Criminy Sakes Alive | By Jody Rae
Details are foggy, like a Drunk History: Family Secrets Edition, but it was over frilly cocktails when my sister and I learned that Mom was “maybe just a little bit” pregnant with us when she joined my dad at the altar. We nudged her sugar-rimmed lemon drop an inch closer and demanded more information. Likewise, Dad and I were sitting side by side at a bar and, racism being no less corrosive when filtered through rum and Pepsi, I gasped, “What do you mean, our relatives destroyed evidence of our American Indian bloodline?” My mom’s relatives did, too, it turns out.
My mom’s mother became an alcoholic late in life, so it’s ironic that Grandma Juanita died from non-alcohol-related cirrhosis of the liver while my mom was away at college in Idaho. As a result, Mom never kept alcohol in her house. Dad only drank Coors in his house while watching TV after hammering on lakeside mansions all day. Shielded from the atomic cloud of booze, my understanding of our diaspora evolved through all the clarity of a nuclear winter.
Discussions about our genealogy weren’t taboo, but more of an oversight or an afterthought. Dad didn’t learn of our ancestral heritage until his own folks aged well into their eighties and conversationally revealed that our family tree’s European roots extend into Germany, Scotland and Ireland. “Someone was Jewish,” I recall them musing one afternoon, in their air-conditioned assisted living apartment. “You’ll have to go back and look.” Look where, my dad and I wondered later, over pints of heavy IPA’s.
But it’s my mom’s side of my chemical equation that has almost literally haunted me since birth.
After my great-grandmother Honey and her family emigrated to Fort Worth, Texas from Poland, she begat my grandma Juanita through one of her five marriages. Honey forced everyone to call her “Honey” when her first grandchild came along because she believed she was too young to be a grandmother. Her given name was Edna, but in most parts of Texas one simply does not address elders by their first names. We found a photo of Honey in her silver years wearing a fur stole, pearls, and big salt-and-pepper Texas hair styled like a U.S. Senator’s.
Family lore suggests Juanita’s father was a bit of a womanizer who had a thing for a Mexican woman he couldn’t be with, so he named his daughter after her. Grandma Juanita has a half-sister somewhere, also named Juanita.
Grandma Juanita raised her kids Catholic, even though she was divorced and held a reputation for being the life of the party. And then she started drinking. I have to imagine being a single mother of four, divorced twice, and without a family estate to draw from would be an extremely stressful and desperate situation. But she muddled through, every weekend sauntering into the parlor or having liquid dinners with friends and relatives, yelling, “Down the hatch!” almost before the needle fell on the record, and then rolling up the carpets to make anyone dance with her. She was a winning personality, a budget stylist, a strict mother. She wore a scarf and sunglasses like movie stars in convertibles, but was never late to work as a telephone operator. However, she once hurried out the door and hopped into the car, slamming the door before realizing she was sitting in the back seat. “And I was stone cold sober!” she later recounted to howls of laughter among her friends. Here, I always imagined her draped in her mother’s hand-me-down jewels and furs and perhaps a tiny tiara. I began to think of her as Madame Juanita.
From the sound of it, much of the housework fell to my Aunt Carole, who was also struggling as a high schooler. My mom remembers being home alone one night when she was only about eight or nine. She was watching TV in the dark when someone pounded on the door and then the window, and when she recognized the voice of Carole’s boyfriend, she reluctantly let him inside so he could rummage through Carole’s bedroom to retrieve a handgun he kept hidden in her dresser.
A few weeks later money went missing from Juanita’s purse, so she sat her kids at the table and forced them to drink baking soda and water until one of them confessed. Even though Mom was the youngest, she wanted to selflessly relieve her siblings, so she confessed, “It was me! I did it, okay? It was me!” My mom was a goody-two-shoes who had never done anything bad in her entire life. Juanita sneered and said, “Like hell it was you.”
Aunt Carole broke up with that gun-toting purse snatcher. But not long after that, Juanita got a call from the school asking if Carole was feeling better. They wanted to know how Carole’s leukemia treatments were coming along, as she hadn’t been in school for nearly a month. Aunt Carole had a twenty-something gal pal, the real loser type that hangs out with high schoolers and forges notes or calls in sick, pretending to be their mother. Juanita started personally dropping Carole off at school each morning, but Carole would walk around the corner and get in her loser friend’s car to go hang out and smoke cigarettes all day.
Recently over wine, Mom revealed that she dated a guy in Moscow, Idaho after she graduated college. He heard about work in Alaska. They moved with friends to what sounds like a genuine commune in the Yukon so he could work on the pipeline or something. After living in Alaska with her boyfriend in a tiny trailer for six months, he went to work one day and Mom stayed behind in, again, what I suspect was a commune disguised as a work camp. While she was reading a novel, an enormous, hungry Grizzly bear came sniffing around the camp and nosed it’s way towards Mom’s tiny trailer – the kind on wheels. It smelled something it liked inside and got up on its hind legs to rock the trailer to and fro with my Mom inside, alone, as she fumbled with a pistol – the only firearm she has ever touched – as if a single shooter would so much as spook a hungry Grizzly in the wild.
