Apricot Sour: The Stories Grandma Told, Part 2

To make you laugh…

An acquaintance pointed out to me that part of the motto of this blog is “…make you laugh”.  But recently, very few of my essays have been amusing.

She was right, of course.  And (also of course) it’s mostly because since the advent of Covid-19, I’ve found very little to laugh about, either worldwide or personally.

Or have I?  My friend’s remarks set me thinking about my grandmothers, Marie Gregory and Mayme Snoddy.  As I pointed out in the post, Clickbait, my grandmothers laughed easily and often.  Laughter was their finely-honed survival skill.

Of the two of them, though, Grandma Marie was the better–th best–storyteller, and never more so than when she was telling tales upon herself.  I related many of these in The Stories Grandma Told,  but she had dozens of entertaining sagas.  I now regret having never recorded them, but here are just a few more of her lighthearted tales.

Despite the fact that she lived a long life, surviving the majority of her peers, Grandma held no reverence whatever toward the common rituals associated with death—although she never missed a funeral!  But her eyesight was failing, and more than once she once called me to request that I drive her to a funeral calling.  “I need a ride,” she would announce, adding casually (and always to my utter shock), “I have to go look at a stiff.”

Late in her long life, Grandma’s not-so-secret vice was playing the horses.  All winter long she would hoard quarters, plopping her stockpile into her biggest “potchit” (pocketbook).  Come springtime, she would head out to the track and use those quarters to liberally place two-dollar bets on any horse that took her fancy.  Grandma never won much, but she enjoyed the whole process immensely.

What drove her to madness, though, were the friends who didn’t understand that a two-dollar bet was the minimum one could place.  She would be besieged by those who handed her a dollar with instructions to “put it on a good horse for me”.    “So,” she’d fuss bitterly, “I have to make up the difference!  And they never win anything, so I don’t even get my buck back!”

Those quarters once proved her downfall, though.  Grandma and some of her cronies met monthly for an inexpensive restaurant meal. At one of these get-togethers, conversation drifted around to the mixed drinks that everyone had enjoyed in their youth.  Grandma and another friend fondly recalled apricot sours. Out of the blue, they each decided to order one. 

The drinks came and were duly enjoyed. Later, to everyone’s consternation, a single bill was presented to the entire table. And that was the moment when Grandma discovered that she had left the house with the wrong pocketbook. Scarlet with embarrassment, she realized she didn’t have her wallet. She was going to have to pay for both her dinner and her apricot sour in nothing but coins.

The pre-calculator generation, too polite to belatedly ask that checks be separated, were scratching their heads to figure out the divvy.  Those two apricot sours, though, had greatly increased both the tax and the tip.  So Grandma was able to partially redeem her situation by offering to pay the entire tax and a generous tip, while the others split the rest of the check.  She escaped the restaurant with her dignity partially intact, leaving a gigantic mound of quarters on the table to tip their server. 

That story led her to also remember one from years earlier, when she, as a young working woman, met her girlfriends for lunch.  They’d gotten together one Monday after her weekend spent in the great outdoors…when she’d been bitten by chiggers.  In a Very Private Place.  Itching unbearably after sitting for an hour, on leaving the restaurant she’d ordered her girlfriends to circle the wagons and then, hidden, but to their horror, walked splayed-legged down the city sidewalk, hiking up her dress and scratching madly to relieve the bites.

But perhaps my favorite story was one from the last few years of her life.  Never one to suffer fools gladly, Grandma always had a ready retort on her lips.  On this occasion, she was backing her huge yacht of a car from a parking space when two foolish teenage girls, blithely unaware, strolled directly behind her.  Grandma stomped the brakes and narrowly missed hitting the imbeciles, who then took great offense, one yelling, “Watch what you’re doing, you old chicken neck!”

Once they’d passed, Grandma pulled out into the lane,  came level with them, stopped, rolled down the window, and snapped back, “Oh, back up to a mirror and look at your own fat ass!” Then, chuckling, she drove coolly away.

I was shaken to my core when Grandma left this life, finding it hard to believe that such a vital, bold, sassy matriarch had passed.  But I knew what she would have wanted, so, at her funeral, I squared my shoulders and marched up to her coffin, where I whispered, “Oh, Grandma, look what you’ve gone and done to me!”  Then I listened for her laughter as, tears sparkling, I finished: “I have to go look at a stiff.”

If you had a good chuckle from this essay, you might also enjoy “The Stories Grandma Told”, which you can locate in the Archives, below, from March 31, 2021.

