@

It starts with a birth and finishes with a death. That’s the usual way, the only way, really. And for my mother, Bonnie Gandstetter, it was almost a short story—a life six-weeks long, coming to a near-end in a snow shower outside a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania.

My grandmother, Billie, was twenty when Bonnie was born. Bonnie was a fine baby: round head, wide green eyes, an inscrutable gaze. She was content to loll on the braided rug with the dogs, two liver-colored pointers who would lick the dried formula off her face. Sometimes she’d give a whistling holler and whir her arms and legs like rotors. The dogs watched her tiny limbs as if they were humming birds, and often Billie wondered how many minutes she’d have to leave the room before a dog snatched one of those humming birds in his mouth.

The rule in the house was that you don’t pick up a kid and cuddle it. If it cries, you let it cry. You feed it one bottle every four hours for six weeks, at which point you drop the night feedings. Never kiss the child and never talk to it in anything other than a voice as flat and firm as a sheet of aluminum. The last thing Billie had wanted was a spoiled child. And the last thing my grandfather, Otto, had wanted was a child who was not a boy.

Otto had little use for girls and women, although he had always been fond of Billie who was female but not frilly in any way. Billie wore slacks at a time most women were in dresses. She had a delicate, simple face, but her backbone was as rigid as her temperament. My grandfather liked to say that Billie was as unbreakable as an iron rod.

A month and a half after my mother was born, while Billie was still recovering from the delivery, Otto decided that he and Billie needed to go out for a drink. Instead of taking the truck, Otto took the convertible Buick Century with the top folded down like a giant accordion into the nook behind the opera seat. It was cold out, about forty degrees, with a sky as clear as glass. Otto had read the almanac that morning—it was sitting next to the toilet where Billie had left it for him—and it said there’d be no more snow in Pennsylvania until next December. Otto, like most people, considered the almanac a solid prophecy of the weather, certainly more reliable than the old Pennsylvania Dutch women who thought they could tell you anything by simply scraping their claws along the bark of an elm.

Otto placed baby Bonnie, nestled in her white wicker basinet, on the opera seat of the Buick. Billie told me that she remembers looking down at Bonnie for a second, noting with distaste the way she pursed her lips as if she’d just bitten into a lemon. Then she sat in the front seat without glancing back again.

Otto stood outside the car, his head tilted as he looked at the baby.

“I’ll tell ya Billie,” Otto said, and he laughed at what he was about to say. “If I hadn’t seen you change a diaper, I’d swear this was a boy, ‘cause this is one goddamn ugly little thing!” He tugged down the pink patchwork quilt that covered his daughter and examined her. Bonnie was bound so tightly in her receiving blanket that she resembled a cocoon with a face. Otto pulled the quilt back over Bonnie, up to her chin, then patted the blue crochet cap on her head that Billie had made when she was pregnant.

“Well let’s hope she’s not that ugly by the time she needs to get married,” Billie said.

“Let’s hope she’s not that ugly by the time she starts talking to me!” Otto swung open the giant, wide door and got into the car. He listened to the thrum of the engine for a moment before he shifted into first gear and, releasing the clutch smartly, pulled away from the curb.

As they cruised down the nearly empty road, Billie looked out at the bare trees, the dirt-brown grass in the fields between houses, the bald smudge of sun lowering on the horizon. I imagine she pulled her silk scarf tight around her neck then tucked the tail into the front of her blue wool coat. The wind had a bite in it sharp as a thistle, but Billie knew better than to ask that Otto put the top up on the car. Otto always said, if he had wanted to ride around with a roof over his head he wouldn’t have bought the damn thing.

About twenty minutes later Otto pulled into the parking lot of Buck’s Inn. He and Billie hadn’t been there since Bonnie was born as Billie hadn’t been up to going out and Otto, when he left the house without Billie, always met up with his five brothers who liked to drink at the local Redding bar. As usual, Otto parked the car away from the other vehicles whose owners might ding the sides of the burgundy Buick while drunkenly opening their doors. When he got out of the car, he stretched and surveyed his surroundings as if it were all his. And in a way it was all his. Otto owned a beer distributing business, shipping beer from Maine to the Mississippi river (with a stop at Buck’s Inn along the way). He was one of the richest men in town, a fact he never had to prove, as Reading, back in 1939 was a relatively small town.

Billie got out of the Buick without waiting for her husband to open the door for her; she walked across the dirt and gravel parking lot toward the inn. Otto paused, glanced at the baby in her basinet then looked up at the sky that had turned the color of a fresh bruise. He decided that Bonnie would be fine, wound in her blanket like a spool of thread, under the patchwork quilt and the scrappy red maple that bowed toward the car. Billie was waiting for him at the open door of Buck’s Inn—he jogged to catch up to her.

“You had that baby now, didn’t ya?” Roy asked, when Billie and Otto walked in. He was the bartender, a big man with a nose as red and round as a cherry tomato.

“Yup,” Billie said, settling onto a wooden stool. “A girl.”

“What’d’ya name her?”

“Bonnie,” Billie said, peering behind Roy to see what kinds of liquor he had lined up back there.

“She’s an ugly thing!” Otto shouted, as he sat beside his wife. Roy and the few other men hunched on their barstools let out bold, honking laughs.

“Well here’s to your ugly little girl!” Tom Kunkle said, lifting his mug. He was at the end of the bar, but everyone was talking loudly enough for the whole, small, murky room to hear.

It was dinnertime but neither Billie nor Otto was hungry. They were drinking scotch and when that got too heavy for Billie she changed over to scotch with a bit of milk in it. Roy put out a jar of six pickled eggs. They ate them all without thinking, tasting, or even taking note that they were actually eating. When Roy didn’t refill the jar, neither Billie nor Otto asked for more.

