Monday, June 21, 2010

FAMILY: DiggieDee

     Why, you ask, did we call my mother's mother DiggieDee? (You won't know to ask that if you haven't been reading the FAMILY posts.)
     When my brother Tim was not-yet-two, Daddy and Mummy took him to the zoo. He went from cage to cage, and like Adam, he named all the animals. But Adam wasn't a toddler at the time and wasn't restricted to just two choices--or at least he had a bigger imagination than Tim did. As he trotted along, Tim contentedly acknowledged each animal as belonging to one or the other of the two species he knew, Kitty and Doggy. Lions and tigers were Kitty. Wolves and hyenas and bears were Doggy.
     Then he found himself looking at a monkey. Before he could quite decide which camp monkeys belonged in, he saw an elephant. He was floundering, at a loss for categories. Sea lions. Beavers. Giraffes. Alligators. The unexpected complexity of the animal kingdom overwhelmed and blew his circuits.
     All he could do was helplessly scramble the two words into one and start calling everything Diggy. Now instead of two descriptive nouns to work with, he only had one. He used it for everything. Mum, in Ohio, wrote her mother in Wisconsin that Tim's vocabulary was frozen. Locked. Constipated. Well, she didn't put it that way.
     Minnetta thought it cute. She came to visit sometime later, leaned over Timmy's crib and crooned, "How's my little diggy-diggy?"
     Well, the word stuck--but not to him. To her.
     We always called her DiggyDee. Sometimes I spell it that way and sometimes I spell it DiggieDee. I can't decide which way I like best.
     By the time Timmy turned three, Mum had despaired of his ever coming out of his funk and talking at all. But one day Daddy went off to work and at some point in the morning Timmy pointed to an object and said its correct name. Chair or table or lamp. Mum said, "Yes, Timmy, chair! Yes, YES!" He pointed at something else and labeled it correctly. With each success and Mum's accompanying excitement, Timmy got excited, too.
     By the time Dad came home from work that evening, Tim was conversing in sentences. And he has ever since.

     Speaking of having two descriptive words, two words always come to mind when I remember DiggyDee. Cheerful and bustling. When we sailed the Phoenix to Honolulu, she was on the dock to greet us. She believed we were all right even though the newspapers said the Phoenix was lost.

When we reached Bali, she was there and she helped nurse me back to health when I developed scarlet fever after the harvest festival scare. Then she went on around the world by herself, by plane and river boat and I don't know what all, through Nepal and Tibet and Israel, causing a sensation everywhere with her white hair. She went home to her women's group in Madison, describing her travels and showing slides of ours and was accorded the status of a Wisconsonian Marco Polo.
     And when our trip around the world was interrupted by our protest voyage to the nuclear test zone in the Pacific and Dad was arrested and flown back to Honolulu for trial (I went with him) and Mum had to help Ted and Nick sail the Phoenix back to Hawaii, Minnetta flew out to make a home for Dad and me. We rented an apartment on Kapahulu Street, about a block from Waikiki. At that time it was one of the cheaper places to live or we couldn't have afforded it.
     DiggyDee set about her cheerful bustling. Mum, Ted and Nick were gone over two months, during which  time we were totally out of contact with them. But DiggyDee made breakfast for me and sent me off to high school with a lunch (I rode to school with Dodo and Rere Tai, who lived next door. They were the oldest daughters of seven kids, named (really!) Dodo, Rere, Mimi, Fafa, Soso, Lala, Titi, Octavia (or was it Uranium?) and Satellite. The last two were boys so maybe there was an Octavia and a Uranium.)
     I had to take home ec. and in home ec. I had to make a dress. What a disaster. I used some pink material (substance) that was thready or loopy on the top (like brocade) and kind of stretchy on the back, like foam rubber. Every stitch I had to pull out (and I had to pull out a lot of stitches) gouged little holes out of the back. I had to use a sewing machine. It would have been easier and taken no longer, because of all the undoing, if I had made it by hand. I knew how to do that. Susie Harris, the daughter of an American family we met in Jakarta, had taught me how to sew very neatly while I was recuperating from scarlet fever. My fingers and toes were peeling by then and I'd put the peelings in one of their ash-trays, I cringe to remember. They were very gracious (the Harrises, not the shredded skin) and never said anything about it, at least to me.
     When it came time to sew the three-quarter sleeves (with a flare at the end) together, I sewed the entire length of one sleeve to the side of the dress. By the time I finished putting stitches in and pulling them out and putting them in again, I was heartily sick of that dress. I don't know what grade I got on it but I never wore it.
     Then we had to make a skirt (or maybe the skirt came first). This was a lightweight cotton material with little flowers scattered over it. It was pretty billowy, so first I had to sew along what would become the top of it and then pull the thread so the material gathered at the waist, being sure, of course, to stop and tie it off when it would fit around me. Then I made a waist band to finish off the top. For some reason the length was uneven all the way around, even though I could have sworn it was even until I gathered the top together. It took hours to measure the length every inch or so, making it even by pulling up a little excess here and a lot there and stuffing it under the waistband, securing it with stitches so the cause of the unevenness would all be hidden. I was pretty proud of my ingenuity.
     (I sure hope you can picture this. I stop typing every few seconds to peer around my computer at Jerry, who is at his computer, making gestures with both hands and asking him what they mean."Like those ruffley-things along that bar above you," I say finally. "What is that called?" "A valence?" "No, I mean, what is it called when there's a straight piece of cloth and then you pull the top together like this and put--like that ribbon-thing--along it like that?" He doesn't know. Gathers, maybe. I need to have photographs of every step of the process of making the dress, like Pioneer Woman would on her blog, so you wouldn't have to try to picture it.)   
     All this to say that one day I came home from school and Minnetta showed me how she had "fixed it" for me. I know it was a labor of love and probably took her as long to re-do as it had taken me to do it. The lumps of excess cloth were gone, the cloth was all released and the waistband lay flat and neat. I guess she hadn't noticed that now the various lengths of the skirt would make one seasick.
     I never wore that one either.

