|t was a time and a place unlike any other...a time when innocence prevailed, and a child could feel like a princess. And there was the white, two-story house with a big front porch, supported by white columns, where I would find myself swinging round and round and hearing Mama cautioning my upcoming fall.|
|I cannot ever remember not going there. My grandparents--I called them Mama and Dad--had lived there since I was born. They had purchased the small farm in 1948 for $14,750--a meager sum by today's standards--which consisted of 192 acres. My mother, however, being the second of ten children, had never lived there and consequently never felt the magic that her daughter came to know.
Dad was a farmer. He was tall and thin with an undeniable faith, and one who drew immense love and respect from his children and grandchildren. Dad was loving and gentle, but it was Mama with whom I had long talks...and I followed her every step and loved her with all my heart.
Summer was my favorite time. I could roam over the small farm, seeking out new and forbidden finds or pick berries from the low-lying branches that hung over the pond down by the barn. I would sometimes take the path along the fence row and pick Queen Anne's Lace, or tempt myself with the luscious-looking polk berries and wonder just what would happen if I ate them! I would build a playhouse out by the smokehouse where the delicious aroma of hanging meat lingered faintly in the air, and where Mama would set up her table to chop cabbage getting it ready for sauerkraut. It was only a few steps to the vegetable garden where I remember watching Dad turn the soil, walking behind the two mules, calling "whoa Jake!" Jake seemed to require the most discipline as I don't ever remember hearing the other's name.
A near perfect day would be when my aunt and I, she being only a few years older than myself, would slip a salt shaker out into the garden, sit on the warm earth and get our fill of juicy, ripe tomatoes.
The only stern disciplinary measure I ever got from Dad was one day when I was playing with the cat much too near the table of cabbage. Dad had already warned me about keeping the cat away and when I didn't heed his warning he scolded me (much too harshly, in my eyes), and kept walking. My feelings terribly hurt, I did as I was told and felt bad because Dad had to scold me in the first place.
I can never remember Mama getting upset over anything I ever did. Aunts and uncles would laughingly and lovingly say I was Mama's favorite, and even if it were not so, it did wonders for my childhood ego and gave me an underlying strength throughout my growing-up years. Knowing how loved I was, not only by Mama and Dad, but also by my mother's sisters and brothers, brought a profound sense of security and deep love for all my family.
My mother had left home right after high school. When opportunity first put its knuckles to the door, my mother flung it open. Wanting to get away from the small rural country life she had grown up in, she chose schooling in cosmetology about 100 miles away. Shortly after completing her course, the war broke out and she moved to Nashville, taking a job at Vultee Aircraft. She was then transferred to Atlanta with Bell Aircraft and worked there until the war ended. She packed her bags, moved back to Nashville, and began her career again in cosmetology.
My mother was beautiful. I always loved flipping through her picture albums and seeing her in gorgeous clothes, posing in front of the homes where she lived on Sweetbrier Avenue and Peachtree Street. She roomed with four other girls, one of whom was the granddaughter of the couple who owned and also lived in the house. I'm sure this was of some comfort to my grandmother, knowing my mother was well-chaperoned, living on what probably seemed to her, another planet. Eventually, Mother did return. While home on vacation she met a tall, dark and handsome man decked out in his Navy uniform. Her life was never the same.
My dad was then stationed in the tropics. They wrote letters and married in 1945. I was born while he was stationed in New London, Connecticut, and after returning to Tennessee and to Mama's, I began my visits and my deep love for my grandparents.
There were so many things to do, so many places to play. I could escape to a whole other world and let the imaginations of a child run rampant over the acres of the farm. The barn loft was one of my favorite places and also held an attraction to my younger brother, who took a nasty fall one summer afternoon and consequently ended up with a leg full of stitches. Superman, being very popular in the fifties, may have been the underlying cause for his leap into the air.
There probably wasn't a square inch of that farm I didn't explore or prowl. Even the hen house and gathering eggs held some enchantment. Cattle grazing in the fields of red clover was such a peaceful sight and more often than not I would run barefoot, invariably getting stung by a bee and halting my play for the moment.
