...so I had to go down to live with Grandma Dowdel, till we could get on our feet as a family again. It meant I'd have to leave my school. I'd have to enroll in the hick-town school where Grandma lived. Me, a city girl, in a town that didn't even have a picture show. (P.9)
Mary Alice is definitely not stoked to be staying with her Grandma Dowdel. After all, she's a cosmopolitan teenage girl who considers Chicago her real home. Going to live someplace out in the boonies is not her idea of a good time.
"I rubbed butter on all four of her paws. That's what you do with a cat in a new place. By the time they've licked off all that butter, they're right at home. Works every time." (1.137)
Grandma Dowdel has a foolproof method for ensuring that a cat feels right at home when it moves to a new place. Rubbing butter on Bootsie's paws may seem like a silly thing to do, but Mary Alice can't argue with the results. Makes us wonder what the human equivalent of "buttered paws" is…
Grandma lived at the other end of the town in the last house. She was sitting out in the swing on her back porch, though as a rule she kept busier than that. It almost looked like she was waiting for us.
I came dragging into the side yard with Mildred's horse behind me. And Mildred. I guess I was glad to see Grandma there on the porch. (1.90-91)
Even though Mary Alice isn't thrilled to be living at her grandmother's house for the next year, she still takes some comfort from arriving there at the end of a tough day. Grandma's house provides a safe haven—where she knows she'll have back-up.
In Chicago it never really got dark, not like this. And the house was too quiet, though things scuttled in from the walls. Once in a while a thumping sound came from overhead in the attic. I didn't think Grandma's house was haunted. What ghost would dare? But she slept downstairs to spare herself the climb, so I was miles from anybody. (3.2)
It's not just being far away from her family and friends that gets to Mary Alice. Even her surroundings are unfamiliar and spooky. How is she supposed to settle in comfortably when there are weird thumping noises coming from the attic? At least she's sure her grandmother has the ghosts cowed.
"I'll fire up the stove in my front room," Grandma said. "It'll be warm as toast in there."
"Or you can serve store-bought cupcakes at your place."
Mrs. Weidenbach crumbled. (5.73-76)
Grandma Dowdel's house might not be the fanciest on the block, but she's still mighty proud of her home. In fact, she demands that Mrs. Weidenbach hold George Washington's Birthday tea right there. A warm stove and homemade cupcakes. What could be more hospitable?
"Grandma, what in the world was a snake that big doing in the house?" I said, at the end of my rope. "What was any snake doing in here?"
She propped the smoking gun against the marble-topped table to wipe her wet eyes. She hooked her spectacles over both ears. "That snake lived here, up in the attic." (6.110-111)
Yep. Grandma Dowdel's house is just as strange and dangerous as she can be. Unsurprisingly, she's not concerned when a giant snake appears in her attic and scares the dickens out of Maxine Patch in the midst of a sexy nude portrait session. Who would be? Well, aside from just about everyone we know.
Seeing my teacher in our front room was eerie. When I showed her to a chair, her eyes roamed the room. She read Grandma's Souvenir of Starved Rock pillow. She noticed the flat square in the carpet where we'd taken down the stove after winter. Since most of what she'd heard about us Dowdels didn't make for polite conversation, ours drifted. (6.143)
It's weird having Miss Butler over for dinner, and probably even more unnerving for Miss Butler—who has heard some pretty interesting stories about the Dowdel household. Mary Alice probably wants dinner to be over as quickly as possible, before something crazy like the infamous snake incident happens again. Have you ever wondered how people might judge you if they saw your home?
Word went around like the wind that Grandma had snagged an artist on government pay and was charging three, four, as much as five dollars a day, depending on who told it.
Arnold Green was no trouble. He came and went and lurked in the attic most of the time. He was such a small man you hardly noticed him. (6.52-53)
Thankfully, Arnold Green more or less keeps to himself, which allows Grandma and Mary Alice to go on living as they normally do. Not even the hullaballoo with the snake and Maxine Patch does much to shake things up. Grandma Dowdel herself is already pretty eccentric, so a little more "culture" doesn't really change the feeling of her home.
"You thinking about getting married and settling down in these parts?"
He staggered back from the screen door and turned. "In these parts?" He looked horrified. His hair nearly stood on end. (6.56-57)
Arnold Green may be in town to make a buck during the recession, but he's definitely not planning on settling down and staying here. Despite the fact that he falls in love with Miss Butler, he still calls New York City his true home. What kind of environment do you need to be in to feel at home?
I'd make my way to school every morning lost in thought. By now I knew who lived in every house along the way. I knew this town as I'd never known Chicago. (7.5)
At the beginning of the book, Mary Alice is convinced (in the way that only a teenager can be) that she'll never like being in Grandma Dowdel's small, hokey town. But by the end, she feels like she knows and understands this place better than Chicago. What happened?
Mother was seeing me off at Dearborn Station in Chicago. We'd come in a taxicab because of my trunk. But Mother would ride back home on the El. There wasn't much more than a nickel in her purse, and only a sandwich for the train in mine. My ticket had pretty well cleaned us out. (P.1)
Sending Mary Alice off to her grandmother's house costs money—and her parents can barely afford the ticket, let alone money for a drink or lunch. Even taking the taxicab there is a huge extravagance.
The recession of thirty-seven had hit Grandma's town harder than it had hit Chicago. Grass grew in the main street. Only a face or two showed in the window of The Coffee Pot Cafe. Moore's Store was hurting for trade. Weidenbach's bank looked to be just barely in business. (1.14)
There are already few shops and stores left in the tiny downtown area, and those that remain are hurting for business. It looks like small town life at Grandma Dowdel's is going to be pretty depressing with this whole recession going on.
