The Great Grandparents: 1985-1987
There was something about the 1980s. Things not only smelt different, but they were different. It was Spring of ‘85 and grandma (mom’s mom) decided to move from her comfy home in the River Park subdivision in New Braunfels and take root closer to where we grandkids lived in North Central San Antonio. I still recall that quiet and new neighborhood. There was no river stink from a nearby river like there was in the old place, and the paint on every house was as new and colorful as a showroom car.
But no matter where grandma moved, her mother and father always went with her. These were my great grandparents, the Wellers, and they made oak trees and the giant pine trees of South Texas seem somehow not quite as old. The Wellers were in their 80s and then some. Grandma Weller was born in 1904 and Grandpa Weller in 1898. Why is it so fascinating to me to think of them buying a new car in their 50s in the 1950s? Cars now in the junkyards rotting into less than rust they once bought new!
So the Wellers were moved next door. I know because the blisters on my hands bore witness. Grandma rented out the old River Park house. Not long after the new family got settled into grandma’s old house, the husband beat his wife to near death and went to prison for some time, forcing grandmother to sell the house as the lady victim and her kids had to move on and could not afford payments.
Anyhow, I still remember the calluses on our young hands from trying to move old hope chests and old German pieces of furniture that numbered in that category of number known as “insane,” but those weren’t too bad to keep us from playing after the work was done. It was such a tiring time, but it was fun because our mothers and fathers got together and all we cousins got to play late. We went home so tired every night and then came and finished out the weekend before school started back. Before we knew it, school was back in and we were longing for it to be over again. I would stay at grandma’s waiting for mom to finish her classes at San Marcos College. It could get pretty late.
I can remember running to grandma’s house to get away from some bullies who were chasing me one windy afternoon. I made it, came in, plopped my backpack on the couch, and grandma made the sugariest glass of sweet iced tea I’d had all year. And then I headed up to watch cable TV. Grandma always had the dirty channels scrambled, damnit! We couldn’t even get HBO because of “all that profanity” and moral “pollution” and “filth.” So many blurry breasts seen on the porn channel from grandma's old TV with the most basic of cable packages—ah, the memories!
But grandma’s house became a place called a second home. I knew where everything was. When I was playing and cut myself, I knew where to get the bandages. Grandma always had those Hawaiian Kettle Potato Chips, mineral water, and a huge assortment of teas in the kitchen, and she’d cook us up the same sort of stuff we had at home. But the featurally identical house next door was so different. That was where the Wellers lived.
“We don’t you go over and see your great grandparents. They’d love to see you.” grandma would always say when we were getting into trouble or if she wanted us to “pay our respects.” And though we would scarcely admit it to anyone but mom or dad, we hated going over there, absolutely hated it.
Grandmother’s blue house and great grandmother’s dark brown house looked like twin cottages from the outside, but the insides of each were different because the atmosphere was different. The smell was different. The narrow, off-white hallways leading to the rooms were the same, but the people in those rooms were different.
Grandmother Weller was always as sweet as could be, and she still had a somewhat active mind for someone 80+ years of age. Many a history lesson would we hear at her feet. The most repeated was anytime Christmas or birthdays came around: “In our time, we could only get an orange or an apple for Christmas. You kids have so much more.” Grandmother Weller always had those “old person” floral gowns on, mostly in white colors. And she made porridge like crazy. The only thing we ate over there were caramel candies wrapped in little plastic-covered wrappings in cube shapes. I can still taste them and enjoyed them, hard as they were to chew.
The house may have been new, but everything in it was old—the pictures on the walls were of fruit baskets and old shapes – and of course, dead relatives – and in old picture frames that smelled like something from another century (because they just about were from another century!) So many family air-looms, that entire place was musty, unlike grandmother’s house, which smelled of fragrances and like a Christmas storage chest.
Old Weller, the Ghoul
We cousins hated visiting our great grandparents, not just because of the smells and depressing old atmosphere, but because of great grandfather Weller—Old Weller, as we called him. He had moved over with them the old machine shop and equipment from way back in his employment days (some time a little closer to the Civil War). Grandfather Weller was an electrician and craftsman, and before that, a kiln operator back in the day.
He stood 6’2 with 189 pounds on a rather frail frame. He was one grave German man who was always one step away from snapping at us kids. He was a very mean man, and we kids didn’t know half the stuff we know today. We were scared to death of him and could tell we were nothing but a nuisance to him. We dreaded going over there, my little cousins and brother even worse. This tall, thin, somber, slightly balding-up-front man who always wore brown flannel shirts and elastic-waisted “old person” high-water casual pants, was intimidating. His silvery, shiny hair and long face, his body, etching down the hallways like a slow-moving kill-bot made us so afraid. He was like Frankenstein, or Boo Bradley from To Kill a Mockingbird, just spooky.
My cousins and I would go over there together or with our parents most of the time. We all had to speak loudly because neither great grandparent could hear worth a good goddamn, and that got so tiring. We kids would wander around outside in the garage where the machines were. These old cornstarch rock-shining machines looked older than both grandparents, probably around the time they discovered electricity. We had no idea what half of this stuff was or how it worked. The only things great grandfather would ever give us as birthday or Christmas presents were from this one infernal machine, which my cousin envisioned to be the place where he ground up his victims!
“You kids get out of there! That is other people’s stuff!” he would say. “Frank, don’t you know those are your grandkids? They can play there if they want to!” Oh yeah, and Grandfather Weller was losing his mind.
The Ghoul Strikes
So, brother gets home from school one day. The bus drops him off at the end of the corner. He walks up and we started playing. Mom later gets there and we head over to continue playing at great grandparents’ place. I guess we finally warmed up enough to let our imaginations go and play a little. At least I could “wow” Grandmother Weller with Transformer talk as she had no idea what a Transformer was—and no idea what a Thundercat was. Kids can’t resist sounding cool. But mom and grandmother still had not arrived.
We played for the better part of an hour, and then we headed inside, ate our share of caramels, and continued playing around in great grandmother’s bed. Old Weller, who had been sitting listening to the radio on the back porch, wandered back inside. We could not tell he didn’t like us there, but we were kids, and not paying attention was kind of our job. Grandmother Weller would pull him away. He continued approaching us.
In came the ghoul, and the one time we should have taken him dead seriously, we didn’t. “Don’t you think you’d better go home now?” he mumbles, as his lips scarcely appear to move while the words came out of that long, tired, drooping face. We keep horsing around and I pretend to be a soldier killing an enemy. I am lying on the bed. I look up, and he grabs me by my left wrist and yanks me off the bed. I fly across the room, hitting the door and falling down. I remember the shock of being hurled around like a rag doll.
Young brother’s eyes were as wide as saucers. He just stood there all quiet and waited for me to react. Stunned, I got up and moved out of the room, bumping my shoulder on a door handle as I was getting up, while noticing him still coming—faster than his normal death pace. All this time, the noise of Grandmother Weller yelling I’m starting to hear: “How dare you! Those are your grandkids! Frank, Frank, Frank, listen to me! Listen to me!”
I nearly tripped once more, but we made it to the door. We make it outside just as mom is coming over. Grandma and mom are chatting just like they always do. We try to close the door, but the Ghoul pulls it open. We turn around and he is standing at the screen door, facing us as we walked the last few feet across the freshly cut grass on our side of the two yards.
And then the door closes. Once outside, we stood there, talking about what had happened. “Let’s not tell mom or grandma, ok?” Brother agreed. We soon went home like nothing had happened. Only, at the tender ages of 11 and 8 years old, we were now more terrified than ever of a man we found we had good reason to fear.