Once upon a time, a man and his two friends decided to go for a fishing trip off the coast of Northern England. They got caught in the Trade Winds, drifted across the Atlantic, and ended up in America. If you ask me, that is the perfect story for how my mom’s side of the family ended up in this country. It just fits – a fishing trip gone wrong is the reason we’re here.
Here’s my basic belief about the Gummer side of my family: We’re bonded not only by blood and close proximity (most of us have lived somewhere along the 2-mile “Gummer Lane” at some point in our lives), but also by the shared knowledge that we are a weird bunch of people who will always love each other out of empathy if nothing else.
Grandpa Bud – One of my earliest memories involves a Christmas tree, a cathedral ceiling, and a chainsaw. We had just moved into our new house, which seemed enormous and lofty to my little self. Grandma Marie and Grandpa Bud had come down to Cedar Springs to help us pick out a tree, and we’d come home with a doozy that would later be christened “Oh, Hideous Tree, Oh, Hideous Tree, how blue-green are thy branches.” The only problem was that the tree was about a foot too tall for our ceiling. My grandfather, being a master of creative solutions, brought in a chainsaw – yes, into the house. It would have been a brilliant idea, except that sawdust shot across our living room. The burning smell set off the smoke alarm. Our dog, named Kat by my self-amused parents, started howling. We all tried to cover our ears as we coughed and sputtered through the smoke and flying chunks of Christmas tree. Grandma, not to be outdone by either the dog or blaring smoke alarm, started screaming at my grandfather. Now, it is saying something when I tell you that the noise was so deafening that I couldn’t even hear my grandmother. But I could see her lips – fortunately I was too young to read them. I also saw my father, who was trying desperately not to laugh. My mom just stood there, looking embarrassed and helpless, which was always the reaction she had in situations like this. Eventually the tree was cut down to size, and then Grandma did the same to Grandpa. We enjoyed the Hideous Tree, but that Christmas we spent most of our time picking sawdust out of the rug.
Other adventures of Grandpa Bud:
- He once accidentally burned down thirty-some acres of field because he was trying to cut up some scrap metal left in the woods with a welding torch.
- My cousin Randy once was driving by a field that Grandpa was brush-hogging and saw that our grandfather had tilted the mower to investigate something of the mechanics. The problem was that he hadn’t bothered to turn off the mower and was poking around while the blades were turning! Randy, the father of a toddler at the time, asked, “How old is Grandpa? Old enough to know better?”
- He once came home from a day with hunters and adamantly denied Grandma’s accusations that he had eaten a jelly doughnut, which was verboten from his diet. She then pointed out that he had jelly stains down the front of his sweatshirt. Busted.
- Grandma, in an attempt to get him to listen, once shouted, “Hark!” and he responded cheerily, “…the herald angels sing!” This did not exactly appease her.
Mostly, Grandpa Bud was a good guy. At his funeral, over 500 people came – all were close friends or family. As Dave Riley, pastor and near family member, said, “Bud liked to have a good time,” and he tried hard to make other people have a good time. I get more from Grandpa Bud than I would probably like to admit – we both don’t like being told what to do, we both poke at people too far, we both think we know what is best for other people, we both love bread.
Grandma Marie – I, if anyone, have the right to pick on her because I bear her name as my middle name and somehow fate found it suitable that I bear many of her traits as well. Therefore, I poke in love because many of her idiosyncrasies are mine too. I am not the only one to inherit her shrill voice, but I confess that I mimic it better than anyone – I could even get her dogs to obey me when I used shriller tones. My college roommate once went to a ballgame with my family and asked, “Do you think you can get your Grandma to do the voice?” I blinked at her and replied, “It’s not something you have to ask her to do. Wait. It will come.”
Other Gma Marie gems:
- The Gummer girls used to go shopping every Friday after Thanksgiving. One year, I was trying on clothes in a crowded dressing room when she yelled in to my mother, “Does Sunny need panties?” I was a teenager at the time, hence the memory sticking vividly.
- Never beat her at cards. She once stood up from the table and started stomping around angrily – drawing the reproachful glances of my cousins’ toddlers – because she didn’t win AS BIG as she had wanted.
- In her older age, Gma once got up at 4:30 a.m. to make pies for the Hunt Club. She passed out in the kitchen, woke up on the floor wondering how she had gotten there, and FINISHED MAKING 2 PIES before calling my mother 5 hours later to take her to the hospital. When the doctor heard this story, he apparently joked about maybe getting a psych consult. When my brother heard this, he further joked to the room full of family, “How about a round on the house?”
