Bitch In a Ditch (I Remember Gramma)


The ancestral home my grandmother lived in was a very small house with a basement that only ran part of the length of the upstairs, and opened to the back garden.  The kitchen and bathroom were down there, along with an eating room – not big enough to be thought of as a dining room.  My mother and her sister Elizabeth had grown up there.  At what then seemed like a great distance, at the bottom of the garden, was a railroad spur to serve the marble factory at the end of the block.  We sometimes saw a little switch engine there, which we called the Pufferbilly.

My grandmother used this railroad spur as a shortcut to the small downtown of Ottawa, Illinois where she lived.  On the way to town the spur crossed a trestle that spanned a normally-dry drainage canal, and it was from this trestle that she fell one day, in her seventieth year, into the canal and broke her hip.  She stayed there for three days until she was found and drug up; it was thus that she became the Bitch in A Ditch.

This story was never told in the family with the implication that it was at all lamentable.  This was because the old prune was universally thought to be wicked.  Whatever points she may have earned she quickly used up by demanding pity, which is, of course, not the way to get it.  At least a little subtlety is essential.

Her daughters thought Gramma’s husband Walter had chosen – in order to escape her shrewish ways – to be kind of a circuit-riding chaplain to Congregational pastors in Illinois and two adjacent states; and that he died from diabetes in Florida at the age of 50 in order to stay away from her to the end.  And yet – if you pricked her, she would emit from her mouth a long string of Bible verses: a diabolical woman, cloaked in sanctimony.  I didn’t like her.

Walter’s original sin was to agree to go to Africa with her to “save the niggers,” but then, by manifesting diabetes instead, spoiled the plan.  Worse, he thought they should make babies.  Evidently sex wasn’t part of the plan.  After having two children she’d had enough, and slammed shut the gate.

She had developed passive aggression to a high art; she used to send each of my siblings a new dollar bill – a “green leaf” – for special occasions.  To me she would send a quarter.  My mother said that was because I was an exact copy of Alwine’s husband, my mother’s father, and she hated both of us.

We had lived with the old sweetie while I was in kindergarten and my father was in the bin at Manteno drying out.  My oldest brother and my sister, unfathomably for religious fanatics, were allowed by the women to walk to town on Saturdays to the Bloody Bucket and watch shoot-em-up westerns.

Grannie used to set my parents against one another when she could,  and write to a judge in Wheaton trying to wrest custody of us away from them both.  She had lived in Wheaton while her daughters were attending Wheaton College, so she also knew the college chaplain, Evan Welsh.  She wrote to him, years later, that she had heard I was living in Wheaton (at the time when I was still working at Scripture Press):  “My dear Evan: Bill, Alice, John and Paul all are acquitting themselves nicely (she was the original Pecksniffian) but I wish you’d check up on James.”  This was ludicrous, because my sibs had already not “acquitted themselves nicely” – and were clearly not about to – while I was still in my goody-two-shoes mode.  The chaplain simply forwarded the letter to me.

I hate to acknowledge having this human scorpion in my own lineage, but that seems to have been the case.  I can speculate that her venomous nature was the product of her German culture rather than her genes…

 Tale of a Pin

After they fished the old dear out of the ditch, they operated on her hip, and inserted a pin in it.  When she awoke and found out about the pin, she was furious that a foreign object had been stuck in her, and refused to cooperate in her physical therapy.  She preferred to hobble about with a crutch, and did so for the rest of her life.  She would often launch into a rant about the pin to whoever would listen.

When she was very old she grew thin.  At last she could feel the head of the pin in her hip, and by constantly fussing at it, eventually managed to break through her skin and get hold of it.  She triumphantly pulled it out, and would wave it about with relish whenever she had a visitor, enhancing her regular screed with this welcome addition.

One of her many proverbs was that the good die young.  She lived to be 99.

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