More birthdays (or, “They say it skips a generation.”)

Today is the birthday of my grandma, Bernice Saulter. Grandma Saulter was a bus chick before bus chicks were in style. (OK, so we’re not in style yet, but our day is coming.) When she joined her husband in Seattle after he found work here in the late ’30s, she took the bus out of necessity; they didn’t own a car. Years later, when my father was an adult and tried to teach her to drive, she ran off the road, developed a fear of cars, and vowed never to try again. She rode the bus and walked everywhere she needed to go until she died.

A bus memory:

When I turned six and needed to have my annual portrait taken, Grandma took me to Sears on the bus. We had both recently celebrated a birthday, and I chose this precious time alone with her to show that I remembered her new age.

“Grandma, are you 69?” I asked as I followed her up the steps of the 55, eagerly anticipating the only possible response: Why, yes I am, you smart girl!

But Grandma slipped her bus ticket into the fare box and took her seat behind the driver without a word. I climbed in next to her and tried again, this time tugging her sleeve to get her attention.

“Grandma, are you 69?”

Grandma put away her glasses, adjusted her wig, and fiddled with the handkerchief that she always kept in the pocket of her cardigan sweater, but she didn’t answer my question. My other grandmother, my mother‘s mother, who lived an airplane ride away and visited only occasionally, was hard of hearing, and so were the grandmothers of several of my friends. Grandma Bernice had apparently developed a similar affliction. Luckily, I knew just what to do.

I leaned close to her ear, and in my clearest voice, shouted, “GRANDMA, ARE YOU 69?”

At last, there was a response. This woman I adored, who smelled like Rose Milk and Mentholatum, who taught me to make cookies and cornbread and was never too busy to search for salamanders, turned to me and twisted her sweet face into an angry grimace.

“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” she nearly spat, then turned away again, staring out the bus’s front window as if I weren’t there.

She continued to ignore me for the remainder of the ride.

Later, my father explained that, while six-year-olds are eager to share their age with anyone who will listen, 69-year-olds are not always so eager. It was best, he said, not to ask Grandma about her age in public. I never asked her about her age again, in public or otherwise. Fortunately, she forgave my transgression, and we happily continued our bus partnership well into my teen years.

Happy birthday to another original bus chick.