They'd fired the janitor when times got hard. August—Mr. Fluke—was the principal, which made him the coach too. And he taught shop to the boys. And swept up. (1.38)
Everyone is spread thin financially, which is why Mr. Fluke—the school principal—has taken on all sorts of odd jobs. He has to clean up the school, teach shop, and coach the basketball team. What do you suppose the former janitor is doing for work now?
I was shocked at how the grown-ups pushed in first. But then here came Ina-Rae Gage, who always looked so wan and drawn that I cut her an extra-wide slice of pecan.
When she was past, Grandma muttered to me, "That's the skinniest girl that ever I saw. She could rest in the shade of a clothesline." (2.97-98)
Times must be tough if the grown-ups are pushing past the kids for food. Poor Ina-Rae looks so starved that Mary Alice decides to give her more pie than all the other folks in line. She could use some fattening up—and pie's just what the doctor ordered.
Grandma didn't throw him out and send him on his way. Not at two dollars and fifty cents a day. Arnold Green brought his easel down from the attic that same Sunday afternoon. Something Grandma said left him with the impression that the snake was gone for good. Still, he nailed the trapdoor shut and painted in his bedroom. (6.128)
Everyone's watching their expenses, and so Grandma certainly cannot afford to throw out Arnold Green. Not that we get the impression she really wants to. Sure, she makes a rule that naked ladies are not to be painted in her attic, but really, she seems more entertained than scandalized. Still, at $2.50 a day, a little scandal might be worth enduring.
She liked to boil her laundry in a big pot over an open fire in the yard. She didn't have a wringer, so we wrung out the sheets by hand. It was like tug-of-war once she dug her heels in. By the time we hung them on the line, they were half dry and we were wet through. (6.15)
The tough times means that Grandma and Mary Alice have to do their laundry by hand out in the yard, instead of using newfangled contraptions like a wringer. And they certainly couldn't even imagine how easy modern washers and dryers make washing the sheets. (Hm. That might be a good thing to remember the next time we complain about having to do our own laundry…)
"Oh my," murmured Miss Butler, "how…much."
But Arnold Green fell to it. He didn't feed this well up at The Coffee Pot Cafe, and he was a starving artist. (6.150-151)
Grandma knows how to put her guests in a good mood and make them receptive to falling in love—she feeds them. All the food they can handle. This definitely lifts their spirits when they've been hungry for so long, and when Arnold Green's stomach is full, he finally meets Miss Butler's eyes across the table. And that's all it takes to launch their romance.
Beyond the Deere implement shed we saw Mrs. Effie Wilcox's house still standing, though her front gate hung by a hinge.
But then maybe it always had. I didn't get over on this side of the tracks very often. (7.48-49)
There are plenty of dilapidated old houses in Grandma's town, and Effie Wilcox definitely does not have a lot of money. Mary Alice can't even tell if her gate was damaged by the tornado or just has always been like this.
Grandma baked the wedding cake. Sugar was hard to come by, though not for her. She made me a nosegay bouquet to carry—lilies of the valley and Queen Anne's lace from her yard, poked through a paper doily. She wore her floral print with the net collar, the dress she'd worn years ago to the county fair. (8.6)
Despite the tough times, Grandma Dowdel manages to make things special for her granddaughter's wedding day. She finds sugar for a proper cake, and even makes her a nice little bouquet.
I'd saved up my ration card for new shoes and a suit from the basement store at Marshall Field. Though I wore a hat and gloves, I was married bare-legged because you couldn't get nylons by then, for love or money. (8.4)
The war means that finding nice new clothes—much less a wedding dress—is next to impossible. But Mary Alice doesn't care. She just gets the best that she can with her ration cards, and gets ready for her wedding day.
My brother Joey—Joe—had been taken on by the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant trees out west. That left me, Mary Alice. I wished I was two years older and a boy. I wished I was Joey. (P.8)
Poor Mary Alice feels slighted because she's a girl, and therefore can't go off to serve in the Civilian Conservation Corps like all the young men who are out of jobs. She has to sit pretty and wait for the recession to end. Do these sorts of circumstances still exist, or today would Mary Alice be able to pursue all of the same options as a same-aged boy?
You couldn't call her a welcoming woman, and there wasn't a hug in her. She didn't put out her arms, so I had nothing to run into.
Nobody had told Grandma that skirts were shorter this year. Her skirttails brushed her shoes. I recognized the dress. It was the one she put on in hot weather to walk uptown in. (1.7-1.8)
Grandma Dowdel isn't exactly the most feminine woman in the world. She's not big on outward affection, and she usually wears out-of-date dresses or her dead husband's clothes—not exactly a runway look.
Grandma lunged. As big as the cobhouse doorway, she surged through it. Moonlight struck her snow-white hair, and she looked eight feet tall. She'd have given a coroner a coronary. As the fallen boy raised his dazed head, she turned the pan of glue over on it. The glue was cool now and would set later. (2.29)
You don't want to mess with Grandma Dowdel. She may be an old lady in outdated clothes, but she's a force to be reckoned with if you intend on messing with her privy. She shows those teenage hooligans who's boss when they show up on Halloween.
Grandma looked closer. "Looky there," she said. "That's Kate Smith. Do you suppose that's a good picture of her? I hadn't any idea she was such a big, full-figured woman."
Kate Smith was a very big, very full-figured woman. She was as big as—Grandma. (3.104-105)
Grandma Dowdel doesn't have a Kardashian-approved body, but she's still comfortable with how she looks. Despite her confidence, she's still happy to see someone famous who looks like her and is a big, full-figured woman too.
Underneath, she was wearing Grandpa's rubber chest-waders that were like rubber bib overalls…She was all in black rubber almost up to her chins.
