Re-creating my web site!
That Monday had to work so hard in the Old Country was surely at least partially Sunday’s fault. By the way, when I say ‘the Old Country,’ I don’t mean Russia or Italy or England, I mean ‘the Past.’ It’s our family expression for ‘back in the day’ and it fits somehow. The 1960s and 1970s seem, by this time, to have been a completely different place.
I never saw Granny work so hard as on Washing Day, which was always Monday of course, and I saw her work so that the sweat streamed in rivelets down her face and off her little turned-up nose. We were frequently at her place in the summer, where it was frequently over 100 degrees, so that had a lot to do with it. But wash day, at least until Grandpa converted half the back porch into a utility room (and ruined it, in my opinion) was a major production.
She had a wash house just west of the little main house, on the other side of the short chain-link fence across the side yard from the kitchen. The wash house used to be the smoke house in the even Older Country, they tell me, and it was still there last time I was around, but you couldn’t pay me $50 to go into it now, not the way it looked last time my sister opened the door and showed me.
Granny got up extra early on Mondays, because among other things she had to heat the wash water, and that took time. She had a heavy iron cauldron that sat over a propane burner. My mother has cactus planted in it now, but in the Old Country it held either water from the cistern or, later on, water from the well down east of the tank, or ‘stock pond’ to you Yankees. Sometimes when the well was low in really dry summers we had to use tank water, and I don’t suppose there was much difference between washing with or bathing in that and just sitting under a cow and having her piss on you for a shower.
When Granny got the water hot, she would have three washtubs set out in a square with the old Maytag wringer washer at one corner. The wringer could be swung around so that it went over any of the other tubs and that’s where the rinse water went: there was some with bluing for the sheets and some plain for the colors. One tub had soap and a washboard. She had made that soap herself out of wood ash and lard, and Dad says there’s still some of it left in the washhouse somewhere, because when she last made it she made enough to last her a lifetime, and apparently longer.
She would stand there and scrub the especially dirty clothes on that wash board, biting her tongue so hard it was always a wonder to me that she didn’t bite the tip clean off. She always bit her tongue when she was working hard, so she bit it more on Monday than on any other day and you knew when you saw her a-doin’ it that it was no time to be asking her for anything. I thought she was gonna throw the soap at me one time when I had to go into the wash house and tell her that Granny Routon, her mother, was on the phone. “Didn’t you tell her it was Monday?” she fussed before hobbling back to the house, but all she said to her mother when she picked up the phone was “Hi.”
By the time she got off the phone the load in the washer was ready, and if you were standing around and seemed interested she might let you feed the clothes through the wringer, and I remember that after she got ’em started she’d stand there and poke ’em through with a stick that she also used to fish ’em up out of the rinse water. The washer had a gas motor back in the Even Older Country–I wonder how that worked in an enclosed space–but Grandpa had converted it to electricity when that came in at the farm in the mid-1950s. (For those of you opposed to gov’mint, let me point out that without the REA and such I imagine they’d still be waiting for private enterprise to run the lines out that way.) Her admonitions to watch your fingers near the wringer hardly seemed necessary; I didn’t trust it myself much more than I would have trusted a live crocodile.
The wringer’s place has been supplanted in these more enlightened times by the spin cycle, although the wringer never shut off halfway through a cycle because of an unbalanced load–and why blue jeans cannot ever balance themselves is a thing I should like to have explained to me, although I suspect there is some Physics involved. That is not a word that Granny knew much about. She just knew that the wringer got the wash water out before the rinse and the rinse water out afterward and that it then was time for the clothes to be towed out, two baskets at a time, in Dad’s old Radio Flyer wagon to the place behind the chicken coop where they had the clothes lines strung.
