...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?