Of all the figures she ever cut, this one took the cake. I often wondered what she'd buried Grandpa Dowdel in. She seemed to wear every stitch he'd owned. (4.15-16)
Grandma Dowdel obviously isn't the kind of woman who worries about how she looks all the time. She's quite pragmatic, and isn't above going out in all of her dead husband's hunting clothes if it means that she'll stay warm and dry.
Her halo hovered high over her head, supported from behind. She was made up for the New York stage. She'd shaved off her eyebrows and drawn on new ones. Her cheeks were pinker than nature. Her lips were a deep red Cupid's bow, with fingernails to match. She was a natural blonde, and that was the only natural thing about her. (4.92)
Unlike Grandma Dowdel, Carleen Lovejoy is the kind of girl who is all about dressing up and putting on make-up to flaunt her femininity. She definitely takes it to the next level at the nativity play, even though she's got a minor role.
Christmas was in the air, and Miss Butler had us girls making gifts in Home Ec. class. We ought to have been learning invisible mending and turning hems to make our clothes last. But Miss Butler decreed hot pads for our loved ones, made by crocheting used bottle caps into circular patterns. (4.1)
Even though it's rather sexist to separate the boys and girls into agriculture and home economics classes purely based on gender, Mary Alice doesn't necessarily object to the nature of the work she's being asked to do. She just wishes it was more practical. Now that's a Dowdel woman, through and through.
She was…posing. Her snow-white hair waved down from a neat center parting and drew back in a bun so tight, no hair escaped. Pearls hung in her ears. There were traces of Coty powder in the laps below her chins.
I'd never seen her dress. It must have been from the Lane Bryant catalogue. (5.109-110)
What a surprise! Mary Alice can hardly believe her eyes when Grandma Dowdel comes downstairs in a fancy outfit and with her hair and make-up done. It's something that she wants to remember forever, and it goes to show that Grandma Dowdel isn't against dressing up—she just reserves her fancy clothes for the right occasions.
Royce sat with his legs apart, elbows in knees. Actually, he sat like Grandma did. Then he said, "We have something in common, you and me."
"We do?" Oh, how close to simpering I was. Another minute and you wouldn't know me from Carleen. (6.89-90)
Mary Alice is a little surprised at just how flustered being around Royce makes her. These feelings are totally new to her, and while she's excited, she's also slightly petrified. She wants to be feminine, like Carleen, but she doesn't want to be superficial. Like Carleen. Romance can be pretty confusing.
We used rain-barrel water and her homemade lye soap. I can still feel her knuckles in my scalp, and that lye soap took forever to rinse out. I hadn't had a finger wave since last summer. Grandma had been cutting my hair. (6.16)
Mary Alice definitely isn't as well-dressed or made up as Carleen Lovejoy, especially with the conditions she and Grandma are living in. They don't have the money to go get their hair done professionally (although Grandma probably never cared to).
The trunk, a small one, held every stitch of clothes I had and two or three things of Mother's that fit me. "Try not to grow too fast," she murmured. "But anyway, skirts are shorter this year." (P.2)
Poor Mary Alice can't help that she's growing bigger and taller—after all, she's a teenager. But her parents can't exactly afford to buy her new clothes right now, so she'll have to make do with her too-short clothes.
I stood there, fifteen, trying to die of shame. Grandma didn't understand about high school. She was trying to get the janitor to enroll me. (1.37)
Oh, dear. Is there anything worse than being embarrassed by your grandmother at a new school? Mary Alice is fifteen years old, which means that she feels embarrassment more acutely than she did as a kid—or will as an adult. Isn't adolescence great?
There were little changes stirring in me. I began to notice how old Grandma was, how hard she worked herself, how far from town she'd roam in the frozen nights, across uneven ground. I began to want to be there with her, to make sure she'd come safely home. (4.60)
Mary Alice is growing up, and not just because she's suddenly taller and more interested in relationships. She's also starting to notice that the grown-ups around her aren't indestructible—even her tough-as-nails grandmother.
Royce McNabb was a math whiz. One of the rumors swirling around him was that he was teaching himself trigonometry, whatever that is. And he was the best-looking boy in the county. So I formed a plan. I'd been forming it since Valentine's Day, but now I'd have to speak to Grandma. (6.64)
As a heterosexual teenage girl, Mary Alice is not immune to the charms of Royce McNabb—the tall drink of water who's moved to this little podunk town. She's determined to catch his eye, even if it means facing off with Carleen Lovejoy. Or having an awkward conversation with Grandma Dowdel.
At last, Miss Butler chanced a glance across the groaning table at Arnold Green. I was too young to know how much a dangerous man interests a good woman.
His glasses were steamed from the dinner, so it was hard to catch his eye. But she spoke. "I so admire the artistic temperament." (6.153-154)
Mary Alice thinks she's all grown-up, but she still doesn't know the inner workings of how people are attracted to each other. And so she's absolutely floored when Miss Butler and Arnold Green hit it off. Who would have thought it? Aside from Grandma Dowdel, of course.
I supposed my life was over. On Monday at school, I couldn't even look Royce McNabb's way. I supposed all his worst fears about me had been realized, and then some. Now he thought I lived in a madhouse with a trigger-happy grandma and snakes and naked—nude women in the attic. (6.129)
Is there anything worse when you're a teenager than being embarrassed by your own family? Or actually, just being embarrassed in general? Mary Alice is horrified by the events that happen when she invites Royce over. She's pretty sure she and her crazy grandmother have made the worst. First impression. Ever.
Bootsie had only brought her up for a visit, to show me. Now she was taking her baby back to the cobhouse where they lived. So that's the way it worked. I stood in the afternoon light and shed a tear or two. It didn't take much to set me off, now that I was sixteen. (6.13)
On top of outgrowing her skirts, Mary Alice is now also finding herself in fits of hormonal melancholy. She cries when Bootsie takes her new kitten away. Classic teenage angst.
