Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Horror Picture Show

My maternal grandmother was the classiest southern lady I've ever known. Every day, even if she wasn't going anywhere, she put on heels, stockings, and a skirt and blouse. Her snow-white hair was always elegantly coiffed, her natural nails buffed to shine and a clear coat on top. She held court every day on her floral-patterned sofa in her immaculately-kept trailer, unless it was Saturday, when she went to town to trade at Nell's Dress Shop, the Rexall drug store and soda fountain, or the dime store. Whether at home or making an appearance on Court Square, she was treated with respect and reverence and she treated others with the same. She was never alone in her own home; my maiden aunt lived with her, and there were always  visitors. Mamaw, as I called her, doled out advice, cooking suggestions, scripture, and hand-stitched quilts and crocheted afghans to a large number of relations, both close and distant. Her admirers were many; she never judged, never gossiped, just sat and listened and occasionally expressed dismay over her crochet hook with a quiet, "They law..."

I loved her dearly. But I felt distant from her, too. She was not a hugger and did not openly show affection to her kids and grand kids, though I never doubted her love for me. When we visited her on our one designated "down-home" weekend a month, she often wiped tears from her eyes when we left. But she was such a well-mannered, well-kept lady that I kept my distance from her. I was afraid I would get dirt on her lovely pastel suits, or muss her perfect hair, or interrupt her from her constant crocheting or sewing (she firmly believed that idle hands were dangerous things, and even if she was watching television, she felt she had to be productive.)

When I was in the 4th-grade, Mom and I moved from Erlanger to a tiny 3-room apartment a 5 minute walk from Mamaw's trailer; it was a tough time for the family. I spent every weekday afternoon and many weekend nights at the trailer, and though Mamaw never once quarreled at me, I know she wasn't always keen on having a ten-year-old constantly sharing her living room. She was, in my mind, old. She ate old-people food and watched old-people shows and made my aunt June read me books and play Connect 4 with me when I was getting antsy, which always made me feel even more in the way.

I grew accustomed to Friday and Saturday nights watching Mamaw's "stories" on TV. I didn't like to admit it, and I would make a face when the theme music started to express my displeasure, but Falcon Crest was really starting to grow on me.

"Jane Wyman was President Reagan's first wife," Mamaw would say over the opening credits.

"Yes, I know," I would reply. She was trying to make something about the show seem relevant to my life. Little did she know I kinda had a crush on Lorenzo Lamas.

One Friday night saw me at the trailer much later than usual. My mom had been working 1 full-time and 2 part-time hairdressing jobs for months; her cousins decided she needed a night out. The stories were all over for the night, and after June retired back to her room, it was just me and Mamaw. When this had happened before, Mamaw would sometimes go on to bed, leaving me to watch Friday Night Videos in peace and without having to explain why young people today dance like that and wear such ugly clothes.

"Watch whatever you want," Mamaw said. "I'm going to finish up this row and then go to bed." She was working on a ripple afghan and had taught me the stitch one rainy afternoon to keep me from being underfoot. Ripple stitches are a complete pain and require counting, which means I was able to do it for about 10 minutes at a stretch before becoming bored. How she could sit there for hours and do it was more reason for me to believe that being old meant you were completely incapable of having any fun.

"Whatever you want" became an edited-for-TV version of the horror classic Friday the 13th. Despite having HBO back in Erlanger, this particular horror movie was one I had never seen all the way through. Even by 4th grade, I had seen more than my fair share of age-inappropriate horror movies. I held my breath and hoped she didn't start paying too much attention to the T & A and gratuitous violence just beginning to unfold on the screen. I honestly did not think I could get away with watching this slasher flick in front of my grandma, but I was 10 and willing to try.

"What kind of picture show is this?" she asked. I sighed. Picture show.

"It's scary. Mom lets me watch 'em, but you wouldn't like it. You should probably go on to bed."

"I will in a little bit. Don't know why, but I'm wide-eyed tonight. June must've made her iced tea too strong today." June made a pot of sweet tea every morning in an old Mr. Coffee coffeemaker and there was never a drop left after supper.

As the body count started to rise, I kept peeking back to see if Mamaw was watching, and wondering at what point it would become so uncomfortable she would either tell me to turn such un-Christian-like garbage off or go to bed and leave me alone with the sin. But every time I looked, I would see her with her crochet needle poised in mid-air, her mouth agape, her attention focused

"Huh. Well," she said after Kevin Bacon bit the dust in a particularly shocking and gruesome fashion. I knew then. My grandma, who never swore, read the bible daily, and had never, ever put on a pair of pants, was actually enjoying this movie. Would wonders never cease?

I felt I was witnessing something rare and precious and I needed to tread lightly. I really wanted to sneak into the kitchen for a snack, perhaps some Fisher's bologna and saltines, but I chose to stay perfectly still and not break the spell.

Her ripple stitches hopelessly not counted at this point, she put down her crocheting and just watched, uttering a "Huh. Well," every time someone was murdered on screen. And when the killer was revealed to be a middle-aged lady avenging the drowning of her son, she let loose with a "They law..." The film's final moments, with the great shocker moment of Jason popping out of the water on the serene lake, made us both jump and prompted a "Well, I swear."

Mom came in just as the ending credits were rolling.

"You all are up awful late. What you been doin'?"

"Toni turned on some crazy movie and I couldn't sleep." Mamaw shook her head. "Lord, I've never seen anything like it."

Mom didn't ask what it was until we'd said our goodbyes and headed across my great-aunt's yard to our little apartment, where I knew I wouldn't sleep for fear of boogeymonsters under the bed. But I didn't care. I had just witnessed something awesome.

"So what did you watch? Whatever it was must have been good to keep your Mamaw up that late."

"Friday the 13th. You should have seen her face. I thought she was going to make me turn it off but she loved every minute of it. I had no idea she would watch something like that."

Mom started laughing. "There's a lot about your Mamaw that would surprise you."

And there was. Over the next couple of years, until she left this world well before we were ready to see her go, I would learn that my Mamaw could cock and shoot a BB gun at mangy dogs one-handed; that my Papaw was actually her second husband, and that she had the guts to divorce a first husband who treated her badly at a time when such a thing was considered a grave sin; that she left the Pentecostal church because she didn't want to be told she couldn't wear a little makeup; that as a younger woman she occasionally partook of whiskey and thought neither dancing, nor drink, nor cigarettes equaled eternal damnation. She was devoutly Christian and took the Bible as the infallible word of God, but was tolerant of everything but hypocrisy.

Everything including her youngest granddaughter's taste in picture shows.

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