At ten p.m., a few more people stumbled into the bar, men who had been drinking at Earl’s down the street. Earl closed his doors early, his wife liked him in bed with her, he told his customers, and this fact made her seem sexy to everyone in town. Billie looked at Otto, her head wobbling the way Bonnie’s did when Billie picked her up.

“I think six weeks without a drink has made me a little intolerant,” Billie said.

“You suddenly getting light-weight on me?” Otto said. He rarely asked a question with the intention of getting an answer.

“Maybe we should take a room and let me sleep this off,” Billie said, and she wobbled off her stool and staggered toward the stairs leading up to the hotel guest quarters.

“Roy!” Otto shouted. “Do you have a spare room?”

Roy was wiping clean the glasses that were stacked beside the sink. He reached for a key hanging on a board of hooks above the cash register.

“Number seven,” Roy said, tossing the key over the bar to Otto. “If Mary wakes you up in the morning, just tell her Roy said you can sleep in as long as you’d like.”

“Put the room on my tab,” Otto said, and he staggered up the stairs behind his wife.

My grandmother told me that the next morning when she woke up, she sat up straight and looked toward the window that was like a sheet of glaring white light. She gasped as if she’d just received a blow to the stomach, then choked for a second. It felt like something might actually come up.

“Otto.” She would have yelled but there wasn’t breath enough in her to do so. Billie pushed my grandfather on the chest, then staggered out of bed. She hopped on one leg as she tried to pull up her slacks with quaking arms.

My grandfather woke up. Looked at my grandmother. Her eyes were wild, her movements exaggeratedly spastic.

“JESUS CHRIST!” he said, and he flung the covers back, got out of bed and had his khakis on before Billie had finished shoving her bra and underpants into her black clasped handbag. They stumbled down the stairs together, Otto buttoning his flannel shirt, Billie struggling into her blue wool coat. The bar was empty, and the unlocked front door easily pushed open as they ran out.

The sun was so bright it was like a spotlight on their faces. And yet, it was snowing. A faint, powder-dry mist seemed to fall in slow motion, as my grandparents raced across the snowy gravel.

“Godammit!” Otto said, when he approached the car. He looked back and forth between the baby, whose face looked like a frosted glass plum, and the creamy leather seats now sparkling with white dust.

Billie made a sound like a rabbit’s guttural squeal as she pulled Bonnie from the basinet and tried to warm her against her chest under her wool coat. It was an impulse propelled by instinct, Billie told me, she couldn’t have reacted differently.

“Hurry up now,” she said, to Otto, as he took a few seconds to wipe the snow off the seats before starting the car. Billie could feel Bonnie’s lungs beating open and shut like flapping wings. The child was as silent as the sky.

They drove straight to Reading General Hospital, the wind and snow biting Billie’s face as she hunched over the baby against her breast. Again, Otto parked the car a good distance from any neighboring vehicles.

“Stay here, clean the seats and put the roof up,” Otto said. He took the baby from Billie’s arms, tossing away the snow-dappled quilt, then trotted into the hospital and up to the third floor where Bonnie had been born.

“My wife went to check on the baby,” Otto said, as he handed off Bonnie to a plump, red-cheeked nurse, “and found her like this.” Otto swore to me that he remembers every detail of these moments, even that the nurse wore clip-on gold earring that seemed much too fancy for a hospital.

The nurse put the back of her fleshy hand against Bonnie’s cold, purple cheek, gasped and rushed the baby away.

A few minutes later Dr. Whiteford came out to waiting room to talk to Otto. He was a few years older than Otto, but deferred to him out of the simple fact that his father, brother and aunt all worked for Gandstetter Beer Distributing. Otto and the doctor sat side by side on thick, wide wooden chairs.

“Were the windows open in the room?” the doctor asked, and he looked down at Otto’s knees.

“Probably,” Otto said. “Fresh air is good for them.”

“Crib right next to the window?”

“I don’t know,” Otto said, impatiently. And he tried to picture where her crib was in the room, as if the story were true.

“She must have kicked her blankets off,” the doctor said. “It was just like she was sleeping outdoors.”

“Is she dead?” Otto asked, and there was a thump in his belly as if someone had a hammer in there. He had never thought much about Bonnie and wasn’t surprised that he’d slept through the night without remembering that she was in the car. And Billie, well, give the woman a few drinks and she’d forget her own name. But whatever he felt about the child, he surely didn’t want her to die–not like this, at least; not because they’d had more than triple their share at Buck’s.

“She’s not deceased yet,” the doctor said, and he dropped his head as if he were repenting.

“Thing was as blue as a punched eye,” Otto said. “Never seen anything like that.” The hammer in his gut thumped two more times. If he had been alone he would have hunched over with the spasms.

“No, it’s not something you see very often.” Dr. Whiteford glanced at Otto.

“So how are you going to fix her?” Otto’s eyes were like darts.

“Well, she’s breathing, and her heart is beating, but her lungs are filled with fluid—the cold air, and she’s got a fever that would have killed a grown man already.”

“How could she be freezing and have a fever at the same time?” Otto scratched the back of his neck, squinting at the doctor.

“Her temperature was too low when you brought her in, but as she warmed up, her fever spiked—trying to kill the infection in her lungs.”

“Jesus Christ,” Otto moaned, “first she’s too cold, now she’s too hot. What am I going to tell her mother?”

“I’ve got a friend in Philadelphia and he’s sending over some penicillin.”

“Penicillin,” Otto repeated. He had never heard of it. Few people had heard of it. The drug had only
recently been developed and what little there was, was being stockpiled by the government in case the U.S. was to become part of the war overseas. Dr. Whiteford didn’t know if this new drug could be used on an infant or not—he wasn’t even sure if it could be used on an adult without killing him. But since the baby seemed as close to soulless as you can be while still breathing, there was little to lose.

