Gertrude Iona, Topeka, 1947

It’s Dick and Evie’s second anniversary. They’re coming here for the party, driving in all the way from Sunflower, then staying over. Jim and Billie are staying over as well, so we’ll have a full house for a few days.

My hands are damp as I wipe the creases from my dress and search the living room. Not a spec of dust but maybe the doilies on the arms of the overstuffed chairs should be straightened again. I’m glad Dick and Evie want to have their celebration at my house. So many of their friends driving in, old friends of Dick’s from college, nice young people, but my land, they invited an army. And Dick said, “Mom, come on, it’s my anniversary. I’m a father now. I want my friends to enjoy themselves. The war is over, we’ve got a Midwesterner in the White House, we’re going to drink champagne.”

What could I do? If I’d told him no, they would have moved the party, wouldn’t have even invited me.

I tried talking to Alva, but the menfolk in this family stick together. “They’re kids, Trudy. They’re grown-up kids. Let them have their fun.”

I hear a knock on the door, peek through the lace curtain I crocheted for the front glass, and there they are: Dick and Evie and Barbie. I push the silver combs with the rhinestones – they sparkle almost like diamonds – back along the sides of my hair and straighten my hem for the umpteenth time. “Oh Alva,” I call. “They’re here. How do I look?”

Before he can answer, Dick turns his key in the door and burst in. He holds in front of him, as though they were a peace offering, six glass ashtrays. Without a “hello” or “how are you, Mother?” he announces,“I knew you wouldn’t have any.”

No one said a word about cigarettes. Evie stopped smoking when she was pregnant. Thank God for that. However much she drinks, it isn’t as much as Dick. I know it. Just like I know Alva is an alcoholic. Think I didn’t grow up knowing those things?

“Hello, Gertrude,” Evie smiles. A little too much lipstick. Barbie, in her arms, is just waking up. “We don’t want any cigarette burns on your lovely things.”

She’s a considerate girl, and probably afraid of me. I’ve seen that fear every time I’ve been with Evie and her own mother. Are all Jewish daughters like that? I won’t let her frighten my granddaughter.

“Who’s this?” I smile, turning to the baby. “You’re almost one year old, so big. Can you say Gramma?”

“Gamma,” she parrots, and just as I’ve got her cuddled up to my bosoms, Alva comes along and asks, “Did I hear someone calling for her Grandpa?” I turn away and bring my forehead down to hers, breathing in her smell of mineral oil and talcum powder. Alva paws my shoulder. “Don’t go hogging my favorite grandchild.” Scalawag that he is, he adds, “Don’t let Jim and Billie know I said that.”

I can’t let her go, not yet. Her eyes are so dark, so deep. When I look into them and Barbie stares back, sometimes I think the child is gazing through my eyes back to the eyes of all her grandparents. Let her someday understand that we go on within her.

Alva grabs her from my arms, his rough hands stealing her away. For a moment I think: I don’t ever want to be in those arms of his arms again. He sweeps the child over to the piano, banging on the keys, startling her with the sharp noise. Then her fear turns to fascination as he places her tiny fingers on the ivories, the black and the white before her wondering eyes.

“Let’s have some swing,” Dick shouts over the banging. “I brought records, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton. I’ll go back to the car and get them.”

“Will you bring the baby things too, since you’re going back in the car?” Evie asks. She could go with him. Maybe she’s staying to be polite. The two of us watch Alva and Barbie like they’re the greatest show on earth.

The guests trample in, raucous and rowdy, spreading out all over the ground floor and onto the sleeping porch of my beautiful Topeka house. Their cigarettes are giving me a sick headache, but I try to be a good hostess, passing out candy mints and praying the hot flashes won’t be too bad this sticky night in June.

Jim and Billie clammer in with little Jimmy. My two grandchildren, three weeks apart. These babies are the only people here I really want to see. No, of course I don’t mean that. I love my sons, my husband. I love my family. All the cigarette smoke makes it hard to think.​

Jimmy is a handful. His mother breezes up to me and says, bold as you please, “Would you take him for me, Mother Gertrude? I need to get myself a drink and take a good dump.”

What am I supposed to do with a daughter-in-law who talks like that? How is she going to be a fit mother? I knew that one was trouble the minute I met her but kids today don’t follow their parents’ wishes about who they marry any more than I did. I just hope I won’t have to rescue little Jimmy from her permanently.

Jimmy wails and crimson-faced, spits up on my good dress, all over the cornflowers and purply cabbages.

