By Sandra Olson
Grandma lived in Winnemucca, Nevada, in an old frame house, with a screened front porch, a coal cellar and a shed in the back. The house sat on an unpaved road a few blocks from the railroad yard, beyond the Chinese cemetery up on the hill and across the Humboldt River from Winnemucca’s main street.
My mother and father and I used to visit a couple of times a year, driving up Highway 80 from California, on that winding two lane road, in the early 1950s
Grandpa and Great Aunt Minnie lived in that house too, but Grandma’s bedroom was where the treasures lay. Grandpa shared that bedroom but it was Grandma’s space. Next to her side of their double bed was a floor lamp with a a beautiful and fascinating lampshade: silk, with tiny hanging beads arranged in a floral design. When I was very young I liked to gather the beads in my hands, and jiggle and play with them.
On the floor next to her bed was a permanent stack of True Story and True Confession magazines. Nobody censored my reading, ever, and when I got old enough to look at the stories I found them fascinating, though mystifying. How did letting your boyfriend come over while you were babysitting lead to pregnancy? Why did the bad girls in that high school wear red skirts?
Grandma said to me once, “There are some great stories in those magazines.” Neither of us suspected that they weren’t true. I used to stay up all night reading them, and hearing the cottonwoods rustling in the dark.
It was interesting to me later as an adult that Aunt Minnie entered her room through Grandma’s. Both bedrooms opened from the living room. She could have used her own door from the living room but Grandpa had it blocked off on the living room side, with his card table and Stromberg-Carlson console radio, where he played solitaire all day and listened to whatever news program reception he could get in Winnemucca circa 1950.
I imagine marital privacy was not an issue at that time of their lives. And speaking of marital relations, years later my mother told me that when she was about to marry, Grandma gave her this one bit of advice: “Use Vaseline.”
I never saw Grandpa get up in the morning. He was always established and incommunicado at his card table with the morning news when I came out of the back bedroom off the kitchen. Grandma got up a little later. She would come out of the bedroom in her blanket bathrobe, grump-faced and barefoot, and sit in her rocker to put on her felt slippers, next to the warmth of the oil heater in the dining room. She was troubled by arthritis and had skinny bowed legs – from early poverty and rickets – supporting her wide body.
She was a slow starter in the mornings but eventually got the oatmeal and white bread toast and coffee with lots of cream and sugar onto the dining room table. Grandma was raised in West Plains, Missouri, at a time when white bread and white cornmeal were considered quite elegant. Also elegant was the obligatory gold eyetooth, which twinkled when she laughed.
Grandma had been a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic in 1917, and never got over it and that’s why she couldn’t do housework. Or so the family story went. I am suspicious about those after effects on account of another piece of advice she once gave my mother: “When he didn’t do what I wanted, I just went to bed until he gave in.”
So we are back in that bedroom. On the other side of the bed, where Grandpa slept without a reading light, was the cedar chest. It held the beautiful things that Grandma was “saving,” gifts from over the years. She had bed jackets, nightgowns, and slips. She had scarves and other “pretties.” Some of these were tied in their original packages with satin bows.
On the dresser was more treasure: an old hand embroidered runner (the house was scattered with doilies and runners), stained and worn but still “good,” Grandma’s Evening in Paris cologne, in its distinctive blue bottle. More: hairbrushes, combs, various powders, bobby pins, curlers, bottles, and other mementos of the past. There was an old celluloid mirror and a matching hair receiver (basically a lidded jar). Grandma hadn’t had long Victorian hair in decades but there it sat, empty.
There would have been a pair of dress shields. My mother couldn’t get her to consider deodorant. She “didn’t believe in it.” Evening in Paris, old lady body odor mixed with talcum powder and Vicks VapoRub: that was Grandma.
She did believe in Mary Baker Eddy, though not enough to follow Christian Science principles. She also believed firmly in the decadence of the Catholic Church and recommended a book to me called “Mary the Monk,” as I recall, as proof. I never did get to see a copy and can’t imagine what it described.
Every few months Grandma and Aunt Minnie would go “over town” past the railroad yard and across the Humboldt River bridge, to get permanent waves. They returned looking frizzled and a little skinned.
The bedroom was too dark for most beauty preparations but it didn’t matter. Grandma didn’t have much makeup on that dresser. Sometimes when I was a teenager I would try to put lipstick on her. “Now don’t move, Grandma, and don’t lick your lips first.” Then she would lick her lips. Finally I would get the lipstick on and we would go out, with Aunt Minnie and my mother, to one of the three Basque restaurants in Winnemucca, where old sheepherders sat on the bar stools drinking Picon punches.
Dinner at these restaurants was family style, with nonstop red wine in thick glasses, and five generous courses. After the dinner we would go to one of the casinos so Grandma and my mother could play bingo and work the slot machines.
There were not many gambling joints in those days, and if a casino could be called “family style,” this was it. My family knew the owners and some of the dealers and cocktail waitresses. They probably were raised in town or on nearby ranches and had made the high school sojourn once a year to climb Winnemucca Mountain and repaint the “W.” The boys, that is. The girls stayed in the Home Ec room to fix lunch.
Whether the casino staff were old friends or not, I wasn’t allowed into the gambling rooms, so would amuse myself by playing the arcade games, getting quite handy with mechanical pistols. Sometimes I would get autographs from the band members and vocalist when there was entertainment.
When Grandma and Aunt Minnie were along, it was an early night and home to bed, where Grandpa would have gone to bed already. He never went with us to gamble, only to dinner once in a while if he had to. Once, when he had too much of that red wine, he got sick in the toilet and Grandma accidentally flushed away his false teeth.
This brings me to another memory of that bedroom: on the dresser, two nightly water glasses, each holding a pair of pink-gummed dentures. Old family pictures show all of us except my picture-taking father lined up in front of our 1939 Packard, with the old folks and their manufacture-perfect white smiles.
The bedroom and the rest of that house were furnished by mail order from Sears and Wards in the 1920s. That old house didn’t have any closets, but Grandma and Grandpa had the most elegant solution: a “Monkey Ward” wardrobe. The other bedrooms had suspended iron pipes for hanging clothes
Grandpa had steady employment as an electrician on the Western Pacific Railroad and when times got good they ordered furniture. Later, it was always an exciting day for me when the mail order catalogs would come.
In the drawer at the bottom of Grandma’s wardrobe were some old mechanical toys that had belonged to my uncle. I used to rummage around in that drawer, in every drawer of the house, in fact.
I can marvel now at the freedom I had as a child. I got to explore the world outside, roam around the countryside, and, when visiting Grandma, to rummage in her past and present. There were my mother’s old books: “Tempest and Sunshine,” “The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew,” “What Every Young Girl Should Know.”
Now, late in the day, I can see the imprinting of family. I too like to “save” new purchases for a while. I enjoy trash magazines. When I am out of sorts I look just like Grandma on a bad day: lips compressed, mouth pulled down at the corners. And I still love to rummage around in ancient treasures of one kind or another, Often I am reminded of my Winnemucca days: sometimes when I look at an old vase, a Maxfield Parrish print, or an embroidered pillowcase. These days I call it antique shopping.