by Jami Hanreddy
This is actually my mother’s story, not mine, so the details are slightly blurred. Kind of like looking at kelp in a pool as the tide surges in and out. But it was a transfiguring moment in my mother’s young life, shaping her future intimacies for all of time. And thus, perhaps, although I don’t like to think so, shaping mine in a hand-me-down sort of way.
The story is about my grandmother, Ma; and my grandfather, Pa. About their shape-shifting love and its sway on the hearts of their nine children, especially my mother. About the transforming power of spit. And about how a scrap of paper was turned into a mink coat.
The first time I heard about Ma’s mink, I was five years old, playing on the checkered linoleum in the kitchen on Shirley Avenue in Revere, Massachusetts. The kitchen that was all red and scallops of cream, the red plastic seats on the metal-legged chairs matching the pattern on the post-war Formica table. The kitchen at the back of the house at the end of the long hall, past the front-parlor lending library and the back-parlor dress shop. The last left before you went straight on to Ma and Pa’s bedroom.
This was the kitchen where the family gathered every day. When they were little, when they were grown, back from the war, visiting on Sundays with girlfriends, boyfriends, then babies. Talking and teasing, grousing and grudging. And loving. It was here that Ma made the soup after a long day running the five-and-dime, then the lending library and the dress shop while Pa delivered dresses to the ladies … always the sweet ladies. And he would often not make it home in time for dinner.
One day when I’m five or so, my dolls and I pretend to have tea on the checkerboard under the table while we eavesdrop on the uncles: four brothers and five brothers-in-law. With elbows planted on the table and hands stroking serious chins, they whisper about how the mink coat Pa bought for a bold beguiler named Brazen Hussey (or so I thought until I was about 12) was paid for with Ma’s sweat. They growl that they want to burn this witch, but that Ma should get her own mink instead. And they hiss that as long as they can remember, when Ma served up the soup at the end of her very long day, she spit her venom into Pa’s bowl. Not so Pa could see, but always making a show of it for the nine children.
This was the kitchen where my mother, Pa’s favorite (as all the girls thought of themselves), learned to endure the hurts of men. And love her mother. And hate her mother. Learned, too, that you could take your power back and make it “even Steven” if you just spit in their soup.
And as for Ma’s mink – the one Ma bought for herself with the insurance money collected by producing Pa’s receipt for Ms. Hussy’s mink and calling it stolen because no receipt could be found for Pa’s heart? When Ma passed, it was passed to her youngest daughter, who passed it to her youngest daughter, who gave it to her older sister to cut into squares to make throw pillows for her couch. Just perfect for the puppies to hump.
Jami Hanreddy is extraordinarily privileged to be living out her remaining years near Death’s Door with a husband who is a great kisser and two mutts who definitely are in competition for second place in that category.