I blame Billie. What kind of a mother takes a baby anywhere without a little towel to put over your shoulder? You need to bring shoulder towels, as surely as you need to bring bottles and diapers. Evie uses a clean diaper for any spit up Barbie might make. I guess that’s all right, although a towel is better. But no little towel, no diaper, so I have to go upstairs to change my clothes. I bring Jimmy with me, and make a game of hiding in the bathroom while he kicks and fusses in the very middle of my bed. I bring a washcloth and clean his face and sailor suit, then tell him to stay put while we make animal sounds. He’s still bawling but I shush him from the bathroom while I change into the clothes I grabbed from the closet. Leaving the first dress to soak in the sink I coo, “whippppp-er-will.” He hiccups in the middle of a howl and turns his head to me, his face all full of questions. We laugh together as I tenderly comb his tawny hair and rub my nose against his blotchy cheek.

I don’t think Billie will come looking for her baby any time soon. She’ll want to socialize with the adults, all of them drinking their hard liquor. But Evie, even though she’ll be drinking too, trying to look sophisticated – she’ll still want to show off her baby. And so will Dick. Alva will think he’s the life of the party. No one will miss Jimmy and me.

I lose track of the time. The music downstairs grows louder and so does the raucous laughter. Did I hear a glass break? Don’t think about it. Who wants to go down into that smokey mess? I whisper stories into Jimmy’s ear and sing “Rock of Ages.” The stink of cigarettes and alcohol, certainly I can smell it from up here, but what good would it do to complain?

Someone trots upstairs – sounds like one of the girls’ footsteps – and opens the bathroom door before I can convince these bones of mine up and off the bed to fetch my dress from the sink. She clears her throat and runs the sink water after she flushes. I wonder what she did with my dress. Footsteps back down the stairs. “The coast is clear,” I whisper to Jimmy. “Wait here.”

Taking a hanger into the bathroom, I place my dress – now on the sink, dripping on the bathroom floor – on it and hang it on the showerhead, then close the curtain. There! No excuse for any of the menfolk not to wash their hands. No excuse for the girls to let my dress wrinkle and drip.

I close the bedroom door behind me and lie down next to Jimmy. If I had a cradleboard I could have taken him back and forth with me on these trips to the bathroom. What ever became of the cradleboard I used for Ken, then Jim, finally Dick? “Lost,” I tell Jimmy, “all lost.” His lower lip trembles again and I jolly him with happier tales. We pretend we’re floating on a cloud of cotton candy with canoe makers off in the distance, and cottonwood trees down below. “Canoe makers have no work in Kansas, but before the Indian removals, when we lived around the Great Lakes, they had plenty to do.” Jimmy doesn’t need to know about the forced marches at gunpoint that brought us from there to here.

Jack’s beanstalk grows up alongside us. Jimmy settles himself; he always does if a body waits long enough. “You’re safe with Grandma, Grandma won’t let them harm you.” I feel like I’m too young to be a grandmother, although that’s foolish, I’m 53 already. My grandmothers taught us how to stitch a story on a wampum belt, how to grind the corn into coarse meal, how to embroider beads on moccasins with a quill. I still have my quill, from my own grandmother. That’s one thing I can still find, maybe pass on to Barbie when she’s older. “Jimmy, I’ll tell you a story about this house. Right now Grandma and Grandpa’s house is settling into land that once was part of the Prairie Band Potowatomee Reservation. But Topeka wanted to be big and so it ate that away and now the place we come from is shrunk to a postage stamp. Dick’s the only one of my children I borned on the reservation. But we still tell stories, that much hasn’t changed.”

I don’t know the rules for how to act with these wives my sons bring into my home. Alva says it’s not our business, but when it comes to the babies, I won’t go along with that. Did my mother feel the same way? Probably not. By the time my first was born, she already had six grandchildren, all living on the reservation, close to her. She married out from her own English people, lived her grown life on the Prairie Band Reservation. The only young men I ever wanted were the other part-Indians. Sometimes I think I married Alva for his German father. When he took me to meet his grandparents, their strange food and funny accents caught my fancy. We were the ones who went away, who joined the white world my mother and Alva’s Dad rejected.

Billie pitches into the room. “Where’s my baby?” she shouts. “You’ve been up here two whole hours with him. What’re you doin’ closin’ the door? Come on down. They’re about to light the candles on the anniversary cake.”

“Mommy!” Jimmy grins. I admit he seems happy to see her. With a feeling of dread I hand him over.

Gripping the banister, I follow them downstairs. The music rises up in a wave, pulling me under, drowning me in noise and smoke. I can’t abide it one more minute. “Somebody turn that music down. Somebody open the windows!”

The music softens, the smoke thins out. “Thank you.” I know I’m embarrassing them, Dick and Jim and Alva, they think I’m a fool for wanting fresh air, and peace and quiet with no liquor. I feel my cheeks flush. Then I hear it: Blaaaaaaaaaaah! Like the bleat of a sick baby goat, or a car horn blaring, the same splat of noise spilling all over the night. “Where’s Barbie?”

