Grandmas & Santa Claus

My mother indisputably made the best pinto beans on planet earth.

Growing up in a trailer made me envy my friends who lived in conventional houses, and growing up with no grandparents really made me jealous. When I watched my friends interact with their grandparents, it seemed to me that they had the perfect foils to their parents. My friends' grandparents were always giving them money when their parents did not. Their grandparents "understood" when stress levels between parent and child escalated. They could "run away" to their grandparents' where they often had their own room there, too.

My father's mother, Grandma Ball, died when I was five, and his father had been dead for many years. The only things I remember about Grandma Ball were her severe looks (like a grim Harry Truman in drag) and her dementia (which, if diagnosed today, was probably Alzheimer's). I was too young to understand where she actually lived, and I only remember her visiting Daddy a couple of times. The night she peed on an unplugged space heater is the thing of legend in our family. On the dining room table my mother proudly displayed a basket of artificial fruit she "bought" with books of the S & H Green Stamps they gave away at the C & B Grocery Store. The basket was 50s modern in gold tone plated wire, and the fruit was actually made of delicately painted wax; the heft of the apples, bananas, and oranges was pretty convincing. At least it was convincing to Grandma Ball. She tried to eat one of the apples, and her teeth marks forced Momma to turn and arrange the apple in such a way that the casual viewer could not see the firm impressions in the wax.

It was at that same table I sat one day and asked my mother about her parents. I was in grade school, and I knew what we in our family were never supposed to talk about in front of my mother: that her parents were brutally murdered when she was on 14 . . . gunned down by a jealous and spurned lover of my mother's sister, my Aunt Maude. I broke the silence with my naïve but persistent question: "Why don't you ever cry about your parents, Momma?" I only asked because I could not fathom a life without her or Daddy. "I have no tears left. I was cried-out years ago," was her simple and toneless reply. Her voice expressed a finality that kept me from pressing her on the matter; in fact, I never spoke to her of it again.

My mother indisputably made the best pinto beans on planet earth. I'm not being nostalgic or revisionist here, either. I've been eating pinto beans for half a century, and, though I've had some good ones, they cannot compare to Momma's. She cooked them all day on the stove, constantly stirring, replenishing water, and adding her ingredients. The day before cooking the beans Momma would hand sort the dry beans, rejecting bits of effluvia such as rocks and/or shriveled runts, then soak them in cold water overnight.

It was a late December afternoon before Christmas, and I was out of school for the holidays. I must have been in the second or third grade at the time. I sat at the dining room table watching Momma sort beans. She moved the basket of wire fruit out of the way, opened a bag of dried beans, and then swiftly and expertly sorted the legumes like a usurer counting stacks of money. Momma's hands shuttled as we sat in silence, when I broke the silence with a question that had been burning in my gut for weeks: "There ain't no Santa Claus, is there?" Momma didn't look up, and her hands didn't miss a beat. "Nope," she said, her voice as flat as the day I'd asked about her parents.

I sat there for a few minutes more, neither of us talking, the sound of dry beans being separated like wheat and chaff, sheep and goats, saints and sinners. Then I got up to go outside where the bare branches of the persimmon tree in the front yard were pinned against the slate gray sky, and the winter wind whispered into my ear, comfortless and unintelligible.


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