Mother and Billy held a mutual distaste for the Victorian sensibilities of rural Indiana. Those traditions went well past their shelf life into the mid-20th Century.
Even as a child in the 1950’s I can remember my Great-Great Aunt Ada who weighed 85 pounds in her navy voile dresses with a handkerchief tucked into the cuff of her sleeve. She would retrieve it to dab the corner of her mouth when she emitted the tiniest of coughs. She was also constantly fainting at family dinners. Maybe from the sight of food.
Then there was Grandmother who remained seated after the car engine had been turned off while she waited for Granddad to walk around and open the passenger door. It was a condition for our release too. We weren’t supposed to open our doors until Grandmother got out. I may have had a hand in ending that particular folkway.
Despite their dislike for the social environment, there was no denying it had an affect on their own comportments. Mother and Billy’s gracious demeanors provided a stark contrast to the irreverent and bawdy humor they enjoyed. They were definitely modernists who held no nostalgia for the past. But they weren’t above talking about it for a couple of laughs.
Billy would sprinkle old fashioned bon mots into commentaries on my cooking. If the toffee I made cooked too long he’d say “why it’s harder than an 17-year-old groom on his wedding night.” Or if I was working with a roast or ham hock he’d remind me, “the closer to the bone, the sweeter the meat.”
A tradition or superstition for the women in his family was to do needle work on New Years Day. That would be lace making or crocheting, not syringes, that brought them good luck for the year. If I spoke to him on New Years I’d ask if he’d worked on his faggoting yet that day.
He talked of how these women produced copious amounts of boiling water to scald the dishes after a large family dinner. And after a hard days’ work in the summer they sat on the porch in the evening until one would express a wish for “a dish of cream.” That would commence the ice cream making. The way Billy ennunciated the word “cream” added multiple layers of entendre to their desire.
Billy’s parents had moved to Peru, Indiana from Virginia because of his father’s work with the railroad. His father’s name was Civil. As a child Billy and his siblings accompanied their Mother on a train trip to the Shenandoah Valley every summer. They spent a month or so with her family. Billy remained close to that branch of relatives and attended a week-long reunion they held ever other year in Virginia.
It sounded like such an anachronistic bore but Billy never missed it. It continued well into the new millennium. If I was scheduling a trip home in early summer I checked with him first, “now is your Klan meeting this year or next? Are you still the Grand Wizard or did you pass that title on?”
Billy was a font of local knowledge and put to rest many things I’d wondered about for decades. Like why all the yokels called his hometown PEE-ru. He said it was a conductor call from the railroad days. Apparently saying Peru in normal tones could be mistaken for Beirut. By accenting the initial vowel you knew exactly where you were.
He pointed out why there was such a spectacular boom of early to mid-20th architecture on the south side of Fort Wayne. Up until 1920 the town was basically cut in two by heavy railroad traffic. If you were south of the tracks you were stuck. When they elevated them a whole new world opened up.
There was always lots of laughter with Billy. But every couple of days the surface giggles gave way to moments of uncontrollable guffaws: the shoulders and bellies shook; eyes teared up; you lost all sense of self as well as the ability to speak. Those were the moments when the wheels would hit the curb or, in the middle of snow flurries, you’d brake too late and slide past the stop sign through the intersection. And I’m not really that bad of a driver.
The basis of these laughs was just the absurdity of things. In our later years the Starbucks at Target was our favorite haunt for afternoon coffee. With its huge plate glass windows we watched our fellow citizens coming and going.
Again Billy’s primary target seemed to be severely obese women. “Look at those short arms with all of that fat. I mean how can she reach around to wipe? She can’t!”
Billy had an encyclopedic knowledge of all the bars and restaurants in Fort Wayne. He’d been in most of them including obscure ones like The Third Base Tavern. When I was little my brothers and I always laughed at that one because their tag line was “Last Stop Before Home.”
He told me of one husband and wife restaurant team where he managed the kitchen and she was hostess in the front of the house. She knew everyone in town. After guests were seated and ordered drinks, she’d pull up a chair and signal the waiter to bring her a cocktail too. The table would be enlivened with her wit and banter until their food arrived. She would excuse herself then go chat-up another table.
As the guests prepared to leave they found their tab had been enlivened as well. Whatever their hostess had been drinking at their table was added on.
There was another, more prominent couple who owned one of the city’s preeminent restaurants. They were active in the Arts and participated in many theatrical productions. They were also very active in their sex lives as they had an open marriage and were constantly taking on new lovers. The wife was said to be the long-term mistress of the owner of the eponymous Henry’s.
Billy had Thanksgiving with them one year in their beautiful home on the south side. Everything was lovely until they sat for dinner. They looked up to see a huge gaping hole that ran the length of the room. The second story floorboards had collapsed several months before. The rubble had been cleared out but they hadn’t had time yet to deal with fixing it. What with their other activities
One evening Billy and I were joined at dinner by a louche, older friend of his. The man was abhorred by many because he was so crude. He was adored by Billy because he was a trouble maker and therefore very entertaining.
When the subject of the theatrical couple came up the guy told about a trip to Paris he’d taken with them. He managed to boink the father, the mother and the (adult) daughter each without the other two finding out. He made it sound like such an enchanting journey.
Then there was the summer garden party where the wife greeted her guests outdoors. She was leaning against a hammock slung between two Dutch Elms. Her boyfriend of the moment was actually lying in the hammock. Her huge circle skirt concealed his midsection and the fact she was being penetrated as she spoke. A true multi-tasker.
Oh how I long for the simpler joys of years gone by!
BONUS COVERAGE: Click here for: It Takes an 86-Year-Old. Twirling Tutorial from Summer, 2018.