Racism Knows No Logic

§   This post originally appeared on January 18, 2018, as a continuation of previous posts, and was titled, “And Speaking of Prejudice…”  With all that has so painfully happened in our country in recent days, it seemed an appropriate time to revisit it.  §

Marie Gregory
Marie Ruggiere Gregory’s High School  Graduation Photo

My paternal grandmother, Marie, was a full-blooded Italian American and Roman Catholic. Those two traits define her, in my mind, more than anything else.  “Grandma Gregory” was a grand old matriarch who laughed as easily at herself as at others and whose humor was often mildly bawdy, peppered with Italian phrases that I (at least as a child) rarely understood.  She taught me most of what I know about cooking, and was perfectly comfortable when I left the Catholic church because, as she explained, “I don’t care where you go to church as long as you go.”

But the very traits which most define her in my mind meant that Marie Ruggiere Gregory’s early life was not always comfortable or easy. Few people today remember, or even know, that Roman Catholicism was a reviled religion in America as late as the 1960’s.  Bias against the faith did not fade until the 1980s.  I feel sure that (knowing how unpleasant facets of  history are glossed over or rewritten in schoolbooks) young people today have never learned the truth about how great a detriment his religion was during the election of John F. Kennedy.  Being a Roman Catholic in America wasn’t at all an easy thing in the first three-quarters of the 20th century.

Nor was being an Italian American. Ask anyone about one of the larger recorded mass lynchings (to that date) in the more sordid chapters of America’s history, and they will no doubt surmise someplace in the deep south—something probably involving the KKK.  They would not guess eleven Italian Americans in New Orleans in 1891 to have been the victims of this atrocity—nor that the man who orchestrated the lynching later became governor.

My Grandma Marie was born just 14 years later, in 1905.

Indiana was not, thank heavens, New Orleans, but, as she told me many years later when I was a woman in my 20s, that didn’t mean that the Italian American community in Indy escaped prejudice completely unscathed. She had more than a few sad examples of anti-Italian bias.  It was in that light that Grandma narrated a story that has stayed with me for all the intervening decades as the most telling demonstration of the complete illogic of racial prejudice.

In Grandma’s era, children did not attend preschool or nursery school or usually even kindergarten. At age 6, a child began first grade.  And so, clothed in a frilly little dress, ankle socks and Mary Janes, perhaps bows tied into her hair (or so I have always pictured her since hearing this tale), clutching her little sack lunch, Marie Ruggiere trooped off to her first day at a parochial school in Indianapolis, to be taught by Roman Catholic nuns.

The convents of that time were full and bustling places, and the majority of nuns were trained either to teach or as nursing staff. I’m uncertain of the religious order running the school to which my Grandmother was sent—Benedictine? Franciscan?—but the most of the nuns running her school were of Irish American descent.

And so my then-six-year-old Grandmother entered her first grade classroom and took her assigned seat, eager to begin the new adventure of school.

And was yanked aside by her Irish American nun first-grade teacher to be told hatefully, “We don’t want you Wops in our school!”

Wops. Dagos.  Italian Americans.

This Irish Catholic nun owed her spiritual allegiance to a religion whose titular leader, the Pope, was (and at that time, had been for centuries) an Italian.  Yet she told the little six-year-old Italian American child that she didn’t want Wops in her school.

There was nothing the nun could actually do to expel Marie from the school, but her point had been made: You are the outsider. The other.  Unwanted.  Because of your racial heritage, I (a supposedly spiritual person, as demonstrated by my veil and rosary and the vows I made) hatefully reject you.

I’ve wondered, sometimes, how that selfsame nun would have behaved had the Pope—the Wop Pope, the Dago Pope, the very Italian Pope Pius X–arrived for a visit. But in that era, Popes did not leave the Vatican.  That Irish Catholic nun never had to run smack into the glass that was the illogic of her racism.

As I say, Grandma’s story has stayed with me in all the intervening years as a telling demonstration of the complete insanity of racial prejudice, and of the harm it does. As a 70-something-year-old woman, my Grandma Marie had not forgotten the cruel bias of the Irish Catholic nun.  It still bothered her.

It still bothers me.

And it should.

Postscript:  On April 12, 2019, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, a woman of color, did the next right thing, making an effort to heal this century-old wound by formally apologizing for the mass lynching of these innocent Italian Americans.  “At this late date, we cannot give justice, but we can be intentional and deliberate about what we do going forward,” she said.  I believe it brought peace to my Grandmother ‘s spirit that this conciliatory gesture was made, coincidentally, on the birthday of my daughter, her great-grandaughter.