“I’ve never given it to anyone before,” Dr. Whiteford said. “We might as well try.” The doctor stood and stuck out his hand for Otto to shake. My grandfather looked down at the hand and wished there were a scotch in there for him.

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Jessica Anya Blau JESSICA ANYA BLAU's third novel, THE WONDER BREAD SUMMER, was selected as a Summer Read on NPR's All Things Considered, CNN's Book Chat, and Oprah's Book Club. She is also the author of DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME, and THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES. For more information go to www.jessicaanyablau.com.

105 Responses to “This is a True Story. Don’t Tell My Grandmother I Told You.”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Holy Shit, Jessica Anya!
    Your grandparents would do hard time for this today.
    It’s a miracle that the doctor even knew about Penicillin, let alone was willing to send for it and use it.
    If The Summer of Naked Swim Parties is non-fiction, it could explain a few things….

    Beautifully written, by the way.
    Really beautiful words for a horrible story.

  2. Yeah, the doctor (whose name I made up, although I do have the hospital records and could dig them up and find the actual name) just happened to know one of the people who was dealing with the penicillin in Philadelphia. My grandparents always claimed that my mother was the first child in the U.S. to be given the drug. The hospital records don’t really confirm that she was the first one.
    My grandmother is still alive, so I changed her name. She doesn’t have a computer or the internet, so I think I’m safe here.
    Thank you for reading this Irene! Maybe a little more serious than the usual TNB post?

    • Irene Zion says:

      Oh, I’m not so sure.
      There are some very serious TNB posts on here.
      Can’t hurt to have more, either.

  3. Reminds me of the time I was carrying Jordan like a football (He’s 20 now). I didn’t gauge the doorway too well and rammed his head right into the door frame. Boy was he wailing.

    He seems normal.

    And he looks just like me. Maybe smashing his head made him uglier?

    Hahaha.

    I love your story. It’s tragic, funny, evil and well, it’s family. You have to love this tale. I do anyway.

  4. Thanks Nick. Yeah, we’ve all done some sort of dumbass thing with our kids (although rarely this extreme!). I dropped a phone on my daughter’s head once. I was nursing her while talking on the phone. And my cousin dropped one of my kids on her head on the pavement. Freaked me out. But she was fine. My mother, who smoked throughout my childhood, dropped a cigarette ember on my brother’s head when he was nursing. He doesn’t remember it but I do.

    • Gloria Harrison says:

      I have twins, who are eight now. I firmly believe that children are born with more lives than cats. One time, when the boys were infants, I was nursing them on a special pillow designed for nursing twins. I sat cross-legged on the bed and held them on the pillow in a football hold. I dropped something off the side of the bed and instinctively leaned over to the right to pick it up, launching the baby on my left onto the floor. In a panic, I lurched over to the left to retrieve my fallen baby, while simultaneously launching the baby on my right onto the floor. My ex-husband says all he heard was *thud* *thud* and then wailing babies. Man…

      • You know, it seems like stuff like that would happen often with twins. It’s hard enough to manage one small life! I remember carrying a baby and a piece of pizza at the same time. I started to trip and something was going to go flying. It was the pizza but it could have just as easily been the baby–I was delirious, sleep deprived and hungry (as I’m sure you were when you dropped the boys in a terribly funny one-two move!).

      • New Orleans Lady says:

        Gloria, this is so funny. Not the crying babies part, no. Just your telling of events. Really funny.

  5. Gloria Harrison says:

    You build up the suspense in this piece so amazingly well. You’re really gifted.

    And holy God, Jesus. Wow. This was sad and maddening and, like Irene said, what your grandparents did was criminal. What a gripping story.

  6. Thanks Gloria–you’re very sweet!

    My grandparents were pretty intense. They did other notable stuff, too, but this always seemed like one of the more interesting and sad things that happened.

    This was the same grandfather whose last words to me before he died were, “Do all the girls in California have tits like that?”

    • Irene Zion says:

      Jessica Anya,

      I think you should write a memoir.
      Duh.

      • Jessica Blau says:

        AS should YOU Irene! Your collected essays here would make a great memoir.

        Actually, the book that’s coming out in February 2011 is a fictionalized memoir. This was the first chapter but editor wanted to cut all the back-in-time pieces and bring it all up to more current time. I think she was right–it works better without this and other chapters that take place when my parents were young.

        Much of the book is like this chapter: the truth with made-up conversations, details, etc. You know how that works.

        Okay. I’m waiting for your fictionalized memoir now!

        • Irene Zion says:

          Jessica Anya,

          If they don’t want the old stuff now, they WILL want it later!
          Save it,
          keep writing it;
          it’s gold.

          Yeah, about me?
          No body knows my name.

        • Jessica Blau says:

          Oh Irene, we ALL know your name. We know your husband’s name. And your kids names, too! Believe me, you have a HUGE following here. If we could crown a Homecoming Queen, you would be it. And the king? Maybe you’d get to pick who your king would be.

          Your writing is fabulously open, accessible and funny. I can’t wait to read the secret novel that you’re working on!

  7. Marni Grossman says:

    “Sometimes she’d give a whistling holler and whir her arms and legs like rotors.”

    I particularly liked that line. It says something about your mother and her love of life. As does that fact that she survived this particular ordeal. And you’re such a fine fine writer.

    Also, now that I’ve heard this, I feel like the story about your grandfather commenting on your tits makes more sense. That story seems less egregious now too, doesn’t it? Could have been worse…

  8. Jessica Blau says:

    Thanks so much Marni. You’re a good reader for me!

    Yeah, my grandfather had a HUGE presence. I used his real name in the “tits” story. The dialogue and everything there is exactly as it was in real life. I changed his name here–to protect my grandmother who lives in New Hampshire now. The dialogue here is only as I imagined it. Just the facts are true.