In all truth, I love Gma Marie and am ridiculously proud to be named after her. She’s a feisty, strong, God-fearing, sports-loving woman who passed down to the rest of us women at least some of her ability to cook and certainly her inability to sew.
Uncle Bob– Uncle Bob moved away to Wisconsin with his family, and I’m sure this has something to do with trying to outrun the crazy. But, you can’t entirely run from genetics. And I’m pretty sure he’s secretly attracted to the crazy, because my Aunt Pam fits in a little too well in our family.
- At his son’s wedding, he started talking to a girl whom he thought was his niece, only to realize late that night as he lay in bed that it was a different girl entirely.
- My favorite Uncle Bob stories come from his youth. (This may be a completely fictionalized version from what actually happened, but I like it.) While living around the well-to-do area of Grosse Pointe, he and a friend were cruising the neighborhood and spotted numerous black lawn jockeys. They took it upon themselves to “liberate the brothers” and stole the lawn jockeys, taking it a step further by painting their faces and hands white before returning the statues otherwise intact.
Aunt Penny– Aunt Penny is a wonderful person and I love her dearly, but she has been affectionately deemed our Crazy Aunt. A missionary from church inadvertently delighted us all one Sunday by telling us that in…whatever confusing language they spoke where he was a missionary, “bah” meant “ant” and “ba” meant “crazy.” I turned around to Aunt Penny with more joy than I usually felt in church as a teenager, and everyone laughed at our secret joke. Thus, “Bah-Ba” became her nickname. (The best part is that she laughs along and doesn’t deny it. The trouble is when we haven’t told other people this and she introduces herself to our friends by saying, “Hi, I’m Sunny’s Aunt Penny. Whatever Sunny has told you, I’m not crazy.”)
Other adventures of Aunt Penny:
- When speaking to her Mexican migrant workers, she has been known to ask, “Fillet mignon?” although we’re not sure what she was trying to ask. Similarly, trying to sing Happy Birthday in Spanish to me one year, it came out as best translated “Happy Jesus Year.”
- When my aunt and uncle were pretty sure that their house was on fire because it started filling with smoke, the only things she grabbed as they fled were her thyroid pills and her grandson’s Bill Elliot race car.
- On a group shopping trip, she tried on a dress after my mom had tried it and not liked it. Coming out of the dressing room stall to show us, Bah-Ba had it on backwards and over her shorts. She still considered getting it because it was a size 4 and was only $18.
- She always makes way, way too much food. We’ve been known to have more leftover lasagna than the amount we actually ate. (To be fair, she’s not alone in this, and “Gummer-ing it up” became a term to describe our genetic propensity for the overproduction of food.)
- Dad and his friend Kevin were going to go ice fishing, and Mom looked at Dad with more seriousness than anyone could have wished for and asked, “How do you get the boat out on the ice?”
- Or, then there is the time that Mom wore two different colored sandals to my friend’s high school open house party – she didn’t notice until we got there.
Really, though, I have a great mom. She embodies all of the good qualities of the Gummer side – loving, caring, compassionate, easy-going, etc. etc. My mom always, always finds the good side of people. It was annoying as a teenager when I would be griping about someone and she would stick up for them, but she taught me to try to find something of quality in everyone. And her eternal patience with us more Somerville types taught me that sometimes you can sit back and stay out of arguments.
My favorite mom memories:
- When we were little, I would actually look forward to going to bed because mom would scratch my back with her wonderfully pointy nails.
- My very first memory is of Mom playing with me on my swing set in matching pink jackets. (This was before my brother entered my life, and it’s just one example of why I hated him so much when he was born — I thought that, since she was going to be his mother, she would no longer be mine. I couldn’t even look at her or him in the hospital, and I remember clinging to my dad’s shoulder. But, when we brought him home, our dog Kat licked Christian in the face while The Muppets were on TV. That’s when I decided maybe he was okay.)
- I was big into coloring, and Mom gave me an empty, clean compost barrel to color in day after day during summers. Every time now that I hear a certain kind of bird (for the life of me I don’t know what kind), I think of playing in that barrel.
- One Thanksgiving Day, I was too sick to go up to Evart, where we have always gone to spend the holiday with my dad’s mom’s side of the family – the only day of the year we see them. Since I was sick, I was pretty bummed that I would miss Aunt Enid’s chocolate mousse…and seeing family, of course. Mom stayed down in Cedar Springs with me, and she made me an entire Thanksgiving feast. (To be honest, Christian and Dad might have stayed too, but I only remember Mom.)
