birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Grandmother Elizabeth

I have spent three decades writing about my grandmothers. One was born in Purcell, Kansas, and I was told growing up that it didn't exist anymore. We'd drive out to the countryside from Leavenworth to look at rolling pastures with not much else there, and my mother would say, "See, that's it."

My grandmother, Elizabeth, my mother's mother, inspired a character in my novel I'm working on. I've named her Maime after her oldest sister. I remember visiting Maime in a nursing home as a little girl and Maime was in and out of sleep, but she woke up long enough to see Elizabeth and say, "Lose that stomach, sister."

Elizabeth laughed - it was stomachs or teeth or tables manners with the sisters.

She had another sister, Bernadette, who refused to put her teeth in because they didn't fit right, and she was too cheap to get another set of dentures because she was leaving $35,000 to the church.

Elizabeth was enraged that Bernadette was leaving that much money to the Catholic Church and argued, "That's my money too," to which Bernadette replied, "No you spent your inheritance on dried up oil wells in Illinois."

Bernadette, who never married, also said, "I never had a Jerry."

Elizabeth replied, "That's because you could never stand anyone table's manners."

Elizabeth was married to my grandfather, Papa Jerry, for 63 years. She never wanted to be called Grandma or Granny. For a little while she was "Grandmommy Elizabeth" but that was awfully long, so she became simply Elizabeth.

I adored her. She said the rosary three times a day and kept a daily supply of the Holy Eucharist on hand. She did crossword puzzles in pen and smoked cigarettes using a cigarette holder. She slept until 11:00 am every morning until it was time to watch "The Young and The Restless," followed by "As the World Turns," and "The Guiding Light."

She and my grandfather ate supper at 4:00 and went to daily Mass at 5:00, and we did the same during summer visits, which consisted of endless windy hot Kansas days spent at the pool or library.

When I was old enough to have a cocktail we'd drink one together and watch Johnny Carson after the news.

Papa Jerry would make a bourbon and soda and say, "Drink that drink but don't get drunk on me."

They drove to Platte City, Missouri to buy liquor because there was no tax.

Elizabeth would look at me and say, "You're a pretty thing." She was tiny and birdlike and people adored her though she didn't like company. She was afraid they'd come and not know when to leave or sit on her couch and break the springs.

She told me one joke -

"Why are sex and Campbell Soup alike?"

The answer? Hmmm...Hmmm good.

She couldn't stand her sister-in-law Marcella.

She said, "Marcella's had 17 operations and she'll tell you about each one."

Elizabeth had two daughters, Jeanne and Janis. When mother was born, there was typhoid in the hospital so she had my mother at home. They gave her an aspirin for pain. The doctor, the priest, and my grandfather drank old-fashioneds after the baby was born. That was in 1935.

I think of her on that hot summer August 10th of 1935 giving birth with three men around. Did Bernadette or Maime come? Or Frances or Catherine, her other sisters? She had two brothers, but they drank. Where was little Jeanne? Who was taking care of her?

Elizabeth always told me to avoid the priests who whooped it up on the altar too much. I didn't understand what she meant until one priest, while visiting my family, grabbed me at the age of seventeen, and tried to jokingly turn me over his knee for a spanking when he and I were alone for a second in the foyer of my house.

It was bizarre but in those disturbing seconds, I knew exactly what she meant and I got away as fast as I could and never went near him again.

I had another grandmother, GrandMary, whom I adored too. Elizabeth and GrandMary were night and day, but I loved them both dearly. I'll write about GrandMary another time.

I was lucky with grandmothers - they loved me and made me feel loved and treasured.

17 to 22

Imagine!