Valentines and Self-Realization

The older I get, the more I realize that my mother was right after all. I am just like my Grandma Mooney.

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Grandma Mooney & the Case of the Vinegar Valentines

Valentine’s Day always reminds me of my Grandma Mooney (more specifically, she was my Great-Grandmother). That may seem odd to some people (to think of grandparents around a holiday meant for couples), but there’s a reason behind it.  She was actually quite a colorful character… and then some. And one of her favorite things to do centered round Valentine’s Day.

It’s not really observed much anymore, but back in the day people would give out what were called “vinegar valentines.” They were basically insult cards with a caricature drawing on the front and a small acidic poem on the back that tended to call people out as being either foolish, a spinster, a loser, etc. You get the idea. They were pretty unflattering for the recipient and not exactly the heartwarming valentines we give out now covered in hearts and roses. Grandma Mooney absolutely loved giving these out to so-called loved ones and friends.

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It was one of her favorite times of year because, while she may have been thinking these evil thoughts all year, now she was able to put those thoughts to paper. And let me tell you, she got serious pleasure out of poring over who would get what card. If memory serves they were sent out anonymously so the person receiving the snail mail insult couldn’t be sure who thought they were an idiot, but rest assured, someone out there in the world did. The ironic part is that Grandma Mooney would get super pissed if she ever got one. She sent them out by the bucketful but getting even one in return was blasphemous.

I wish I could’ve seen her face as she was picking out the cards and sending them out. It’s hard to picture without having seen it up close, but anytime Grandma Mooney was up to trouble, she’d laugh… not out loud… but sort of an internal laugh so that her massive bosom shook like jelly. Watching her go through her stash of valentines with an intensity more often seen in a tax auditor and the inevitable intervals of shaking as she came across just the perfect one for say… Georgie or Carlene… would’ve been a hoot. Although I’m just guessing that these two were among the lucky recipients.  Grandma Mooney always kept her list top-secret so no one could rat her out.

In truth, though, I almost wish more that I could’ve seen what she did when she opened up one that she had received. I’d be observing that from a very safe distance of course.  I mean, there’s just no sense in poking an already pissed off bear. Grandma Mooney would’ve made Sherlock Holmes proud though… because after receiving one of these heart to heart communiqués in the mail, she suddenly became a resolute and determined investigator, examining handwriting, postal stamps, and whatever else would give her a clue as to who sent it.  She’d wander around the house muttering names for a week as she narrowed down the list of suspects. And when she finally had that “eureka!” moment and was convinced she knew the perpetrator of this horrible crime, she immediately began planning the coming year’s list, editing it accordingly, and putting that person’s name in the top position. Ahh… it’s the simple joys that mean the most.

When I was young, my mother used to tell me that I was just like my Grandma Mooney. I’d take offense at that if I could only figure out how to argue the rationale. Admittedly, I can see the similarities — though not to the extremes of my enjoying sending anonymous insults. But I do share some of her ornery eccentricities. In some respects, it may seem like an awful comparison — but along with her cantankerous quirks, my grandmother had a heart of gold and took care of her family above all else. So I guess when all is said and done, I’m pretty happy to be compared to her.

 

The Man I Knew as Grandpa

I never got the chance to meet my biological grandfather, Arbrie Emil Mills. He was killed when a coal car cut off both his legs when he was working in the mines of West Virginia in 1942. It was the definition of a tragedy. My Grandma Jimmie was pregnant with my Mom at the time and it took my Grandmother many, many years to recover from her loss and move forward. Eventually, Grandma Jimmie did remarry — my mother was married herself and had a family of her own by then. My brother was 7 and I was 5 the year we met the big hulking bear of a man we knew as Grandpa Walker. Everyone called him Clark but his name was Champ. And he was as big as a mountain. He must have really loved my grandmother to plunge headfirst into the craziness that was my family. That, or he was already crazy to begin with.

I can’t say what kind of man Arbrie was since he had passed long before I ever existed, but I can say with certainty that Clark Walker seemed tailor-made for my Grandma Jimmie. My only wish is that they had found each other sooner so my grandmother wouldn’t have been alone for so long. She was a firecracker who loved to argue and thanks to her sharp mind and quick wit, she was good at it. Clark put up with all her quirks and shenanigans — in fact, he seemed to enjoy smoothing her ruffled feathers. The household walked on eggshells — make that quilt-covered eggshells — all morning until she woke up, which was usually around noon. (I tell you what though — looking back on it now as an adult with kids, my Grandma Jimmie spent the better part of her life busting her ass to put food on her family’s table, shoes on her kids’ feet, and did everything she needed to do to keep her family together in the mountains of West Virginia, so if she wanted to sleep till noon later in life, I say, more power to her.)  But, my Grandpa never questioned her need for sleep, never tried to change her routine. He just accepted it as the way things were and put up with it because he knew it made her happy. The sun rose and set around my grandmother as far as Grandpa was concerned.

