Ask anyone in their mid-twenties where they were on September 11, 2001 and they can tell you in an instant. Ask someone in their mid-forties and they can tell where they were when Reagan was shot, when the Challenger exploded, and when OJ took off in a white Bronco. But ask my grandmother and she can’t remember where she was or what she was doing on October 24, 1929. I mean, she could tell you that she was ten years old and that she lived on the fourth house on the left of Farley Street just across from the fairgrounds, but she had absolutely no idea that the stock market had crashed. When you’re poor, you just know you’re poor and you have to have something before you can lose it. That day might have passed without much notice to her, but the lessons she would learn over the next ten years would shape her beliefs and who she would become as much as any of the days yet to come.
Growing up the second oldest of twelve children in a small three-bedroom, one bath home taught her a lot. It taught her how to organize. It taught her how to delegate. It taught her how to serve. And it taught her how to cook. “Darling, you didn’t just run up to the store and buy dinner. First off, there wasn’t any grocery store like there is now and even if there had been, you didn’t have any money, so it didn’t matter. Estelle was older so she got to stay inside and help my mother with the smaller ones. George would go outside with me and I would shoo the chickens toward him until he could catch one. Then he’d wring its neck,” she would say while moving her hand like a fifth grader sharpening her pencil.
“When you cut their heads off, they keep on dancing around for a few minutes. It’s easier to wait until they stop than it is to try and catch ‘em again.” Once the chicken had finally given up the ghost, it was her responsibility to pluck the feathers and bring it inside so she could help her Mother begin supper. Their plates would be rounded out with whatever they had been able to grow, can, or preserve from their garden. “Everybody got something, but nobody got enough.”
Things would get better as she grew older. She would be fortunate enough to graduate high school and even get a job working downtown at Woolworth’s. She married my grandfather, William, on January 23, 1942 and by February 9 th he was on his way to Tyndale Field, Florida. He would quickly be stationed in North Africa as an Aerial Machine Gunner aboard “The Big Dealer”. Uncle Sam was kind enough to send him home on June 21, 1943 with a Purple Heart and a thank you letter for parachuting into hostile territory over Tunisia when his B-52 was shot down. “He hid in a fox hole all night while they kept looking for him. When the sun began to come up, he started running and never looked back.” He told her that story one time and never mentioned it again. She said the only reason he told her then was so she would understand how serious he was when he promised he would never leave her again. It was a promise he kept for the next sixty-four years.
The work ethic acquired while growing up would eventually carry her to a job as a customer service manager for Citizens and Southern Bank. “Don’t let your money burn a hole in your pocket.” “Save your money for hard times.” “A fool and his money will soon part ways.” “Make sure you keep your money situated.” For you lay people, that means keeping all of your bills facing and turned the same way. “And make sure you keep your money in your front pocket.
Someone can take your money out of your back pocket and you’d never know.” She lived what she preached. Every month she had a little taken out of her check to buy stock in C&S and Duke Power. The Great Depression and World War II had made my grandfather a bit more skeptical. He preferred to trust Benjamin Franklins in a Hav-a-Tampa box.
From the early days of spring, until the dog days of summer had passed, Maw-Maw, that’s what I called her, would come home from work at the bank and change her clothes. She would put on a stained blouse and a pair of polyester pants. She would tie her hair up in a kerchief and slide on her red-clay stained rubber boots and go out in the backyard and work in her garden. Everything was purposefully planned and had its place. The plot to the right was for tomato plants. The bed to the left was for cabbages, cucumbers, and squash. The rows coming up along the fence were filled with butter beans, crowder peas, okra, and runners of string beans climbing across taught pulled jute string. My job was to take the white five-gallon bucket and mix the blue Miracle-Gro with water. She would then walk between the rows with the bucket in one hand and a nail- punched Maxwell House can in the other. She would fill an old sock with Sevin dust, tie a knot on the open end, and then tuck the knot in her back pocket. The sock would hang from her back pocket and with the skill of an old west gunslinger brandishing a six-shooter she would use it to kill any vermin or insect that tried to make a meal of her handiwork.