    My mother survived a lot, it’s true. She’s a pretty funny woman in her old age.

  9. Zara Potts says:

    God, Jessica! Your family just fascinates me.
    What an incredible story and how incredibly you wrote it. So perfectly told – the suspense, the drama, the comedy even.
    I swear, when your grandparents woke up and remembered the baby – I jumped! Hand flew to my mouth and I started reading as fast as I could.
    Brilliant stuff.

  10. Jessica Blau says:

    Wow–I love your response–THANK YOU for reading Zara!

    The entire country is prepping for the Aussie Arrival (you and Simon, of course)–it’s like when Lady Di and Charles used to visit! I’ll see you soon in New york!

  11. Erika Rae says:

    I couldn’t get to the end fast enough. Man, what a completely gripping, maddening and charmingly told story. I can’t get enough of your writing. Seriously. And to think you almost didn’t make it into this world yourself because of this.

    Scotch with milk and pickled eggs. Yeesh.

  12. Jessica Blau says:

    Yeah, the pickled eggs sound horrid to me. I don’t like eggs. And they only thing I like pickled is pickles. Those two details were given to me by my mother. Apparently pickled eggs were a bar staple back then. It’s funny how foods go out of style. And scotch with milk? Weird, huh. I think people used to drink Coke with milk, too. Although I could be mixing some story up. I’m going to google it in a second.

    Thanks for reading this!

    • Erika Rae says:

      Another out of style food genre: organs.

      Liver, tongue, heart…giving myself the willies.

      Oh, and iceberg lettuce.

      • Irene Zion says:

        Na uh, Erika Rae,

        They have iceberg lettuce now in fancy restaurants for salads.
        No shit.
        Oh and the scotch with milk?
        What?
        Pickled eggs at least I’ve heard of, but I’d never eat one!
        I’m on the same page with you about all that.

        • Jessica Blau says:

          Really?! The iceberg’s gone fancy now? Okay, we have to find a list of stuff that we thought was uncool that is now cool again. 1. Iceberg. 2. ???

  13. Jessica Blau says:

    Oh yeah–definitely not serving organs at the hipster-foodster hang outs! You should have a dinner party and serve organs–pretend that it’s the cool thing, the new trend. Act very serious about it. Give them an “everyone who reads Saveur knows that organs are in!” attitude. (I don’t cook, or I would try this experiment myself.)

    Iceberg lettuce. Funny! There’s probably an entire generation of kids in the major American cities who don’t even know what it is. But if you go to someplace like New Hampshire, they serve it in restaurants. A half a head on a plate with a sliced tomato on top and ranch dressing hanging over it like cake icing.

    Here’s the 70s hippy food that’s no longer in style: carob. Where oh where is carob?

    • Erika Rae says:

      Where it belongs – in the history books! My mom believed that my bad complexion growing up was because of chocolate (which I never was allowed to eat, btw, so I don’t really get this logic), so she would give me carob stuff.

      Oh, carob how I hate thee.

      Other out of style food items from the 70s and 80s:
      casseroles
      Chicken chow mein
      Velveeta
      American cheese
      spam
      margarine
      vienna sausages
      bologna
      anything from Arbys or Long John Silvers
      Manwiches
      Sizzlean
      Bean dip
      Hamburger Helper
      sardines
      Shake n Bake

      This is fun. Hee.

      • Jessica's mother says:

        And then there’s D.V.O.T. — Dog vomit on toast — which my other made a lot of when my father was in WWII. Chipped beef on toast. Yuk.

        Jessica’s mother

  14. Jessica Blau says:

    I loved carob! Loved that waxy, waxy, taste. Was like eating those fake wax lips that you hold in your mouth, but with chocolate added!

    FABULOUS LIST. It is one-thirty in the morning here, so I must go to bed now. I’m going to sleep on this and see what out of fashion foods I can add to your list in the morning. Salsbury steak? The Bellbeefer at Taco Bell?

    • Jessica Blau says:

      OH, what about FAVORITE FOODS now missing from the grocery store:

      Nutter Butter Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies.
      Lorna Doone cookies.

      Oh where are they now?!

  15. Simon Smithson says:

    Oh, shit! You were very nearly not with us, J.A.B!

    “Never kiss the child and never talk to it in anything other than a voice as flat and firm as a sheet of aluminum.”

    Supernanny before her time?

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Oh yeah, major suppernanny. The rules in that house were endless: two squares of toilet paper if you peed, three if you did otherwise. Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to, etc.

      They later moved to a 5,000 acre ranch in Vermont. There was a lake, hunting, fishing, etc. Beautiful but tough. When the dogs had puppies they were bagged and dropped in the lake. When the cat had kittens . . . well, I remember one visit where my grandfather told me he took each kitten, placed her head on a boulder, then smashed her with another boulder in his hand. Was such a gruesome image. He pointed out the rock where he smashed their heads and I kept staring at it all day like it was a guillotine.

      • Richard Cox says:

        Ugh. Both sides of my family are from the country, and when I was a kid I used to visit my paternal grandparents and play with the dog and the cats they had. Then I would return a few months later and several of the cats would be missing. They didn’t kill the cats themselves, but coyotes would run off with them, or they’d get bitten by rattlesnakes or whatever. I’d say the average life expectancy was about two years. My grandmother would feed these “pets” table scraps, and of course they killed a lot of their own food. Or if I went rabbit hunting I would bring back a kill and leave it for the dog.

        Such a different world, isn’t it?

        • Totally different. And, really, it sort of comes down to the relationship with animals. It seems like you can categorize cultures by their relationships with animals: if they eat them, kill them, buy clothes for them, feed them gourmet food, smash their heads on rocks, sleep with them, leave them to die in the mouths of coyotes, etc.

