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Gayle Anderson

© 2000

Putting One Over

“I wish Ralph could see us all eatin’ a big meal on him fer a change. That’d sure stick in his craw.” The man snorted laughter, which was echoed by the friends sitting around him. Suddenly aware of their surroundings, they ducked their heads and glanced quickly from side to side, hoping that Ralph’s widow and children hadn’t overheard them. Satisfied that the family members were safely out of range across the room, the men erupted into laughter again but more subdued this time.

“Yeah, Ralph sure was quick to eat ever’ chance he got when somebody else was payin’, but he never wanted to give the other fella a meal.”

It was a warm, humid summer afternoon in a small country Lutheran church. The funeral was over. The graveside service was over. Everyone was in the church basement sitting around the big folding tables loaded with platters of ham or chicken salad sandwiches, glass serving plates full of assorted bars, and bowls of Jell-O in all its variations of fruit filling and whipped cream. Rotating fans hummed busily in the background. Members of the Ladies’ Aid Society moved quickly around the tables replacing empty platters with full ones and bringing more coffee, Kool-Aid, and ice water.

As the level of conversation rose around us, my daughter leaned close to me and said with sarcasm, “This is the happiest funeral I have ever attended.” Looking around, I saw what she meant. No one had cried. Not during the service, and not at the graveside. We had just buried my Uncle Ralph, and no one had cried.

“Sure didn’t recognize Ralph in that coffin. All decked out in that suit. Don’t think I ever saw ‘im in a suit. Ever’ time I saw ‘im, he was in overalls with a plug a Copenhagen in his mouth. That was Ralph.” Heads nodded, and there were murmurs of agreement. “ Didn’t recognize ‘im in the stuff the preacher said ‘bout ‘im in the service neither.” The old farmer pulled at his tie and ran his finger under the frayed collar of his white “church” shirt to get more comfortable as he leaned back in his folding chair.

“New preacher’s only been here two years. What does he know ‘bout any of us? What could he say ‘cept what he said?” Shifting in his chair and raising his coffee cup to signal a passing woman that he needed a refill, the speaker turned back to the older man. “How’s your hay crop? I got twenty acres down and raked. I was gonna bale today, but ya know Arlene. Threw a fit an’ said it wouldn’t look good if I didn’t show up. Sure hope the rain holds off. Don’t want that raked hay ta get wet.”

“Well,” the old farmer chuckled, “my old man always said, ‘Ya got ta take time ta marry ‘um an’ bury ‘um. ‘Sides, everbody wants to be here fer Martha. Good woman, Martha.

Looking around the basement, I saw that the old man was right. Everyone was really here for Martha and her adult children, Lois and Dave and their families.

What did I really know about my aunt? I knew that while she and my father were growing up, their parents had always rented a farm. Once Grandma mentioned to me that Martha had wanted to be a nurse, but they could not afford to send her to nursing school. Old photos show that Martha was a tall, slender, beautiful girl who seemed to always be laughing. She married a man who was about two inches shorter, who was already developing a pot belly, and whose eyes did not the smile on his face even in their wedding pictures. Why had she married Ralph?

I imagine when Martha realized that she would not be able to become a nurse, she considered her options. She could get one of the low paying jobs offered to women at that time, such as a clerk or waitress, or she could get married. Most of the young men she had gone to school with or met socially were farmers. Ralph was the pampered only child of parents who owned a 240 acre farm, which he would inherit. As his wife, there would be none of the uncertainty for her of a renter’s life such as her parents had. She probably believed that they could make a good life together running the farm and raising a family.

From the beginning they had a lot of the things people think are a part of a good life, but for my aunt, they came at a price. I know that Uncle Ralph always got a new car every four years; Aunt Martha could only leave the farm when he “let” her. Their house had nicer furniture than we ever had; Aunt Martha could only invite people over when Ralph “let” her. A farm wife’s egg money was considered her private income to use as she saw fit, but even here Aunt Martha could only spend her egg money as her husband “let” her. When I was old enough to no longer believe in Santa, every Christmas there would be a present under the tree that my mother would quietly explain was a present from Aunt Martha, but she would warn me that I must not thank her for it while Uncle Ralph was around because that would cause “trouble.” The same thing was true at every birthday. She would also send money to neighbors for showers, weddings, and anniversaries, and at the bottom of her card she would always write, “Please do not send a thank you card.” This, of course, meant that Uncle Ralph had decided not to “let” her waste money on a present, but she had decided to send a present anyway.

She even had to get his permission to have a home permanent. I was eleven, sitting at my aunt’s kitchen table with her twelve-year-old daughter, Lois, watching my mother comb out the permanent she had just given Aunt Martha. Uncle Ralph came in the back door. Lois said, “Look at Mom, Dad. Isn’t her hair pretty?”

