lunch, and a nap, and then get him ready to get back on the train and ride home again. By the time he got back to St. Louis, it would be time for dinner.
That was their routine, during the summer. Hailey would take George and drop him off at the train station, and then she and Jody would go shopping, or visit the museum, or go to the opera where her mother used to sing.
Jody remembers her opera dress from one year–French blue and pearly lace, with the French seams that turn across the arm. She came home every summer with her bags emptied of her old clothes, and full of the beautiful new dresses that Hailey would buy her…and as soon as she came home, her father would gently but firmly take all the dresses and throw them away. He didn’t want the people in the mining town to feel that they were putting on airs.
There’s no real moral to the story. Jody is a consummate hostess and storyteller.