My grandmother lived with us during my entire Oak Forest childhood, and except for the time she burned down half the house, I consider myself lucky to be the recipient of her advice and counsel. An angry woman in the most entertaining sense, Grandma’s scholarship extended to a wide range of subjects, although she was particularly known for her wisdom regarding courtship rituals, specifically “what some women will do just to get a man’s thing.” Modesty forbade her from ever saying what that thing was, and for years I had no idea what she was talking about.
Looking back, remembering the many sunny afternoons I spent playing in the dirt at Grandma’s feet as she dabbled in misogyny while smoking True menthols on the porch, I wonder that I never asked her why she was telling me about Nancy Reagan’s alleged pre–White House shenanigans, or the so-called nastiness that had forced Vanessa Williams to step down as Miss America, or what was so “big” about Tammy Faye Bakker that Jim had been forced to take up with a hooker, whatever that was, or what some women had done for strawberries during the Depression (something involving a door-to-door strawberry salesman). It was an incomplete education, to be sure, but dizzyingly revelatory in its way. I can state without hesitation that no child has ever learned more while looking under bricks for pill bugs.
Some years earlier, during the summer of ’81, Grandma and I had been watching Summer of ’42 (a film in which Jennifer O'Neill, a devotee of harlotry, decides to devour a teenage boy whole, at least in Grandma’s view). Not 30 minutes into The Late Show on Channel 11, however, I noticed a thin trail of smoke meandering lazily from her bedroom. Rushing to the source, I discovered what looked like six or so electrical plugs converging on a single extension cord. The configuration was a dead ringer for the 288, 59, I-45 interchange, if said interchange had been on fire. In a rapid series of events, flames shot up Grandma’s floral print curtains, the room was ablaze, the fire department called, and a lifetime’s worth of memories was burned and/or soaked.
Modesty forbade my mother and father from formally blaming Grandma for the fire, but not from colorfully implying such. When, for instance, Grandma tried to show everyone “the miracle”— in a bedroom charred beyond recognition, a single object, her prayer book, had inexplicably remained completely intact—the family collectively peered at the book, nodded sullenly, and then slinked off to the old Brookhollow Hilton, our home away from home for the following few months.
There, bereft of other reading material, overcome by guilt, and forced to smoke on a narrow Juliet balcony overlooking the North Loop, Grandma sought solace in religion, throwing herself ever deeper into consideration of Jezebels past and present. Thus did a boy’s idea of heaven—eating room service every day, never having to make your own bed—swiftly devolve into a claustrophobic hell far more insidious than anything Bathsheba or Delilah ever had to contend with. I literally counted the days till we returned to Oak Forest, and from that day to this, I’ve never for a second taken any home of mine for granted, whatever its coordinates. It just isn’t this man’s thing, if you know what I mean.