She had a clothes dryer, even in my earliest remembrance, out in the washhouse in the corner across from the door, but it used propane and propane cost money and thus I suspect that Grandpa interdicted its use except for rainy days or delicate items. He was a tight-fisted old son-of-a-gun who nevertheless let more securities and insurance salesmen who professed to be ‘Christian’ gull him out of more money than I could comfortably retire on even now. I went to church twice every Sunday I was there with the old tightwad, yet he still fussed at me about the cost of running the electric fan next to my bed all night, until I got hold of his electric bill and did the math and then left a note with the calculations and a quarter on his desk. That shut him up. I never saw the like until my wife and I were honeymooning in Edinburgh and the one electric outlet in the room we were staying in had a coin operated box on it that you had to put tenpence in before you could heat the electric teakettle. So perhaps Grandpa had a Scotch ancestor.
If the old tightwad was feeling generous he might tow the laundry out to the lines himself but more often than not I saw Granny do it. There were four lines in parallel with enough length–I swear it was twenty yards–to hang every pair of overalls, every shirt, every dress, every pants suit, every sheet, every towel, every pair of fruit-of-the-loom-tighty-whiteys and every brassiere the two of them owned, and those last items were easily large enough to have served as watermelon launchers so if my daughter wants to know where her own buxomness comes from, there you are. If it was hot and windy, and generally it was both in the summer, the stuff she hung up at the beginning would be dry by the time she got to the end so that at least saved a trip.
That was morning. After dinner, which I remember being based largely on Sunday leftovers, and the washing up, the rest of the laundry would be gathered in. Then Granny would get out the ironing board and the iron. And then she would go to singing.
She could carry a tune without a bucket, I’ll give her that, though even in her youth she’d have never made the first cut on American Idol, although she wouldn’t have made the train-wreck episode neither. She sang hymns, mostly, because that’s just about all she knew except for a couple of lullabyes and some Christmas carols one of which I have never heard from any other source including the Internet:
Santey will come on Christmas Eve
Bringing presents I believe.
She never sang that one on wash day even in winter but she sang “I’m in the King’s Army” and “Bringing in the Sheaves” (until I was 12 years old I thought it was “Bringing in the Sheets” and I still don’t think it’s any cause for rejoicing; she told me she’d thought the same thing at my age), and when she was especially tired and still had a pile of ironing left:
We’ll work ’til Jesus comes
We’ll work ’til Jesus comes
We’ll work ’til Jesus comes
Then we’ll be gathered home
Which considering how delayed that blessed event has been since the first Christians thought it would be any minute now has got to be the most depressing song in the history of humankind.
Lord, I can hear her now singing in my left ear–the deaf one–and whenever I’m slaving away in the back yard of my place, carrying heavy buckets of water out to the pine trees in the back or any other poor sod of a plant that I’m try to get to grow in this less-than-perfectly hospitable high-altitude desert I’m apt to bust out singing “We’ll work” just like I’m doing a duet with her and who know perhaps we are. It seems to help.
In the evening with the ironing done and the beds changed out and made up fresh and supper eat and cleared away she would sit in her chair in the corner across from the TV where there used to be a bedstead, she told me, in which she herself had been born almost a 100 years ago now (Land! That I can write that, and it be true!) with a plate of potted meat and crackers and some embroidery pieces for a quilt she was doing for Mrs. Thorton who none of us except Granny thought paid near enough. Even then, she would think about the work she had to do on the morrow and she might say something like “Clinton, I’m’a need you to go down in the cellar tomorrow morning and bring up that biggest pressure cooker that sits down next to the chair that that hurricane lamp is on. Your Grandpa brought in a sack of green beans from the garden this evening and I expect I need to go to canning. Reckon?”
My granny was almost exactly four-foot eleven in both directions, so that the most laborious part of her entire week occurred early in the afternoon of the day of rest, as she struggled to get out of her girdle after church. Nothing was ever easy for Granny, and as she wriggled and squirmed to get that wretched foundation away from her flesh, I always felt sorry for her. In those days she would stand in the kitchen with one hand on the lid of the deep freezer to steady herself, at least until they got her a four-footed cane that wouldn’t slide down between the dresser and the wall. Released from bondage, her work was not done, because she still had Sunday dinner to get on the table. That she had to work so hard on the Lord’s Day is emblematic of her whole life. I never saw anyone enjoying themselves at her house, either at Brushy or later on in town, without seeing my Granny busily limping from refrigerator to stove to cabinet to table, the tip of her tongue firmly clenched between her teeth.