- Mom once tried to order “potato wedgies” from a grocery deli when my friend, Cat, was tagging along. This is one of her favorite stories about my mother. I was so proud at the time, as you can imagine.
Are we younger generations immune from the Gummer oddities? Signs point to NO. Apparently a random friend of our grandmother’s once looked at my cousin Stefanie and said, “Oh, you’re a Gummer for sure!” Stefanie told me this later in an appropriately horrified tone. I suggested that she should have touched her face nervously and asked, “Oh? Is the crazy showing?” But, to sum-up and make ourselves feel better, here are only a few stories:
- Stefanie once called my brother’s cell phone and talked to him for five minutes about ordering pizza for dinner that night before she realized she wasn’t talking to her father.
- Even those who marry in are not immune to the crazy. Mike, my cousin Tonia’s husband, used to have a job as a safety-something-or-other, and one 4th of July he lit fireworks with flaming marshmallows.
- My cousin Randy, not exactly an avid reader, once told me excitedly, “Sunny, I read 2 books!” Somehow I knew he meant The Hunger Games, even before he told me, “Well, I watched the first book. Then I read the next two.” I’m still proud of him.
- My cousin Ryan was too cool a teenager to play with us much as kids, but when he did… One Thanksgiving he took me riding the 3-wheelers (translation: I was clinging to the back of him as he drove fast) over Gma and Gpa’s sand dunes. He took 1 a little too steep, and the 3-wheeler started tipping back on top of us. After we jumped and were all settled upright again, Ryan said, “Don’t tell anyone about this.” I was kinda afraid of him and kept a vow of silence for 20 years.
- The youngest of us cousins, my brother may be the member of our family who is least affected by the Crazy Gummer Gene. For the most part, Christian and I act as something like Statler and Waldorf commentators on our crazy family’s antics. However, Christian has had a few of his own moments here and there. My favorite: Antenna Boy. Once when watching TV with Christian and me, Ryan had the remote and kept hitting power on the cable box so that the TV would go static-y. Christian, however, because he was holding a metal necklace, thought that he was controlling the TV. Ryan kept this up for probably half an hour, and Christian would twist in all sorts of positions as Ryan turned it on and off. Thus “Antenna Boy” was born.
What of future generations? Will the craziness grow? It seems to be on a healthy start.
- Kylie, the firstborn of the next generation, had a lot of crazy to channel. She was once interviewed on live TV for a news spot about a kids’ party:
The reporter: “What was your favorite thing at this party?”
Kylie: “The piñata.”
The reporter: “You mean you liked the candy?”
“And how did you get the candy out of the piñata?”
“I beat the hell out of it!”
At this point, apparently the camera shook because the cameraman was laughing so hard.
- While the rest of us were at dinner, the kids were building a huge fort in Gma’s living room. Tony disappeared for a while until suddenly we saw something come flying down from the balcony. Kaitlyn jumped up to retrieve a stuffed animal eel toy from where it had landed in Gma’s ceramic village. Tonia started to yell at him, “What have I told you? Do not throw things!” Tony’s whole defense: “But it wasn’t real!” As if he knew the limits were to not throw real eels in the house.
- Ian and I once dug up buried treasure by finding an “X” where he’d dug earlier. When reburying the treasure, he told me to mark it with a “Y” instead of an “X” so that the bad guys couldn’t find it.
- Mia refused to participate in the Sunday school children’s special for Father’s Day until handed something shiny to hold onto. She also once threw the peace sign during a performance.
So that about sums it up for a tracking, generation-by-generation account of the Gummer craziness. Janeane Garofallo said in some movie that this is “the genetic betrayal that is my heritage.” Don’t get me wrong; J’adore ma famille. They just scare me sometimes. We are an odd bunch, as I think all families must be. But does your grandmother tell complete strangers that she hopes the neighbors die soon so that we can buy their land?
Still, it is my belief that we’re most bothered by our family’s flaws because we know they can be our own. On the flipside, shouldn’t the same be true of our family’s strengths – shouldn’t we see them as our strengths? I have learned a lot from my Gummer family about generosity, selflessness, kindness, and all around love. The Gummers are easily content, easily loving, and open. They are down to earth and connected. They humbly serve in a small community. I’m not sure I could return to live on “Gummer Lane” as my mother and Aunt Penny did, but I appreciate the idea far more than I did when I was a teenager hungry with the adolescent desire for change and adventure.