My dad’s sister and sister-in-law were both named Gladys, so I nicknamed his in-law Gladiator, in part because she was a big-boned woman, and partly because she was strong-willed, and an unusual personality. Gladiator Gladys was married to my uncle Silas, who had a reputation for being both tight-fisted and cantankerous. They didn’t get along. Or perhaps, as a friend once told me of his marriage; we stay together to keep two other people from being miserable.
The phrase “like Silas and Gladys” was short for continual bickering in our family.
Silas I was a bit afraid of, but I liked Gladys. We shared an interest in arts and crafts, and, like me, she accumulated things to make things out of. She also had two aquariums; one filled with guppies; the other with a single goldfish so large it couldn’t turn around in the tank. As an amateur zoo-keeper, I coveted them.
Silas and Gladys, though living under one roof, had separate everythings. Even time was kept zealously apart. One afternoon visit the three of us were sitting in their living room. Silas was reading. Gladys was crocheting one of an endless series of afghans. I was a nosey child, spying really. I don’t remember how the subject of sleep came up, possibly because I was very interested in dreaming. Maybe I was drowsy.
“Sleep is a waste of time.” the Gladiator declared. “I stay up all night unraveling sweaters.”
“And keeping me awake listening to that radio.” Silas put in, though his input was obviously not welcome.
“If that’s the way you say it is, from here on out, that’s the way it’ll be.” came her quick and definitive reply. I could imagine her, that very night, smiling to herself as she eased the volume up a little from the night before.
Cebah had told me that Gladiator had sticky fingers, looting castaway clothes and dishes from my sisters unattended playhouses in the woods. It could have been that she started accumulating things and just couldn’t stop, and that may have been because she had the kind of life where enforced frugality spurs the acquisitive passion of the scavenger.
Whenever we killed hogs, Gladys got the hogsheads for making souse. Cebah loved it, and occasionally made it herself, but lard and sausage making were usually work enough. Whenever we dredged out our pond, Gladys would take the giant snapping turtles, as big as washtubs, even after they’d laid out in the sun for a day or so. We didn’t know how she prepared them. My mind boggled at how she managed to get them out of their muddy armored shells. My sister Ruth Ann, who spent a day helping her clean, was paid with an old scavenged purse, and reported that lunch (which was not shared with Silas) had been boiled duck eggs and kraut. There were rumors of squirrel dumplings, of a ground hog in gravy. Her kitchen scared me.
I went on a collecting expedition with her once. She drove a long low-slung car without the slightest concern for the law or safety. Our first stop was at an abandoned house on a bluff above Pitman Creek, site of a used clothes auction. Every Tuesday a bale of old clothes, charities of pity to the antipodes, was broken open and sold a quarter the piece. We went on Wednesday. The clothes that didn’t sell were tossed over the bluff, where they caught in the branches of the hardy bushes clinging to the face of the cliff. Gladys, in her seventies then, lowered herself over the edge and plucked knitwear from the branches. Free. Destined for late night unravelings.
Our next stop was to be the day old bread store. We approached it on the far side of a four lane highway. A less direct driver would have gone to the light and circled the block to a legal entrance, but Gladys went directly where she pleased, U-turning into what is called the wrong direction. I saw an incredulous semi driver blanch and gesture frantically just as she swerved out of his path and into the bread store parking lot.
On the way home, a place I wondered if I would live to see again, the Gladiator stopped at Krogers and bought a roasted chicken. This confounded me completely. Both the cliff-side sweater plucking and the day old bread smacked of poverty to me, and I was embarrassed to be caught out poor. The roast chicken on the other hand was an unimaginable luxury item. Gladys tore me off a piece and consumed the rest like a she wolf. “I love these roast chickens, she said, I could eat a whole one.” Indeed, she had.
On the highway before turning off onto our gravel road, apropos of nothing, she said, “I just love anything odd!” and swerved the steering hard to make the point. When she let me out of her car at the foot of our hill, my prayers were answered.
After she and Silas died their house was empty for several years. Their grandson, who inherited it, lived out of state and rarely came to check on it. Sometimes I’d walk past the house on a stroll to the branch, and one such time I saw that the door was ajar and went inside. Looters had carried out much of what my aunt and uncle had accumulated. The kitchen floor was covered with items deemed not worth looting. On the counters there were piles to be looted later. In one of these piles a little book with an odd cloth cover struck my eye, and I picked it up. It was the Gladiator’s handmade diary.
I took it home and read it, beginning with the days when she and Silas first began courting, telling of how even then his personality was difficult, and of the many quarrels they had. The writing was intelligent and evocative. Her oft-attested love of ice cream was charmingly sincere. I felt so much sympathy for her descriptions of hard work; cooking, cleaning, ironing, sewing, trying to get a job in difficult circumstances, taking care of aging parents, of having to make do with little. In one passage she told about going the first time to the Dutton home-place for dinner. It was, she said, the best dinner she’d ever had, finishing with a telling qualifier; “the Duttons are good cooks, I suppose.”
As the diary approached the expected proposal from Silas, and hinted at her trepidations, something happened, a terrible problem that was only alluded to, not described plainly, as everything else she wrote about had been. Her despair was tangible. I wanted to call out to her, into the past, “Don’t do it! Don’t marry him!” Then pages were torn out, and the rest of the little hand-sewn book was left empty.