Need an example? How about this…ever heard of a Jimmy truck? They don’t make them anymore, but they did back in the day. Grandpa bought one of these trucks (in cash!) just because it had my Grandma’s name emblazoned on the back. Well, slightly misspelled, but still. His heart was in it.

Perhaps the clincher that proved just how much he adored my grandmother was the fact that on top of living with her and her persnickety ways, he also lived with my great-grandmother, Grandma Mooney. I’m sure you remember her. Yup, Grandma Mooney of the Vinegar Valentines and the Spooky Charades was in the house as well and she had quite the attitude. She was also a little instigator. No, really!  Nothing pleased her more than starting something between my grandparents and then sitting back to watch the resulting chaos, coffee cup in hand and a smile on her face. In spite of all this, my grandfather took damn good care of her when she got sick later on. All because he loved my grandmother with a love that was fierce.

Grandma Jimmie and Grandpa Walker looking cool

Growing up, I thought Grandpa Walker was IT. I remember he gave me a kitten when I was little that I wasn’t supposed to have. (He gave my brother one too, but my brother was deathly allergic — which made shoving the kittens in his face really, really fun, but I digress.)  We couldn’t take them home of course…thanks Keith, for that. But we enjoyed them each summer.

While I was small, most summers found me by his side, when I wasn’t chasing lizards or looking for crawdads or swinging from grape vines. When I was still a little girl, it might’ve been the first summer I met my grandfather even — so maybe 5 — I remember trying to cut my fried eggs with a fork and knife just like my dad. My dad was amazing with a knife and fork — he could cut anything and everything slick as butter while being quiet as a mouse. It was truly impressive, and I always wanted to be like him. But, I could never come close to being as fast and neat as he was and most of the time I just ended up making a big racket. It was certainly annoying for everyone in the kitchen. So anyway, here I am cutting my fried eggs like a maniac and my father ummm…chastised me, yeah, we’ll go with that, chastised me for making so much noise. And sitting in “my spot” next to my grandfather as I was, he yanked my chair closer to him and told my dad in no uncertain terms to “leave her be and let her cut her eggs however she wants” — which was awe-inspiring really because I was little and my dad was…well DAD. You simply didn’t talk back to him.  Clearly Grandpa didn’t get THAT memo. Or if he did, he didn’t care one bit.

As I’ve written about before, for a part of his life my grandfather drank beer like some people drink soda, or coffee. He basically just drank the stuff all day long. It took an enormous amount (about the size of a silo) to give him a buzz, but eventually he would start feeling the effects, and when he did, he’d get on a musical bent. When this creative urge came across him, out came the banjo which he was really quite good at playing. The tunes he chose? Yeah, well, those started out pretty good too, more on the bluegrass side but that was okay, and then it would slide into gospel, getting faster and zanier the more he drank. Verses would eventually repeat themselves, words would slur or get mixed up. Sometimes it was an outright free-for-all of different songs thrown together as one. What verses he couldn’t remember, he made up on the fly.

I remember my mother made a recording of one of his more off the rails lively sessions and took it to my Aunt Bunny for her to listen to — back when cassette recordings were still the rage. I got so angry because by the end of the impromptu concert they were in tears laughing at his madcap musical antics. I snapped at them over it and ended up paying the price. And of course, looking back on it, it WAS funny…hilarious even. But this was my grandfather they were laughing at! No-one was supposed to be laughing at him!

Hey, he had my back – I had his.

my favorite picture

 

Of Myth and Moonshine

When most people think of great-grandparents, there is a perception of elderly, slightly demented people with mints and Kleenex in their pockets.  They sit on the couch knitting or telling stories of the “good old days,” their pasts a delicious whirl of somewhat ordinary lives well lived.

Enter my Grandma Mooney.

I have talked before of her exploits.  Her Vinegar Valentines, her sketchy use of Halloween masks to frighten a neighborhood boy and her subsequent lying about it to the boy’s parents. I won’t even get into the whole moth fiasco. There was an even deeper layer to Grandma Mooney (great-Grandmother if I’m being completely accurate), though, every bit as fascinating as the ones we’ve already uncovered.

Job opportunities back in the day weren’t quite what they are today, especially in the country, and when you have a houseful of hungry people, you do what you need to in order to survive and feed your family.  I think, in times like this, bending the law a little is easily excused.  And, in Grandma Mooney’s case, bending it until it broke was a way of life.

Grandma Mooney was a purveyor of frowned upon refreshments.  Okay, fine, she sold and stored moonshine.

In the days of prohibition and the depression, moonshine was a profitable enterprise. In fact, it still is today.

Well, as the story goes, moonshine runners would drop off their inventory to Grandma Mooney – she’d sell some, she’d store some, she’d…well, never mind. The great thing about Grandma Mooney is she wouldn’t have needed an enforcer to help protect her shady business. Everyone around for miles was already afraid of her. So, there was some money saved on personnel.

To stock brew, this ingenious old lady had a special crawlspace in the floor of her kitchen that she used just for this purpose. No external storeroom fees or the inconvenient industrial spy to get rid of. I’m telling you, she had the whole theory of commerce locked down.

In fact, she had just one serious concern. Government officials. Cue the supervillain music…Dun-Dun-Duuuun! Oh wait. Grandma Mooney is the supervillain in this tale. Nevermind.

One thing about the government; it never changes. In search of their fair share – I mean violators, yes of course, violators – agents would wander door to door, foaming at the mouth in the hopes that they could catch someone with illegal contraband.

Normal law-abiding citizens would have no reason to be afraid of these visits, but Grandma Mooney wasn’t exactly a normal law-abiding citizen.  I’m not sure she was ever afraid of anything, it just wasn’t in her nature. But knowing she would get into serious trouble if she were caught with white lightning, she devised a fiendishly clever plan to hide the storage space. And again, with the government being what it is, her plan went perfectly. Every. Single. Time.

Whenever these agents came to the house, she’d stick her youngest daughter Wanita, aka Neda – Needie to friends and family — into the bathtub, and put the bathtub over the crawlspace door.  The bathtub, it should be noted, was basically just a large metal bucket that was used for baths, dishes, laundry, and anything else that required a large-ish supply of water.

She used this wonderfully creative plan repeatedly over the course of frequent government raids, and her secret storage space was never discovered. Ahh…government agents – the cream of the crop, the best of the best, the finest civil servants you can ever find. Yeah, right.

The government agents were never quite bright enough to realize that every time they paid a “visit,” Needie was in the tub.  Now, I’m not sure if they thought Grandma Mooney was obsessed with cleanliness, or maybe they thought that Needie was simply a kid who enjoyed playing in mud and wrestling skunks – but whatever their thinking was, it never crossed their minds that Grandma Mooney was involved in the highest form of trickery and deception.

Maybe their money would’ve been better spent had they just put Grandma Mooney on the payroll as an agent.

Grandma Mooney’s Spooky Charades

I’ve been thinking a lot about my Grandma Mooney lately. I’m not sure why. I joined a vintage photo group recently and it’s possible the old-timey photos remind me of her – I mean, many of the “mountain” or rural women from her era all look very similar; hair in a bun, house dress, a wearied expression on their face that makes it look as though they’ve seen it all (and probably have).  Winnie Mooney had a heart of gold underneath her massive bosom, however, there was a twisted edge to her sense of humor that still has me laughing to this day. I’m not sure what that says about me. But it’s probably why my mother always called me Winnie when I was growing up (just to be clear, it was meant as an insult).

If you recall, my Grandmother – great-Grandmother really – loved sending Vinegar Valentines; Valentine’s Day always brings her back to my memory too.  If you are newer to my blog, a Vinegar Valentine was a way of saying “Bless your heart,” that infamous southern loaded phrase.  She agonized over the perfect valentine to send to people she disliked, laughing as she sent it.  Although turnabout is fair play, she would get so mad when she received one.  These anti-Valentine’s Day cards were more popular for a while than regular cards.  I have a few people in mind that I could send some to, but alas, the practice has fallen out of favor…anyway, I digress.

Grandma Mooney and the rest of my Mom’s family lived in a holler.  For those who aren’t from the south, a holler is a small valley between mountains.  There was only one way in and one way out of the holler. Now you know what all those country songs are talking about. You’re welcome.

To digress one again, I got in trouble at school once for saying and writing holler when my northern-born teacher thought it ought to be “hollow.” Apparently, I wasn’t one to back down from a debate despite my young age. Seems my mother was not immune to the dreaded “parent/teacher conference” any more than I was when my kids were growing up.