"You know," he said in his manly voice, "percentages are basically decimals. Maybe we ought to start there."
I blinked. Did he notice I didn't put that stuff on my eyelashes that Carleen put on hers? (6.83-84)
Mary Alice is trying as hard as she can to look grown-up and attractive when Royce comes over. But he seems more interested in tutoring her on math, which is pretty frustrating. Decimals? He's talking decimals? Doesn't he realized she's so nervous she tore her lacy handkerchief in half? Mmm-hmm. That's .5 handkerchiefs. Times two.
When I came in that night with straw in my hair, I knew it was time for a showdown with Grandma. She was in the front room, pretending to be asleep in the platform rocker. As a rule, she had to wake up to go to bed. But she was sitting up for me, awake behind her eyelids. (7.90)
By the end of the book, Mary Alice is no longer intimidated by her tough Grandma Dowdel. In fact, she's ready to argue with her and make a case for staying on instead of going back to Chicago.
Graduation was coming, though we were only graduating five: four girls who never spoke to anybody younger, just like in Chicago, and Royce McNabb. They'd chosen their class motto:
ONLY TO BEGIN. (7.6-7)
All good things must come to an end. Before Mary Alice realizes it, the school year is over and she's spent all this time at Grandma Dowdel's without going crazy with boredom. So…now what? Has she finished something, like the class motto suggests? And if so, what is she about to begin?
Dad lost his job, so we'd had to give up the apartment. He and Mother were moving into a "light housekeeping" room. They could get it for seven dollars a week, with kitchen privileges, but it was only big enough for the two of them. (P.7)
When Mary Alice's parents move into a tiny room, they have to send her to Grandma Dowdel's to stay until they're all back on their feet financially. It's the only option they have, and it's probably because Mary Alice knows this is true that she goes along with it so easily. It's hard to imagine a modern teenager making such a sacrifice without complaint, isn't it? Or are we being uber-judgey? How would you react in this situation?
Oh, didn't I feel sorry for myself when the Wabash Railroad's Blue Bird train steamed into Grandma's town. The sandwich was still crumbs in my throat because I didn't have the dime for a bottle of pop. (1.1)
Even the trip to Grandma Dowdel's is miserable, and Mary Alice can't help but feel sorry for herself. After all, she doesn't even have enough money to buy a drink on the train. Can you relate? Have you had a similar experience?
"It doesn't matter, and there's plenty of room for you. High school's getting to be a luxury in times like these. So many boys have dropped out entirely, I don't know where I'll find five to play basketball, come winter, or to field the Christmas program." (1.43)
Clearly, Mary Alice's family isn't the only one that's hurting financially. When she registers for school, the principal mentions that high school has become a luxury. A luxury! Is that the way you view high school education?
Shamed though she was, Maxine had to go back to work at the post office. From the stamp counter she sent forth word that Arnold Green had deceived her. Her reputation was in ruins, and he'd have to marry her. (6.132)
Because Arnold Green has ruined Maxine's reputation, she thinks that he should give in and marry her to make it all right. What do you think? Is it only fair to expect him to make that kind of sacrifice? Did Maxine make a sacrifice when she agreed to pose nude for a portrait? As you think about this, consider the era. Does it make a difference that this happened in 1937? Why or why not? Does Grandma Dowdel think Arnold owes Maxine a proposal?
Spring and I stirred. For my sixteenth birthday present in March, Mother sent me a dollar, all folded up. I don't know where she got it. (6.1)
Mary Alice knows how hard her parents are working and how little money they have. Sending her a dollar must have meant some serious scrimping and saving. It's an enormously generous gift. How much would a 1937 dollar be worth today? We bet you can find out pretty fast if you want to.
I couldn't wait to get out of there. A block away I said, "Grandma, Old Man Nyquist's mean."
She nodded. "Nobody'll go near him. He'd have been wedged under them bedsprings till the next Republican administration."
Nobody'd go near him but Grandma. (7.45-47)
Grandma Dowdel doesn't like Old Man Nyquist anymore than the rest of the town does—but she's not going to let him rot away in his house after the tornado. She'll take one for the team and go save him, even if won't say one word of thanks. By the way, if it's 1937, how long will it be till the next Republican administration? Why does Grandma think it might be a while?
That meant I could come back whenever I could manage it. And she was telling me to go. She knew the decision was too big a load for me to carry by myself. She knew me through and through. She had eyes in the back of her heart. (7.107)
Because it's so hard for Mary Alice to make the choice to leave, Grandma Dowdel steps in and makes it for her. She tells her to go home to Chicago, and that she'll always have a place here if she wants to come and visit.
I wanted to explain to Grandma how she needed me here. I'd fuss about her if I wasn't here to see how she was. But she'd just spent days working herself into the ground to prove I was only in her way. She'd been helping me leave for a week. (7.96)
Grandma Dowdel has already anticipated what Mary Alice is going to say—and her reasons for wanting to stay. So she makes it a point to show her granddaughter that she's still as strong and hardy as ever, and doesn't need her help. Even though there's a big part of her that would love to keep her granddaughter around.
"Grandma, was I too much trouble?"
That went too far. But I was her granddaughter, and she'd taught me everything I knew, and I liked to win…
"What would your paw think if I kept you?" she said finally. "I don't want your maw after me." (7.100-103)
Mary Alice is her grandmother's granddaughter, and she's not about to give up so easily. She guilts her grandmother into telling the truth (more or less)—that she doesn't want Mary Alice to leave, but that she knows it's better for her to go home to Chicago.
