Chapter 17… HERE COMES GERTIE…THERE GOES POODY My father’s mother was something of a nomad. After she divorced my grandfather, she spent much of her time visiting her four children and her grandchildren. The four worked it out in shifts of up to three months at a stretch, allowing each family the joy of hosting Grandma. I use the word, “joy” advisedly, as the frame of reference was apt to change so that it became most significant as we waved goodbye to Grandma at the end of her visit. I want to be fair about this and look carefully at recollections we share as a family of those visits to our house during the 1950’s and 1960’s. First, it might be well to explain the circumstances under which Grandma Bolinger divorced her husband
Frank, our grandfather. Grandpa Bolinger had a farm with sheep, cows, horses, chickens and pigs. He also raised prize Chow Chow dogs that had blue tongues, making them worth at least twelve hundred dollars apiece, even in the late 1950’s. A no-nonsense man who had survived a difficult childhood with his immigrant German parents, he had also endured The Great Depression, and thirty years of marriage to Gertie (Gertrude Alice), our grandmother. After World War II, Grandpa had a mynah bird named Tippsy who could not only repeat words and phrases
but also imitate the actual tone quality of human voices. My grandfather was a man of rich and colorful speech with a repertoire of profanities that defined his character for over half a century. Grandma would lecture him and warn him about using such language, especially when there were guests, but nothing stopped his raspy banter. Tippsy would imitate my grandmother’s voice saying, “Don’t talk like that, Frank!” This would only infuriate her further, and the bird would be delighted to repeat other often used phrases that flew from Grandma’s mouth until one day, the family minister stopped by to pay a call. When Tippsy called Reverend Donaldson a “dirty son of a bitch,” (impersonating Grandpa’s voice with frightening accuracy), grandma dropped her favorite Royal Doulton tea pot, shattering it beyond repair. Screaming, “That’s the end! That’s the end!” she ran from the room and upstairs, and the minister politely excused himself, trying to smooth things over with some platitudes like, “Things like that happen.” I can imagine that my grandfather only smiled, knowing perfectly well that no such thing had ever happened before in the clergyman’s lifetime or ever would again. The two men shook hands, and Reverend Donaldson left the house to Tippsy’s screams of “That’s the end! That’s the end!” Divorce papers were filed the next day.
My brother and sister and I enjoyed Grandma’s visits, because on weekends when my parents would go out, she would be our baby-sitter and allow us to stay up later on Saturday nights to watch CREATURE FEATURES, a show that allowed us to see such classic films as PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, THE GIANT GILA MONSTER, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE and INVADERS FROM MARS. We would make a barrel of popcorn and curl up on the living room sofa in our pajamas to be scared out of our wits. One of our props during these sessions was a fox stole that Grandma took everywhere with her, even in the summer. It had glass eyes, disturbing because, of course, they never blinked. Its mouth, frozen into a perpetually menacing grin, revealed the original canine teeth. Old and matted, the stole made a terrific hand puppet that we used to spook each other during scary portions of the movies we were watching. We named him Phil and fed him kernels of popcorn. One of my most vivid childhood memories is that of sitting in church, singing hymns and gazing at the malevolent face of that fox draped over Grandma Bolinger’s shoulders, bits of popcorn still between its teeth.
Our big cat Poody was rust-colored and had the temperament of a pit-bull on crack. If he were outside with us in the yard, no one else could enter the property without danger of being attacked by this psychotic feline. Every kid in the neighborhood knew about Poody, the evil and possessed cat that thought he was a dog and that he would fling himself, hissing and spitting at anyone who dared enter his property. I guess we never needed a watch dog. No one else we knew had a guard cat, something that later on might have proved to be one of those GUINNESS BOOK things. The Bruce Lee of neighborhood cats, Poody remained a regional anomaly until his death the summer of 1954 from a passing car that was not intimidated by our cat’s karate moves. We knew that with Poody’s death an era had passed and that a solemn ceremony was required for burying him in our garden. An old Philco radio cardboard box lined with pink satin from one of Mother’s old evening dresses served as the casket, and our entire neighborhood of kids came to the funeral, perhaps more from a combination of morbid curiosity and celebration than from sentiment.
The following summer, as soon as school was out and Grandma came for a visit, my brother David was seized by a morbid inspiration to take her fox stole out of its box and chase other kids in the neighborhood with it, telling them that he had dug up Poody, who was still alive. He accompanied these threats with hissing and spitting noises that sent children fleeing for their lives. It must be understood that the stole retained its teeth and that its flat face suggested strongly that it had probably been run over by a car, and from a distance, its rusty color and bushy tail were the image of our deceased Poody. That night my brother hid in the guest closet near the front door as neighbor after neighbor rang the bell to ask our parents why David had dug up a dead cat to terrify innocent and impressionable children. The most popular suggestion was to seek psychiatric care for David, but Mrs. Mihalic’s advice was my favorite, that David should be forced to write apologies to every child on the block for his heinous behavior. That, in fact, was what our parents made David do. The letters were all printed in crayon and delivered personally by him to the homes of all the plaintiffs on Parrish Avenue and beyond. This time Poody was declared officially dead. Again.