The healing power of tabloid journalism

(this is part five of a WIP with the working title of
The Circle at the Top of the Hill)

All her life Gram had followed the same morning routine and it always included a donut or some other sweet for breakfast.  And then, when did it happen?  Sometime in the nineteen seventies.  Suddenly sugar was bad.

“You shouldn’t be eating those Hostess donuts,” her granddaughter informed her one morning in the fall of 1972.  She was visiting from California and had arrived badly needing a bath.  “They’re full of chemicals.” 

“I’ve been eating this way for fifty years so I don’t think I need a

“And Gram, I don’t think you and Auntie Dottie should read the Confidential.  It’s full of crap.”

“As I was about to say, I do not need nutrition lessons from an eighteen year old with hair so long she could use it for toilet paper. And probably does.”

“Gram! You’re getting such a foul mouth. It’s that magazine.” The girl was teasing, of course, by throwing Gram’s own, oft-said words back at her.

“One thing I’ve learned in all my years of nursing is healing is a mysterious process and a cure can come from the most unexpected of places.”  The girl required an additional explanation but it wouldn’t be forthcoming from Gram who had a full day of shopping planned.  Besides, even if she had all day,  Gram couldn’t possibly explain to someone so young and sure of themselves the odd manner in which peace treaties are forged.

* * *

Strangers to a small town can’t hope to be accepted until they prove themselves to be respectable and hard-working.  For women that meant: showing respect for your husband and his family through modest and appropriate behavior and involvement in community potlucks with homemade and not store bought cupcakes. And they couldn’t just offer women cut rate perms and dye jobs using generic kits from the local K Mart and administered over their kitchen sinks.  That was what Gram had told her new daughter-in-law (Dottie) shortly after they’d met in 1954 and the younger woman had announced her intentions.  It was good advice,  particularly for someone who’d shown up from out of nowhere and pregnant so Gram had fully expected the girl to at least listen. 

But it all went in one ear and out the other.  Before she knew it, Dottie had taken to waddling about town with a baby about to pop out onto the sidewalk, asking perfect strangers if they wanted a cheap perm and then hanging out at the town’s only pub with her new friends.  A pregnant woman in a bar without her husband had been unthinkable in Gram’s time but it did no good to complain to either her husband or son.  They just shrugged their shoulders and said “Times are different.”  Gram was forced to bite her tongue which by this time was about ready to fall off. 

When the baby finally arrived looking much darker than expected, Jim took one look at his wife’s face and foresaw decades of female bickering.  So he told Gram to keep her doubts about the baby’s paternity to herself and to desist from unsolicited parental advice. This plan, he hoped, would keep disputes at a minimum and it did.  But only, because he retired shortly after the birth. This gave he and Gram the freedom to spend their winters in Florida and their summers taking cruises and visiting their other children on the West Coast as they’d always dreamt.

However,  after eight years Jim tired of traveling and longed to spend his remaining years surrounded by the familiar.  They returned home and had just gotten back into their routines when someone had the gall to telephone just as they were setting down to supper. 

  “Charlie, this better be good,” Gram told her son.  “I’ve got supper on the table.”

“I know, I know, Ma, it’s just that Dottie’s gone off to Jersey City and I got an emergency.”

“Lordy, Charlie, what kind of woman did you marry? She’s off gambling and you two barely have enough money to put food on the table. Lord have mercy ⏤”

“What, Ma?  You think I can’t take care of my children? I’m more of a mother to them than Dottie!  But I got an important Lion’s Club meetin’ tonight and I can’t take the boys and have them running all over the place.  The Manleys usually look in on them when we’re not ta home but they’re down in Hadley at her ma’s for the weekend.  I’m not asking you to babysit. The boys are just fine on their own,   I just need to tell little Charlie where to go in case of an emergency.”

“You leave the two boys alone in the house?  Why, Gary’s just a baby!”

“Ma, he’s six.  Lil Charlie can look after him.  He does it all the

“Well I never!  Charlie Hansen, you send those children up here right now!  Grandpa and I’ll give them a proper scrubbing like they need and make sure they eat something other than peanut butter sandwiches!!”    

Minutes later, Dottie’s two young sons quietly slogged up the hill to Gram’s where she stood waiting like a drill sergeant.  They were, as usual, dirty, hungry and sick. The older one, Little Charlie, had a sailor’s foul mouth and, as a result, spent most of that night with a bar of Ivory soap between his teeth.  Little Gary got into Jim’s pipe tobacco and ended up with the runs. 