It was in the last year of the war, and you can't imagine how things were then. The war scattered people to the four winds. Joey was flying B-17 Fortress missions over Germany, and so my heart lived in my mouth. Dad was doing work with Boeing out in Seattle. He and Mother were living there. Travel was next to impossible, so they couldn't be there. Even the bridegroom's family couldn't come to the wedding. (8.2)
The war makes it so that Mary Alice can't have her whole family there for her wedding—and neither can the bridegroom. (Psst! It's Royce!) But they'll take their lumps and move on, because they have no other options. When life gives you lemons? Get married. And serve lemonade at the reception.
"And you acted real nice to her too, Grandma. You gave her buttermilk and that big slab of corn bread."
"Oh well," Grandma waved herself away. "Didn't want to send her off hungry. I knew she had a long walk ahead of her." (1.126-127)
Grandma Dowdel may be out to teach Mildred a lesson, but she's not totally heartless. She knows that the girl will have a five mile walk home, and so she feeds her before sending her off. In her mind, this balances the scales.
Grandma, who didn't know how to drive an automobile, aimed at the tree and hit it dead on, ramming it with the tire over the radiator. The tree reeled in shock, and pecans rained. It was a good thing I wasn't standing under it. A ton of pecans fell together, like a hailstorm. (2.62)
Technically, Grandma isn't going against what Old Man Nyquist said—which is that she can have any pecans that have fallen from his tree. But she does use a bit of ingenuity to make sure that lots of pecans fall out of that tree.
In short, she got more than a dime off everybody, except from those she knew couldn't pay more. In some cases she could make change, in others she couldn't. Once, I saw her palm the dime back into the hand that offered it. (3.61)
Grandma Dowdel isn't extorting more money from people because she's greedy. She's taking the Robin Hood approach: demanding more from the rich and giving the poor some burgoo for free. And in the end, all the money that's collected goes to Mrs. Abernathy and her disabled son. So…it's all okay? Right?
Grandma gave Arnold Green the bedroom facing the Wabash tracks. In its closet was the trapdoor to the attic. She provided a ladder so he could use the attic for an artist's studio. She was generous to a fault. (6.50)
Although she's asking for quite the steep rent money from Arnold Green, Grandma Dowdel isn't going to be a total skinflint. She'll let him use the attic to paint in, so that he can have his own little studio where he won't be disturbed. Surely that's worth the extra rent.
"That's too good a show for us to keep to ourselves," Grandma said.
With the thought, she was through the door and out in the front yard. Planting her house shoes, she jammed the Winchester into her shoulder, aimed high, and squeezed off both barrels. The world exploded. Birds rose shrieking from the trees, and the town woke with a start. (6.105-106)
Grandma Dowdel is never the kind of person who will let something this good go unacknowledged. She wakes up the whole town when Maxine comes running out of the attic buck-naked.
"Posing?" Grandma said. "Well, I better make a rule against painting pictures of naked women in my attic." (6.127)
Grandma Dowdel isn't actually scandalized by the fact that Maxine Patch was nude in her attic, but she does put her foot down and tell Arnold he can't do that anymore. Still, she's not going to try to run him out of town or anything. It takes more than nudity—and reptiles—to shock her.
We left then, Grandma bustling to prove she hadn't given two hoots about Mrs. Wilcox. But I saw through that. I hadn't lived with her all year for nothing. Sometimes I thought I was turning into her. (7.64)
In classic Grandma Dowdel fashion, she denies caring about Mrs. Wilcox—even when she's just rushed over to check on her after the tornado hits. But Mary Alice can see right through it, and knows that they're best friends.
"Grandma, I don't want to go back to Chicago. I want to stay here with you."
She knew, of course. Dad was working now. They'd found an apartment up in Rogers Park. Mother was fixing up the second bedroom for me. They wanted me home as soon as school was out. It was all in the letter. (7.94-95)
Grandma Dowdel is definitely not an idiot—she knows that Mary Alice has been thinking about staying on. But she's not about to let her granddaughter sacrifice her own happiness to look after her grandmother, and so she refuses Mary Alice's offer. Not because she doesn't want her there, but because she knows it wouldn't be right for Mary Alice to give up other opportunities.
When I offered to give Grandma a hand, she snapped my head off. "Go on up to the house and study for them exams," she barked. Though we both knew no power on earth would save me in math. But she wouldn't even let me set the table for supper these nights. I took my sweet time figuring out what had come over Grandma. (7.75)
When Grandma suspects that Mary Alice is worried about her growing old, she starts doing some serious chores without help—just to show her that she's an independent old woman and doesn't need to be fussed over.
It would have been easier to get married in Chicago. I'd held on to the apartment in Rogers Park and took the El every morning down to the Tribune Tower to my cub reporter job…Though it meant I'd have to ride the wartime version of the Wabash Blue Bird, sitting on my luggage in the aisle, I knew I wanted to be married in Grandma's house. (8.3)
What's easy isn't always the best thing for you. That's what Mary Alice finds when she has to decide where to get married. She doesn't want to do it in Chicago; she wants to be with family, and for her, that's Grandma Dowdel.
Mr. Fluke turned to me. "Mary Alice, is it? Down from Chicago?" Everybody in this town knew everything about you. They knew things that hadn't even happened yet. (1.41)
Mary Alice feels like a fish out of water, but apparently everyone in this tiny town already knows her business. It's a bit unnerving to find out that she's been the topic of conversation when she doesn't know these people at all.
"I'll make ya welcome," Mildred rasped. She made a big fist and showed it to me, under the desk. "Rich Chicago girl."
I sighed. "If I was rich, I wouldn't be here." (1.67-68)
Mary Alice certainly does not get a warm welcome when she starts school in Grandma Dowdel's small town—especially from Mildred Burdick, who seems to hate her right away.
