Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Old Clem

No commentary on marriage, as that seems to be the topic I'm fixated on at the moment, would be complete without an extended reminisce about my old Grandma McCallum.

Ah. How to describe this woman? Bear in mind the bearer of this tale was still himself en formatif , as the tale's details unfold. Caveat emptor.

My mom's dad died when she was eight. From what I can gather, her mom then went into extended hybernation, leaving mom, the eldest of three, to sort of raise the other two. Eight years old. No doubt the tales are a bit skewed. My grandma couldn't have been THAT out of it.

Well, by the time I got to know her--the third of four children and a little befuddled myself in my early years (no comment, you)--she was truly off the deep end. I remember driving, after church and Sunday dinner, off to the Reedsburg county home where they had a set of really mentally disturbed people. I am young--perhaps eight years old. We would hear the zoo sounds of your usual home for the disturbed of mind. I would occasionally unaccountably find myself holding hands with some strange old lady who would look at me with these googly eyes; I had nightmares about it for years. There we would visit Grandma, who had at some time in the past had a terrible accident, falling down a flight of stairs and hitting her head severely and therefore putting herself at the mercy of the latest and greatest in psychotropic drug treatment. The cure I think was the disease,, because after many years of this a wise and learned doctor took a long look at her, cut all her medications, and told her to enjoy a nice glass of port wine before retiring for the evening. That seemed to work. Grandma returned to the world.
Before departing, however, it seems my Grandma McCallum spent a lot of time with her nose in harlequin romances. She had a really strange romantic streak. During her illness, but when she lived for a time with us, our family got our very first television. Late fifties. While we watched Andy of Maybury, Grandma would stand next to the television with her hands behind her back and answer imaginary questions that she thought were coming from the set. Very personal and titillating questions. Very complete and detailed answers. I got a lot of what I'd call my early sex education listening to Grandma answer these unheard-by-us, imaginary questions . She believed she was being interviewed by some fella on the TV. Truly, another world. I will say however that it made television watching just that much more fascinating for me. So, see. Sickness runs in the family, I guess.

Jumping ahead a number of years: I'm in high school. By now grandma has been put in a nice retirement home in my home town. But that old romantic streak (call it what you will) isn't gone by a long shot. For one thing, she's 82 but is claiming she's 76. And soon enough she is kicked out of the retirement home for having an affair with her new guy, Clem Blanchett. They find lipstick on his pillowcase and trace it back to her. Clem doesn't get ejected; just my grandma. My lib mom seethes that it is retaliation for a recent public act of nonviolent dissent she's committed in our small town, but who knows? Grandma's out on the street.
My mom finds her a nice little apartment near downtown. Clem, who is 92 but still retains a great sense of humor, and a few other things as well, is brought over to granny's pad weekly by my mom for--I dunno--conjugal visits or something. Soon enough, it is announced that Clem and Emma McCallum are getting married!

I am appointed Best Man.

Look. I'm--what?--nineteen? What do I know about being a Best Man to a 92 year old French American? On the day of the wedding, I arrive late, and my grandmother is livid. "You're LATE! For my WEDDING! I had to dress him MYSELF!" I truly had no idea I was expected to help the groom dress. To this day I get the geebies.

Something rather funny happened on the way to the church. I was ushering Clem down the hallway of grandma's apartment to the long, wide staircase leading to the first floor. We got to the head of the stairs, and for some reason I tripped. In what I remember as a long, slow motion fall, I tumbled, rolled, gallooped, and flipped all the way to the bottom,where I lay in an ignominous, embarassed heap. At the top of the stairs, for the first time that day, Clem is cracking up into a coughing, wheezing, bent-over cackle that lasted until I dragged myself back up to him. Ah, so. I guess I did my essential service as Best Man to the Groom after all. He was completely relaxed for the first time that day.
At the wedding, a covey of uninvited old ladies from the community sat in the back, glowering. Jim Weis, the very sweet Methodist pastor who performed the ceremony, smiled and welcomed us in. Being 92, Clem (and I) sat in the front pew while Emma was escorted down the aisle by my sister Janet, the Bridesmaid. Other than my mom, there was no one else there in that big sanctuary. A serious problem developed when I produced the ring and Clem tried to deposit it onto Emma's ring finger. There was an inordinate amount of shaking going on. My sister Jan stifled a giggle. A chain reaction of stifling took place, Jan to me to Jim Weis; back again. I could have killed her. We came THIS CLOSE to just completely falling apart in laughter. I was in enough trouble with Grandma as it was. Finally, I did my second Good Deed of the day, helping to steady Clem's hand and guide the ring onto the steadied hand of his bride. Everyone smiled and Clem looked relieved. I now pronounce you man and wife.

The two-and-a-half-month-long marriage was stormy, if the stories can be believed. Grandma fussed and furied, furied and fussed. Clem pretty much just sat there. I'm not sure what brought it all on, but soon enough Clem Blanchett departed this sad veil of tears. I would have liked to report that the marriage was blissful, but that wasn't in the nature of my scotch Grandmother's personality. Something about being married again gave vent to something, some controlling emotion that had perhaps lain dormant since Bruce, her first husband, died when my mother was eight. All at the expense of poor, sweet, simple Clem. And that is the story of Grandmother McCallum's second wedding.


MY SISTERS WEIGH IN: The "caveat emptor" comment was indeed necessary. My memory does not flourish as it should. Some amendments, which in turn should be caveat-emptored, since heck, they're as old and feeble as I am. To wit:

:Mom may have been six years old when Robert Bruce (not simply "Bruce") died. He was. obviously, named after "Robert The Bruce" of Scots fame.
: Well, the institution was NEAR Reedsburg, but not in it. It may have been a county home, it may have been a state home. Versions differ. Rebecca, being the oldest, remembers the barred doors, the old lady eating dirt from a flower pot, the strait-jacketed souls lying prone on their beds. Very " One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" ish. As with me, the weekly experience of seeing all of this had a profound , disturbing effect.
: Clem may have been 94 not 92; he may have been married to my grandmother for all of seven months, not the 2.5 I've alleged. He had four previous wives. "I buried them all!", remembers a sis.
: Two sisters don't remember the post-wedding furies but do remember the bliss, which somehow I missed. Grandma was thrilled about the freedom to love each other "legally". As Rebecca put it: "She did have some proper notions." Sweet.
: Grandma supported her three children through the years selling Avon.
: All three sisters were present at the wedding, as was my dad. Rebecca, the oldest, even made grandma's wedding dress. Was there a reception afterward? I seem to remember a reception afterward.

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