 (The Phoenix and abbreviated crew arrived back safely from the Marshall Islands, by the way. Here are our three generations: Minnetta flanking Barbara and Jessica.)

    Sewing, cooking--and keeping plants alive for that matter--remain mysteries to me and that's how I like it.
     I guess not being domestic is a trait of Leonard/Reynolds women. Nana's "little pig sausages," pink on one side and burnt on the other, and her lumpy mashed potatoes, were legendary in our home. That was a "Nana dinner" and we wouldn't let Mum make it any other way.
     Minnetta was a sweetheart. She had a very real faith in God, not so much spoken as acted out in practical ways. I have her olive wood New Testament "bought personally in Jerusalem Sept. 1956" (much more beautifully crafted than those sold there now) and inscribed to me "in memory of very happy days in Honolulu, 1960." In the flyleaf she has listed her favorite Bible passages: John 14:1-3, 15-19, 15 [sic]-27. Romans 8:28, 8:31-39. Ephesians 3:14-21.
     Sterling had been an atheist but the two of them had been so close it was a shock to her to get the news of his death and not have had any sense that something had happened to him.  I've always wondered if his view changed any during his two hours in the icy waters of Lake Mendota.
     Anyway, Minnetta never remarried. Instead, she poured her life into her daughter and her daughter's interests, even though Earle's jobs and his dream of sailing kept Barbara on other continents most of the time. When I was very little, I remember her visiting us in Ohio. With my brothers already in school, DiggyDee made it her job to protect Mum from my demands on her attention so she could write her books. Always, in our family, writing was sacrosanct. When Dad was home, Mum would protect him from our interruptions so he could write his plays and when DiggyDee visited, she protected Mum from me.
     During the two months I lived with her in Honolulu, with Mum gone, DiggyDee demonstrated love for both Dad and me by serving us in basic ways. She was one of generations of unselfish women in this country who cooked roasts for Sunday dinner--who cooked Sunday dinner period!--and had the whole family sit together around the table to eat it, women who knew how to make pie crust, who ironed their men's shirts. I read a short story by a young man who disparaged his grandmother for holding her hand under a tea bag to catch the drips as she carried it to the trash can. That tidiness, that thoughtfulness, characterized those women.
     I have profound and amazed admiration for them. I miss them--but I don't want to be one of them.
     My attitude characterizes a new generation of women. Even Mum, to whom kitchen duties were a burden, cooked, canned and made pie crust in our Ohio days. I remember she saved dough to roll out in an uneven circle (with a rolling pin), sprinkled it with cinnamon and sugar, rolled it up (with her hands) into one long roll and sliced it. She spread the "pie crust curls" on a cookie sheet and baked them until they were golden. We kids loved pie crust curls--yet I never once made them for my own children.
      I can't make pie crust and I never wanted to bother learning.
     That's why that breed of women died out. Because we're--I'm--selfish.
     After our trip around the world, Ted and I visited DD in Wisconsin. While I was off with one of my "little friends," as she always called them, DiggyDee took Ted to lunch at a place by a lake. Halfway through the meal, she realized she had taken the chair by a tree which had the view of the water.
     She said a distressed "Oh, dear!" and apologized for not giving him the seat with the beautiful view. Ted, with what a British reporter once referred to as his "impeccable American manners," just smiled and said gently, "I've seen a lot of water. What I've been missing is a tree!"
     Besides "Oh, dear," her most typical expression was "Bless your heart!" I keep meaning to resurrect that one.)
     Tim lived with DiggyDee (he called her Minnetta) for a time while he was attending the University of Wisconsin. He wrote a poem about how economical she was. He said he never appreciated her, just felt critical and superior, letting her fuss over him and wait on him hand and foot--until she was rushed to the hospital. When he went to visit her there, the bed was empty and made up for someone else. She had died of pneumonia.
     I always used to say our family never died of anything fatal but I guess pneumonia was fatal in those days. Maybe still can be.
     Minetta Florence Sammis was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on September 22, 1879. (She apparently was the one who added another 'n' to her first name.) She married Sterling Andrus Leonard on December 27, 1913. He died in Lake Mendota, Wisconsin on May 15, 1931 and she died in Madison, Wisconsin on October 15, 1960. She was 81.

          "My grandmother Minetta and Charlie Manson
          fought all night
          over the stump of a withered wiener
          and endless cups of tea
          she made with water she'd poached eggs in . . .

          Finally they called it a draw
          but Manson was never the same after that."
                                             --Tim Reynolds