“Well now Bronwyn”, says Grandma Teasel, pulling apart a vanilla Oreo and dunking it in her Earl Grey, “that didn’t seem like such a bad report card to me.” Grandma Teasel and Jeannie and Sasha are playing three-handed euchre at the big wooden table in Grandma Teasel’s kitchen. The three children like spending time here when their mama is working the weekend shift at the hospital. They like the red and green wallpaper, the creamy ceilings, the peacock blue tiles on the floor. They like the piles of jigsaw puzzles, the card games, the sombre C.B.C. voices on the crackly radio, the way the French windows fog with steam. Most of all, they like the smell of roast chicken and peppercorn gravy and candle wax; the smells of Sunday supper and midnight mass.
Bronwyn is bending down to watch the flakes she’s just sprinkled settle to the bottom of the goldfish bowl. Through the glass her face is magnified like a magic lantern slide, and Grandma Teasel notices, not for the first time, that she’s got her grandfather’s eyes – one of them bright with mischief, the other fixed a long way off.
“But grandma,” pipes up six-year-old Sasha, who can already read The Tale of Benjamin Bunny and parts of Treasure Island, “I saw the report card and it says that Bronwyn spends ‘too much time daydreaming and talking’, and has fallen ‘dangerously behind acceptable fifth grade standards in several areas.'”
“That’s a comment that can be interpreted in several different ways, Sash,” says twelve year old Jeannie, who can make eight different kinds of poultry dressing, play Bach’s “Fugue in E Major for Strings”, and fill in the parts of the newspaper crossword puzzle that Grandma Teasel “doesn’t have time to finish just now.” She’s imitating their mother’s habit of always trying to put a positive spin on things, and the two gifted children share a snicker. Bronwyn’s only half-listening as she watches the last reddish brown flakes drift lazily through the water. As a precaution, though, she sticks out a defiant, magnified tongue.
“Now, now,” says Grandma Teasel, looking at them over the rim of her bifocals, “you know your own mama got report cards much worse than that, and she turned out alright didn’t she?”
“You mean mama wasn’t always a genius,” asks Jeannie, suddenly very interested.
“I never said that. I just said she got some pretty rotten report cards.” Grandma Teasel has some kind of euchre witchcraft, and she’s clicking her dentures and taking trick after trick.
“Don’t they teach you in school that nobody has ever achieved anything truly amazing in life without failing over and over again? You know that old singer, Bob Dylan, your mama likes to listen to? Betcha didn’t know he started off trying to be a hand model? Complete washout.”
“Absolutely. They cover it up. Just like Winston Churchill’s tap dancing and Virginia Woolf’s prizefighting. The thing is, you’ve just got to figure out what you’re good at, and keep at it.”
“Just like mama and cutting people open.”
“That’s right, Sasha. And my clay stoves.” At sixty years old, the year after her third husband (the Korean entomologist) had passed away, Grandma Teasel had converted his workshop into a pottery studio and started making earthenware outdoor stoves decorated with faces like Viennese masques: satyrs, ogres, sea serpents and goddesses. “Some of them,” she would often say, “are uglifying gardens as far away as Bali and Norway.”
“But how did mama ever get into medical school with poor grades?”
“She didn’t always have poor grades, Jeannie. It was just a phase she went through, and believe me, she went through a lot of them.”
“What other phases did she go through Grandma?” The euchre game’s over, and Bronwyn, who wants to be a dancer, is walking around the table balancing a book of Japanese wood block prints on her head, stopping every few feet to perform a plie.
“There was the time that all mama would eat was eggrolls and Turkish delight, right Grandma?”
“That’s right, Jeannie. Never touched anything else from the time she was weaned from my boobs until she was nearly Sasha’s age. And then there were the fossils.”
“Fossils, Grandma?” Bronwyn’s eyes light up, and she’s sitting at the table carelessly flipping through the art book. She still remembers the summer after their father had moved to Montreal and mama had taken the three children camping near Olds. They had eaten beef stew and scrambled eggs out of tin coffee mugs. Mama had sipped red wine from a thermos bottle and read them The Hobbit by Coleman lantern light. It was the first time that any of them had seen her cry. Late into the purple twilight they’d dug at the soft sides of crumbling embankments with kitchen forks and garden trowels, uncovering rocks with the outlines of leaves and fish and delicate footprints. Beneath Bronwyn’s bed there is a cigar box full of marbles, owl feathers, and ancient stones.
“Yes Bronwyn. We lived near Drumheller at that time, only a few miles from where the dinosaur museum is now. She dug the first one up (it was an ichthyosaurus tooth) when she was just six-years-old. Yes, Sasha, same age as you. It fell upon her like a madness after that, I can tell you. She had all of the neighbourhood kids working shifts in our backyard; spent all her pocket money on headlamps and pick axes. Within a year my lawn looked like an excavation site. It was worth it, though. One time she found a baby pterodactyl skeleton, near complete. I was always handy with needle and thread, so we upholstered it with Naugahyde from an old sectional we used to have in the basement. We put tea lights inside its eye sockets and hung it in a sycamore tree on our front lawn for All Soul’s Night. Come to think of it, it was about that time that your mama started getting poor grades in school. Might have been due to her only getting three or four hours sleep at night. Still, I think she would have been okay if she’d had a better teacher.”
“Who was her teacher Grandma?”
“Mrs. Wickett. We had some terrible battles, her and I, I can tell you. Told me your mama was a wretched disruption in class and an inveterate skylarker and lollygagger. Told me she would never amount to anything. She used to write terrible remarks about nearly all the children in her class. Some people said it was on account of her being a vampire, but I think it was just her natural disposition.”
“A vampire grandma?”. Bronwyn has a ghoulish streak, so she’s wide-eyed and attentive now.”
“Yes child. It was a serious concern for some of the more overprotective parents. On moonlit nights she was always up at the graveyard sucking the blood from the recently deceased. It was an eerie sound lying in bed listening to her howling up there with her great black dogs. Never touched any of the living children, though, so technically the school board couldn’t do anything. But enough of all this…time to help me set the table for dinner.”
“Is she still around, Grandma?,” asks Sasha with a shudder.
“Heavens no, darling. She was struck by lightning three times over the summer holidays one year, which seems to have cured her vampirism. Last anybody heard of her, she’d fallen in love with an Eastern European physicist and moved to a dairy farm outside of Prague. I think I still have a postcard somewhere (we patched things up and became bridge partners after your mama graduated from high school).”
An hour later the dishes are washed and dried. Sasha is curled up on the sofa, fast asleep in the underwater light, making a sort of pinging snoring sound like submarine sonar. Jeannie is finishing off a crossword puzzle at the kitchen table while Grandma Teasel and Bronwyn are curled up under an afghan watching a black and white movie where a funny-moustached man is eating shoelaces like spaghetti.
“Grandma, when did you first know that mama was special?”
“From the day she came into this world , baby doll, by way of the backseat of my station wagon. There I was, driving off into the night with nothing but a paper bag full of clothes, a hundred dollars in welfare cash and an old trumpet; and there she was, sleeping beside me on the front seat – smiling (that’s right, just like that) just like we weren’t headed toward Winnipeg in fifty below with bad brakes – all wrinkled and golden and curled up just like a Chinese cookie, and you just knew she had this fortune inside of her waiting to come out. Turned out after all that it was a triple fortune. I knew it would all come out right, but I never would’ve guessed that.”