        • Richard Cox says:

          Sleep with them. Hahaha. One time a buddy of mine got hold of a “sex with farm animals” type porn film. He kept telling me there was a dude in the video who had sex with a chicken, and I didn’t believe him.

          I was wrong.

        • Jessica Blau says:

          Was it a hen or a cock?! Does it matter? OY.

          And, you had me laughing out loud here! When I said, “sleep with them,” I mean in the bed with them. You know, dog curled up in a ball at your feet, hair all over the blanket, kick the dog as you roll over. Sex is a whole other story. But you’re right, it belongs on the culture-defined-by-animal-relationship list!

        • Richard Cox says:

          I believe it was a hen. I couldn’t understand the physiology of it, how it could be possible, and then I realized the circumference of an egg is…well, I’m sure you can follow that idea to its logical conclusion.

          Ah, I’m cracking myself up. Get it? “Cracking?” Bwaaahahahaha.

        • Zara Potts says:

          Eeeeuuuuuuuwwwwwwww.
          Bluergh. Bleeeeuurch.

        • Jessica Blau says:

          Yes, I’m with Zara–BLEUERGH!

          But, big question: I get that the width could work, could equate the width of a penis. But what about length? I mean, there are guys who are full-hen-long, you know what I mean? Or was this guy the length of an egg? A little stubby eggy thang.

        • Zara Potts says:

          YUCK! YUCK! YUCK!

        • Simon Smithson says:

          I guess that’s the very definition of playing chicken.

          Hiyo!

          (on a side note, my great-grandfather used to drown unwanted kittens in a bucket of water. As I sit here with a year-and-a-bit-old cat making herself at home on my lap, I don’t think I could ever do such a thing).

        • Richard Cox says:

          Jess, this must have been a fairly big hen because it didn’t seem like the cock was overwhelming her.

          Can I just say how hysterically happy I am to have initiated this conversation?

        • Jessica Blau says:

          Did they do extreme close ups in that film Richard? Could you see the “epee” coming out of it’s “sheath” so you know for sure it wasn’t some stumpy, ovoid penis? I must say, I’m glad the hen wasn’t eviscerated by the cock. I wonder if they had that tag at the end of the film, “No Animals Were Harmed During the Shooting of This Film.” Or whatever they say.

          And Simon, yes, indeed. Very hard to think of drowning kittens in a bucket when you have a sweet one purring on your lap. I think the kitten drowners, or the kitten-head-smashers (like my grandfather), never held one in their lap. I’m curious: what does an Aussie boy like you name a cat?

        • Richard Cox says:

          Yes, there were extreme closeups. If you want me to be graphic I can explain to you exactly how it looked. In any case I think the fact that you used “ovoid” to modify “penis” is probably the best thing I have read in weeks.

          I looked briefly on teh Intarwebz to find a representative video but I think what I saw is way too underground to be in Google’s database. However, I did find this video which wasn’t what I was looking for but made the search worthwhile anyway.

          Watch and laugh.

        • Jessica Blau says:

          I’m afraid to look! Will I have to erase my history immediately? Do I need to go into my hard drive and erase there, too?!

        • Richard Cox says:

          No, no, no. Not graphic. Just hilarious.

          I’ve watched it at least ten times since I found it.

        • Jessica Blau says:

          The best thing about you posting this video is the fact that it was inspired, or originated, with the story about my mother being left out in the snow and almost freezing to death! Real life is so much fun!

        • Richard Cox says:

          Baaahahaha. Is she going to read this??

        • Jessica Blau says:

          She has a google alert on me. So if it pops up there, she’ll go to it. I didn’t mention it. I know she wouldn’t want her mother to read it. But her mother has no computer, no internet. It would take some arse-hole dragging a computer to her house and pulling it up for her to see. And I know there aren’t any arse-holes who read TNB (or wait, are there?!), so I doubt this will happen. Either way, I think my mum would worry about that and so I didn’t tell her the post is up.

          She would laugh heartily at your chicken humor–you’d get full approval!

  16. Brin Friesen says:

    I have my suspicions you must have some Hungarian blood in you to tell a story like this. Very beautiful.

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Thanks!

      Hungarian? Do the Hungarians tell stories like this? BLAU is a common Hungarian name. (Blau is also the Catalan word for BLUE and the German word for BLUE.) But, when you meet a Blau, they’re usually Hungarian. My dad’s side, of course.

      Are you Hungarian? I’m so curious about what you meant by Hungarian blood–pray tell!

      • Brin Friesen says:

        I wondered about that mildly suspicious name of yours.

        My mother is Hungarian. It goes back several generations. Her maiden name is Maros, which is a river that flows through Transylvania.

        Hungarian stories about family just have their own flavor, their own melody and color. We’re an odd bunch. Mongol blood will do that to you, I suppose. I guess I just meant that the beauty of your story costs a bit to enjoy. If that makes sense.

        • “The beauty of your story costs a bit to enjoy.” Wow. Such an interesting way to look at it. I’m going to carry that one around in my head for a few days.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Gotta love the Slavs, man, when it comes to telling childhood stories.

        • Jessica Blau says:

          Okay, now I’m really curious about this Hungarian story telling tradition! Can one of you point me to some translated Hungarian stories?

          I went to Hungary once. I hated the food. Seriously. I was very hungry. I was so hungry, in fact, that I took the Orient Express out of there as fast as I could to Paris where I could eat and eat and eat. All the food looked like those wet-dog foods that have gravy in them.

  17. Richard Cox says:

    “The rule in the house was that you don’t pick up a kid and cuddle it. If it cries, you let it cry. You feed it one bottle every four hours for six weeks, at which point you drop the night feedings. Never kiss the child and never talk to it in anything other than a voice as flat and firm as a sheet of aluminum.”

