A QUORUM OF GRANDMOTHERS
Tyrell stared at Billy, shaking his head. "Hey!" he said, "I'm telling you, this is not just some little ol' thing!" he said. "You are talking about a whole bunch of grandmothers, all of 'em kin, under one roof -- all at the same time!"
"So?" Billy asked. "So?"
"So, that's not even safe !"
"Oh, come on, Tyrell," Billy pleaded, "most of them are great-grandmothers!"
"Even worse!" Tyrell said grimly. "Grandmothers twice over! One of 'em a grandmother three times over!"
"That one's not coming," Billy told him. "She called and said she's too old for such foolishness. So, after your mama leaves for work Christmas Day, there's no reason why you can't come over here and help me out!"
"No way," said Tyrell. He stuck his harmonica in his mouth and started in on "Deck the Halls." And then, in the fa-la-las, he took the harmonica out and said it again: "No way, man."
"So you're going to leave me all by myself, on Christmas Day, with a whole houseful of grownup ladies and nobody else to talk to? You call yourself my friend, and you're gonna do that?"
"I sure am," Tyrell said around the harmonica. "And if you've got any sense yourself, you'll duck outa there and come watch football with me!"
Billy sighed and stared down at the ground. "You know I can't do that, Tyrell," he said sadly. "It'd ruin my mama's Christmas for me not to stay here till it's all over. Hey, you don't know how lucky you are, with your whole place to yourself and nothing to do but kick back and watch tv!"
He knew Tyrell hated it that his mother had to go be a waitress on Christmas Day. But you didn't say stuff like that, you pretended it was cool.
"The way I see it," he went on, "you ought to earn some of that luck by helping me out."
Tyrell made a rude noise. "I am not coming into a house that's got six kin grandmothers in it at one time, and no way you're gonna change my mind. Case closed!"
Billy sat at the table the next day listening to the women talk, steadily putting away enough turkey and stuffing and sweet potatoes and biscuits to last him a while. There sat his mama, and her mother Grandma Johnson, and her mother and mother-in-law (which was Great-Grandmother Johnson and Great-Granny Langer). There sat his daddy's mother, Grandma Green, and her mother and mother-in-law, Great-Grandmothers Green and Gordon. It was too much. Nobody could possibly keep it straight!
"I am completely surrounded here!" Billy thought. "Just look at this!"
"Billy, are you awake?"
He jumped, and nearly stabbed himself with a forkful of stuffing.
"Sorry, Granny Langer!" he said. "I was thinking!"
"Oh? About what, child?"
Billy's mind was blank. "Well, I was just thinking," he said, making it up as he went along. "I was thinking that it's way too warm and way too wet out there to be Christmas Day, even for Arkansas. Tyrell and me didn't even need sweaters! I was just hoping there won't be a tornado messin' up our Christmas dinner, and stuff."
"You ever hear of a tornado on Christmas Day?" Great-Granny Langer asked the table at large, and to Billy's great relief they all stopped paying attention to him and started talking about tornadoes.
"It is dark out there for the time of day," said Great-Grandmother Gordon. "And the boy's right, you know -- you could wring out the air in a bucket!"
That's when the doorbell rang, while they were all nodding and agreeing. And the door opened, and in came Billy's Great-Great-Grandmother Shanker, fanning herself with her pocketbook.
"Mama!" said Great-Granny Langer, never mind that she was going on sixty years old her own self. "I thought you said you weren't coming!"
The old woman went "Hmmmph," pulled the chair from in front of the piano up to the table, and sat down. "Changed my mind," she said, and "Please pass the turkey." There was a flurry of passing and serving, while the others filled her in on what she'd missed so far.
"Tornadoes," said Great-Great-Grandmother Shanker solemnly, "just roam around up there waiting to be called. Somebody gets so low, so miserable, so hopeless, don't you know, that they say 'ANYthing would be better than THIS!' and they mean it with their whole heart. And a tornado hears that and comes to tear everything up and blow it out of there and let the person start over from scratch -- whether that's what they had in mind or not."
"Well, we know that !" said everybody but Billy, all around the table.
And then -- all of a sudden -- there was a silence.
Billy looked up from his plate and the hair stood up on the back of his neck as he realized that there were now seven grandmothers together in his house, all kin one way or another. He wished with all his heart that he was at Tyrell's house.
"I wonder..." said Great-Grandmother Gordon.
"You thinking what I'm thinking?" Grandma Green asked her.
"Oh, my!" said Billy's mother softly. "Oh, law!"
But nobody paid any attention.
"I wonder what would happen," said Great-Grandmother Green, a faraway look in her eyes, "if you sent up a call of JOY instead of all that misery? What do you suppose would happen?"
"Well," said Great-Great-Grandmother Shanker briskly, "let's find out!"
"Wait a minute," said Billy's mother. "Don't you think maybe that's a little bit risky?"
"Nonsense, Elizabeth!" said Grandma Green, and then the talk came thick and fast.
"Can we do it while we're eating?"
"I don't know why not!"
"We've got a whatchamacallit here, you know -- a quorum!"
"One grandmother for each of the wind's four directions! One for above and one for below!"
" And Mrs. Shanker to stand for the center of the world!"
Billy cleared his throat, and all the grandmothers' eyebrows went up and they looked at him, waiting, while his mother touched him on the knee to let him know he was to speak with care.
"What..." He cleared his throat again.
"What exactly are youall going to do?" he asked, settling for the basics, and he braced himself to hear the answer.
"Why, we're going to rejoice, child!" Great-Granny Langer told him.
"All at once ?"