Anybody who thinks small towns are friendlier than big cities lives in a big city. Except for Ina-Rae Gage, they were all giving me a wide berth. The leader of the girls was clearly Carleen Lovejoy, the grain dealer's daughter. She was about as stuck-up as could be...I was still spending my school days on the sidelines. (2.39)
None of the girls at school—except for Ina-Rae Gage—take to Mary Alice. In fact, she finds herself feeling quite lonesome as they all keep away from her and refuse to accept her into their inner circles. Is this typical? How have you seen new students get treated? Have you ever been a new student?
In Chicago, it never really got dark, not like this…
What I'd have done without my radio, I didn't know. Grandma, who could hear all over the house, didn't like extra noise, so I played the Philco at night in bed, muffled in the covers. (3.2-3)
It's not just the people that Mary Alice feels strange around. The surroundings are also unfamiliar; she's used the hustle and bustle of city life—and the light pollution. Now she has to rely on her radio to bring her the sounds of the city.
The school was rocked by the news that I was to play Baby Jesus' Mother. I was surprised myself. Someone was heard to remark, "What was Miss Butler dreaming of? A Chicago girl playing the Virgin Mary. The idea!" It was Carleen. (4.9)
For some reason, Carleen Lovejoy seems to think that a "Chicago girl" couldn't possibly be the Mother Mary in the nativity play. She's absolutely scandalized by Miss Butler's choice—after all, Mary Alice isn't one of them. And certainly no one from Chicago could have sound enough morals to play the Virgin Mary, right?
I was lucky to have Ina-Rae though. Carleen Lovejoy was still looking straight through me, and she set the tone for the rest of the girls. I hadn't made a lot of headway in all these weeks. (4.3)
Mary Alice knows that beggars can't be choosers. Even if Ina-Rae is the only person at school who's nice to her, she still considers herself lucky. After all, she could have no one at all.
Before that week was out it began to dawn on me that nobody would hold a little excitement against you in a town as quiet as this one. And just as they'd begun to take him for granted, Arnold Green sparked new interest. There was some talk about running him out of town. Various church groups called meetings. (6.131)
Once folks hear about how Arnold Green is an artist who draws women in the nude, they're properly scandalized and are calling meetings to run him out of town. Grandma certainly doesn't care though; she'll continue to give him a roof over his head. Hey, she'll even help him find love.
"She just said I'd have to go door-to-door to see if anybody'd rent me a room." The stranger still stared. Grandma was such an awesome sight that he could hardly keep his thoughts in order. "And you're the last house in town. Don't you people have a house around here?" (6.29)
It's a good thing for Arnold Green that Grandma Dowdel isn't easily scared by strangers. In fact, she readily provides him with a room…as long as he's willing to pay her exorbitant rent prices.
And I didn't mind too much about Royce. He was friendly enough, but either he was keeping his distance, or I was keeping mine. We'd both been strangers in their midst here, but was that enough? I guessed not and didn't mind too much. Really, not at all, hardly. (6.162)
Mary Alice finds that she and Royce don't get much closer for the rest of the school year, despite the fact that they have their outsider status in common. But she's okay with that—she doesn't want to force his hand and make him enter a relationship with her.
"I'm a stranger here myself," Royce said. "I'm from Mattoon. You're from Chicago. We're a couple of foreigners here."
Royce McNabb was finding these we had in common, without even being prompted. (6.91-92)
It seems like Mary Alice and Royce have nothing to talk about at first, but then they realize that they are both strangers to this small town. That's one thing that they have in common, and it binds them together.
"I'll leave this wire stretched till morning. Watch your step on the way to the house," Grandma said. "I'll be along in a little while."
She meant she was going to use her privy, and she spoke with some satisfaction because it was still there to use. (2.35-36)
Ten points to Grandma Dowdel! She has managed to thwart and humiliate the Halloween pranksters. Plus, she's kept her privy standing. This has been a good night for Grandma.
The thought of five dollars for a cup of cooling burgoo made Mr. Weidenbach's eyes water. The line jostled him from behind, everybody all ears. He jammed two thorny fingers into his watch pocket and came up with a silver dollar, as high as he'd go. (3.60)
Mr. Weidenbach may not like it, but he always has to concede to Grandma Dowdel—who is a force to be reckoned with. She'll never let him get away with being cheap, especially when he has so much more than most of his neighbors in town.
An awful thought struck me. A turkey shoot? What if Grandma took part? I remembered Grandpa Dowdel's old twelve-gauge double-barreled Winchester behind the woodbox. (3.17)
It's no wonder that Mary Alice worries that her grandmother will want to take place in the turkey shoot, even though it's just for men and boys. Grandma Dowdel has never been one to let anything stand in the way of her winning…but thankfully, this time she's just going for the burgoo. Yeah, right.
Twisted in it were tiny tin stars, cut from cans. A day's work to make. Grandma stood back, her hands clasped, a little eagerness in her eyes. "Watch out them stars don't dig your scalp."
She'd made me a halo so Carleen Lovejoy in all her tinsel wouldn't outshine me. (4.85-86)
Aww, how sweet! Mary Alice thought that her grandmother was completely uninterested in her school nativity play, but she should have known better. Grandma Dowdel would never let her granddaughter be outshone by a snobby girl like Carleen Lovejoy.
Ahead of me, Carleen gripped herself. "Be still, my heart," she murmured loudly. Then she leaned across to Irene Stemple and said, "Hands off. He's mine." (5.49)
Whoa, talk about possessive. As soon as Carleen Lovejoy sets her sights on Royce McNabb, she claims that tall drink of water for herself. Too bad Mary Alice isn't one to be easily intimidated.