By Sunday night, Gram’d had up to here. The boys, who’d refused to eat their turnips and beets, had been sitting at the dining room table since noon. As soon as they heard the familiar rumble of the Gambler’s Special roaring back into town, they leapt from their chairs and  tried to escape out the backdoor but Gram had other plans. “You boys just stay right where you are!  I have a mind to have a few words with your ma.”

“Helen   Jim began then, seeing her face, scooted the boys to the back porch where he’d sat reading most of the afternoon.  He knew when to dive for the foxholes.

Ten minutes later the back door flew open. “Hey Gram!”   Dottie was as crisp and fresh as sun-dried laundry on a fine hot day but Gram was resolute.

“Dorothy Hansen, it’s about time you got home.  Do you know

“Guess what Gram!  I won one hundred and forty dollars! I’ve never won anything in my whole life, but I won one hundred and forty dollars!” She had on baby blue peddle-pushers,  a tee shirt that was too tight, and worn loafers without socks. Gram shuttered to think she’d been wandering around the casinos in that get-up but she had more important fish to fry. 

“Dorothy, your son has the foulest mouth I’ve ever heard on a child and

“I thought the boys might be up here.”

“Charlie was going to leave them alone for the night!”

“That’s not my fault!”  She placed a small box on the kitchen table.  It was wrapped in crisp, white paper and tied by a ribbon the color of Jim’s periwinkle eyes. “Now, look Gram.  I don’t wanna fight. I brought you a present!  Go ahead and open it up. Oh and you’ll never guess who we saw.  Frank Sinatra!”

“Dorothy Hansen, your husband sent your children up here dirty and hungry while he went off drinking!” 

“Gram, Charlie can feed himself and clean his own kids, which is what he should have done instead of sending them up to stay with his mother.  Charlie’s a grown man.”

“If I ever left my kids with Jim for the weekend, Lord knows what he would have done.  He’d have thought I was plum crazy and sent me to the institution for the mentally insane!  Yes siree, that’s what he would have done.”

“Times are different.  Women don’t get locked in insane asylums for wanting to have a little fun.  Come on.  Open your present, Gram.” 

“I don’t have time for such foolishness, Dorothy. No siree. And neither do you. You just better take your boys, get on home and take care of your family which is where you belong, instead of running off to

“Alright Gram, suit yerself.  I’ll just leave your present here until you settle down.”  Then she yelled in a voice half the neighborhood could hear, “Come on boys!  Your no good Ma is here!” 

The boys launched into a full gallop out the kitchen door.  Dottie grabbed Little Charlie by the shoulder mid-flight. “Where’s yer manners?” 

“Thank you Gram,” he mumbled and then together they all ran down the hill.

It would take a cold winter to pass before their relationship began to thaw.  Holidays in which few words were spoken and family news passed along by the men was starting to be the norm and then along came Spring.

The snows had melted and, finished with the designated chore of the day (ironing), Gram was minding her own p’s & q’s in the backyard with a mug of lemonade. On the lawn below Jim had set up crochet wickets in anticipation of a couple of matches with his nieces that weekend.  The old mallets were chipping paint which made them even more dear to Jim who was an active man, not given to sitting around, except after supper if there was a White Socks game.  He golfed when the weather was nice and skated when it was snowy and cold.  Gram did note that the brambles in the creek would need clearing now that spring had arrived, but decided to give her husband a couple of days of golf before bringing up the subject.  Then her mind drifted to her neighbor who was a Catholic and probably had an update on the Father Murphy scandal.  Perhaps she’d see Gram sitting in the garden and voluntarily come over to fill her in.

Instead she heard a car pull into their driveway and crash into the garbage can which then rolled down towards the street.

Dottie’d recently dyed her curly hair the color of ripe cherries and some of the dye still smudged her temples. She was wearing the sort of plaid Bermuda shorts generally favored by middle-aged golfers.  Her earrings looked like dangling jawbreakers and her sleeveless shirt exposed black bra straps. But the thing that really irked Gram were the flowered flip-flops on her feet.  They belonged on children at the beach and not a married woman galavanting all over town.       

“What’cha doing lazin’ about, Gram?”  She asked, plopping herself down on the grass and crossing her legs Indian style. Before Gram could comment on the garbage can having yet another dent, Dottie continued:  “Let’s see, it’s Tuesday. Ironing day!  Shouldn’t you be busy ironing?”

“I’m finished with the ironing, thank you very much.  How about you? Why aren’t you at work?”