"All at once," she said, nodding her head. "To find out what will happen."
Billy swallowed hard and looked at his mother, but she was the way he'd been when he and Tyrell were talking about Tyrell's mother working on Christmas Day; she was pretending it was all cool.
As for the seven grandmothers, they sat there looking straight ahead at something he couldn't see, and it seemed to Billy he could already see the joy coming off of them like smoke from a chimney.
Whatever was going to happen was going to happen; that was clear.
He might just as well get ready.
The minutes went by, with nobody breaking the hush, and nobody moving, not even to eat. Billy could feel the vibes around that table, going VROOOM! VROOOOOM! VROOOOM! like the engines of the world revving up for takeoff. He couldn't decide whether to stay scared or not.
It was only after he'd begun to think everything was going to be fine, and after his mother had suggested politely that maybe they'd found out what they wanted to know and they could all go back to having their Christmas dinner now, that it happened.
First they heard the wind come up fierce and furious outside, howling around the doors both front and back, and they saw everything outside go black as black as black.
Then they saw the lightning, bolt after bolt after bolt, at every window.
Then they heard the thunder booming one long roll after another like a long fast freight train barrelling down a long steep grade.
When Great-Granny Langer said, "UNder the table, everybody, RIGHT now!" they all went instantly, even Great-Great-Grandmother Shanker, like they'd been practicing for it.
Just in time, too!
They'd no more than gotten hunkered down on the floor with their arms wrapped around one another when there was a WHOOOOSH and a WHOOOP and a SHWEEEEEE and Billy's mother cried out "Oh good grief, there goes the roof !" and Grandma Green shouted out "Stay DOWN, every single one of you! Don't you DARE look!" and there was the most humungous banging and crashing and whacking and whirring and thumping!
"Well!" said Billy's mother when it finally stopped and there was a silence almost as loud as the storm had been. "I certainly do hope youall are SATisfied!"
Billy couldn't stand it one second longer.
"How about if we look now?" he hollered. "All right?"
And he didn't wait for anybody to tell him yes or no. He just scrambled out from under the table, stood up and looked around him....
...and was so surprised that he went right back under the table again.
"Well, Billy?" asked one of the grandmothers. "It is safe to come out now?"
When Billy answered her, his voice was shaking.
"You're not going to believe what's happened out there," he announced. "You're just not going to believe it, that's all!"
The grandmothers stood up one by one, some of them complaining about their joints and their bones while they unfolded themselves, and Billy's mother stood up too, and they all looked around.
They all said it together, like a choir.
From under the table, Billy agreed with them.
"At least!" he said solemnly. "At least."
At the block party, Tyrell kept saying over and over how sorry he was that he hadn't come on over to Billy's house the way Billy had wanted him to, and Billy got a lot of satisfaction out of pointing out that it was Tyrell's own fault.
"I wish I could of been here," Tyrell said mournfully, "to see it happen. I wish I could of seen that tornado...."
"UNtornado, my grandmothers call it," Billy put in.
"I wish I could of been here to see that untornado tear that hole in your roof and start blowing the presents through the hole! That must have been a sight to behold!"
"Maybe," Billy told him. "I wouldn't know. I was under the table, Tyrell, and I didn't see it either, I just heard it. But I was the first one to look and see what had happened. Piles and piles of boxes of candy. Piles and piles of toys. Piles of hams and oranges and bread and potato chips. Piles of radios. Bicycles. Sneakers and skates and dolls and puppies and -- "
"A whole pile of puppies, going every which way!"
"If I'd been here," said Tyrell casually, just trying it out, "I would have looked while it was happening !"
It if had been an ordinary day Billy might have taken the bait, but it wasn't, and he didn't.
"Tyrell," he said kindly, "that's just plain stupid. You would have been scared purple just like me, and you know it, so don't you say that again."
People kept coming up to the porch where the grandmothers and the two boys had stacked up presents out under the bright blue sky in the icy wind that said NOW it was going to feel like Christmas. Everybody carried presents away by the armload and put them away at home -- and came back to help themselves to ham sandwiches and potato chips, and food and drink of all kinds, topped off with good conversation -- and then they went off again to dance in the street where the music was playing from a whole row of radios turned up high as they would go.
As fast as the presents were cleared away from the porch, Billy and his grandmothers carried out more and more. There had never been such a party, it was purely wonderful, and they weren't about to let one big hole in just one roof interfere with the celebration!
"I'll fix that roof for you, Elizabeth," said Mr. Hendrix from three houses down the street, who was good at that kind of thing. Billy's mother thanked him warmly and handed him a bright red blanket and a Blue Willow teapot and a bag of oranges.
"Why," asked Mr. Hendrix thoughtfully, "do you suppose that tornado only hit one house? How do you suppose a thing like that could happen?"
All the grandmothers just shrugged their shoulders and smiled.
When it was all over and everybody had gone home, when all the presents had been given away or put away and the food had been eaten, when Billy and Tyrell had gone into the living-room to watch the football game, Billy's mother and all the grandmothers went to the kitchen -- where the roof was still all in one piece -- and started washing dishes.
"Ladies," said Billy's mother sternly, "that was maybe just a tad risky!"
"Hand me that turkey platter, Elizabeth," said Great-Great-Grandmother Shanker, "before you drop it and smash it to smithereens!" And she added, "All's well that ends well, child."
"And..." said the other grandmothers, all together.
"And?" asked Billy's mother.
"And, we found out what we wanted to know!"
Suppose Tyrell had been there. He would have said that that much laughing going on all at one time in one kitchen wasn't really safe.
Copyright © 2005 by Suzette Haden Elgin