He took his can of Copenhagen out of his back overall pocket, opened it, took out a plug of tobacco, stuck it in his mouth, and chewed a couple of times. He put the cover back on the chewing tobacco can, stuck it back in his pocket, and in a spiteful voice said, “I don’t hold with women primpin’ themselves up. But long as it keeps her hair out a the way when she’s workin’ guess it’s okay. I need help fixin’ the pasture fence. Hurry up. And you,” he said to Lois,“help your brother with the chores. We ain’t got all day.” He walked out the door.

As far back as I could remember, Uncle Ralph had been a bitter, sarcastic, selfish man. With his bulging brown eyes full of malice, he was like a bantam rooster always looking for someone he could intimidate. Unless it was Sunday, his chin was covered with unshaven stubble, which gradually grizzled over the years. His lower lip pouched over a plug of Copenhagen, and when he talked around the plug, brown tracks of spittle would creep down from the corners of his mouth. In someone else’s house, he would go outside to spit. In his own house, he would spit in the garbage pail under the kitchen sink. This must have been a daily torture for my aunt and a real embarrassment to her when they had company. His rough, deep voice and braying laugh were straight out of a child’s nightmare. He loved to laugh at other people’s mistakes and bad luck, and he laughed the most when he could boast about how he had “put one over” on someone. He “put one over” on his neighbors and even on his own relatives, including my father and grandfather. They soon learned to avoid doing any business with him. He always felt that other people were trying to take advantage of him and was suspicious of anyone who worked for him, sold him something, or tried to help him.

Maybe this attitude was the reason for the fight I saw on a cold, wet spring day when I was five. My dad and Uncle Ralph were shoving each other around and shouting in our kitchen. I remember the crackling sounds as the two men twisted and tore the newspapers under their feet in their struggle. My mom had spread the papers in front of the kitchen door so we wouldn’t track mud from the farmyard into the house. I remember Mom pushing me out of the room and shouting at the men. I remember Dad pushing Uncle Ralph outside and slamming the door. My dad never got into fights. He would get angry sometimes and shout, but he never got physical, not with anyone. Yet I have an indelible picture of that fight in my mind. I always wondered what was really going on. My mother refused to discuss the fight. Years later when I asked Mom about what had started it, she told me there had been no fight, and that I had just imagined it.

When my cousins are together, do they ever talk about the troubled relationship they had with their father? Lois has never mentioned the abuse to me. Does Lois know that when she was born, her father wanted to give her away? He was so angry when his first child was a girl, he told my parents they could have her. This was the only time in his life when his own parents turned on him and told him he could do no such thing, and of course Aunt Martha would never have given up her baby. Shortly before he died, Dad told me this story. No one else has ever mentioned anything about it. I remember when she became a teenager, Uncle Ralph kept telling Lois that once she graduated from high school, she had to get a job and move out because then he was done supporting her. When she graduated, she got a job in a bank in Mankato and shared an apartment with two other girls. Uncle Ralph made snide remarks to my parents about what a waste it was to pay for a girl’s college education. Was she jealous of me when I registered at MSU the next year? Was she angry a her father?

Although her brother Dave was treated better by Uncle Ralph because he was the boy, he did not have an easy life either. Dave became a wrestler in high school. Uncle Ralph was so angry that Dave would spend time on such foolishness as sports that he would go to home meets and cheer for Dave’s opponents. As a teenager listening to adult conversation that I was not supposed to hear, I found out that one cold October day when he was fifteen, Dave came home from school and walked into the house just as his dad was twisting his mother’s arm and slapping her. Dave grabbed him,
shoved him up against the kitchen wall, and told his dad that if he ever hurt his mother again, Dave would put him in the hospital. Dave became his mother’s protector. Dave soon learned a very effective way to protect himself as well.. Whenever Uncle Ralph would yell at him or threaten him,
he would just laugh, shake his head, and walk away.

In his later years, Uncle Ralph became obsessed with the farm. He would snarl at Aunt Martha, “I’m gonna outlive ya. I’ll sell this place and live high on the hog. Not gonna leave any money ta the damn kids either. Let ‘um earn their own, Maw.” Some farmers called their wives “Ma” or “Mother.” Most called their wives by their names, but Uncle Ralph always called his wife “Maw,” which he said in a demeaning voice, and then he would look slyly around to see if anyone was amused at his hillbilly accent. Other times he would shout, “ Ya think I’m gonna die, so ya can live off all my hard work. Well, I’m gonna fix it in my will so ya get nothin’. ” Uncle Ralph never did change his will. He died suddenly of a heart attack.

As my daughter and I left the church, I thought about how glad and relieved we all were glad that Aunt Martha and the children had, indeed, inherited the farm and his savings. Fate, and not his neighbors or family, had finally “put one over” on Uncle Ralph.

Gayle Anderson was a 2000 Selective fellow. She teaches English at St. Peter High School, where she won the senior faculty award in both 1989 and 1991. She has expertise in learning styles and 6-trait writing. Her favorite book is The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley