Stories of Strangers

“Hello, Ally? It’s Your Second Favorite Grandma.”

How to Behead a Barbie with a Spoon and Other Life Lessons From Grandma was still a fresh little baby post on the Internet when I received a phone call from my other grandmother, Cynthia Louise Morin.

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Left to right: my mother Beth, my grandfather Bob and my grandmother Cynthia.

“Ring, ring,” my phone said.

I looked at the caller ID.

“Uh-oh,” I said, clicking answer. “Hello?”

“Hello, Ally? It’s your second favorite grandmother,” Cynthia Louise Morin said.

I wasn’t in trouble for the unequal air time between my two grandmothers, she actually loved the story.

In her glowing review she stated, “When you grow up to become a serial killer, it’s on the record that it isn’t my fault,” said Cynthia Louise Morin, who taught me the F-word long before I pried off doll heads with spoons.

Cynthia Louise Morin is an interesting character. She stands about six feet tall with a mane of wild red hair and wire rimmed glasses that dominate her narrow face. When we adopted our chihuahua six years ago, we almost named her Cynthia Louise Morin because we thought it would be hilarious to periodically shout, “Cynthia Louise Morin, stop shitting on the carpet!”

The real Cynthia Louise Morin has probably never shit on the carpet, although her son (my father) Robert once peed on his father’s shoulders as a child at a parade.

Cynthia lives with her husband Bob near a picturesque lake house where I spent much of my childhood causing a ruckus. Her house sits on a hill that gently slopes to the lake, surrounded by apple trees rearing up for fall harvest and maple trees ready to be tapped for sap in winter.

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The house, the slope and the lake peeking out on the right.

Cynthia, who birthed three boys and no girls was likely delighted when I, the first of six grandchildren ended up female. She taught me to knit, cut the gross parts off a potato and be patient during LONG shopping trips to TJMaxx, skills which have undoubtedly contributed more to my life than my *cough* worthless journalism degree. She constantly bought me nice clothing which irked my dirty, rough and tumble tomboy self, but I find useful as an adult because I know which necklines work well for my broad shoulders and skinny neck.

In fact, she is the reason why I bring a sweater with me everywhere I go, even on 90 degree days “in case I get cold”.

Trips to her house were the best. My sister and I used to spend the first week of summer, just her and I with my grandparents at the lake. When my grandfather Bob became frustrated with us he took the tractor out to mow the lawn. He said it helped him blow off steam. I swear, by the time the week was out, Bob had trimmed those fields down to a bald patch of dust. We loved to stir up a ruckus.

The wind smelled spicy as it whipped off the lake, like a fresh can of fish bait with big juicy worms wiggling about in the warm dirt. I remember watching with rapt attention fishermen gutting fish during ice fishing season. I loved the way the blood steamed on the ice and imagined that gutting fish was a nice way to keep your fingers warm in subzero temperatures.

On warm fall days, with the sky painfully blue and bright above me, I climbed the apple trees in her orchard to bite at the hard, tart fruit still clinging to their branches. Cynthia always had great big bushels of apples for us on the porch to take home. My mother ground them up, stems, seeds, little funny bits on the bottom and all into purple-hued apple sauce.

During mudding season in late spring, I flew through the woods at 30 mph on quads, twigs whipping against my face mask and great waves of filth splashing over me as I careened around corners. We rode to the tree house tucked among the logging trails and once inside acted out scenes from my theater class and sang horrendous renditions of the songs from The Little Mermaid.

Not a single kid made it to the end of the day without black feet and sweaty, dirty hair. Cynthia coaxed us girls into the claw foot tub to wash our hair with Suave Strawberry Shampoo, a real treat for us. The boys usually got a bar of soap and a push into the lake or nothing at all.

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The docks in the rain.

The house’s pipes ran on well water, so in a house that usually hosted 16 people and a slew of dogs, bath time was an orchestrated event. When us girls were very young we either shared a bath or “pre-pooed” our hair and bodies with shampoo and soap so that we need only rinse off in the shower.

Cynthia called this method the car wash. She lined us up naked, assembly-line style at the shower to attack our limbs with an abrasive brush that tickled our feet and scraped no less than three layers of skin off our backs. The lukewarm water touched our skin for less than a minute before we were back in the cool bathroom air shivering in our towels.

Then at the kitchen table she laid out an army of brushes, picks and combs to deal with the tangled mess of hair on our heads. I loved the feeling of the comb scratching my scalp so I would tie my hair in knots with the hope that the process would last longer. It never went on for long enough.

Cynthia fascinated me. She was nothing like my other grandmother Margaret. Cynthia fretted over everything, wrote long lists in spidery handwriting that ended up on yellow notepads all over the house. She read murder mysteries and romance novels, became nervous, and then passed on the adult reading material to me. She pronounced “coupon” like [KJEW-pahn] instead of [KOO-pahn]. She never drank alcohol. She was very concerned with her health. In the evenings she made coffee milkshakes with big scoops of coffee ice cream, chocolate syrup, and milk “for the calcium”. Her doctor said she had the strongest bones he’s ever seen.

Cynthia probably never beheaded a Barbie with a spoon in her whole life. She did burn down a barn though.

The best thing that ever happened at the lakehouse was when the barn burned down. While it wasn’t necessarily Cynthia who set the fire, she did invite the volunteer firefighters to her house to burn the barn down for her, as part of a training exercise. I liked to believe they did this especially for me, a dirty, skinny girl who appreciated the darker things in life.

It was truly the biggest event to ever touch our little corner of Vermont. The whole fire department came and Cynthia cooked up a big meal for everybody. I took up station at the rope swing tied to the big oak tree by the barn. I was close enough that I could throw a rock and hit the broad side of the barn square on. I curled my toes around the knots in the rope swing as the fire started. I knew at that moment my life would never get better as I watched the barn begin to burn.

But then it did get better. My mother, who wanted to get some pictures of the burning barn, grabbed my hand and brought me right up to it. I peered into the gaping maw of the barn door into a hellish mouth of flames and darkness. A firefighter, dusty and suited up in his gear looked like a creature from an alien planet as he dragged a hose into the shadow world that lay just beyond my feet. That was the greatest moment of my life.

We retreated as the fire grew so that the firefighters could keep things under control. At a certain point as a building burns, the fire goes so large that no amount of intervention can keep the flames from spreading. When the fire reached that point the effect was awe inspiring. The flames leaped wickedly into the sky. Great columns of black smoke tunneled fifty feet up. The roar of the fire was that of a jet turbine, a great carnal scream I can still hear ringing in my ears. Cynthia puttered about, asking firefighters if they’d like any more Lays potato chips to go with their burgers.

I like Cynthia for who she is and never compared her to my other grandmother Margaret. Even though Cynthia annoyingly calls any small shop selling ice cream a “Dairy Bar” there is nothing I like more in the summertime than taking the pontoon boat across the lake to “The Dairy Bar”. I lay against the sizzling vinyl bench and stare up at the clouds as we skip against the choppy water.

Amidst the oppressing heat, Cynthia squawks at us from beneath a big sun hat, offering up sweaters.

“Yes, I’ll take a sweater.”

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My sister at the poltergeist pass above the lake.

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6 thoughts on ““Hello, Ally? It’s Your Second Favorite Grandma.”

  1. Neither grandmother should fret your love for them. You have kept them as individual as a cardigan and an anorak. You are a lucky girl to have such strong wonderful women in your life. Tschüss….and stay strange be don’t be a stranger!

    Liked by 1 person

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