Orange Crush Memory

When I was a small child, my mother’s very large, close family had a Sunday tradition. Everyone came to grandma and grandpa’s house for the day. Every Sunday. It made for a big party to have everyone in one place. Mom’s five siblings, their spouses and nearly a dozen of my cousins ranging in age from infant to six years. The kids had run of the house and yard and we always had a big meal at the end of the day. I have lovely memories of those times.

On one of those days, my grandpa seemed especially animated. He teased my sister and me, then charmed us to take a walk with him.

“Come on, you guys. Let’s go get an Orange Crush.” he coaxed. Who could resist?

He took each of us by the hand and away we went down the street. Wow! We get to go with grandpa. Just us, not the little kids. As the oldest grandchild, I felt so big and oh, so special. After walking a block or two, we came to a small building and grandpa opened the door, shooing us inside.

It was different than anyplace we’d ever been before. Not like someone’s house and not like a store. In this big room was a long, high table lined with stools and other small tables and chairs scattered around the room. There were colored lights all over. A huge mirror covered one wall and music played from a big box in the corner.

My sister and I sat at a table and enjoyed all the attention from the people who were sitting around talking and laughing. True to his promise, we each got a bottle of Orange Crush and a bag of chips. Wow. A whole soda and a whole bag of chips for my very own! Finally, not having to share!

Two men were playing a game, using long sticks to hit at colored balls. Everyone yelled when a ball went into a hole in the table. This sure was fun. We started yelling along with everyone else when a ball went in. Grandpa was laughing and talking; he knew everyone and seemed a lot happier here than when he was back at home.

All of a sudden, my Aunt Marge came in, throwing the door open with great force and then slamming it once inside. She looked real mad. She came over to our table, helping us up and leading us to the door, leaving our soda and chips behind. While doing this, she began to yell.

“What are you doing?” she shrieked. ”You know you aren’t supposed to be here! And bringing kids to such a place! What’s wrong with you?”

My sister and I were scared. What had we done wrong? I hadn’t ever seen Aunt Marge act like this. She was one of my favorite aunts, always took me places and talked nice to me. Until right now, that is!

Aunt Marge walked us home, all the while, kind of talking to herself and being mad. Grandpa stayed and as we walked out, I remember hearing shouts and laughter. What was so funny, I wondered.

I was scared and when we got back to grandma’s, I was sure we would get a spanking for doing this bad thing, whatever it was. Instead, everyone ignored us and we were told to go and play.

In the dining room, Grandma had a Singer sewing machine, one of those with a pedal that you pumped to make it sew. She’d often let us unhook the belt and then move the pedal all we wanted; sometimes we did this for hours, pretending we were on a trip or driving around town on errands. On this day, we got very busy sitting under the sewing machine, pumping the pedal. I tried not to think about what was going to happen.

Aunt Marge stomped around the house, repeating pretty much what she had said all the way home. Then the whole place got quiet. A little later, Grandpa came home and then things really got quiet. We never got spanked or scolded and nothing more was said about our trip. Everyone pretended like nothing had happened.

Many years later, home from college for a weekend, I was reminiscing with my mother and mentioned this one time when I’d seen a totally different side of Aunt Marge. When I started telling the story, Mom got a funny look on her face. At first she seemed preoccupied and thoughtful. Then she finally spoke.

“Well, maybe I should tell you, your grandpa had a drinking problem. “ Then she told me her version of that day. She praised Aunt Marge for her courage to stand up to Grandpa; I could tell Mom wished she was more like Aunt Marge.

From that, a dam seemed to break and she let loose with a flood of stories. She cried when she told me how his drinking had caused the family so much trouble over the years. Grandpa, an electrician, had owned his own business and that was lost due to his drinking. Then he owned a bar and that was lost also. He even left his family for some time and went to Chicago with a woman. But after a while, he wanted to come back, promised to stop drinking and grandma let him return.

“Your Uncle Bill,” Mom said, “was really treated bad by him. One time, your grandpa had his drinking buddies at the house and they teased Bill, who was probably eight or nine at the time. They kept getting him to drink until they got him drunk. They laughed when he lost his balance and fell on the kitchen floor. He was still sick the next day. When they finished with Bill, they got the dog drunk. All the guys laughed and had a great time. Your grandpa was really in his glory.” I’d never seen Mom look so angry. Or so sad.

“I think because I was the oldest he seemed to hate me the most,” she continued. There was no stopping her now. “He made his own beer in the basement and he made me clean the bottles. He was never satisfied with my work. I was too slow or didn’t get them clean enough. He yelled at me all the time. I hated him.”

“But that’s not the worst of it,” she went on. “When I was sixteen, one time, I tried to stop him from hitting your grandma. He got really mad. I got kicked out of the house and had to go live with Aunt Gert until I got out of high school. But then, when you were born (I was the first grandchild), then he let me come home again. I guess he had to because your dad was in the service and I had no place else to go.” Mom became quiet and seemed to sink deeper into the chair. I’m not sure if she was feeling relief or shame.

That day, my relationship with my mother changed forever. Now it made sense when she put herself down and minimized her feelings. I understood why she never wanted to bother anybody and why she gave in so easily to other people’s demands. Especially to my father’s. She always seemed to think she hadn’t done enough or hadn’t done something good enough. I thought she seemed depressed and now I knew why.

When her depression got really bad, I talked her into trying an Adult Children of Alcoholics group. It took some plotting between my sister Karla and me to find a group at just the right location and at the right time. Getting ready for the first meeting, she said okay she’d go, but she wasn’t going to talk. But then she did talk. After that meeting, she couldn’t understand why she was so tired. She slept most of the next day, she said. She went a couple of times and said she was surprised to hear stories so similar to her own. I thought this might help her and it did for a while. But in the end, it didn’t seem to make much difference. Old habits die hard.

I now understood how Mom’s past made it difficult for her to be the advocate I needed and the role model I wanted. Yet, I see her in my memory working hard, always trying to get things done. She’d tried so hard, raising six kids and being a dutiful wife. Maybe she was a good role model after all, even though I’ve turned out to be mostly what she isn’t.

To this day, all I have to hear are the words “orange crush” and multiple memories come up. It was during my illustrious college career that I discovered Orange Crush as the best ever hangover cure. I recall many a Sunday morning, dragging myself to my student housing kitchen for a clear glass bottle of that orange elixir. And it was in 1988 that REM released their alternative rock, war protest song, Orange Crush, objecting to the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. Add to that this child’s innocent allure of a soft drink that leads to newly learned realities of adult problems and real family drama.

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