The small orchard held more than the luscious fruit which was prepared religiously and meticulously and placed jar after jar, row after row for delightful consumption during the cold winter. It also became a fortress for hide and seek, tree climbing, and could magically become tree houses as my sister and I outfitted ourselves in dress-up clothing and took turns visiting each other in our make-believe houses.
Sometimes a cousin of ours would be there to play, but more often than not, it was just me, my younger sister and brother. I was selfish with my special time spent there and knew when it was only me I could do pretty much as I pleased.
An excitement worth waiting a week for was the arrival of the peddler with his rolling store. He still made his rounds in the rural community bringing staples such as sugar, flour and coffee. There wasn't a square inch in the back of his enclosed truck that wasn't covered with some such item. Sometimes fresh eggs were traded for a pound of coffee or some other needed commodity. Wooden crates held RC, Pepsi and Coca Colas. Packages of grape Kool-Aid were nestled among Baby Ruth and Three Musketeers candy bars. A hunk of cheese or a stick of bologna could be sliced on the spot. If you were in need of a jar of kerosene, that was available too, usually hanging by a small tank on the back of the truck. A wired coop usually held a live chicken or two ready for sale. I would most always be allowed a choice of a candy bar which made the day complete.
Weekdays were full with chores to be done, with the running of the farm and a helping hand from everyone. Mama always seemed to keep things running smoothly, but even with her enormous load of work, she always had a sweet smile and time for me. She sometimes would sit at the end of the day, take loose her tightly-wound bun, and let me brush her long, graying hair. Even when I grew tired I would never tell her for fear of hurting her feelings. Somehow she knew though and would thank me for such a relaxing gesture.
Sometimes, being more of a hindrance than a help, I always reaped the sweet rewards of harvest. The cutting of the sugar cane was a real treat and although I wasn't allowed near the cutting I always managed to beg a stalk or two. Breaking open the hard stalk and sucking out the sweet syrup was pure delight. Another treat was the taste of the juicy, sweet ripened peaches that were brought in by the bushels for canning.
Sundays were very special days. Dad would always be dressed early sitting patiently, with his hat nearby and his Bible, always open, in his lap. I knew never to interrupt, as I knew never to misbehave in the little country church they attended. Dad always sat up front, in what was known as the "Amen Corner." Of course I sat with Mama, she in her best dress and accessories that were strictly for Sunday. They were always homemade, sometimes cut by guess and fashioned only to perfection.
Sunday afternoons would consist of Sunday dinner--usually fried chicken, fresh cream-style corn, sliced tomatoes and a whole table full of side dishes. I did have some reservations as I watched Dad wring the chicken's neck and its body flopping all over the back yard. I always kept my distance as I wanted no part of the necessary deed nor the plucking. Aunts, uncles and cousins would always visit on Sunday afternoons, with the big front yard accommodating everyone. The days were long and the summer nights held an enchantment all their own. Sometimes I would lie in the sweet smelling grass, gazing at the stars and listening to the soft voices in conversation around me.
The house took on an entirely different atmosphere when the winter came. Graciously open, the house was bright and inviting during summer, but just the opposite in the long, cold winter months. The family room, added on in later years, was a welcome addition to the house. The side entrance door was used as entry into the den by way of the small wood room that held kindling and slabs of wood for the wood-burning stove. Much to Mama's dismay, it usually held trash and splinters fallen from the wood, and in the wintertime it became a constant effort to keep the room clean and tidy.
Mamas house was a source of pride to her, from the gleaming wood floors that I used to slide across in my sock feet, to the sparkling kitchen windows that didn't seem to be there. So thought the redbird that kept flying into the kitchen window one spring until Mama had all she could take and set a trap for it. She caught her bird.
The kitchen was small and cozy and usually painted blue, with fresh white paint on the wooden cabinets. There was always the smell of coffee and usually a pot made or being made. Uncles who lived nearby and helped on the farm were always in and out and always ready to sit for a moment with a fresh cup of coffee. That was the beginning of my love for good, strong coffee.
