Living with Grandma Honey

The Background 

I recently moved from my old home, in Cape Cod, MA, across country to Southern California where I will live with my grandmother for the duration of a gap year before entering college. For my gap year I got a job working at the West Coast Repository at Scripps Institute, with the hope of getting out on a marine science vessel to experience life as a marine technician. Anyways, the most reasonable place to stay in California was in Fallbrook with my Grandma Honey and her new hubby, "The Colonel". This, however, meant an entirely new way of life for me, because, I found, that dealing with these particular retired elderly was some what troublesome. That is how the story began: Me, a teen-thing, in an environment that was caught up in a Depression-era attitude, adjusting to the lifestyle of people who have far too much time on their hands and too little to do. After about a month and a half, the jury was still out.

The Notes

I lived at the house for about a month without any sort of complaint and I thought I had been a rather good guest. I left quietly in the morning and locked the door behind me, I cleaned my dishes and ate with my hosts whenever they felt the urge to have dinner at the living room table, I kept my bathroom and room in order, I did my laundry and I was always friendly and entertaining whenever any of their friends visited. It seemed, however, that my life was a lie.

It all began on that fateful night in July when, coming home from a hard day's work and surf, I was confronted with a note on the front door, which was obviously addressed to me, and a small pile of trash. Leaning my surfboard up against the wall, I grabbed the note and brought it close to my face in order to decipher the oldtimer's scrawl in the dim light: "Dylan, please take out trash." Curious. It was not curious that the grandparents were asking me to take the trash down to the dump, just that they found that 9 at night was the optimal time to do it. Shrugging, I loaded up the golf cart with the trash on the doorstep and zipped down to the dump to unload it. I got back to the door and carefully folded the note down the middle as a sign of completion, before walking in through the door and reporting that I had taken the trash down to the dump. I was met only with looks of puzzlement. It appeared that they had meant for me to only bring the trash from the doorstep to the garage...10 feet away. I suppose that my mistake came from the fact that the trash was already outside when I saw the note and therefore the only way to get the trash more "out" was to take it out of our lives. Hence, I went to the dump. Anyways, after looking at myself in chagrin, I continued to my room and the bathroom where I found more notes: "Dylan, bathroom sink, toilet, and mirror need to be cleaned."  "Dylan, room must be picked up every morning." I shrugged, incorporated this information into my being, making the slight changes that the, "bathroom needs to be cleaned AGAIN" and "room must be picked up MORE," in order to satisfy my own self-esteem and went into my room to sleep.

The Calm Before The Storm

A week passed and everything felt good. I came home to no more notes on the doors and I had no complaints from my hosts. So, I began to feel that this might be it. They might be satisfied with this level of around-the-house helpfulness and general good manners. How wrong I was. I cannot fault myself for being so fooled, because, though they seem plain and simple, these old people are a bunch of fickle fiends who hide all emotions from you (except of course absolute pure love and joy that you're with them) until they come out and totally surprise you with an admonishment. Sort of like someone nice telling you that you have bad teeth. You just stumble back a bit and catch your breath before saying in a low tone, "Really? Hmm..." Well my wake-up call came when I got done surfing really late and when I called Grandma Honey she informed me that she was, "deeply and utterly worried about me," and that she, "loved me and wasn't mad," but that she was, "completely and totally worried about me." This row of comments was more troubling than anything, I mean ANYTHING my mother or father said to me during my childhood. This must have been because back home I knew that no matter how much bad shit I did, my mom would never throw me out, my dad might try, but my mom would never throw me out. My Grandmother and El Coronel, however, were a different story. I was fairly sure that I would have to do quite a lot before they said, "Okay, that's enough kid, take your needles and GO!" but they kept themselves on such boundaries that I was never able to be sure about that. So, I apologized my little heart away, promised to call her whenever I went surfing and so on and so forth, hung up the phone and sped home and quick as my stationwagon would go a'trundling.

When I got home, I peeked into the house through a crack in the front door to check that the coast was clear (because she said she'd probably be asleep when I got home) and as I was walking to the kitchen to make myself something to eat, I heard, "Dylan? Is that you?" from the master bedroom. Instantly the words rush to my head, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. It won't happen again," as I calmly and politely say hello and goodnight to her. She reminded me that I should go to bed soon (it was 8:30 at the time) and then left me in peace, so I thought. As I wandered into the kitchen I saw it, laid out like a murder scene, the paper...EVERYWHERE! The notes had returned! I looked around and didn't know where to start, finally I just chose the one closest to the entrance and begin reading around the kitchen. Flashes of kindergarten returned to me as the notes described and related objects to events and words. I learned what a "serving and preparing counter" was, what the rules were about "Grandma's Glass, what the use of a dish-rack and dishwasher were, and finally, "This is a sponge. It is used in soapy, warm water to wash dishes and should be rinsed out and dried thoroughly after each use." I got my digital camera and took a picture of the area with the highest note-concentration and looked at it a few times to make sure it was real. I freaked out a bit and after cooling off I went back and reviewed each not again. As I looked at each on I tried to seriously consider all possible angles from which the notes could be viewed and then based my final definition on them. I updated my manner handbook once more and then folded each note delicately down the middle before disposing of them in the trash. I prepared some food on the "preparing counter", wiped it down with a sponge and went off to bed.

Apocalypse Now

I got up in the morning and started on my 48 mile journey to work at 4:15 A.M. to avoid the traffic (both human and automotive) and this particular morning went just fine. I picked up my room, left all 40 square inches of empty space around the sink free of all the bathroom tools I use every morning, and cleaned all the dirty dishes I produced as I made my breakfast. I left for work, satisfied, and for most of the day, all was silent.

Now, the sediment cores (meter and a half long section of ocean floor drilled by the ODP over the past 40 years) that I worked with down at the West Coast Repository were required to be refrigerated, because mold would thrive otherwise (rather than simply appear in large patches every few cores). So the core repository has six 50-foot long and 15-foot wide reefers in which there is absolutely no cellphone signal (the walls are made of two pieces of quarter inch steel or aluminum), which means that every time you emerge from this icy domain you grab for your hip-attached cellphone to see if any adoring fans might, unfortunately, have called just when you were out of reach. Usually these small moments of inexplicable glee were followed by a small sigh and the sad click of phone locking back into it's holster. But on this particular day there was no sigh, there was no click, just a little breath and a smile because, I had a message! I flipped open my nifty Motorola Razr phone with the wrist flick I've practiced so many times, clicked the call button and put the phone to my ear.

"You have one unheard message...First unheard message: 'Hi Honey, it's your grandma...I was just calling to tell you that I'd like you home at a reasonable time tonight, because we have something to talk about which can't really be discussed over the phone. So, please be home by around 4, okay? Okay. Love you honey, bye bye."

Fear.

From long years of experience dealing with children and grandchildren, Grandma Honey had learned how hit the perfect combination of enigmatic yet direct and potent comments that sends minds racing. She started with the clear demand for me to be home at a reasonable time, later used as a framing device to provide the final structure. Then she decided to define her reasons for the demand (as though I was going to simply blow her off). She kept the point of conversation unclear as to let my imagination run rampant, but made sure that I knew that the subject matter must be of some importance. The rest of the banter was just for shits and giggles. I call it the Alfred Hitchcock Method of child rearing.

So for the rest of the day I kept wondering about it. The possibilities ran through my head: She was mad that I didn't have time to empty the dishwasher, that I had left a shirt on the floor of my room, that I left my toothbrush on the bathroom counter, or that I had let out her last cat and it had gotten eaten. I couldn't nail down a specific reason, which just made it worse because it meant that the range of possibilities was infinite.

The Resurrection

At about 2 P.M. my work was done. I ate some Top Ramen in the office and then slapped my knees and announced that I had to get home. I made a beeline for grandma's, parked, took a deep breath, and walked towards the front door. The clanging wooden welcome sign on the front door gave away my entrance so I greeted my grandma to pinpoint her location. She was in the kitchen...waiting.

"Hi honey, how are you?"  She asked me. As I walked towards the kitchen I told her I was tired, but fine and asked her how her day was. I was listening to her until I rounded the corner and saw the kitchen. The notes were back! I heard the Psycho music in the background and my vision went red. The words, "this is a sponge" echoed in my brain and I said in a controlled manner, "You put the notes back out." and smiled.

"Yes," chuckles, "I wanted to talk to you about them." She placed her hands on the serving counter and leaned towards me with that "don't be scared little boy" smile on her face. "This move has been a very big transition for you, as it would be for anyone, and I realize that it is going to take some getting used to. You've been here about a month and a half and for the first month I let you live like you would normally (a.k.a. letting me run blind across a highway), but now I feel it's necessary to alter your behavior to fit our lifestyle. You see, we're just two old farts (GH is the epitome of ladylike manners...usually) who are very set in our ways and will have to mold you to fit into our customs. Now, first off, your room needs to be cleaned every day, your bathroom should be cleaned whenever it's dirty, they should both be vacuumed every weekend. That area, however, is basically your own space. The kitchen, however, is special. If everyone who uses the kitchen doesn't follow the same guidelines then chaos will ensue. You understand, honey? Now, this is a sponge..."

As I sat there and listened to my grandma recite the notes she had written and give an explanation to me as to why she wanted them to happen I couldn't help looking back at how comedic the exchange of the notes had been, but then it hit me that most people are delighted with the slightest sign of gratitude from the people they are hosting. Helping with the dishes, keeping the space they gave you to live clean each morning, or helping move lots of heavy objects. Lots. So I sat, put a smile on my face, and listened to my grandma intently. In the following days I altered my behavior to fit their needs because I was, after all, living with Grandma Honey.

You know you've got somethin' special going on when your girlfriend suggests you make a pie, a pumpkin pie, when you can't divine the difference between a pie crust and a pocket knife, and you go, "Yeah. Know what? It's pie weather," and you work your way to the store and buy spices and instruments you probably won't use more than once, and to another one in the opposite direction to find a serviceable crust, and you buy bacon and ground beef while you're there to retain a certain, I don't know, Respectability, and you go home and you mix and blend and beat things with spoons, and you don't cook it long enough and cut it too early and end up with this gorgeously sweet, redi-whip drenched concoction that you have to eat with a spoon, and you feel so much better for having learned something useful, sort of,

...and she's two-hundred miles away.
Damn.


I wake early to put in my car (we have one too many). My mother has not yet vacated the space though, so I go upstairs to put away my keys. I have to hurry through breakfast; I didn’t finish my homework from last night. I finish eating and know my mother left in the interval. I look for my keys on the nightstand, but they aren’t there. The rest of my room is a puzzle where to look. I spread out all my magazines on the floor yesterday so I can start throwing them away after they waited underneath my bed for half a year. Time draws short. I set down my water and turn on the computer in the meantime so I can at least begin on the homework. The kitchen is a blank, the bathroom, same as ever. I know I have reached the point of no return. I must choose whether to keep looking for my keys or start typing, but what good would finishing a paper be when I can’t start my car to arrive on time? I recheck the far side of my bed and glance around the bonus room, hoping they reappeared for some dumb reason where I've already looked. Only bizarre places remain. I tear the pillows off the sofa. I check inside the pantry. Silly, no? Yet I have left my watch inside it once before without cognizance, so I can’t rule it out though I know I wasn’t in there. Only five minutes before I enter borrowed time and will leave late. Pointless to continue searching, why not see what I can throw out. My homework ought to be complete if I arrive late. I sit and turn on the screen. I reach for the mouse without looking. My face burns at the chill of five pieces of metal instead of the plastic egg. I had put my car keys next to the computer the first time I came up.

The screen happily flicks on. I am two minutes late when I open Microsoft word.

Induction into the GDMA Jewish mafia

Last week I found somewhere to get a good New York-style bagel, where the owner is the only one you ever see. I got my "everything bagel toasted with vegetable cream cheese", and he asked if I needed a drink? Maybe a coffee, or a wodka? (this was when I knew this was the place for me)

Today I stopped in at lunchtime, so Gary was a little busy. A little old man shuffled in behind the local high school kids (ordering pizza bagels and sodas). As he got near the counter, Gary stopped attending teenagers and started hauling up several large bags, calling off "this one's two, this one's three, this one's one". The old man nodded, asked if he could have help getting them to his car. Gary paused and said he could in a second, eying his growing line. I asked the man if I could give him a hand.

"Do you work here?" (him sizing me up)

"No, but my bagel's toasting, and I might as well be useful." (me sizing him up)

"Okay. You get these, I'll get this one." (Gary goes back to throwing raisin twists at 15-year-olds)

"18-dozen bagels is a lot..." (me hefting two full bags)

"I run a deli. Best one in town. The Star, over at Telegraph. Come see me sometime." (he slams the trunk, hands me a fifty) "I gotta run, pay Gary for me? Keep the change."

Change wasn't much, but there's a grateful smile on Gary's face and an extra bagel in my bag. I grew up in a small town where The Families owned all of the farms. Where there were breakfast discounts if you were on the football team. Where the head of the Knights Of Columbus suggests you come talk to him about a summer job. Gary was just doing good business, but it's hard not to feel those old connections.

The lunchtime business depends on getting people out the door quickly. Especially when they're teenagers who would just as soon go down three shops to Subway. Old-world atmosphere demands respect for regular customers, especially when they buy 200 bagels a day. Especially when they're older than you. Today I got a reminder that there's more to business than the exchange of goods for cash. Economics is what happens between people, seeking mutual improvement.

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