I can remember sitting in her den with the sliding door opened to the back yard, watching the sun set behind the North Carolina mountains. The sound of crickets punctuating the low hum of the attic fan provided the perfect soundtrack to hours of shelling butter beans and stringing green snap beans while we watched the Atlanta Braves. My ten-year-old thumbs would start hurting and I would ask her why we couldn’t just go to the store since it was only two miles down the road. “Why should I pay somebody for what I can grow on my own?”
So, I would snap and she would can and together we would fill her cupboards. When the winter months would come, I would be so thankful that we had. It would almost be dark when she got home from the bank at 5:30. She would slide off her heels and put on her slippers. She would hang up her skirt and blouse and put her flower-printed apron on over her slip. While chicken she had brought home from the Community Cash fried in a cast iron skillet and beans simmered in a large pot, she would stand beside the kitchen table. Perched above her mixing bowl, she would begin by adding flour. I don’t know how much because she never measured. Then she would reach her hand into a can of Crisco and scoop out the perfect amount. With the other hand she would begin adding buttermilk to the bowl. I wish I knew how to describe what she did next. To say “she mixed the dough” misleads one into believing they can do what she did with the same result. This is just not true. Using her red-handled rolling pin with the skill of a Jedi, she would roll and cut out the best biscuits that I’ve ever had. They were the perfect complement to the gravy she would make from the leftover flour and chicken grease. It would be years before I would understand the joy of watching your family sit around you and eat. But I understand now.
My mother says that they didn’t own a television until the late 1950’s but it didn’t matter. No one knew how to tell a story better than Maw-Maw and she had a bunch of them. She would share the stories that her grandmother had shared with her about growing up on a plantation in Prosperity, South Carolina. It was after the Civil War and her father had remarried after the untimely death of her mother. The stepmother wasn’t as kind to the children and would lock the pantry forcing the children to be hungry on most days. The children’s nanny, Kizzi, stole the key to the pantry so she could fix the children something to eat.
When confronted by the stepmother and threatened with her life, Kizzi responded, “I’se been carin’ for dese babies de whole life and done had the misfortune of watchin de first momma die. I don’t reckon watchin the next one will be as hard.” My great-great-grandmother would tell my grandmother that they never had to go hungry again after that. And Maw-Maw would share that story with us so that we would always be careful how we treated other people.
She would always finish that story by saying, “Keep the good will of a dog; it might bite you.”
When I look back it seems like she had a saying for every occasion and any situation. Whenever one of us would run to her to tell on the other one she would look at us and say, “The bit dog always barks the loudest.” At the time I didn’t completely understand what it meant but I wouldn’t understand many of the things she said until I was older. She had said at one time that she wanted to write all of her stories down so that we wouldn’t forget them. The onset of Parkinson’s disease in her eighties would take away many of the gifts her hands had produced. Yet even up to her death at the age of ninety-two she remembered the faces of family and would smile whenever we came into her room. After her passing we gathered at her house to go through her things and see if there was anything we wanted. I searched among her recipes and bible notes but couldn’t find where she had written any of her stories down. But as we continued going through her things, each of her grandchildren remembered a story that she had shared. In her own way she had spoken to each of us and now we would carry on her stories to our children.
I didn’t take any of the china out of her house that day, only a couple of old photos. A black and white of her and Poppy, he in his uniform standing by an old Ford; a color photo from 1976 of her standing in the garden. Everyone says that she wanted me to have the piano that still sits in the living room of her old house.
My mother lives there now and I haven’t had the inclination or the space to move it to my house in these five years since her passing. Two years ago, while celebrating Christmas in her old house, after all of the presents had been opened and the excitement had faded away, Momma pulled me aside into one of the back bedrooms and handed me a bag. I reached in and pulled out a red-handled rolling pin. It sits on top of my stove near the back door of my house. Every morning as I walk out, I look over at it and hear a small voice remind me, “Keep the good will of a dog…”