Her hands shook as she aimed the gun in the direction of the narrow door that somehow stayed intact under a bear claw until the the bear got bored or distracted and let the trailer drop back to the ground. When her boyfriend came home from work she was still shaken and retold the story through tears.
Her boyfriend paused at the end of her story, and then doubled over in a hoarse, knee-slapping laugh as if the very prospect of coming home to find his girlfriend’s remains strewn throughout the camp would be the funniest thing ever. The next morning, Mom packed up and went back to Idaho, where she lived with friends in Orofino and soon met my dad in a backcountry bar.
Born and raised in McCall, Dad was once the best downhill skier in the United States, and I know this because everyone I meet from his youth, including his fellow U.S. Ski Teammates tell me about it. But even though his dad was the head sawyer at the sawmill, his family couldn’t afford to send him to France to compete, and they wouldn’t accept charity from the townspeople who really wanted their local boy to win. It was heartbreaking and he became depressed. Then the sawmill where he and his dad both worked burned down and closed for good. He was accepted to Columbia University but declined and enrolled at the University of Idaho instead.
Dad is a master craftsman, and soon convinced himself he could make more money as a carpenter than as a math major, which is perhaps the only miscalculation he has ever made in life and he will tell you he still regrets dropping out of college. It proved to make a hard living.
When he quit college, following a handful of public arguments with his professors, Dad moved home to McCall. When he wasn’t working construction he drove an ambulance for years, which he refuses to talk about other than to admit he still has nightmares, decades later. Like my mom, he was in a bit of a wandering phase when he entered that fateful bar in Yellowpine.
The thing about my parents is that they are very amazing people apart from one another, but incompatible in almost every way. But since they were also the two most attractive people in Idaho’s backcountry it was probably inevitable that they would end up together. They saw each other across the bar in Yellowpine and fell madly in love.
Stranded at the McCall, Idaho hospital with a team of every doctor within a fifty-mile radius, it was immediately clear to my parents that no one in the room had ever performed a C-section. Before 1981, McCall’s two-room hospital didn’t have an ultrasound machine, so based on the size of her belly, most people assumed my mom was carrying a brawny lumberjack boy, tentatively named Christopher. But when my mom went into labor six weeks early on a warm summer day, she was a hundred miles from a NICU.
My parents called my aunt Carole in California to tell her they needed her to come visit much earlier than expected. She quickly packed a suitcase and bought a one-way ticket to Boise at the Oakland airport. Sherda, a friend of my parents’, borrowed my mom’s VW Beetle and drove down the canyon to pick Carole up from the airport. By the time Carole’s plane landed, the mountain doctors had a better idea of what was actually going on.
Instead of Big Christopher, it was now quite obvious for the first time that there were actually two little babies in there. When her obstetrician felt around for a heartbeat, ours must have been in sync, because he never heard a third heartbeat.
My dad called his parents in Washington and told them he was having twins. My grandpa, who had ordered nursery furniture for one, called Sears and told them to double the order. Word got around our tiny town, and because my dad was so well known for living there all his life, it was a matter of days before the entire second bedroom of our house was stacked, floor to ceiling, with diapers and supplies.
Sherda drove Aunt Carole back towards McCall, but as they gained altitude through the trees along the narrow swath of Highway 55 that cuts along the Payette River, the beetle’s headlights started to flicker and then the car died. It was pitch black. There were no other cars on that stretch of road. They searched the car for a flashlight and when Carole found one in the glove compartment and switched it on, she realized she was standing mere inches from a steep drop that ended in Class V rapids.
They waited in the dark for cars to come along, preserving the flashlight’s battery. The roar of the whitewater failed to mute the sounds in the woods. Sherda recalled there had been a recent wolf sighting, a rare occurrence in that area during the 80’s. But there were hundreds of bear sightings. She was nervous and chatty about local wildlife until Aunt Carole stopped hyperventilating long enough to tell her to shut up about it.
Finally they heard a motor and saw headlights appear around the bend coming from the south. They waved the flashlight and their arms while shouting. The car pulled over and they got in. It’s hard to look a gift horse in the mouth, but the two scruffy men, in their early thirties, congratulated Carole on being an aunt, and then the men quickly, unapologetically, revealed they were both ex-convicts, sprung from prison.
“We’ve only been out a few hours! We’re headin’ to the bars, if either of you ladies would like to join us. No? Well, I guess you gotta go see your sister. Hey, either of you want a hit a this joint?” Aunt Carole counted her blessings every time they successfully rounded a corner or corrected the wheel if they drifted out of the lane.
In a panic, the doctors kicked my dad out of the operating room, while nurses treated my mom’s pain and frantically searched the building for a C-Sections for Dummies manual. Sure enough, by the time Aunt Carole arrived, shaken, but alive, she walked past the operating room window that was already covered in my dad’s tears and sweaty handprints, and she saw the medical team flipping through the book together. Aunt Carole was terrified.