Before I could think, Arnold Green stepped up behind us. His horn-rims flashed, and my brain buzzed. Miss Butler was so refined, even prim. And there was talk of running Arnold Green out of town for ruining Maxine Patch. And Grandma had invited him to supper. Oh, Grandma, I thought, what are you up to? (6.147)
Grandma Dowdel isn't just competitive when it comes to her own life; she places bets on other peoples' personal lives, too. She decides that she wants Miss Butler to win Arnold's attention—not Maxine.
"I was giving him fair warning," she said. "Maxine Patch found him on the first day. She'll be up at The Coffee Pot this minute, layin' in wait. She's thirty-six and man-hungry." Grandma's lips pleated knowingly, and the toothpick pointed out at this truth. "And there hasn't been an unmarried man around here since the last chain gang went through." (6.61)
Grandma isn't going to let poor Arnold Green carry on without warning him about the dangers of small town life—namely, desperate women who are trying to sink their claws into him before someone else does.
I thought I'd better come clean, never an easy decision at sixteen. "Grandma, Carleen Lovejoy's set her cap for him. And I want to make my move before she makes hers."
That was talking her language. "We'll squeeze some lemons for a pitcher of lemonade," she said. (6.68-69)
Carleen Lovejoy may be the most well-dressed and most made-up girl in school, but Mary Alice isn't intimidated by her "claim" on Royce McNabb. If anything, Carleen's possessiveness only spurs on Mary Alice's determination to nab Royce for herself. And it definitely sways Grandma Dowdel.
Then I had to get up the nerve to invite Royce, and we'd scarcely spoken two words to each other. And I couldn't just barge up to him. Carleen watched him like a hawk all day long, and I didn't want to show my hand. Finally, I wrote him a note. (6.75)
Well, now Mary Alice has Grandma's blessing to go after Royce and bring him over for a "study session." But she still has to take the terrifying next step…which is to actually talk to the cutest boy in school. Good thing competition tends to stimulate adrenaline production. That's just the boost a girl on a mission needs.
I expected Grandma to be a target. Old people in big houses were. But then Grandma wasn't just any old person. What the Halloweeners didn't know was that Halloween was her favorite holiday. And being mostly boys, they didn't seem to remember this lesson from year to year. (2.3)
Mary Alice fears that the teenage boys will target Grandma Dowdel for their Halloween pranks, but she needn't worry. Grandma Dowdel can certainly hold her own, and takes pride in tormenting those boys right back.
"He gets a check from the government, but it don't keep them."
"But, Grandma, aren't there veterans' hospitals where he could go?'
"She won't give him up," Grandma said. "She's lost him once already." (3.96-98)
Grandma Dowdel understands the difficult situation that Mrs. Abernathy is in with her son, who has been damaged in the war and cannot take care of himself. But she also understands that Mrs. Abernathy's love of her son trumps all the hard times.
But what I remember best about that evening is the three of us walking home from church. I see us yet, strolling the occasional sidewalks with our arms around Grandma, just to keep her from skidding, because she said she was a hog on ice. And every star above us was a Christmas star. (4.120)
Grandma Dowdel's town may look dusty and sad to Mary Alice at the beginning of the book, but when her brother is there with her, everything is magical. Love and their little family is what brings on the Christmas spirit.
The tears started in my eyes. I wanted to hold her in that moment forever, framed by that door. "Grandma," I said, "you're beautiful."
She waved me away, but she was. (5.111-112)
Grandma Dowdel might be too big and unfeminine for most people to consider her a good-looking woman, but Mary Alice sees her grandmother as absolutely beautiful.
For the rest of the month until he went back to New York, most evenings found Arnold Green strolling to the Noah Atterberrys'. Miss Butler roomed there. They sat out on the porch swing in full view. At the time I supposed they discussed art and poetry and Paris. He used Vitalis now, and Kreml for his dandruff. (6.161)
Alas, Maxine Patch doesn't end up winning Arnold Green's heart, despite posing nude for him. Instead, he falls head over heels for the prim Miss Butler, who shares his interest in art and literature.
When Royce filled the door, I thought of Joey. Royce was that tall, that broad across the shoulders. Then I fumbled the doorknob because my lacy handkerchief was a damp ball in my hand. I'd ripped it in two. And I wished I'd have some perfume to wear, just a dab behind each ear, in case that worked on a boy. (6.81)
Mary Alice frets when Royce shows up at Grandma Dowdel's house. It's clear that she's got the kind of crush that might inspire her to refresh his Instagram feed every two seconds just to see what's new...if they had social media back in 1937, that is.
Then I'd shied off and was running across the schoolyard, skirttails whipping, Cuban heels pounding. Anybody with good sense was taking cover, but I wanted to go home. A breeze came up. The Coffee Pot Cafe looked empty, and the screen door was beginning to flap. (7.13)
Tornados are scary, but the prospect of taking shelter at school while Grandma is all alone at home is even scarier. Even though the students are told to take cover, Mary Alice runs home to make sure that her grandmother is safe and sound.
"Grandma, is Mrs. Wilcox your best friend?"
"We neighbors," she said. (7.69-70)
Grandma sure doesn't like to admit that she cares about people. Mary Alice can tell that she cares a whole lot about Effie Wilcox because she goes to check on her after the tornado hits, but Grandma won't say it aloud.
"What would happen if I wrote to you from the U. of I.?"
"I'd faint and fall over from surprise," I said, though somehow his arm had found its way around my shoulder. "There are lots of girls at the U. of I. It's a coeducational institution." (7.86-87)
So it's not just a high school flirtation after all! Royce McNabb asks Mary Alice if he can write to her when he's in college, and she's absolutely floored. Of course, she says yes because she likes him, too. Still, did you see their end-of-book wedding coming?
