My grandmother, Helen Gross. Not sure who the fellas were. 

In The Grapes of Wrath, the character Tom Joad talks about his mother’s fierceness, telling how she had once beaten a peddler who’d gotten smart with her with a live chicken, until all she had left in her hand were two chicken legs. Juxtaposed to that was Ma Joad’s kindness and generosity. When the Joads camped in a Hooverville, Ma Joad was surrounded by a group of hungry children while she cooked for her own family. The hunger in those children was intolerable to Ma, so she set aside some food for them to share. She anguished over the decision to do so because she barely had enough to feed her own family. Yet she would not stand by and watch children starve if there was even the slightest thing she could do for them.

Ma Joad was just a character in the book, but I could see a whole lot of her in my very real grandmother.

Grandma was tough. Big-hearted beyond compare, but as mean and ornery as can be when something or someone set her off.

Nothing set her off more than seeing another human being hungry.

I once witnessed my grandmother square off against five grown men – all because they were about to stop a hungry man from eating.

In my last post, I promised I’d write about that in this post, but more memories got in the way, taking up all of this one. So, I’ll write about that standoff in the next post. I double promise this time. Pinky swear. But let me tell you more about Grandma’s toughness first.

*     *     *

When I was five or so and at a family wedding overflowing with Okie relatives, a fight broke out among Grandma’s siblings. We kids were gathered up and hurriedly thrown into a bedroom for safety. But we could all hear the shouting, screaming, and scuffling going on outside the door and outside the house. I heard it told later that Grandma tried to get between two of her brothers to stop the fight and had taken a wayward punch for her trouble. The punch sent her sprawling down a flight of stairs. This only made Grandma mad, and she got up and started throwing her own punches into the melee. My best guess would make Grandma about forty-five when this happened.

*     *     *

When Grandma was sixty or so, she sent a would-be burglar fleeing back over the fence he had hopped to try breaking into her tiny house, where she lived all alone in Oakland. She hadn’t called the police when she spied him through her bedroom window. Instead, she went through the back door to confront the man out in the dark. She didn’t have much, but she had what was hers, and she wasn’t going to hide while someone tried to take it from her. Had the intruder been more hardcore, Grandma might have been in trouble. She probably knew that, but it didn’t stop her.

*     *     *

She had a brother who she did not speak to for fifty years. I don’t believe I ever met the man. I don’t know his name, and I have no idea what he’d said or done to set her off. But, dear God, if that woman ever felt you had slighted her in any way, there was hell to pay. I’d had to pay a bit of it myself once or twice.

*     *     *

There is a story Grandma’s brother Ray told me once about how fierce she could be and how early in life she’d come to that fierceness.

Ray might have been the brother who’d punched Grandma down the stairs. I never found out. But I’d heard stories about Ray’s being a tough, take no shit kind of guy. No one told me the stories, mind you. I just overheard them. My relatives seemed to think all children were deaf and spoke openly despite our presence. And from what I’d heard, Ray would fight at the drop of a hat. Yet I remember him as mirthful, with a glint of humor in his eye whenever he spoke.

One sunny afternoon, Grandma and my Aunt Bonnie had taken me to visit Ray and his wife at their home in Monterey. I remember it was a beautiful and large house they lived in, with a well-kept yard and perfectly mowed grass. The women stayed indoors to visit, which I recall was something of the custom. Meanwhile, Uncle Ray had taken me outside to instruct me a little bit about being a man.

One of the precepts Ray imparted to me that sunny day was never to take any shit. Another was that when you get into a fight, because someone had given you shit, you fight hard and fast, “until the other guy’s got no fight left in him anymore.” He added that the guy who threw the first punch was probably going to win, so make sure you throw the first punch. In the world of Karate Kid sensei, Ray would have been Sensei Kreese.

 A third precept of Ray’s was that a man had to keep himself fit, so he could fight and win when he did.

He told me how important it was to do pushups every day, and he dropped down in the grass and did about fifty of them. Then he made me do the same, though fifty was aspirational for me. I probably managed two.

Next, Ray lay down on his back and did 100 sit-ups, which I was also told to do every day.

After his sit-ups, Ray pulled his pantleg up to show me his lean but muscular calf.

“You want to get calves like that, you gotta duck-walk.”

Ray then demonstrated by duck-walking all the way across the large yard and then back. The duck-walk, I learned that day, was performed by squatting down on your haunches and then walking that way, without standing up, until it burned so bad you couldn’t keep going.

I was made to try it, but I didn’t get very far. To this day, I’ve never tried to duck-walk again.

Ray was laughing and having fun all the while, to show me that exercising was a really good time. He was probably in his fifties and in phenomenal condition.

Finally, Ray broke out his golf clubs and showed me how to hold a club and swing at the ball.

When Ray finished instructing me on the ways of manliness, he added, “Women got to be tough, too. You’re Grandma, she’s tough.”

I don’t know why, but I said women weren’t supposed to be tough, and my Grandma certainly wasn’t.

“Oh, yes she is,” Ray insisted, and then he told the story, which had him laughing and slapping his knee in the telling. It involved an old joke in which some jokester observes a train with a boxcar that has “UP” painted on its side for “Union Pacific.” The jokester then says to the victim of the joke, “Why, I saw you pee on a boxcar.” The response from the victim is supposed to be embarrassment and a protest of innocence. Then the victim is let in on the joke when the jokester points to the letters UP on the boxcar, showing that he wasn’t accusing the victim of peeing on it after all. Everyone has a good laugh.

But not always.

Uncle Ray told me that one day he had heard my grandmother screaming bloody murder somewhere nearby when they were kids.

“Help! Help! she was shouting,” Ray said, laughing. “Well, I wasn’t going to let something happen to my little sister, so I go running over to where she was, thinking I’m going have to save her from something or other. But when I get there, there’s your grandma, sitting on some poor boy and just beating the hell out of him, yelling, ‘Help! Help!’ the whole time she was punching him in the face.

“I felt sorry for the boy, so I ran over and pulled your grandma off of him, but she put up a helluva fight, screaming that the boy said he saw her peeing on a boxcar, and she hadn’t done it.”

Ray was howling with laughter by this time.

“Well, I told her it ain’t nothing but a joke, that he didn’t mean she really peed on a boxcar, just that the letters UP were there on it. Took forever to calm her down, but that poor boy run off like he thought she was going to kill him!”

Ray kept laughing.

But it sounded to me like a story he’d just made up, a tall tale, so I told him I didn’t believe it.

So, he said, “Well, you go in the house and just ask her, and she what she says.”

I ran into the house then and told Grandma what Ray had told me, waiting for her to call Ray out as a liar. Awful poor payback for all the time Ray had been spending with me that afternoon, I’ll admit, but Grandma’s character had been called into question, and all my loyalties lay with her.

To my surprise, Grandma didn’t call Ray a liar. She started fuming instead, not saying anything about it one way or the other, but just glaring at Ray for telling me the story in the first place. This made Ray laugh even harder.

So, I’m pretty sure some poor kid did get his ass kicked by my grandma for trying to tell a joke.

*     *     *

Grandma didn’t scare. Grandma didn’t back down. She often used this expression to describe how she felt about something that had lit her fuse: “It made me so goddamned mad I couldn’t see straight.” Another of her often-used expressions, which sounded the warning that she was about to lose her temper, was, “Well, sonofabitch!”

And Grandma’s readiness to enter a fight never left her. Ever.

Rereading The Grapes of Wrath, Part 4

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