As soon as I was allowed to ride my Little Miss Buzz bike out of my neighborhood and into another, I haunted the houses of my friends. Right after breakfast, I’d hop onto that banana seat and fly down the street, the fringe from my handlebars fluttering in the wind.
I was drawn to the homes where multiple siblings squabbled and parents didn’t mind an extra kid propping herself up onto the kitchen counter. These were the places that I ate countless meals, napped on couches and scoured cupboards for Oreos. In exchange for these familial privileges, I gladly dried dishes and ran the vacuum, and for one particular benefactor, helped to watch their live-in, dementia-suffering grandmother.
My friend Mary was the baby, the only girl with three big brothers. The boys were generally excused from Grandma duty, and so when the Mrs. was otherwise occupied, Mary and I did the looking after. We learned the jingles that amused Grandma, helped her to the toilet and the table, soothed her when she begged to know where her parents were and why they had not yet come for her. By the time we’d entered high school, we were astute at anticipating Grandma’s needs and understood that she lived in another world just adjacent to ours.
Though we respected this, and were kind and sweet, the potential benefits became all too clear, and we embarked on some rather base adventures, the worst of which was the day we took Grandma to the beer drive-through.
The two eldest brothers were already away at school, and the youngest left for a college scouting trip with both parents. Mary and I were put in charge, and what else was there to do but throw a party? (Here, I insert a Kids-Don’t-Try-This clause, because a party for us required alcohol.) We had no fake ID with which to buy our booze, no big brother available to beg, and so we turned to Grandma.
Even in the 1980s, liquor store owners knew better than to sell to teenagers, and though beer was available in most groceries, we knew that walking the aisles of our local Kroger would be impossible with Grandma. Then our resourceful minds lit on the idea of the beer warehouse, where there was a drive-up option and burly men took your order and money and loaded your goods right into the trunk. No walking required.
At home, we three sat at the kitchen table, and while Grandma nibbled on a snack, we composed our list. We tried to rehearse with Grandma, but the names Michelob and Schlitz just made her sigh. She was able to neither read the list nor repeat any key phrases. Our only option, short of the sensible notion to abandon the plan altogether, was for one of us to do the talking, with Grandma by our side as aged authority. Mary insisted that she, being more petite and thereby possibly looking far too young, come along only for moral support and that I, by default, be the driver.
Hearts racing and palms sweating, we began the short trip. Across the front bucket seat sat our ragtag team, one nonagenarian squashed between two underage scofflaws. We giggled nervously and had to circle the block three times before finally gathering the courage to pull into the driveway of Beer Express.
There were two cars ahead of us, and while we waited, Mary handed the list to Grandma with instructions to present it to me when asked. Minutes were centuries, but finally our hero came round to my side of the vehicle. When he saw the collection inside, he burst out laughing. He uttered something like, “Oh, come on” or maybe, “Give me a break,” but I bravely ignored this and smiled and told him: “Our grandmother here would like to order some beer.” I grandly swept my hand toward her and my palm provided the platform for the list.
The list was not provided.
“I’ll take the list, Grandma,” I told her, still smiling.
Grandma hummed a little tune and looked out at the wall of refrigerators.
Mary helpfully added: “They need your order now, Grandma.” But Grandma was unaware of the procedure and unbothered by the impatient face at our window.
“Let me help you,” Mary offered and began searching in vain through Grandma’s empty pocketbook.
Sensing that our chance for success was slipping away, I quickly said, “I think I can remember what she wanted,” and rattled off the names and amounts, and all the while our incredulous attendant was shaking his head. When I finished he stared at me, then at Grandma, then back at me. He said firmly, “Just this once.” We could hardly suppress our grins while he piled in the party supplies and bid us not to come back until we were old enough.
We didn’t dare speak all the way home, and when we helped Grandma from her spot in the middle, we found the list. She had folded it with almost origami-like precision and tucked it underneath herself for safekeeping.
Perhaps out of guilt, perhaps out of gratitude, we attended to Grandma with extra tenderness that weekend.
WHAT THE JUDGES SAID
Emily Yoffe: Maybe I’m drawn to the stories of out-of-it old people because of over-identification. In any case, even though Granny wasn’t aware she was part of a caper, I hope she would have been amused.
Steve Friedman: I like that the author doesn’t sentimentalize who/what she was. The matter-of-fact way she dispensed acts of kindness AND was a depraved little pre-teen … funny!
Many years ago, Kelly Bryan a law school raduate who had decided not to practice, was sifting through papers in her parents’ attic and found a list of things she had always wanted to do. Farming. Teaching. Writing. She farmed for a season. Taught a little yoga. And she wrote a novel, which she couldn’t get published. Then she and her husband had four children.
Recently, Bryan, 44, from Hyattsville, started writing again. Her contest entry is a tale she has told many times over the years. “People either read it as funny — or they are just appalled by it,” she says. Despite any inappropriate behavior in this caper, she labored in the piece to convey her underlying affection for Grandma.
“We really loved her,” she says. “That’s not to say we didn’t totally take advantage of her.” Humor needs an edge, Bryan says. I think things are funny when there’s a little bit of dignity lost,” she says. “Just the right amount.”
— David Montgomery
More from the Humor Contest:
Memoir winner: A stroke of luck?