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Cracker Barrel: Grandma and the treats

When I was a young boy living in Chicago, my mom and I often spent time at Grandpa's summer cottage some 50 miles north of the city.

Dad was gone overseas fighting some fellow named Hitler, and Mom had to work during the week to make ends meet, but on weekends, if we had enough gas stamps, we'd drive out to the cottage.

As I recall in those days life was pretty basic. We had no real appliances other than a gas cookstove. We kept things cold in an icebox, filled once a week with a 75-pound chunk of ice. We washed clothes outside in a galvanized tub with a bar of yellow-orange soap and a wood-and-metal scrub board and pumped water from a long-handled pump in the backyard. Instead of an indoor flush toilet we had a chemical one, housed in a sort of closet on the side of the house, which smelled bad.

But being out in the country was always exciting.

Grandpa loved to grow tomatoes and let me help him cultivate the plants. He bought me a small tin rake and showed me how to work the soil and pull out weeds. When the tomatoes were ripe, he sliced a couple of them up and explained how to maximize their taste by sprinkling sugar on them.

Everybody else in the family thought he was nuts because he put sugar on his tomatoes and salt on his watermelon, but I had to admit they tasted pretty good.

Late Sunday afternoons Mom and Grandpa had to go back to the city to work, leaving me in the care of one of my two grandmas. My mom's mom, Grandma Behm, rarely stepped outside. She had trouble with an ulcerated sore on one of her legs and preferred to stay inside.

With her I can remember playing Chinese checkers and putting together puzzles and helping her bake. She had a wonderful smile and a love of beauty, often sending me outside to cut a handful of flowers to brighten the cottage.

My other grandma, Grandma Nagel, loved to listen to the radio and sing. With her I would sit by the hour singing songs like "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me," and "The Old Gray Mare She Ain't What She Used To Be."

She was forever warning me about things that might go wrong and was terrified by thunderstorms. But the only trouble we ever had was when a storm broke off part of a tree, which fell against the front (and only) door, keeping us trapped inside for a few days.

On the bright side, Grandma frequently suggested we take a walk up to Nix's General Store, where she bought me a single-scoop ice cream cone. In my mind's eye I can still see her opening the clasp of her little pocketbook to fish out a coin to pay for the cone. And I can still recall the wonderful taste of the peach ice cream I always ordered and how kind she was to buy me such treats.

But it wasn't until the middle of grade school that another memory came to me. I was sitting in class staring out the window when, out of the blue, I recalled Grandma reaching into her pocketbook for another coin and saying, "Wish me luck," whereupon she fed the coin into a machine with a long handle that sat on the counter just past the cash register. She called the machine her "one-armed bandit."

Every so often it actually gave back some of her coins.