My fathers’ siblings, the story goes, had no idea their mother was pregnant with him until they were mysteriously sent to stay with relatives and then brought home a few days later to find a baby in the house. My grandparents were not alone in this failure to communicate. From other stories I’ve heard, one might say this was a cultural non-practice of the time.
Sure, there was a flipside: I had a funny great uncle who, my sisters tell me, doubled as a dirty old man. Still, in a culture impossibly opposite to the extreme sexual reticence of my grandparents, it’s tempting to think of these days-gone-by as somehow modest.
That’s the way it goes in a culture of opposition, it seems to me: we become able to conceive—no pun intended—of only two extremes.
Perhaps this is why I found the character of Grandma Thunder in Louise Erdrich’s The Round House so refreshing. Erdrich introduces Grandma Ignatia Thunder as one of those “Indian grandmas where the church doesn’t take, and who are let loose in their old age to shock the young.” The young man whom she primarily shocks is Joe Coutts, the adolescent narrator, who, upon visiting her house to get fresh fry bread and goulash, warns his friends to steer clear of any word she might twist into a double entendre—even words such as “hot,” “head,” and “come.”
The boys think they’ve successfully navigated the visit when another elderly woman drops by and uses the word “bony,” setting Grandma Thunder off on a bawdy tale that has the young men both blushing and transfixed. It’s a tale, as I understand it, very much within the oral tradition, full of both comedy and passion that—coming as they do from Grandma Thunder’s mouth—add up to real sex. And within the context of a novel whose central crime and metaphor is rape, Grandma Thunder’s sexual storytelling is both a hilarious and profoundly healing moment.
In fact, I’m advocating for more of it: more hilarious and healing sexual storytelling from the mouths of grandmothers.
Here’s my own experience: once, leaving for a date with a girlfriend from her apartment, her grandmother hollered something after us. The girlfriend, who would become my wife, scoffed, shook her head, blushed. “What’d she say?” I asked. Grandma Mouth (“Moot”), a Lao matriarch who spoke almost no English and occasionally chewed betel nuts, spitting an impossibly red-maroon spit into empty Folger’s cans, was utterly unpredictable to me.
“She said, ‘Don’t let him put his . . . in your . . .’”
As a young man, tempted to think I was discovering something that was anything but new in the world, it was a moment of humor and humility that I didn’t forget all through that night.
Or ever after.