LOOKING back after forty years, the whole thing seems mildly humorous, but at the time it was a calamitous event indeed. I got the bad news right after supper on the first day of my vacation. “Did you enjoy your meal?” Grandma asked kindly, her knitting needles clicking busily as we relaxed in wicker chairs on the shady front verandah.
“You know I just love your cooking!” I assured her. “Why, that’s one of the best things I think about when I’m looking forward to my month with you and Gramps every summer.”
There was a small silence. Then my grandfather spoke up testily, “Well, you won’t be getting any more! Grandma’s gone on strike.”
I was stunned. At aged ten, to me a strike was a violent confrontation in some far-off place, certainly not this little town in the old house I’d visited since I could remember. “Is that right, Grandma!” I quavered, close to tears. No blueberry dumplings, or fried chicken; no crisp salads, and biscuits, and pies and black currant jam – it was unthinkable!
“Your grandfather has a way of exaggerating things,” she said serenely, dropping her knitting in her ample lap and giving me her full attention. “However, I’m not doing housework, if that’s what he means.”
“B-but you cooked that delicious supper–”
When Grandma smiled, her blue eyes lit up and her whole round face seemed a mass of laughter lines “Bless your heart, Jimmy,” she said, “I couldn’t have you come all the way from Toronto on the bus and not see you had a full stomach your first day. But since your grandfather retired, he refuses to do one thing to help me. I’ve worked just as hard as he has all these years. Raised six children and did all the canning and preserving and keeping this big house and garden. I didn’t mind while he was busy at the foundry, but now that he has as much free time as I do, I think the chores should be shared.”
“If you think for one minute I’m gonna be caught dead stringin’ your undies on the clothes line, or sweepin’ the kitchen floor, or whippin’ up a chocolate cake, think again, woman! For the last time, that’s not a man’s job!”
Grandma picked up her knitting. “H-m-m,” she murmured, “we’ll see.” And then to me, “I only wanted him to help, Jimmy, but since he has refused to do anything so have I! Why should I wait on him till the end of his days while he sits around and smokes that pipe and then reads the paper and goes fishing with his cronies? I’ve earned my free time, same as he has.”
I felt like throwing up. Not only was I to be deprived of the tasty treats that heretofore had streamed steadily from the old wood stove in the back kitchen, but for the first time in my life my two favorite people were mad at each other. Fireflies glimmered in the spirea bushes, and the sound of a radio drifted faintly from across the street. Would this state of affairs last for a whole month? Clearly, something had to be done.
“Uh, could you hire a housekeeper?” I ventured. “She couldn’t cook like you, Grandma, but it’d be better than nothing.”
“We couldn’t afford it in the first place, Jimmy, and in the second place that isn’t the point. The point is that your grandfather should be willing to share the work with me so we can both enjoy his retirement.”
Gramps stood up so suddenly he almost upset the rocker. “Balderdash!” he roared, “I never head such nonsense in my life! Everybody knows the woman takes care of the meals and the house! I’m going to bed!”
“Very well, Cyrus,” Grandma called after him. “Be prepared to fix cold cereal for your breakfast.”
I slept poorly in the little room I’d had so many summers. What had happened to my warm, safe world anyway? Actually, I could see what Grandma meant. On the other hand, Gramps sure would look silly icing a cake. How could I straighten things out? By morning I had an idea.
“Gramps,” I said eagerly as I tried to keep up with his long stride on the way to the post office, “Why don’t we really surprise Grandma?”
“Humph! She’s surprised me all right, with this stuff she keeps spoutin’. What did you have in mind?”
“Let’s do everything for her! Let’s go the second mile, like they say in Sunday School, and shower her with kindness. I can do quite a few things around the house. You’n me could figure out who does what, and we’ll tell Grandma she’s to be like a real lady of leisure.”
He looked down at me, his eyes narrowed. “I have a hunch you’ve got somethin’ up your sleeve, boy,” he said, half grinning. “Anything’s better than this, so we’ll give it a whirl.”