I rush past Billie, into the living room and there she is, in the playpen, banging her head against the bars. Screaming over and over, no words, but pure head-splitty pain.

“Has Barbie taken ill?”

Laughter. Harrumphs behind hands at first, then chuckles, then all of them laughing, like they’ve never seen anything so funny in all their lives. I stare them down, one by one, until every last one of them is silent. “Now tell me. What ails that child?”

Evie’s heart-shaped face goes pale, beneath the rouge on her cheeks. I turn to Dick. He blows out a stream of smoke, then takes a long drink. “Evie and I were each talking to our friends. Barbie was having a great time. She kept running back and forth from Evie to Dad to me.”

I picture Barbie, toddling back and forth between the legs of all these so-called grown-ups. “Did Barbie get hurt? Answer me!”

“Mother, calm down. Barb didn’t get hurt. I’ll tell you what happened.” He takes that tone with me. Saving face in front of the others. “Each time she would come to me, I’d give her a sip of my champagne. Then she would go to the Evie and take a sip of her champagne. This just went on for a while and neither of us realized she was getting twice as much as we thought. She liked it so much she tricked us.”

My arms rush over the playpen, my fingers gently pulling Barbie’s, releasing their grip on the bars. Her eyes so blurry I fear she might have a concussion.

“Somebody’s got to take her to the hospital.” They chuckle and whisper and clear their throats, the whole lot of them. Most of them turn away.

Evie comes toward us. “She’s had a little too much to drink, Gertrude, that’s all. She started making funny noises and acting crazy so we tried holding her, swaying her back and forth, but that just seemed to make her worse. So we put her in the playpen. Your kids’ playpen, that you and Alva brought down from the attic and set up for our kids“ She’s trying to butter me up. I blink back my tears and raise my chin.

“It’s not like she’s never had liquor before,” Billie slurs. “Dick and Evie only give her the cheap stuff at home. She’s just not used to champagne.”

“Billie, pipe down.” Dick’s face purples as he turns back to me. “Don’t fly off the handle, Mother. We were all just having fun.”

Alva doesn’t stick up for me, no one does. “I’m going to call the ambulance,” I tell them, pronouncing each word slow, trying to firm up my shaky voice. “Something is wrong with that child. She can’t even focus her eyes. She needs to be seen by a doctor.”

“Ah Mom,” Jim says. “You know you can’t do that. You’ll ruin our reputation.” He positions himself in front of the telephone, ready to shoo me off if I come near it.

“That isn’t the point,” Dick blisters, his voice scalding my body, already running hot and cold from change of life and migraine and the fates of these babies up to me. “Nothing is wrong for her. he’s a little drunk.” You’re a menopausal bitch. You henpeck your husband to the point where he can’t even have a nightcap in his own house. Has to go to the cellar for his cigarette and shot of scotch. You don’t know what ‘drunk’ looks like.

He didn’t really say that last part. But I see it in his eyes, I know what he thinks of me and my morals.

I rock little Barbie, my eyes closed against the crowd. “I love you, baby,” I murmur. “I love you, love you, little Barbara Ruth, first daughter of my line. I will always love you.”

Barbie was never the same. She pulled away from me after that, going more and more to Alva, of her own accord. And despite what happened that night, her parents did look after her. They read to her and kept her clean and fed. They took her to the hospital when the measles turned hard, when the child had fits. They always told me not to worry, things were under control. So I turned my attention to Jimmy, because he was the one with burn marks on his bottom, red handprints on his cheek. It was Jimmy who stopped talking the year he turned three. The only attention Billie gave him was pushing him to compete with Barbie. Jimmy needed me more and Billie and Jim were glad for me to take him off their hands.

I lost her that night. When I look into my granddaughter’s eyes, they never meet me, never open to her ancestors through my eyes. I caution her, take an interest in her schoolwork, but she turns away, convinced by the jokes they tell on me that I’m a boring old nag. I can still hear her screams while that awful Stan Kenton record played, and the lot of them puffed on their cigarettes, hammering the nails into their waiting coffins.


Barbara Ruth

About Barbara Ruth

Barbara Ruth passed as able-bodied until she fell off the map of the known world in 1983 for reasons in large part iatrogenic. She now lives with multiple chemical sensitivities syndrome, arthritis, fibromyalgia and seizure disorder. She is Neuroqueer, Ashkenazi Jewish and Potowatomee. She was born in Kansas and now lives in San Jose, CA and is a photographer, as well as poet and memoirist. Her work has been published in numerous lesbian, queer, disability, and literary journals and anthologies.
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