It was Joey, fresh from the west, off the evening train. Grandma had sent him the ticket. That's where most of the fox money went. That's what it was for.
I had to turn away, quick. There was a lump in my throat, and that would mean tears on my face, and I didn't want Joey to see them. (4.115-116)
This is the best Christmas present that Mary Alice could have ever asked for. She doesn't care about the new shoes or the fox fur on her coat. She's just delighted to see her brother again.
By April Bootsie took time out from her busy schedule to bring me offerings. One afternoon I found a robin's egg on my bed. Had the robin flown in the open window and laid it? But no, Bootsie must have carried it in her mouth all the way up the house for me. I was touched. (6.9)
Bootsie may prefer living in the cob house and catching her own food (instead of eating what Mary Alice gives her), but that doesn't mean she's abandoned her human friends altogether. She still stops by for little visits. Cat love. Is there anything sweeter?
After we got home that night, Grandma showed me another ticket. It was a round-trip to Chicago for me, so I could go with Joey to have some Christmas with Mother and Dad. It must have cost Grandma her last skin. First, though, we'd keep Christmas right here around the spindly tree in the warm front room. Just the three of us, like the old summer visits. (4.120)
What a cozy Christmas tableau. Mary Alice, Joey, and Grandma Dowdel settle down for a charming Christmas that reminds them of the summer visits they had as kids. Families and nostalgia go together like cake and ice cream.
But there was one more miracle. I looked up at the tall man behind Grandma, and it was Joey.
Taller and leaner and handsomer. But Joey—changed and the same. And so I was looking my Christmas in the face. I hugged the wind out of him, tangled him in my sheets, nicked his chin with my halo. (4.113-114)
Mary Alice might be a teenager who gets easily embarrassed by her grandmother's strange antics, but she's not too cool to greet her brother when he shows up unexpectedly. His arrival is a Christmas miracle! Plus it shows that for Mary Alice, family is more important than any gift could be.
Mrs. Wilcox made a beeline across the room. "You's my long-lost sister!" She flung out her arms to Mrs. Weidenbach, who flinched. Punch went everywhere, and horror and defeat were written in her face. (5.146)
Oh, dear. All this time, Mrs. Weidenbach was so proud of her family background, and how she was supposedly descended from the Pilgrims. But instead, she learns that she was a Burdick and is related to Mrs. Effie Wilcox, of all people. It's not shocking that she spills her punch at that revelation.
I felt a paw on my knee as Bootsie stepped from Grandma's lap to mine. Grandma gave up and uncovered April's little green eyes blinking up at us. "Grandma, you saved them."
She shrugged that off. "I happened to be down in the cobhouse when the sirens went."
That was a whopper. We both knew it. (7.22-24)
Grandma Dowdel always acts tough, but she does care about Mary Alice—and even extends that care to Bootsie and her kitten, April. They've built a little family together in this small town, and she's not going to let them be blown away by a tornado.
"No, I think your grandma's a real interesting person," he said, and our hands brushed. "Everybody—"
"Royce, we're lucky she's not here on this hayframe with us. You must have noticed she rarely misses a party. But let's leave her out of this if we can. The moon's out, and Carleen's in a snit because we're sitting together. Let's just enjoy ourselves and have a hayride." (7.83-84)
Mary Alice is even more charmed by handsome Royce when he remarks that he likes her grandmother—despite all her weird quirks and scary shotgun-wielding behavior. That's when she knows he's a keeper; she can rest assured that he'll be comfortable around the Dowdel family.
Spring didn't come to Chicago like this. I went around with a lump in my throat I couldn't account for. Then a letter came from Mother with a postscript from Dad.
We'd written back and forth all year, though of course I didn't tell them everything. Mother always tucked in a stamp for me to write back. (7.3-4)
Mary Alice misses her parents, of course, and wants to see them again. But at the same time, going home to Chicago will mean leaving the home she's made with her grandmother—and that isn't a welcome thought, either.
She could look at me again now, though her eyes were pink and glistening. "You take the kitten. I'll keep the cat," she said. "You go on home to your folks. It'll be all right. I don't lock my doors." (7.106)
Despite the fact that Grandma Dowdel likes having Mary Alice around (after all, she's in that big old house all by herself), she still sends her granddaughter home to her parents and brother. That's where she really belongs. Sometimes—okay, lots of times—family involves sacrifice.
When he asked who gave the bride away in marriage, Grandma said, "That'd be me."
She handed me over. Then she looked aside, out the bay window, blinking at the brightness of the day. I know because I looked back for one more glimpse of her. Then I married Royce McNabb. (8.7-8)
Mary Alice's father may not be there to give her away, but that doesn't mean she's entirely without family for her wedding. Her grandmother steps in to take on the very symbolic task of giving her away. Do you think Mary Alice would have made a different choice if her father had been there?
In this busy day I hadn't had time to be homesick. But I thought about my brother, Joey. Always before, he'd come down here to Grandma's with me, and stuck up for me. Now he was out west, planting trees, living in a tent. I thought about Joey, and Grandma was thinking about him too. I could tell. (1.129)
It's hard for Mary Alice to be at Grandma Dowdel's house all by herself—especially when she's never visited without her brother, Joey. Mary Alice finds herself more homesick than ever when she considers how her family is spread all over the country now.
Then just above the sighing wind she said, "The trenches are all filled in, but the boys are still dying."
Then I could read her thoughts and I knew what this day meant. Mrs. Abernathy's son could have been my dad. (3.99-100)
Grandma Dowdel isn't just helping out Mrs. Abernathy because she wants to be a good neighbor; in some ways, she's helping Mrs. Abernathy because she knows her son could have been damaged from the war, too. She was just lucky.