Jacob picked orange even as its front proclaimed the color as pumpkin and Gio picked red, because they were all out of pink. He begrudgingly followed us to the table and sat down next to me, smoothing the small tall stack of flimsy boards that were newspaper-like in their texture. Uncapping the oversized marker he went about smacking the color into the Free Space and then rested his chin in his palm and waited.
Both boys scanned the table of purses and bags that would serve as the prizes of the lucky and declared their intentions right before the room buzzed with the scratch of a voice over a microphone.
When I conjure my Grandma Helen my thoughts float, zip and pause for moments on things like condensed milk, crisp five dollar bills and heavy, colorful rag rugs stacked in a roomy, musty basement. I reminisce about things like Little Debbie cookies, clean houses, open doors and small juice glasses filled to the top with generic black cherry soda.
She was a sweet old woman who cursed by saying things like “son of beech-nut” and thought badly of anyone who smoked.
I chuckle when I remember how she stacked boxes of crackers and snacks in the oven she never used, bills and important policy papers in the microwave she never plugged in and her ability to gossip, apply a fresh sweep of lipstick and build her upper arm strength by shifting her small black Valiant into gear all at once as we zoomed around free of seatbelts.
Her guilty pleasures ran the gamut from Saturday night polka dances to cheap icy cold beer or the once-in-a-while highball. She never missed church or a viewing lest she miss the chance to socialize and grieve and she harbored a love of costume jewelry and the ability to match it to every outfit she owned. A trait she happily handed down to me.
But her bliss was Bingo.
From the time I was the smallest of girls my mother would tell me the stories of her family, passing down the tall tales and truly hard to believe legends that would become our history. Regale is the word that comes to mind. I wasn’t simply told stories; I was regaled, entertained and quite possibly distracted to ensure maximum help as we dusted baseboards and carried buckets of soapy water from one end of the house to the other in a futile attempt to keep dust bunnies away.
And the stories about my Grandma always start and end with the Bingo. The way she would cook dinner, clean the kitchen and leave my mother in a very quiet house with strict instructions not to wake her dad, or drink, eat or soil anything while she gallivanted off with a pocketbook full of small red markers, jingly coins and prohibited (and therefore hidden) snacks buried deep in the folds.
I was only invited to accompany her to a Bingo hall twice in the whole time she and I inhabited the earth together. My mom used to tell me to not take it personally, “Grandma takes Bingo seriously” and I got to see it up close and personal those trips where I watched her work that room and her twenty-five card spread like a barker at a carnival. Coaxing, soothing, clucking like a mother hen and then her unbelievable transformation when it came down to the first letter and number called. She’d scan her cards like a paranoid auditor and still be able to hear every story being shared in rapid whispers in between the boom of the announcer.
She treated those evenings like a job more than the one she schlepped to in the dress factory that existed to fund them.
I came out of my reverie to one son on my left all energy and talk, easily distracted and unable to sit still while the one on my right channeled his inner competitor and seemed to challenge every middle aged woman in the room. Just as one son remembered he was six and chucked his marker and paper at me in exchange for a run around the room the other seemed to settle in as fortitude rose in his soft pink cheeks.
Raising boys often leaves me on the outside of their activities. I reject the athleticism and the roughhousing and it isn’t often I see the women of my past reflected in their eyes. But that evening, even as we went home empty handed, I caught a spark of Helen and the great grandchildren she didn’t live long enough to hold.