    That made me laugh out loud. I think partly because it sounds like something my dad would say, and also because it seems so very absurdly unloving. Of course it’s a cultural thing, and generational, and I think parents probably do overreact to crying these days. But no cuddling? No kisses? Flat voice? It just seems like caricature.

    This is a wonderfully told story. A bit more serious than some of your Sedaris-like stuff but just as entertaining. Quite atmospheric. I felt like I was there. I’m kind of cold, actually.

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Hey Richard!

      Yeah, I was a bit hesitant about posting this because it doesn’t have the usual tits, ass, flashing, keychains-up-the-butthole of my other posts. So I am VERY glad that you read it anyway!

      I think you’re right about the over-reacting of parents these days. I remember a few years ago when I was looking at nursery schools for my daughter. I was in Santa Barbara at the time. We were at this one nursery school where some celebrity kids were. And this one celebrity kid (I won’t name the celeb.) picked up a toy dinosaur and bonked my daughter on the head with it. One swift, powerful BONK. She was screaming and the teacher held the boy’s hand and said in this whispery, slow, almost baby-like, half-stoned voice, “Luke. Why did you hit Ella with dinosaur? How are you feeling Luke? Are you angry? Can you share your feelings Luke?” At that moment, I wanted to grab the dinosaur’s from Luke’s little doughy paw and say in what would probably sound like my grandmother’s voice, “DON’T HIT. PERIOD.”

    • Irene Zion says:

      The rules in the house for your grandmother were the same for me.
      Not ideal.

      • Jessica Blau says:

        Really? Wow. Oh Irene, please tell more! You seem too young to be of the generation whose parents treated them like . . . uh, well, like the dogs sort of.

  18. Jessica, so interesting because my aunt Carol, who is 73 now, was also one of the first people given penicillin. She was a little girl and had extremely serious nephritis and was predicted to die. My mother had the same condition but much more mildly and was all right. But they said my aunt wouldn’t live, so they might as well try this last-chance experimental drug, and she did live, and has survived to bury 2 husbands now.
    On a much lighter note: wow, it was so, so awesome to finally meet you! I love writing a comment and really being able to see you in my head!

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Hey, I wonder what year it was? My mother is 71, so if you’re aunt was around two, it was probably the same year. Where was your aunt? Was she near Philly?

      It was SO much fun hanging out with you and dancing in New York last week! And I love the brown hair–you look fabulous!

  19. Brandy says:

    Beautifully tragic. I was getting so anxious towards the end that I was gripping the edge of my desk and leaning closer and closer to the laptop…marvelous.

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Thanks so much Brandy, you’re very kind!

      Love your photo. You have great hair. Looks like a blond waterfall.

  20. “The child was as silent as the sky.”

    Fuck.

    I was talking to a former professor/now colleague of mine the other week, discussing the Shakespeare debate, the one people have about whether the guy we know as Shakespeare actually wrote the plays we know as Shakespeare’s. He and I think it’s a ludicrous debate. He said it reeks of intellectual snobbery.

    “The faculty of knowing something, in terms of science or mathematics, is different from the faculty for creating real metaphor, which is the real genius of Shakespeare.”

    Saying that single line perfectly demonstrates that idea neglects that the entire piece is so harrowing, so devastating, so visceral.

    And great.

  21. Ah, Will. You’re so kind. And smart! I mean really smart. And, as Greg, Robin, Susan and Gina and I all know for sure now, you’re also a great dancer.

    As for the Shakespeare debate, I agree with you entirely.

  22. Lenore says:

    i always worry that i’ll be too ugly to get married by the time i’m looking to do it. but now we have good plastic surgery and i can just get a brand new face and suck all the fat out of my body, so it’s okay. anyway, that’s a good quote. i’m glad you included it.

  23. Jessica Blau says:

    You are so freaking cute that I actually find it strange that you think you’ll be too ugly to get married. Also, you have this hysterically funny but very sweet mother and somehow I imagine her gobbling you up with so much loving-mother-eye that you would have to have some sense of how ridiculously cute you are.

    I know many people who would marry you if you really want to get married. But, I must point out, I don’t think marriage is something to aspire to. Loving relationships, strong connections, yes. But marriage? Eh.

    Last thing: where is your fat? I don’t see fat on you. I see bones. Clavicles. Cheeks. Beautiful, beautiful bones.

  24. Greg Olear says:

    Goodness gracious!

    It’s amazing how times have changed. My father-in-law, who is 72 and grew up in the upper peninsula of Michigan, tells stories like this…small town, bar that everyone goes to, kids neglected while parents get sauced…he almost drowned a bunch of times because adults weren’t paying attention, and still dislikes water.

    But I couldn’t help thinking, as I read this, that the baby covered in snow would, years later, be swimming in the nude in a pool in Southern California. Sort of a happy ending before it even began.

    Anyway, great piece, Jessica, as usual. Really well told.

    And yes. Memoir please.

  25. Jessica Blau says:

    THanks so much for reading Greg!

    I love that you thought of her California life after reading this post: she ran away with my dad to California, grew her own pot, went to graduate school, painted. When we were in high school my friends and I would come home, put on music REALLY loud and dance for hours in the living room. If my mother was around she would come in the living room and dance with us. And we loved it. It’s nice to think of that moment–fully alive, fully present, dancing in the middle of the day.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Get up and dance!

      I wondered, hearing stories about her (and assuming the mom in your book is her, which of course she isn’t exactly), what sort of childhood she had. This does answer the question.

      I read this right before I went to bed and I think I had a dream about it, but the details are fuzzy. More the mood of the piece in the dream.