Now when my mother was younger, about five or six or so, she had a young friend who lived down the dirt road from her, and he would come by her house to play with her. Or at least…he tried. For reasons unknown to anyone but herself, Grandma Mooney loved to prank this poor young boy.   No-one was ever able to figure out why; it was a secret known only to Grandma Mooney.  Knowing her, it started as a joke and was so hilarious to her that she just continued doing it.

At any rate, the whole premise behind the “joke” was, is there a demon haunting the Mooney house or isn’t there a demon haunting the Mooney house?

And it went like this: my Grandma Mooney would pull a hideous Halloween mask over her head (and we’re talking back in the day when they really knew how to make Halloween scary), and would sit lurking…lurking…waiting for the boy to come up the road to the house.  Then, it was show time.

Grandma Mooney, in this creepy as hell mask, would pop her head up at the window just in time to scare this little boy half to death as he walked up on the porch.

The terrified boy would run home crying to his parents about the insanely frightening witch or monster that dwelled in his friend’s house.  The parents would march over immediately to find out exactly what was going on, as any good parent would do.

Grandma Mooney was ever the innocent hostess. I mean butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth when she put on her “who me?” act.  I can imagine her taking the parents in for coffee, all the while claiming she had no idea what the poor little boy was talking about.  She kept her bluff face on the entire time and never once cracked or confessed.

I don’t know if the little boy ever got punished for telling “wild tales.” Given the parenting techniques of the day though, I wouldn’t be surprised if a trip or two to the woodshed had been in order. What I do picture, though, is this child growing up and ending up in therapy, never able to trick or treat or watch a scary movie, or even believe his own eyes for that matter.

Word carries quickly in the usually close-knit communities in the mountains of WV.  I’m sure word got out about the demon? monster? madwoman? who lived in my mother’s house.  Amazingly enough, my mom still had friends who would come visit her.

my great-grandparents (Grandma and Grandpa Mooney)

my great-grandparents (Grandma and Grandpa Mooney)

 

Miller Time

When I was about 12 years old an event that would become one of the most hotly debated stories within my family happened. It was as ridiculous as it was horrific and divided the bloodline for years to come. Of course I’m talking about when my Great-Grandma Mooney was “allegedly” attacked by a vicious, unrelenting, terrifying…moth.

In our house a moth is called a miller. While both are accurate (a miller is a type of moth that loves to live in homes…sort of like The Borrowers), I’ve never heard the word miller used up here in Maryland regardless of favored habitat of said insect, so it must be country speak from days spent wasting time down in the holler. So, during one fateful summer at my grandparents’, this moth/aka/miller flutters its way into the house probably looking for a light bulb to beat itself against for hours on end. When, all of a sudden, it was gone. Poof. We thought it must’ve flown out the window and were ready to scrub the intrusion from our mind completely.

Well, we start to notice Grandma Mooney jerking her head every once in a while and muttering to herself like one of those more quiet (and dangerous) inmates at a lunatic asylum. She gets up, sort of shuddering…I’m not sure how else to describe it, and starts swatting at her head with her hands swearing that the moth flew into her ear. We all let her have her dramatic episode with none of us actually paying her much attention. She keeps breathing heavily and tossing her head and getting even louder with her ooooohs and aaaahhhs so we decided maybe it’s time to actually listen to her.  My Mom gets a bit concerned, but she was the only one out of the adults to do so. My grandmother, Grandma Jimmie, isn’t buying it.

What you need to understand about my Grandma Jimmie is that while she was smart as a tack and generous in most respects, she also housed a bit of a mean streak. Patience was not a virtue she was keenly familiar with, especially when it concerned her mother, Grandma Mooney.

So Grandma Mooney is hooting and hollering about this damn moth and Grandma Jimmie is stubbornly refusing to take the bait. The story is just too ridiculous for words. Eventually, someone caved and brought a flashlight out to look in her ear. What do they see? Nothing. Nada. No evidence or trace of a moth anywhere, especially not in Grandma Mooney’s ear canal.

The lack of proof certainly didn’t dissuade my Grandma Mooney. Every few seconds she’d shudder, then twitch her head, claiming she can still feel the damn thing flapping around inside her head. Grandma Jimmie is over it and wants to put the nail in the coffin on this pure fabrication. So to “appease” Grandma Mooney, she pulls out a turkey baster…yes—a turkey baster…fills it with peroxide (not quite sure why that particular medium was chosen) and shoves it none too gently into Grandma Mooney’s ear. She then proceeds to syringe the hell out of Grandma Mooney’s ear FULL FORCE which (I’m assuming) was at the very least…not pleasant. I mean eardrums are fairly sensitive and probably don’t respond well to being blasted with a torrent of peroxide shot out of a turkey baster wielded by a highly annoyed woman.