The medical text didn’t provide all the answers, so they got on the phone with a surgeon in Boise, who couldn’t make it to McCall by the time they knew he was needed. With a spiral phone cord bisecting the O.R., they curtained my mom’s head and shoulders from view and made several attempts at an incision at her lower abdomen. I usually stop here and ask why someone didn’t just call the local veterinarian. They do C-sections on livestock all the time, and you would think, during an emergency such as this, a mammal is a mammal. Usually my family rolls their eyes at that, but I bet nobody even thought of it.
Mom didn’t feel a thing. My dad is still good friends with Dr. Allen, her anesthesiologist.
But when the doctors, surgeons themselves now, opened her up they pulled my sister out and the last thing my mom remembers before she blacked out was a doctor standing over her and shouting, “Somebody come get this other kid, she’s gonna die!” And that’s how I came into, and almost left, the world.
When my mom woke up she was pretty sure one of her babies was dead. I was fine, sort of, once they ordered me to stay inside an incubator for at least a week and achieve a goal of four pounds before leaving the hospital. My sister was five pounds, so she got to go home right away. Our mom got stitched up after the doctors reconstructed her abdomen. Her scars don’t resemble other C-section scars at all. But those doctors and nurses never gave up on us.
The day after we were born, the McCall hospital ordered an ultrasound machine. So I like to tell anyone born in Valley County after July of 1981 that their parents have me to thank for that.
Mom was certain that I wasn’t going to make it, considering my weight and the level of medical expertise available to us. She told my dad, “We just need to let her go, Mike.”
Mom named my sister. Dad named me after the babysitter he grew up with in his childhood neighborhood who he always had a thing for. He also gave us both nicknames. My sister was christened “Princess”. I was called Bird Butt.
I stayed in the hospital longer than they had hoped, but my dad would come to the hospital to visit my incubator every day, and he would tap on the case, saying, “You’re. Gonna. Live. You’re. Gonna. Live.”
When my mom held me for the first time, she blinked twice at my face and said, “Mom? Is that you?”
Suspecting that you might be your own reincarnated grandmother is a much bigger responsibility than you might imagine. I bore the mantle as if I possessed or developed a superpower that I could not quite fathom, yet understood it should not be misused. My mom encouraged this notion, wondering aloud how I knew that particular song her mother used to love so much (it was now used as a commercial jingle), or certain phrases I used or facial expressions. Mom was going through a spiritual exploration herself, no longer a Catholic, and that meant all bets were on the table, including reincarnation.
And yet, at seven, I could not be trusted with the knowledge that I might have nominal authority over anyone.
“Criminy sakes alive! If you could only hear what your Grandma Juanita would say about your messy room, or how lazy you are to get ready for school every morning,” my mom would say as she manually dressed me while I was still half asleep in bed.
I would level my eyes with hers and solemnly say, “I am Juanita.”
And apparently the creepiest child in America.It’s true that projecting Madame Juanita restricted my personal identity, but it also gave me the confidence to address my own mother by her first name, and at times make demands. There was a tendril of eccentricity that desperately needed to be nipped in the bud. When I was home alone at age eight or nine, I pulled garments vaguely resembling capes and gowns from my mother’s ample closet. Mom acquired her Masters in Library Science when we were toddlers, so her wardrobe consisted mainly of tweed, polyester, and pantyhose. I used her cheap jewelry, layers of flowy scarves, and librarian-grade Payless pumps to approximate a costume worthy of Madame Juanita.
Even though my aunts and uncles swear up and down that Grandma Juanita was a strict, Southern, somewhat chemically imbalanced matriarch with strong opinions on proper etiquette, I always suspected she might have a soft spot for me underneath her hard knock armor. Just like she never would have allowed her slip to show in real life, I nevertheless imagined her as a lounge singer, draped across a grand piano, one shoulder strap playing chicken with gravity. I don’t know how old I was when I realized I am not my own grandmother, reincarnated, but it was probably much older than necessary.
By the time I was in my late twenties and still on the fence about having kids of my own, I mentioned over highball 7 and 7’s with Mom that I have always loved the name Amelia.
“It’s my absolute favorite name, and if I were to ever have a daughter or a heroine in a best-selling novel, or a pet turtle, her name would be Amelia, no arguments,” I said.
“Oh, that’s so interesting,” Mom said between tiny sips through her skinny straw. “Your Grandma Juanita went by her middle name all her life. Her first name was Amelia.”
About the Author:
Jody Rae earned her B.A. in Literature – Creative Writing from UC Santa Cruz. Her essay, “Crumble to the Sea” won the nonfiction contest in The Climax Issue (2020) of From Whispers to Roars. She was the first prize winner of the 2019 Winning Writers Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest for her poem, “Failure to Triangulate”. She lives in Colorado.