I’ll say this for Gramps: when he set his mind to a thing, he was no quitter. Grandma read the paper on the porch, pointedly ignored the clatter as we got lunch. As far as I was concerned it was a disaster (burnt sausage, half-done pancakes, and no dessert) but she calmly finished her portion. “You go out and have a smoke, Gramps.” I suggested. “I can do the dishes.” He needed no second invitation.
Our campaign lasted almost a week. Every time Grandma attempted to do anything in the house, one of us would shoo her away from the task. “Can’t you go to the Women’s Institute, or somethin’ at church?” Gramps would demand. “Me and the boy here aims to scrub the kitchen.”
Her eyes rolled upward. “Everything’s closed for the summer, Cyrus, as you very well know. Are you sure you wouldn’t like me to do it?”
“Tarnation, no! You wanted help, and you’re getting help! Go take a nap!”
We broke four plates and a cup, streaked the floors so I doubted they’d ever come clean, and served the worst meals in the county. One rainy morning Grandma said, after a dreadful breakfast, “I feel like baking some rolls today and maybe some sugar cookies.”
I almost drooled. Gramps gave her a long stare. “You don’t need to, Nettie,” he said slowly. He had a quizzical look in his eyes that puzzled me a little. “To tell you the truth, I just went along with this housekeepin’ stuff to please the boy, but now I’m gettin’ the hang ot it, it’s better than roosting on the verandah the rest of my life. I’ve always been used to work. This is just a different kind.”
I was horrified. Gramps couldn’t keep house worth a hoot, and yet by the sound of things he planned on taking over. As for his cooking, the less said the better.
“Now just hold on here, Cyrus!” Grandma’s voice raised an octave. “It’s all right for you to lend a hand, but I’m chief cook and bottle washer around here and have always been.”
“Says who? You’ve done your time. Now it’s my turn. A man can run the place as well as a woman.”
“You’ve certainly changed your tune! Not so long ago you wouldn’t consider helping!”
This argument was getting nowhere. I still had almost three weeks of my holidays left, and I didn’t want them ruined altogether. I had to come up with something. “Can I get a word in, please?”
Two white heads turned, and two pairs of bright eyes looked at me. I felt warm inside because I knew whatever else happened, they both loved me dearly. Perhaps they would listen.
“You know I really like the time I spend with you, don’t you?” They nodded. “It’s the very best part of my summer, but I want to do what I did other years. I want to go fishing with Gramps, and have him whittle me a whistle, and walk to the post office every morning, and maybe visit the men at the foundry. And I want to pick berries with Grandma, and help weed the flower beds, and watch her make jam. I want to go with you both to the church picnic, and to the circus when it comes, and to the ball games.”
They looked bewildered. “Of course you do, Jimmy.” Grandma said, “and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t.”
I pushed on. “Yes, there is,” I said firmly, “Gramps is so busy proving what a whingding of a housekeeper he is that he has no time for anything else, and you, Grandma, aren’t sure anymore what your job is, and neither of you seems very happy to me!”
Gramps tamped tobacco into his weathered pipe, frowning fiercely. “Never thought of it that way,” he rumbled. “Maybe the boy’s got somethin’ there.”
“Grandma had a point, too, in the first place,” I told him. “What I want to know is why can’t you each do some things around here, and then we’ll have a good time after?”
Grandma got up from her chair and came over and enveloped me in a soft but enthusiastic hug. “Out of the mouths of babes…” she murmured.
“So there won’t be any – uh, fighting,” I ventured, “we could draw up a list of who does what.”
“Good!” Gramps grinned. “Get some paper, Nettie.”
“Right behind you on the sideboard, Cyrus. Turn around and reach.”
Were they going to start all over again? “Tell you what,” I said, “you take your time and I’ll run down and get the mail.”
By the time I came back, they were both grinning like Cheshire cats, as the saying goes. The rest of the summer was exactly as I wanted it to be, though it seems to me I got more than my share of hugs and cookies from Grandma, and every once in a while Gramps would clap me on the shoulder and give me a broad, knowing wink.
Handset in Goudy’s Deepdene; display type is Craw Clarendon Book, initial is Stymie Open. Inks are Van Son Rota Brown and 40904 Black. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed 450 copies on an SP-15 Vandercook. The cover was printed on a 10×15 C&P.
The Boxwood Press
Greenbelt, MD 20770