I stopped by to find Gertrude, in a wheelchair, holding court at the head of a long table. She was wearing a green tam-o’-shanter and sweater combo, both liberally sprinkled with white shamrocks. At the far end of the table sat a green-and-white birthday cake.
“I didn’t know your birthday was St. Patrick’s Day,” I said, sliding into a chair to her right.
“Gosh an b’gorrah,” she practically spat. “I’m as Irish as St. Patty’s pigs.” She reminded me a little of pale-eyed Joan Hickson, the actress who played Miss Marple in all those Agatha Christie mysteries. Only with more vinegar.
“We never named the pigs,” she continued, oblivious to a question I might have asked. “The horses we named. Pepper was a sorrel. He looked like a red chili pepper. Took a liking to the barrel of sour milk. He’d look around and if he thought no one was watching, he’d take a corner of that tarp in his teeth and jerk his head back like that…”
Gertrude and Jerald Perotti lived for five decades on a small, tilted ranch east of Hwy. 550 where it takes the big curve at Orvis Hot Springs. They raised chickens, rabbits, ducks, milk cows, sheep, hogs, and horses. Gertrude always had a large garden and lined the root cellar shelves for winter.
Though they were “reared” only about 25 miles apart – distances were greater then on questionable roads – they didn’t meet until high school in Ridgway. “Sparks flew,” Gertrude said, and they were married in 1937. They lived first with Jerald’s father, Joe, on Dry Creek, then on various ranches in the Deer Creek, Cow Creek and Dry Creek areas. Renting became “a pain,” so they scraped together the money for their own place.
That’s where we visited them first in the spring of 1981. Actually, we’d introduced ourselves earlier at the Ridgway School’s annual talent show. Here was this utterly unselfconscious old lady in tennis shoes stomping and reciting and playing the harmonica. She invited our two little girls out to see the baby lambs. Gertrude slopped the pigs while Jerald, as silent and handsome as Gary Cooper, worked on the ancient tractor. Afterwards we warmed up by the kitchen woodstove.
The girls couldn’t quite wrap their tongues around all the “r’s” in Gertrude, so the name, in our house at least, became “Gutrude.” She was a force, an irascible old timer who befriended, or at least tolerated, one of the new families moving in to – and irrevocably changing – her world.
At the birthday party, someone raised a beer bottle to toast Gertrude’s longevity. Not ungrateful, she nevertheless leaned over to me and volunteered, “I never could take spiritous liquors. My mother, who came from Louisville, would throw back a whiskey just like that. But I never could.”
Not for lack of toughness. One time when I was out picking up a load of her excellent fertilizer, Gertrude told me about the mosquito spraying program. She’d started it following the death of her second son, Loran, from encephalitis in 1974. (The Perottis had two other boys, Rolan and Orlan Mark.) All by herself, she drove the county collecting money from ranchers and townspeople, hired the spray plane, bought the chemicals, organized the state police to shut down the highway for refueling stops, and on a still morning in early July, pretty much eradicated the mosquito problem in Ouray County. Small birds and bees be damned.
Jerald worked for a time at the Idorado Mine. He did a stint as Ridgway Town Marshal. For the last 20 years of his life, he worked for, the Western Area Power Administration in Montrose. He passed away in 1991. Most of the time we knew her, Gertrude supplemented her fresh-egg income by writing for, and then delivering daily, the Montrose Daily Press. As familiar as the hills, you’d see her every afternoon, shine or rain or snow, slouched purposefully behind the wheel of her dilapidated Japanese station wagon.
And every year, she’d be back at the school for talent show night, “always,” according to Ridgway Recipes and Remembrances, “taking first place” with her irrepressible harmonica. In 2003, no longer able to drive or work the farm, she moved to the Valley Manor Care Home.
Someone brought the cake over with a symbolic handful of candles for Gertrude to blow out. She wiped them out with a single breath, adding rhetorically, “Windy old bag!” to much approving laughter.
I had a brain cramp and couldn’t remember for sure what talent Gertrude had brought to the school contests. Singing? I wondered aloud, vaguely recalling “Jimmy Crack Corn.” “Mouth harp!” she corrected sharply. And then, “Let’s see. I got it right here.” She needed help opening the worn black case, but then she raised the silver to her lips and belted out a completely serviceable “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” adding the cornball coda: dum, da-da-da, dum, dum – Dum, Dum!
Genuine cornball. True link to another time. Thank you, Gutrude. And many happy returns.