FOLKS IN CALIFORNIA ARE A BIT WACKO, THEY SAY
"What about my chickens?” Grandma Oma asked in response to my aunt Mouth persuading her to attend our farewell. "You know I don't go nowhere without my chickens."
Now I knew where we stacked up against chickens.
“It's just an airport, Mama!" Mouth argued, yanking the clothes off the clothesline. She tossed them to me to wad and throw in the basket. We had a system. “Besides, dem chickens ain’t the ones you need worryin' about. Ain't you scared they'll die in a fiery plane crash?”
Mouth earned her name because her big mouth contrasted with her small body. Grandma said the name Melba was Indian for Little Big Mouth. My sister, Beth, said because of Mouth's notorious failure to be quiet, someone slammed the door on it—her mouth, that is.
On my grandparent's farm, where livestock were considered pets, where groceries were delivered to your doorstep, where the sheltered Kellyville Okies dwelled oblivious to any world outside the county line, my grandma fed the chickens for the third time inside an hour.
Her chaotic chickens ran every which way, plucking at the ground and pecking others within thieving range, amnesia stricken to their sudden windfall of three consecutive meals, showing no signs of slowing down. With red-rimmed eyes, Grandma muttered angry epithets regarding being a chicken prisoner. Grandma grabbed another handful of chicken feed from the deep front pocket of her large housedress. The other pocket held a worry list she called her prayer request, and a water gun to fend off her evil geese.
The screen door slammed and I knew it was my mama. You always heard her before you saw her. Her speech, her gait, her manners, all suggested a faulty valve stuck on full throttle. She barged down the porch steps with another basket of laundry to hang and passed a frost-damaged rose bush. A goose emerged from the leafless, twiggy thatch and lunged for her leg. Mama, without a break in stride, catapulted it into the air like a feathered football. Grandma reached for her water gun faster than Clint Eastwood can make someone's day.
"Dutch devil!" Grandma hollered. She chased and squirted Mama around the barn as feathers settled down around the clothesline. "Yer meaner than a Dutch devil."
Mama hooted and laughed evilly as she out ran Grandma, who had to stop on account of needing to refill her gun. By that time, Mama was long gone and Grandma cooled off, as she always did, and returned to her chore of feeding chickens and worrying. And her combative goose trotted off for a denser cluster of bushes, waiting for someone to bite.
Perhaps it was her sudden adrenalin spike, but Grandma, still panting from the exertion, stopped her task, straightened her posture, and positioned her hands on her wide hips. "What fiery plane crash?" she asked Mouth.
Yeah, what fiery plane crash? I mind-questioned to AJ, an empty Aunt Jemima syrup bottle, which served as my water bottle, personal advisor, and imaginary friend.
I scooted next to Mouth who now sat on the wooden fence, positioned AJ between us, and watched my older brothers out yonder. Russ pushed Eddie over the low rolling hills of the pasture in a wheelbarrow, zigzagging through cows, laughing. I wanted to laugh and have Russ push me too, but I had serious end-of-life concerns to contemplate.
"Never mind the plane crash." Mouth winked at me. "They might die tragically when California sinks into the ocean. Right, Patty?" I nodded. She was referring, of course, to the "Big One," the catastrophic earthquake that would kill us violently and was the subject of many a hushed conversation amongst the relatives—and a stress rash for me. But AJ put that fear to ease when she reminded me I couldn't expire via the "Big One" if I were to perish in a fiery plane crash.
"California's gonna sink in the ocean?" Grandma clutched her heart. "Oh, Sweet Jesus, no!"
“I’ll pray at church on Sunday when I get saved,” Mouth reassured her. With emphasis on "when"; every Sunday at church when the preacher called out for the unsaved to come forward, to accept Jesus Christ as their almighty savior from eternal damnation, Mouth would head up the aisle as if for the first time. So caught up in the sermon, she would nearly trample the first timers in her path to the altar, calling, "I'm coming, Jesus."
“I'll pray too,” Grandma said, meaning with the televangelist she watched in lieu of church.
On departure day the following morning, Grandma hobbled over to my dad and declared: "Morris, I prayed 'bout it all day yesterday and called Oral Roberts on the tell-phone, and Oral says it's okay for y'all to fly to California."
"Well, that settles it then, Oma.” Daddy flashed my mom an amused glance. “Thank you for your thoughtful prayers and for alertin' ole Oral of our travel plans." He and Grandma Oma hugged.
Relatives, ranging from those who pronounced airplane as arrow-plane to those who weren't aware the airplane had yet been invented arrived in droves at Daddy's request for airport transportation, which resulted in a family reunion-like excursion.
Grandma finally relented, agreeing to see us off at the airport on account of her annual Easter tradition to visit the beauty parlor—for her baby chicks. She rarely left her farm, afraid of riding in a car, she saw death at every turn. She made only one exception: the four-mile trip into Kellyville to have her chicken's feathers dyed at Vera's. They came out in pastels.
"Don't worry, hun," she told me. "They'll still have all their colors by the time you get back."
