Thursday, January 13, 2005

Tuti, a microstory

Grandma Tuti was half German-totalitarian, half Scottish-temper, and the first Floridian adventurer I ever met. From my first memory she had white hair, curly and short-cut, deep lines in her tanned leathery face, a lightning-quick smile, and a raucous laugh. Grandma Tuti was as contrary as a hurricane, one moment bragging about how she drove her GTO 95 mph on I-75 from Tampa to Gainesville (the whole way), and the next minute washing my mouth out with soap because I said ‘darn it’ under my breath.

Judy pounded Cracker’s head on the sidewalk; revenge for years of sibling nit-picking-- the line in the sand finally drawn. The physical nit-picking was over, replaced by adult nit-picking of the verbal variety. “I like your hair,” Judy said, thirty years later. Cracker pulled his waistband away from his waist and looked down, “Thanks, Judy. I parted down the middle today,” Cracker cackled while Judy rolled her eyes in mock disgust.

Grandma pulled the sandspurs out of my feet, explaining in a voice a touch gravely that the front yard needed to be mowed; it had been overtaken by weeds. I felt like she was old, maybe poor, a lonely old lady at that moment. But the next moment she was taking us kids out for ice cream and soda, showing us where she worked as a secretary for the Gasparilla Parade, which I somehow confused with Sas’parilla, probably because it was introduced to me so soon after the ice cream and soda.

I was eating butter-pecan in a waffle cone as fast as I could. All the sudden my head felt like it was about to explode. Mom must have noticed my helpless whimper. She rubbed my forehead until the friction of her rough hands on my skull heated up my brain and Viola! The pain went away as quickly as it came. Amazed, I figured she learned that trick at nursing school.

I showed my arrowheads and little broken pieces of flint dug out of the red clay at the end of the driveway to the archaeologist. She was Grandma’s friend and Grandma had taken me to see her. She told me the arrowheads were made by Alachua Indians a long time ago. She said I had found a thumb-nail scraper and showed me how Indians used them. I wanted to be an archaeologist for a long time after that.

Dad, who had been stationed in Berlin for awhile, always mentioned Krauts when Grandma came over. I liked the way they teased each other. Grandma would bang on the upright piano, playing some old German song, her bony hands, especially her left hand, flying back and forth across the keys. She learned to play “by ear” she always told me. I felt silly, but secretly proud, when she would listen to me poke out some tinkley tune. I learned to play by reading notes off paper.

We sat around the fire, a little way out in the field behind the tin-roofed house, while Uncle Cracker played ‘Matches’ on his guitar. We made rhymes with each others names, playing with words while sparks floated upward, falling back a little before winking out. Fireflys winked back.

Grandma Tuti loved our dachshund named Heineken. One day, Heineken jumped out the back of our truck on Highway 20. We looked but never found him. Two year later, Grandma Tuti was coming to see us, driving her VW Bug so fast the front two wheels would sometimes come off the ground, when she spotted Heineken on the side of the road. She kept him the rest of his life. My wife went with me to visit Grandma Tuti at her little mobile-home on five acres of yellow-orange straw and oak trees. I could see that my wife saw in Tuti what I saw and it made me love her even more.

I met my great-grandfather, Tuti’s father, when Tuti was already old, so he seemed positively ancient. He had been in the Merchant Marines until then, I gathered, but now was available for interviews. We taped what stories he told us, about sailing around the Horn on clipper ships and such. He was sick and dying and Grandma Tuti found him dead from a suicidal shotgun blast a few years later. I think Grandma Tuti liked it that I addressed any correspondence to her as ‘Grandma Tuti’ instead of her given ‘Emma Lou’.

Grandma Tuti claimed to have given me my first bath, so I think she felt entitled to wash the dirty words out of my mouth, even though she cussed like a sailor and drank home-made Elderberry wine like a fish. Grandma Tuti made the best sweet iced tea with milk. No one will ever make sweet iced tea with milk like that again.