Monday, October 18, 2010

Barbi Beckett: Gladys

My dad thought I should drink milk, for some reason. I appreciate milk as a grown-up, with a warm cookie or some chocolate cake but, as a kid, the only thing it was good for was moistening my sugar cereal. We call it “cow milk” now, which would’ve been like saying “earth dirt” back then.

I use to fantasize about falling ill and having a doctor gravely tell my pop, “Mr. Beckett, your daughter has a rare disorder and will die if she drinks any more milk. In fact, it is of ‘up’most importance that she drink only coke from now on.”

Coke meant any corn syrupy carbonated beverage – Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Sprite. What kind of coke do you want?

Fortunately, I did get my share of coke. When my mom would blow through and take me on some weird road trip where we’d sleep in the back of her Pinto and wash-up at rest stops, I’d always get to enjoy her breakfast of choice; Dr. Pepper and Hostess Cupcakes, the kind with the creamy filling and white curly cue on top. She got her false teeth before she turned twenty. I wasn’t going to remind her that mine were real.

Much more nurturing, but still nutritionally challenged, was my grandma. My short, round, Kool smokin’, instant (hot water from the tap) coffee swillin’ grandma introduced me to Aunt Jemima’s pancake syrup mixed with margarine, in a bowl, as a snack.

I spent every weekend at Grandma’s little house. She was a packrat (aka, hoarder) so there was always something to explore. Grandma had only been to Muskogee, Oklahoma and El Paso, Texas but she had an affection for all things ”Oriental”: Pictures of Japanese huts and fisherman, a low, round, black coffee table with abalone inlays and Chinese scenery, a red Buddha that sat about a foot and half high, whose nubbly head I rubbed for years. I passed hours laying on her couch, head hanging off, imagining the ceiling as the floor. It seemed so clean and Asian. I’d have to replace the doors with paper screens and justify the tiny walls between the rooms but it was a nice break from the chaos of her right-side-up house. I mostly loved her clutter though. The treasures were not buried deep.

My grandma mothered me and pampered me in ways that I craved. Growing up with my dad, I’d get hugs now and then but he wouldn’t think to, say, hold my hair back and rub my tummy when I threw up. My grandma would give me bubble baths and then lay me on her bed and dowse me in a cloud of baby powder. She was an Avon lady. She wasn’t a good Avon lady. Being an Avon lady cost my grandma a lot of money. There was the bubble bath, powder and Skin So Soft, but also the perfume bottles shaped as animals or fountains. She might have been her only costumer.

A major weakness for Grandma was the Avon candles and candle holders. She had hundreds and every once in a while, when we were feeling fancy, we’d have a candlelight dinner. That meant rounding up all of the candles, which was like an Easter egg hunt after finding the first twenty obvious ones. We’d end up with more than fifty candles of varying shapes and colors. A frosted purple tulip, a red globe, tapers, votives, tea lights. We’d light them and place them all over the messy dining/living room space and then turn off the overheads. The room sparkled and glowed so bright. The bedlam faded to the background as all those little points of color and light stood up front, creating a magical illusion.

Dinner would already be prepared and was always the same; Snickers, sliced into bite-size rectangles, eaten with a fork, and to drink, a lovely wineglass of coke with ice. Grandma and I would linger at the table long after the meal, just chit-chatting. The room would gradually dim as a candle burned out here and there. Eventually, we’d turn on a light and start blowing out the rest of the candles. If there had been a smoke alarm, we would have heard about it then. I don’t know how many candlelight dinners we had, but there were enough that they are burned into my mind as one perfect evening of love.

As a teenager I spent less and less time at Grandma’s house. I couldn’t stand the cigarette smoke. When I pulled up to her porch on my bike, I’d see her in her special chair, frantically stubbing out the fire on her Kool as she waved the smoke around with the other hand. I also hated how desperate she was to be touched. It made me uncomfortable and yet, had she not put her hands on me so much as a little girl, I might not have survived. I grew uneasy with her emotions and how quickly she’d tear up when telling a story. I knew then that it was because I had inherited her sensitivity and fought it daily. I couldn’t bear to see her cry and she couldn’t not cry so, I began to stay away, then moved away, and then, six months later she died.

When I received her ashes in the mail, my boyfriend and I took them to a beautiful spot by a river. As we sprinkled the ashes on the banks, the sky, honest to God, opened up. There was a solid cloud cover and then, a huge circle of blue sky right above us. The geese went nuts, honking their heads off for a full minute. She was diggin’ the scene of this place. (When I was little, my grandma would spot shooting stars and say, “money money money”. I’d always miss them but on one visit to the place where I’d taken her ashes, I sat picturing Grandma perched atop the tall wooden foot bridge, against the night sky, about to do a swan dive and, in that very moment, I saw my first shooting star).

After the ashes were spread and the geese calmed down I went, with my swollen eyes, into a 7-11 for provisions, then we returned to our unfurnished apartment and balanced a shelf on two speakers for a table. We sat on the floor for a candlelight dinner of Snickers and Coke, without wineglasses and with a paltry five candles.

I still have the wrapper from that candy bar in a little drawer of her black Japanese music box. When Grandma died, my mother made it to town before I did and had a massive yard sale. Most of the objects that Grandma treasured were gone. I did get that frosted purple tulip candle, the black coffee table with Folger’s rings and cigarette burns, that music box and a note in my grandmother’s handwriting that said, “To whom it may concern, Barbi Beckett can have anything from my house that she wants to keep.”


  1. Nobody is kidding when they say "book" to you, Barbi. Never stop typing, that's my wish. You're the perfect candidate for a memoir. You'd set the damn world on fire. Just keep going the way you're going and you'll have one.

    I'm going apeshit with the pom poms over here.

    What, specifically, I loved like extra crazy:

    *earth dirt
    *all the different shapes of candles at your Snickers dinner
    *the sky opening up, the geese honking

    I was so struck by this little girl who maybe wouldn't have survived without her Grandma's physical affection, however too much it ended up feeling like. That rope keeping you in life. I want to know more about that girl. I want to know everything.


  2. So, so great. And I second (and then third, just to be on the safe side) the suggestion about a memoir. Start parking these somewhere all together. Start thinking about an outline and an order to put them in. That's all you gotta do for right now, I say. And then wait until the moment strikes, and dive in. I can't wait to read it. Don't make me wait too long. xo

  3. I would have been jealous of you as a kid because your grandma had all of the coool Avon candles.

  4. That's twice you've made me tear up at work. Not easy to explain to others! Great work, and thank you for another wonderful story. My favorite part was that note she left.

  5. And I'm loving the opening sentence, "My dad thought I should drink milk, for some reason." It's just drops you right in there in such a funny, counterintuitive, perfect way.

  6. "It's just"? It just. Writing writedest.

  7. I know this was a long time ago, but reading about your childhood nutrition options, I want to make you some soup!

  8. Jesus, Barbi. I'm just going to keep saying "memoir" till I lose my voice. At which point I'll write it on the little chalkboard I wear on a leather strap around my neck.

    Write the memoir.

    [and the votive candles kill me.]

  9. thanks again. awaiting the book, please.

  10. Listen to Lisa goddamnit. - Marti

  11. I had the pleasure of going to this home and meeting your grandmother with you and my stuffed up nose from having a cold or allergies...I'll never forget telling your grandmother what sounded like "nice to beat you..."