Actually, my concern was would she accidentally kill the blue one like she did the year before when she knocked a two-by-four over onto the top of it. Not fully dead, Grandma had to wring its neck to end his misery. I looked in the box sitting on Grandma's lap: six. Better be six chicks when I return, I thought.
We spread out in different vehicles—from automatic and manual transmissions to crank-up or push 'till the engine roared to life. Plus a bit of musical cars as well when Grandpa Floyd drove our Edsel, which contained Uncle Earl who was—after his usual moderate intake of alcohol—sprawled asleep in the backseat. Daddy drove Earl's Cadillac, roomy enough for five.
We squeezed Grandma and box in the back seat between Eddie and me. Grandma's black hair was without a single curler or bobby pin. I always wondered what sort of occasion would merit the unveiling of her hair.
Grandma peered out the Cadillac's rear window and burst into tears when a mournful pig gave her a nod and a snort from the side of the gravel drive. We drove convoy-style through Kellyville's small town of redbrick establishments, causing pedestrians to stop and stare at the motor parade that comprised our extended family anxious to see advanced technology featuring flying transportation.
The radio played "Crazy" by Patsy Cline as we passed the Ma and Pa Market and Feed Store. I'm crazy for tryin' Crazy for cryin'… We dropped off the box of Easter chicks at "Vera's Beauty Shop and Bait and Tackle, where you can get your hair done while the fish ain't bitin'". Worry Why do I let myself worry … After which we cruised town slowly enough for folks to say hello. “My chickens, my geese …,” Grandma sobbed to anyone within earshot of the car.
Clearly, Grandma's upset bothered my brother Eddie, because he went straight for the big guns: his armpit-fart music. A one-man band, making the best-orchestrated use of his body parts, he conducted the fart version of "Yankee Doodle Dandy." He seemed unfazed that we were going to die tragically or even that Mama turned up the radio. I, however, had developed a nervous habit of peeling the dry skin off my lips until they bled, which was what I did to a duo of "Old Mac Donald" by Eddie and "Soldier Boy" by Shirelles. Eddie then took requests. He arm-farted to "Jesus Loves Me" and "This Little Light of Mine."
At the airport, Mama prohibited his flatulent symphony. "Knock that noise off and act like civilized folk."
After the civilized entourage parked their Chevys and Fords, they piled into the Departures waiting area, clustering in a knot around Daddy and Mama, looking unsure about the swarms of travelers bustling about the terminal. Except Uncle Earl who, unaware of the airport rules concerning open containers of alcohol, was detained by airport security and taken away for questioning.
Mouth harassed a cowering family. "Would you mind takin' our picture? The whole family." She motioned, spreading her arms out. "Can you fit the whole family?"
"O—okay," said the perplexed husband, "but where's your camera?"
"We'll just use yours."
Meanwhile, my mom's two other sisters, Opal and Georgia, snagged a newspaper out of the garbage and poured over the horoscopes. "You're having a five-star day, Reba," they reported to my mother. "But you, Morris, you're not so good. You might not make it."
After an amplified boarding announcement, Grandpa Floyd bellowed an even louder announcement about dangers besides earthquakes and air tragedies. "Be careful, Morris," he warned. "California’s swarmed with certain folks to avoid.” He leaned in and grabbed a hold of Daddy's hand to shake it, lowered his voice to about 100 decibels, and divulged. "Atheists, liberals, and homo's. All of who a man of good citizenship will rub elbows with ever'day."
Passersby's faces reacted in horror at Grandpa's announcement, confirming that I should indeed be petrified.
A loud explosion boomed nearby—Eddie—the unmistakable sound of a gumball machine shattering to the floor and thousands of tiny gumballs scattering on the dirty linoleum. Usually, I was easily startled by loud noises, but this I'd heard on numerous occasions. Mouth, who was unprepared for it, hollered, "Run for your lives!" causing some folks to panic. Security had my eight-year-old brother Eddie tight by the collar, marching him in our direction, and using language shocking to a child. They knew he belonged to us.
"I didn't do it. It wasn't me," said Eddie with a mouth full of gumballs. "I swear!"
Twelve-year-old Russ found a seat some distance away. His head turned toward another family, as if by seating himself beside them, he could inhale their normalcy.
Throughout the years, Russ and I were labeled as shy. I define shy as someone afraid the world is looking at them, judging. With us, they really were. And Russ and I were fully aware of it.
And my unwelcomed gift of aware became my curse. And Aunt Jemima's.
"I don't want to go," sassed AJ. "I won't."
"You will or I'll bust you over my knee." Mama cut AJ a stare so fierce, she hid her cold, hard body in my shirt.
Russ, still in hearing distance, reunited with his real family once more. "Don't encourage her," he said to Mama, and to anyone else caught conversing with the syrup bottle. "It ain't right in the head."
Grandma resumed crying at the impending doom that waited. "Lord, keep the plane from crashin' and burnin'. Keep California 'bove the water during the "Big One." Keep Reba, Morris, and my sweet grandbabies safe with no harm in their direction … ."
At least for now, the thought of us dying held us a rung above her chickens.
Author: Tricia Sutton