1,2,3,4 times Grandma Jimmie floods the ear with this peroxide baster. What do they see now? Still nothing. No moth. So that’s it, the jig is up. It is decided that Grandma Mooney, God bless her soul, is lying. Or crazy.  Or both. Still, she stuck to her guns and kept on saying she could feel it fluttering. Moth or no moth, could we all just agree that at the very least she was now contending with what must have been an insanely horrendous cacophony of bubbling in her ear from the peroxide?? I mean, can you imagine!?

Time passes. The moth is forgotten. Though I suspect Grandma Mooney’s hearing was never the same again. Lo and behold about 8 YEARS later, a dead moth falls out of her ear! Just plops right out of her ear! It had been in there the whole damn time. She was right and had always been right. Not that Grandma Mooney had ever needed any proof!

I’ve often wondered that if it hadn’t drowned or been bubbled to death and subsequently driven deep into her ear canal by that flash flood if it would’ve come out sooner. In all that time she never developed an infection or serious medical condition because of the insect corpse, so I consider her lucky in that way. But it makes my skin crawl thinking about some winged creature being lodged inside my ear for that long. If she wasn’t crazy before that moth flew into her ear, can you imagine what having it in there fluttering around would do to a person?? Or knowing it was in there and dead?  Ugh….

It truly haunts me and to this day, any time I see a moth, I instantly cover my ears. My kids laugh at me but they just don’t know the danger these vile creatures pose! My mom is the same way. One of the reasons she keeps her hair just long enough to cover her ears is so that she always has a little cover to block any unwelcome moths. You see my Grandma Mooney had amazingly lush, long, thick, beautiful hair – but she kept it up in a bun, thereby leaving her ears completely exposed to all and sundry. Had she been just a bit less modest, perhaps all of this could have been avoided. This is a real threat people! Don’t leave your ears vulnerable! You’ve been warned!

Southern Grammar

While West Virginia isn’t technically “The South”—not at all in the same league as say Mississippi or Alabama—and while I wasn’t raised there, only spent summers in the state visiting grandparents, I somehow managed to absorb some local colloquialisms that my daughter constantly makes fun of me for because they sound so ridiculously Southern. I blame my parents (who are from West Virginia) completely for imprinting them on me. Just so you know that right up front.

Recently I was mad at one of my cats — again. This is not a rare occurrence. If any of you own cats, you’re bound to grit your teeth at something they’ve done on a nearly daily basis. Such is the nature of our fuzzy felines and I do love them even during these trying moments. I think.  Anyway, I was pissed at something one of my cats did and was on the verge of inflicting physical violence. Of course, I can’t swing my cat by the tail or anything like that so I decided to vent my anger through a steady stream of obscenities. One of the things I said in my blinding tirade was, “She makes me so mad I could just SPIT.” I must’ve said it with more vehemence than I realized and put an extra emphasis on the word ‘spit’ because my daughter practically broke down in hysterics. She said I sounded like a southern Moriarty. If any of you watch the excellent new Sherlock series on BBC you’d know just how ridiculous of a concept that is.

Mr. Bean

A couple days ago I had the unfortunate displeasure of conversing with an idiot rep from my abysmal satellite internet provider Wildblue. It was one of these conversations that just kept going round and round without making any headway in resolving my issue. Sometimes I think those calls are psychological experiments on patience and I’m the test subject because no one can be that bad at their job, can they? Exasperated, I hung up the phone and said (I’m sure in a frustrated tone), “Well, she doesn’t have the sense God gave a stump.” I guess my Southern accent (which, again, I shouldn’t even have since I’m not from the South) must have come out in my rage because there was my good ol’ daughter yet again in a fit of laughter at my odd choice of words. “Thanks, I’ll be here all week,” I sneered back at her.

I’m glad she can find my livid outbursts so amusing. One of her all-time favorite Wendy-isms is when I say “Piss or get off the pot” to confused drivers in front of me trying to decide if they want to turn, park, or keep on going. That one puts her in tears as she tries to control her laughter. These are all phrases that she apparently never hears anyone else say, which I find hard to believe. And I guarantee if she spent some time in my parents’ old stomping ground, she’d find that my creative use of words is a lot more common. Unfortunately she hasn’t had the pleasure of West Virginia summers.   So for now, I’m happy to entertain my ever-so-Yankee daughter with my anger induced stand-up routine, much to her delight.