The dining room and living room were connected but open and airy by a wide doorway. Bedrooms led off from both rooms, as did the stairway. Openness and warm weather brought an invitation to prowl.
One of my favorite pastimes was pulling out dress-up clothes and who-knows-what from boxes in the unused upstairs. I could feel the stifling heat hit me with an invisible force as I reached the top of the stairs. I usually didn't play long there in the deep summer's heat but always went for a while just the same.
Wintertime brought a whole new meaning to the word "warmth" for me. The only heat that was allowed was from a wood-burning stove in the den, so there were only two heated rooms, albeit large ones, in the entire house. Dad would not allow a fire to be built in the living room unless there was a special occasion. I never knew why, and I never asked why. It was just Dad's rule, and I never questioned it.
Going to sleep under layers of homemade quilts was a warm and cozy feeling. Waking up that way was sheer agony, knowing I had to somehow get my body to the warmth of Mama's cozy kitchen. Most often the aroma of bacon frying and coffee perking would lure me out of my cozy nest. Dad had perfected the art of opening the stove door and throwing in the heavy slabs of wood, then banging the hot door shut.
One such special occasion for heating the rest of the house was Christmas. And oh, what Christmases! Mama would work for days polishing and shining the wood floors only to have 10 children and a brood of grandchildren converge on their peaceful existence. For me, Christmas began at Mama's when the little Christmas village was set in place. It was made only with cardboard, but it was glittered and frosted to seem so real. The little village was then set on imitation sheets of snow. This little scene brought hours of pleasure to me.
A giant peppermint stick was a small but necessary gift for Dad's Christmas. They were hammered into chunks and slivers as occasional treats and usually lasted until the next year. A huge cedar tree was always placed in the living room. Gifts for everyone were placed under the tree from Mama and Dad. There were gifts for daughters and sons, daughters-in-law, sons-in-law and every grandchild...no one was left out. I wondered sometimes how they managed so many gifts.
The Christmas dinners consisted of every good food imaginable. And every daughter and daughter-in-law proved themselves as the culinary artists they all were. Mother would always make her famous ambrosia, a dish I thought was so elegant and so like my mother, herself. The house was filled with cheer and good conversation, laughter and squeals from the children, and as the day progressed some strict admonitions from the mothers.
Years went by quickly. Ironically, as the distance shortened, via progress and better highways, the less I visited there. Throughout my teen-age years, I only went for brief visits. Then I married and eventually had three children and a full time job. I remember coming home from the hospital with my newborn twins and Mama and Dad being among my first visitors. They beamed with pride as they stood over my old baby bed admiring the newborn boy and girl. How ironic that they, too, many years before had looked upon their own set of twins, also a boy and a girl. There for a few brief moments the sunlit room held an aura it would never hold again. Propped up in the newly-painted four-poster bed that belonged to my parents, I held my son and smiled at the three generations that were in the room.
It was a warm, sunny day in June when the auction hammer put its finality on a house and a home that once was. As I stood watching strangers and family members wander around the precious possessions, I could almost hear the voices of Mama and Dad. "This is the way we want it, the way it has to be."
Most of the personal furnishings and possessions were bought by the daughters and sons. When the house and farm was finally sold to one of my uncles an unspoken happiness and relief was felt by every family member.
An aunt took cuttings from Mama's beautiful rose bush and rooted cuttings for all. My few treasures from that house such as Mama's glass fruit bowl and etched glass plate hold an honored place on my dining room table.
And so, with a storehouse of how things were, the vision of an overflowing bowl of fruit, the taste of a rich peppermint stick, the smell of cedar, I shall now make my own memories...memories for a granddaughter yet to be, one who will watch me, love me and remember me.
Monica Lawrence has been writing poetry and short stories since the age of ten and has poems published in several anthologies; she has also written several children's stories. She resides in Suwanee, Georgia.
©Copyright 2004 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.