1950s Archive

Roughing it with Gramp

Part XIV

continued (page 2 of 4)

Mama's face turned red, she choked, recovered and stared ahead of her. For years the family never got the true story of how Gramp turned Mama's act of Coventry against her. Even I never knew why she didn't shout at the Mexican and his wife that it was all a lie. But I think Mama had a code about life, and one of the rules, was, if you were beaten you took your wounds and didn't whine for mercy. Mama hated any idea of mercy, for herself, or others. So she just sat there, boiling inside. I say I guess at her reasons, for Mama would never talk about this event in our family history. It became known as the Second War of Coventry, as Mama had won the first one, a really minor war.

The Mexican came out with a soiled plate on which were two stale sandwiches, with paper-thin ham and one sad black olive on each. He also brought two paper cups of black coffee and a kind of store window doughnut broken in half, each on a crumpled piece of paper napkin.

The Mexican gestured to us, trying to make us understand, and he talked very loud, the way people do to deaf people and foreigners.

“The gentleman sent this out as you don't like our style of cooking. It's the only gringo food I have here. La topa chisera, it is sad to be like this. Would you like to try caldo de pollo con aguacate … chicken soup with avocado, or a leettle of our rice, arroz mexicano?”

Mama didn't break the rule of the game. She wolfed the bread and ham and stale doughnut and drank the battery juice coffee after giving me my share. I was too cowed to protest. The Second War of Coventry wasn't going to be easy to live through.

The Mexican wept for us. “Try, please lady, a leettle chicken tamales, some molé de olla. Or just our eggs with black beans.”

It was no use. Gramp came out from his lunch wiping the last sign of frijoles from his face, and carrying a bottle of wine and a fistful of Mexican stogies. “Tucson straight ahead?” Gramp asked. “Yes,” said the Mexican, and then looking at us, “but these poor ones turned to stone, should you not raise the top to keep sun from them?”

Gramp started the motor, lit a stogie, and shook his head. “They don't feel a thing, compañero, not a thing.”

“FatherbloodofChrist, it is sad. You are a kind caballero to take such care of them.”

The rest of the trip into Tucson I'd rather not write about. The food along the American roadside has never been much good, but in those days, in those places, it was worse than ever. I don't know why Mama didn't defy Gramp and just leave the car and order her own meals that is, I didn't until we were near Tucson when I remembered that Mama had no money of her own. She had bought some hats in California and run out of cash, and Gramp held our fortune in his money belt hitched tight around his well-fed stomach. So we ate what he allowed us: stale bread and leftovers. But Mama didn't break Coventry. Gramp bought a Stetson and cowboy boots on tall heels-and his talk grew more and more Western, and he ate indoors and he ate the best he could find. He showed no sign of weakening in the war. He told a great many stories about us as we sat in the car. The best one was that Mama had taken a vow of silence and that she was a saint, a real saint. Mama disliked all the saints (except a few mad ones) and this didn't help the trip. Gramp really was enjoying the Second War of Coventry.

By the time we got to Tucson the trip was about to break up. I could see that Mama was going to grab me and her luggage and take a train East and home, as soon as she figured out how to get the railroad fare. Gramp also was set in his whim of iron. And he was going to finish this trip his way, even if he had to go alone through the hardest part of it-which was just ahead. He was no longer a young man, but he was just as stubborn as Mama. And Mama was pure stubborn, which meant she didn't let emotions or facts stand in her way. She was stubborn tight down to her tiny shoes.

Me? I had learned by this time that in this family when the battle flags went up, one just tried to act like an innocent bystander, and kept one eye open for a good getaway.

I knew this wasn't going to be a short war because Gramp left us at the second best hotel in town, and said to the desk clerk: “Is there a good lawyer in town?' Pardon me, I know there are no good lawyers, but one who can read and write?”

Subscribe to Gourmet