Monday, April 25, 2011

The Closet Monster, Part One: Pillow Talk

I had a monster in my bedroom closet until I was 18 years old.

It's completely true, you know.

I can pinpoint the moment the Closet Monster moved in. It was September 1975, the month my sweet Grandma J. died. J. was my father's mother, a tough, but twinkle-eyed woman who weathered a lifetime of Minnesota seasons, the early death of her first husband - my grandfather - in a harsh Twin Cities winter just a handful of years before the Great Depression pressed hard on the nation, and then decades with her second husband, the Pole. The Pole was a cruel, vile man who terrified me as a young child. He spit tobacco into a rusty coffee can he kept near his chair in their small Minneapolis home and spoke to everyone aggressively in a heavy, abrasive Eastern European accent. My only experience with accents like his were late night creature feature movies.

I thought he was a vampire.

The reality was just this: the Pole was an abusive man who thought Grandma J. had lots of money squirreled away somewhere because she knew a handful of wealthy folks in the area, including members of the Pillsbury family. It wasn't true. The Doughboy hadn't greased Grandma's pockets; she had nothing except her two little boys. After my grandfather died, Grandma J. played piano in a silent movie theater while my father and his little brother, my Uncle J., danced and sang for the audience, who pitched pennies to the fatherless - and nearly destitute - children. My father learned how to rock train cars as they rumbled along the tracks, causing open-topped freight cars to shimmy just enough to spill potatoes or coal to bring home. It was not a glamorous life.

But the dark Pole was certain Grandma was hiding riches somewhere. He married the young widow, and she did give him wealth in the form of a legacy: she bore him two sons, whom the Pole held dear over her first two children. But when he realized there truly was no money in his wife's coffers, flashes of the Pole's rage would appear. Even in their declining years, the light of his miserable soul could be ignited like a match, burning bright for a moment and then vanishing into the impotent weakness of his arthritic bones. While staying with the elderly couple for a few weeks in the last year of Grandma J.'s life, one of my sisters saw the Pole fling a cast iron skillet at the tiny woman's silver-hared head. There'd been many stories of his violence, but this was the first time one of us had witnessed it. As I recall the story, my sister snapped and poured out her venom and anger at him, suggesting that, perhaps, he'd like her to throw a skillet at him. It was an empty threat, but one backed up by the genuine horror of seeing firsthand what all our family - who lived so far away - had feared might be happening.

The Pole was a wretched old bastard.

And, in a cruel twist of fate - and one that defied the usual course of nature - Grandma J. died before he did. I remember my father taking the call that his mother was gone. He had his back to me as he spoke with one of his half-brothers who lived a comfortable life in a comfortable suburb of Minneapolis. I don't think I ever saw my father cry. That was not his way - at least around me. But this time, I recall seeing his shoulders sag and then shake. I'm sure he wept, but he did not invite anyone into his grief.

I was nine years old in 1975, and I'd never been to a funeral before. We drove from Moline to Minneapolis - Mom, Dad, my teenager sisters, and I - and I can only remember bits and pieces of the whole event. I recall the funeral home - it seemed so big to me, like an enormous auditorium - but I know that is just a trick of the child's mind. In college, I rode past the funeral home all the time on the bus to downtown St. Paul - just a modest building in a modest neighborhood. Yet, it will always be overwhelming in my head.

Grandma J. looked serene in her casket, her snow white hair styled and swept away from her pale, paper-thin skin. I think she was dressed in blue, but I can't really be sure anymore. This I do remember: her head rested on a small, white, satin pillow covered in a sash that read "From the Grandchildren" in elaborate script. When my mother took me up to say goodbye, I was trembling. I understood dead. I understood she was gone. And yet, I kept waiting for her to take a breath, for her chest to rise and fall, for her eyes to flutter open, for her to reach out and take my hand.

I was terrified.

"You can touch her hand or kiss her cheek, if you'd like," a voice whispered into my ear. God bless this poor man - the funeral director (who was probably no older than I am now) - trying to comfort a saucer-eyed child paralyzed with fear. I had no intention of touching the body, of course, lest she come back. I had siblings who specialized in scaring the bejeezus out of the younger kids. My late brother Ed was a consummate professional when it came to giving me nightmares. And, already at nine, I had a decent amount of respect for things that go bump in the night.

So, I simply stood stock still, one hand on the cold casket, unwilling to engage any further. I remember one of my sisters leading me off, back to a row of seats in the half-lit room. At the end of the visitation, I saw the funeral director slip something out of the casket before the lid came down on Grandma's peaceful form. As we got up to leave, he came up to me. "I understand you are the youngest grandchild," he said to me quietly, kindly. "I think you should have this to remember her by." And, dear god, he was holding The Pillow. The small, white, satin pillow that had rested under Grandma's J.'s head. The casket pillow. The corpse pillow. The pillow that had cradled a dead head. The deceptively cheap pillow filled with crunchy sawdust, since corpses don't really require comfort. Oh god, oh god, oh god. He was presenting it to me, like a flag at a soldier's burial. I was nine, and everyone was watching. What should I do???

I took it from him.

And with that simple action, I invited the closet monster into my life.
To be continued...


Chuck said...

Oooh, nice story so far, MJ. Spooky.

Washington Cube said...

First of all: well worth the wait for you to reappear.

Second: The Pole? These things pop up in so many families, it makes me wonder what normal really is. If you ask me, normal is abnormal.

Third: The whole funeral home thing? Since I've been through enough family deaths, as I know you have, I can only say, "People will do and say the most inappropriate rude and/or crazy things during this time. I have many such stories. I'm betting you do too. Sometimes I think the best thing you can do is say "I'm sorry," and then keep your mouth shut. Don't let the death give you license to air what you really think or 30 year old grievance to be hashed into the final word.

Merujo said...

Chuck - I'm starting to feel like I'm doing an homage to MM's serialized stuff. (But I'll never be of the same caliber as that man!)

Cubette! It really is amazing how a funeral brings out the weird, awkward, and painfully awful in some people. At my late sister's funeral, the in-law of a blood relative confided in me that: 1) that she wasn't keen on black people (charming); and 2) that she had lost all her hair "down there."

For all eternity, my sister's funeral will remind me of a pube-less racist.