I wanted to write about my step-grandmother Chris, but I can’t, not as such — I’ve written about her twice now and have come up with little more than a physical description and a big mess. So instead let me tell you about the table at Grandpa’s house, which I hope will cover what I really want to say about her anyway.
The table at Grandpa’s house ordinarily stretched ten feet long and was covered with a plastic-topped tablecloth, yellow and white checks with some sort of pattern in the squares–chickens or squarish flowers, maybe both. The tablecloth was textured like fabric; when you wiped it with a wet rag, it made a ripping sound as air bubbles were trapped, then released. The table possessed an interminable number of leaves that made it stretch to infinity when they were all added. Additional chairs could be summoned from throughout the house, even folding chairs from the basement, and they all seemed to fit around the table–although there was often a second table set up in the basement, to contain an overspill of children and awkward teenagers, banished for lack of conversational skills rather than age per se. For holidays, a cloth tablecloth with eyelet embroidery might be brought out, but it was always covered with a transparent plastic cover. A thin plastic-covered pad covered the table and each of the leaves. We sometimes pretended our fingers were astronauts jumping across the low-gravity surface of the moon.
The wood was painted a dull bone color; the cracked chair seats were dark, brick-red naugahyde, and the backs had three interlocking wood squares cut into each. The edges of the squares were somewhat chipped and dull, the paint worn off, grunge packed into the corners.
One chair, the one with arms, sat at the head of the table, and Grandpa Lambert always sat in that chair like a throne, even when it was a painful struggle to get in and out of the chair, and its arms tangled up with the handle of his cane, or later his walker, when he was as frail and angular and smelly as an old cat.
At his right hand sat Chris, with her back to the kitchen. Even when it was just the two of them in the house, they never sat anywhere else. Until I went to college I could not conceive of a house at which mealtimes did not occur at the dining-room table, with everyone in their designated place, which never varied unless there was company. This does not mean in any way that conversation occurred regularly at the table or that it was “family time”; the head of the table (i.e., the father) faced the television, which chattered and flickered throughout the meal, during which few or nor words were said, other than Grace. Whether one, as a child, could see the television was not material. One had to be excused from the table, even during holidays. To leave without pushing in one’s chair was madness–but no man ever held a chair for a woman, or stood for one. I didn’t hear about such things until later.
My grandmother, Grandma Alice, died before I was born, when my father (the youngest of nine) was in college. I know almost nothing about her; I can infer that she must have been made of iron, given Grandpa Lambert. I only knew Chris. Never Grandma Chris or Stepgrandma Chris or even Auntie Chris. To have an adult relation whose name was not erased by or appended to a family title was a singular thing: only Chris was just Chris.
She overspilled the sides of her armless chair and rose over my head like a mountain. Her voice had a rich timber during conversation but shrieked like an eagle’s when necessary. We lived more in terror of being shouted at by Chris than by my mother. Her cooking always smelled terrible and was pervaded with the scent of dried onion flakes and beef overcooked into mush. My grandfather demanded that sort of thing. Which mean everyone did, whether they wanted it or not, because Grandpa was exactly that kind of patriarch, that kind of bully. You could see his opinions stamped onto the facial expressions of everyone around him, as a survival technique.
Except Chris, who was not putting up with that shit.
I never saw her fight my Grandpa. I only saw him spitting chewing tobacco in places he shouldn’t: trash cans, on the floor next to a spittoon, the sink, the toilet (which he then left unflushed). Mom says he would always spit into one of Chris’s flowerbeds by the back door. That awful, repulsive sweet smell of chewing tobacco, Skoal brand only.
Grandpa Lambert, reduced to passive-aggressive attacks with chewing tobacco. That was how strong Chris was. And physically strong. When Grandpa had to move into a green-enameled hospital bed in the solarium and be hauled around in a wheelchair, she thought nothing of it. She slung him around like an Amazon.
When he died (I was ten), the inheritance was complicated, but my dad inherited the house and the farm, and Chris got some money and some of the stuff.
Mom wanted Chris out of the house; Chris didn’t want to go, at least not right away. I remember my mother at one point horrifically upset that Chris has locked the door on the house. Locked the door. Nobody locks their doors out in the country, not even when you live next to the reservation.
Locked the door. What madness.
Except that, of course, the fact that my mother knew the door was locked implied that there was a reason to lock it.
The whole situation coalesced around a battle over the table, who would have the table, how soon Chris would move out was significant but it was the table that was important, the table belonged with the farm house, Chris swore she would take it, but it belonged, but then again, wasn’t Chris supposed to be able to take what she wanted out of the house?, but belonged, doesn’t that word mean anything anymore?
In the end my mother got to keep the table and the chairs, which was good because she would take care of them and Chris would only trash them, and because they belonged with the house, and really it was the house that had won, because the table would stay with the house, and that was what mattered. As soon as the house was in hand, we resanded all the wood floors and painted the rooms and eradicated most of the carpet and moved everything and tore out the archway between the dining and the living rooms (no fear, the head of the table still faced the television) and installed a wood stove and put up a big board with all the family and neighborhood branded onto it. When I try to remember the way the house used to look before that, I can’t–most of the rooms were overwritten before we moved in. I suspect they had been set to Alice’s taste rather than Chris’s. I don’t think Chris gave a damn about the house, and I wouldn’t have put it past her to have gotten into the fight over the table just to get under Mom’s skin.
Chris moved to Chamberlain, and we rarely saw her after that. She took on dozens of foster kids, kids of drug addicts from the rez a lot of the time, as though caring for ordinarily damaged human beings wasn’t enough and she had to find someone strong enough or desperate enough to survive the amount of stony-faced affection she exuded. I heard that later she adopted three of them but that they broke her heart often, which she probably survived at a loud volume with a clenched fist as they tentatively tried to live with their broken birth parents, then retreated to the fortress of Chris’s unflinching, unillusioned love, then back again, back and forth until she died, ironically of heart disease.
Mom refinished the table and chairs, and when we moved to Flandreau, she took them with her. We had to take all the leaves out in order to make it fit.
Note: I found a good obit for Chris here.