      • Jessica Blau says:

        Oh no! I always try to be fairly careful about what I put in my head before I sleep. My last act of the night was looking at the chicken ucking-fay ideo-vay that Richard posted. I deliberately read a little after looking at that so I wouldn’t have those harsh inbred country faces in my head!

  26. JM Blaine says:

    I remember once hearing this uptight psychologist
    or sociologist or something like that
    at a rehab speech
    saying how prevalent alcoholism was in the early
    20th century
    & this 75 year old guy who had been in rehab
    about 20 times and was usually quiet
    said “Well, no shit, life was hard.”

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Fabulous quote JM. Love that. Maybe I should change the title of this post to No Shit, Life Was Hard.
      I have to use that quote somewhere! Do you mind?

      • JM Blaine says:

        JAB,

        If everything is sort of
        relative
        then isn’t life
        always hard?

        Here’s the existential part:
        Does anything consistently work
        in the fight?
        Can anyone say
        “Ah, I shall take in
        20 ounces of grain alcohol/
        1.5 mg of Valium/
        one rock of crack cocaine/
        30 units of heroin
        daily
        & thus cope effectively
        with this
        insomnia/anxiety/dread
        depression/angst/sadness?

        It always takes a little more
        & a little more
        & a little more
        until you are tied up tight
        & thrown in the hole.

        Now – what does this say about the
        nature of life & living?

        These are the sorts of things
        I think too much about

        JMB

        JMB

        • Jessica Blau says:

          Oh JMB,
          I wish I could cast a magic spell over you and free you from all these thoughts for one day! But we need people like you to keep people like me in line. You say if everything is relative then life is always hard. But I see it as since everything is relative, life is always easy. The hard stuff is the the stuff WE complicate with our own over-thinking and demands. Come hang out with me for a day and I will surely drive you mad, as I drive my husband mad–a man who agrees with you entirely!

  27. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    The third paragraph made my chest hurt. I kept reading, though, and I’m glad I did. You made a word-movie of your grandparents and mother. Remarkable.

  28. Jessica Blau says:

    “Word-movie.” I love that. Thanks Ronlyn.

  29. New Orleans Lady says:

    I couldn’t stop reading this, even with my four year old fussing in my ear. What a tragic chain of events. Thank God that doctor had heard of penicillin!!

    Is it ok that I’m still angry with your grandparents for their actions? What does your grandmother say about it now? Does she laugh it off or is she embarassed by it?

  30. Jessica Blau says:

    Well you’re very kind to sit there and read it w/the four year old!

    Yes, please, be angry! My grandfather is dead and my mother does not want me mentioning it to my grandmother. (And if anyone reading this knows her, seriously, PLEASE don’t show her!) This was a bit fictionalized in that ALL the details are from my mother, my aunt, and the hospital records which my aunt procured and sent to me. (There are details in the hospital records that are actually too chilling to put in here. But if you email me, I’ll tell you.)

    My grandmother is 91 now. As a very old woman she’s pretty cute and sweet. But she’s the same steely person she’s always been. She told my mother the other day that she doesn’t like books written by women because there are too many emotions in them. My mother and I had a good laugh over that one.

  31. Matt says:

    Damn, spend one holiday weekend away from the internet and you end up missing some good stories. And some good discussions, too.

    Boy, did this thing make me angry. Practicaly seething. The draconian, emotionless rules for child-rearing were one thing, but abandoning a kid overnight in a car like that? Unforgiveable in my book.

    Well done!

  32. Jessica Blau says:

    Thanks for reading it Matt. Hope the holiday weekend away from the internet was pure pleasure for you.

    Yeah, it’s pretty intense. I’m, obviously, very glad she survived. (Or I wouldn’t even be here to type this!)

    • Matt says:

      Oh, it was! Robe my bike all over town, bought some new music, went surfing, hit on some girls, read a few books, wrote a little fiction (as in a minimal amount, not a short story)…good times.

      And as I see I failed to make clear, I too am glad your mother survived, and that you’re here writing for us.

  33. Jessica Blau says:

    Ah, you’re very sweet!

    Surfing: Fabulous. I miss the ocean so, so, so much!

  34. Joe Daly says:

    Like Matt, it was hard to read this without getting a bit angry. I’ve always had some measure of faith that humans are predisposed to caring for those things that can’t care for themselves. Obviously there are mountains of evidence to the contrary, but I feel like that’s unnatural behavior.

    Here it seems pretty obvious that alcohol, either as a full blown “ism” or a bad solution to a complex problem, has overridden nature’s impulse. I’m glad it worked out ok.

    What an anxious read, but I’m so glad you wrote it.

  35. Jessica Blau says:

    Thanks Joe. Yeah, they drank a lot then. My grandfather always drank a lot–his was probably an “ism.” My grandmother has one beer a day now. She was checking on some guy who was working on her attic the other day, stepped back and fell straight down to the floor below. Cracked her arm somewhere but didn’t really break anything. She went to the hospital (she’s 91) got fixed up and came home but didn’t take the pain killers because she couldn’t drink with them and preferred to have her nightly beer.

    By the way, in case you don’t already know, I’m totally on YOUR side, backing YOU, in that crazy dumb-dumb thang that went down with you-know-who, you-know-where.

    • Joe Daly says:

      Now that is one resilient grandmother you have! You have to love someone who’s got the fortitude to forego painkillers in favor of the daily beer. You are clearly mining some fertile ground here, Jessica!

      And thanks for the vote of confidence. The whole thing has taken on a life of its own, to be sure, but I’ve been humbled by support from YOU and others, letting me know I’m not twisting in the wind. Just one of the many reasons it’s such a privilege to be here on TNB.

      Thanks again for the great read- looking forward to your next piece already!

  36. Dana says:

    Wow. This is fabulous Jessica. And because of the spoilerish opening paragraph I was able to relax and enjoy the perfect way you wove the story. It also gives me some mild comfort that my father wasn’t the only child being dragged to bars as an infant or left home alone at three.