“Hell, Gram, the first day the sun is shining in months?  You can’t go to work on a day like this.  Hey, I got an idea. I got the top of the Mustang down let’s go for a spin!”

“I didn’t just pay seven dollars to have my hair done to ride around in a

“Whatever you say, Gram.  Your loss.  Hey, look at this.”  She shoved the magazine she’d been holding into Gram’s unwilling lap. “Liz Taylor’s shacking up with Richard Burton. Ha! Serves Eddie Fisher right for what he did to Debbie, don’t you think?”

It was a gossip rag. “Oh, for crying out loud, Dottie, why do you waste your money on this garbage?” 

“It’s not garbage, Gram.  Lookie here.” She pointed to a grainy back and white photo of the couple. “Next you go to the Super which should be this Thursday, right? would you pick me up a copy?  They’re right near the cashier.”

  “Is that what you came up here for?  To try to get me to waste my money on some gossip rag?”

“No Gram.  I haven’t seen you for awhile.  I thought you might be missing me.”

“Now, how could I be missing you when you’re all anyone ever talks about? Crazy Dottie this and Crazy Dottie that.”

  Dottie sprung to her feet like an overwound top. “Crap.  They don’t have anything better to do in this town than pass judgement on anyone who wasn’t born and raised here.

“Well, if you didn’t call such attention to yourself by ⏤”

“It’s been great seeing ya, Gram, but  I’d better fetch Little Charlie from school before he sets it on fire. You know. . .” she paused for dramatic effect “ he’s rotten to the core just like his Ma.”

“You’d better be setting our garbage cans to rights before you go tearing off.”

“Right Gram. Don’t forget my magazine.”

On the next duly designated shopping day, Gram spotted the Confidential on the rack right above the Juicy Fruit gum. Marilyn Monroe had been killed by the Kennedys and there was undeniable evidence that aliens had been elected to Congress.

“I better buy this for Dottie,” she told Louann, the check out girl, “because if I don’t, she’ll spend some of Charlie’s hard-earned money on this garbage and you know how hard he works.”

Louann smiled.  “Sure Mrs. Hansen.”

“I’m not going to read it, mind you Louann.”

“Noooo.  Mrs. Hansen.”

“Jim’d think I lost my noodle.”

“I won’t tell him,” the girl winked.

That evening she sat at the window in the front room until Dottie’s Mustang rounded the corner of Main and Elm.  Then she picked up the phone.   Jim was so quiet she had no idea he’d come into the room and stood behind her.

“Who are you spying on now Helen?” 

“You just about gave me a heart attack, sneaking up on me!  It just so happens Dottie is on her way up.”

Jim chuckled.  “To see you?”

“Yes sir!”

“What’s up?”

“Never you mind! I can’t even look out my own window without being accused of ⏤”

“Okay, okay,” he muttered and then scurried to the back porch with his newspaper. 

Ten minutes later Dottie flew through the screen door and let it flutter haphazardly to a close.  “Little Charlie says you wanted to see me, Gram.”

“I hardly recognized you in those scrubs.”

Dottie laughed.  “You thought I wouldn’t make it at the hospital, didn’t yah Gram?”

“I didn’t say that now did I?  But working at a hospital takes a lot of discipline and

“Yeah, yeah, yeah Gram.  Little Charlie said you had something for me.”

“Speaking a Little Charlie, Maybelle Brown says he

“I’m too tired to wanna fight about Little Charlie. Guess what your favorite daughter-in-law did today?”

“I don’t have time for guessing games, Dottie, I’ve got supper to fix for Jim.”

“I got my technician’s license!”

“Your technician’s license?”

“Yah, Gram.  You’re now lookin’ at Dorothy Hansen, Registered Lab Technician.    Pretty good for a gal what never graduated high school, huh?”

“That’s not something you should be bragging about.  But becoming a lab technician, that’s, well now, Dorothy, I’m proud of you.”

“You are Gram?”

“I am.  Now take this piece of trash home before Jim finds it and raises the roof.”

“You didn’t read it Gram?”

“No sir! You wouldn’t believe what they wrote about Rock Hudson.  It’s pure filth.”

“I thought you didn’t read it Gram.”

“How could I not read it?  It was sitting on the kitchen table all day, waiting for you to come pick it up. But I’ll never buy it again.  No ma’am.  You can depend on that.”

Gram chuckled when she thought back on that day.  Of course, she bought more of those silly magazines, every shopping day. And when Dottie got home from work, they sat at the kitchen table and argued about the messy lives of celebrities, ignoring for a few moments their own private war.

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