    This was my favorite: “He looked back and forth between the baby, whose face looked like a frosted glass plum, and the creamy leather seats now sparkling with white dust.”

    And now I’m extra excited to get your book, which I ordered at the same time that I ordered Richards. And for reasons only people that read all the comments will understand, I’ll always think of some disgusting schlub violating a hen whenever I pick up either of your books.

  37. Jessica Blau says:

    You made me laugh out loud! I love that you’ll forever associate hen-molestation with my books! I have to admit, I’d never even heard of the act until Richard posted it here. Then, when I did check out his link, I saw that there were many, many other links for the same stuff. Amazing how much I don’t know sometimes.

    THANK YOU for ordering the book! I hope it doesn’t disappoint you. And thanks for reading this piece!

  38. Jordan Ancel says:

    The rule in the house was that you don’t pick up a kid and cuddle it. If it cries, you let it cry. You feed it one bottle every four hours for six weeks, at which point you drop the night feedings. Never kiss the child and never talk to it in anything other than a voice as flat and firm as a sheet of aluminum.

    It’s amazing to think how different that generation was regarding safety and upbringing, and today parents seem so overprotective, and the kids are so insulated against everything. That may be bad in certain ways, but today parents certainly wouldn’t even leave their kid unattended in a vehicle to run into a shop for 5 minutes, let alone overnight in the cold (that is a generalization, of course).

    Thank goodness the sturdy stock your grandparents were made of got passed down to your mother so she could survive the night.

    This is truly an amazing story, Jessica.

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Jordan,

      First of all, thank you for reading this!

      Yes, you are so right about their sturdy stock. This same grandfather was hit by lightning two and a half times. The first time he was on the phone leaning on a metal sink when the lightning came down the phone line and knocked him out. The second time, he opened the front door, looked up at the sky and was hit by lightning. It went straight through him, through the porch, and killed the dog that was sleeping under the porch. He was pissed about that dog–it was a good hunting dog. The third time (or half time) my grandparents, my mother, her sister and brother were sitting in the living room and a bolt of lightning came down the chimney and chased him around the room. My mother always said it was the strangest thing she’d ever seen. He actually outran it. OH, and once, he was on the roof fixing the antenna. He thought he better get down from there and as soon as he stepped onto the wooden ladder a bolt of lightning hit the antenna.

      Turns out, the only strange thing is that he survived those hits. People who get hit by lightning tend to attract it and have a much greater than normal chance of being hit again. Isn’t that odd?

      • Jordan Ancel says:

        That’s bananas! Especially being chased by lightning. I had no idea that people who’ve been struck by lightning and survive tend to attract it.

        I like that he was pissed about the dog, but how apt, given your description of him in the story, that it was only because it was a good hunting dog.

  39. Jessica Blau says:

    Totally bananas! (Love that you said bananas. I’m going to be saying it all night now, like some sudden Tourettes.)

    I grew up in California where there really aren’t thunder storms. But now I live on the East Coast and I’m a complete freak when there’s lightning–I hang up the phone, won’t go outside, etc. But, I do love to watch the storms. They’re so beautiful.

  40. Jordan Ancel says:

    I love that you’re going say bananas! I love saying it!

    Funny, I’m from NYC and have been in LA for 16 years. One of the things I miss most is a good thunder storm.

    I used to spend my summers up in Woodstock, and when I was eight or nine, there was actually a hurricane that swept through upstate NY.

    I was at day camp when the tail of it came through town, and I remember LOVING it. My friend and I rode our bikes through the torrential downpour, dodging falling trees and branches, lightning was crackling, and the thunder was like sonic booms going off. The wind was so strong and no matter which direction we went, it was always against us.

    My mom was so freaked out that I was out in it, but at the time I thought it was super fun.

  41. Jessica Blau says:

    Already used “bananas” in an early morning email–I’m loving the word!

    Yes, East Cost you get beautiful, dramatic thunder storms, warm summer nights and fireflies.

    California there are no thunder storms, it always cools off at night, and no fireflies. But, you get Santa Ana winds, warm winters, and groovy California people.

    Great camp story. Stuff that like seems so huge, life-threatening, when you’re a kid. And whatever happened to sonic booms? Why don’t I hear them any more? I remember the windows shaking, the loud popping sound, and looking up at my mom who would always say, “Sonic boom. Not an earthquake.”

    And, of course, there were the earthquakes that would bring massive, thrilling, waves and make everyone feel like they’d been injected with adrenaline.

  42. angela says:

    jessica, you’re such a wonderful storyteller. i love how this reads like fiction, and every “character,” even the minor ones, are unforgettable.

    you’re inspiring me to write something about my own family!

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Oh, PLEASE do write the family story Angela. It’s much easier, for me at least, to write the truth as fiction–lets you move around, use dialogue, etc. in a much more relaxed way. Try it!

  43. sheree says:

    As always an excellent post. My emotions were pulled in all directions. Thanks for the read.

  44. Jessica Blau says:

    Sheree, thanks so much for reading this.

    I’m staring at your avatar trying to figure out what it is–l think I need glasses!

  45. Alison Aucoin says:

    Sadly, I have equally horrifying stories of my mother’s childhood. I’ve decided to wait until she’s dead and I am the sole owner of them. I really appreciate the way you’ve told this. Claiming these folks as your own all the while acknowledging the horror of their actions. I’ll have to remember that for when the time comes.

  46. [...] JESSICA ANYA BLAU’s grandmother knows the perils of drinking far from home. [...]

  47. Irene Zion says:

    I’m so glad to be reminded of this one, Jessica Anya.
    It’s a beaut!

  48. doreen says:

    What a brilliantly written horrible story…

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