Grandpa, who was a deacon up at the Baptist church and always more revered and respected than I could ever imagine he deserved to be, did nothing at all on Sunday, unless sitting snoring away in his recliner while gospel tunes played on the radio could be counted as something. He only listened to gospel in the off-season, of course. In fall and winter the color TV would be tuned to the Dallas Cowboys, with Grandpa raving about how poorly ‘Strawback’ was throwing and opining that “Boys in a sandlot could play better than that.”
Granny never got to see more than the fourth quarter of the game, and then ten-to-one she’d have to ask “Did they beat?” when it was over because she would have been so intent over her sewing work—embroidering quilt panels, mostly—as she sat in her own chair in the corner of the room that she would hardly have seen a play. “Momma said the devil would make me rip out every stitch I sewed on Sundays with my nose. Reckon?” she would ask as she held up her work for me to admire. I just checked again, looking at a prize quilt of hers I have tucked away, and yes, Granny, it was admirable.
The quilts, the memories, and the photographs are all that is left now, as my granny has been dead for nearly a generation. Nearly, because my elder child has a fond memory of her great-nanny making popcorn balls one Christmastime, the last year she cooked for us. Even the house at Brushy is virtually no more; I no longer even use as my Facebook profile a recent picture taken of me out there, sitting on my haunches in the barnyard with a whip over my left shoulder (my sister’s horses had been pestering us for handouts something fierce), staring off in the direction of the now utterly dilapidated house and remembering how it used to be when my granny was as young or younger than I am now old.
It didn’t have to be that way. Sure, Granny was born to work, being the daughter of a small landowner and married to a poor farmer who never believed himself to be otherwise no matter how much money he had, most of it from his father-in-law who gave away as much of his fortune to his children every year as the IRS would let him. And it isn’t just that she was a woman, well acquainted with the old saw that ‘man works from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.’ No, it was hard for her because of that little extra wedding present she had received, one that she never parted with until the day she died.
They had a custom in those parts called “Shivaree.” I suspect, as you probably do, that the word is a corruption of ‘chivalry,’ and refers to certain courtly practices associated with courting. In those days—the end of the Great Depression, just before the War—it wasn’t quite so romantic, at least not in Routon City, the little hamlet (six miles south of Goree and the railroad tracks) in which my granny and grandpa both grew up. Shivaree was a practice of harassing the bride and groom both before and after the wedding. It was a lot of fun for the harassers, whose lives were, let’s face it, not exactly brimming over with good times. For the harassed, not so much.
They kidnapped my granny. What I heard is this: They drove past in some old car while she was standing out someplace, and made a grab at her to get her up on the running board and take her away some place. It seems like maybe she fell, but however it was she was injured. It always sounded to me like she dislocated her hip. She was to suffer from the effects of that injury for the rest of her life.
She walked with a profound limp, as if one leg were an inch or so shorter than the other, which I believe it was. She couldn’t have squatted down if you’d paid her, so that if she dropped something it cost her a world of trouble to get it picked back unless J.D. or one of us grandkids was around. (That was my grandpa’s name; it wasn’t short for anything. His momma had wanted to name him “John David” and call him “David,” and when my querulous old great-granddaddy had objected, she named him just “J.D.” for spite. I think that explains a lot about him.) When I remember how Granny used to play kickball with us out at Brushy in the early 70’s, and recall how she would hustle to first base when she got a hit, I am just amazed. By then she’d had one hip replacement, and I do believe she was on her third (I’m afraid to write ‘four’) by the end. Thank goodness for those titanium hips, may I say, because I remember her occasionally lying in arthritic agony before she got her first.
She always had a cane, of course, though she didn’t always use it, especially in the kitchen where she spent her most of her mornings. The kitchen had several contrivances to make things easier on her, besides the freezer that she used when shoehorning herself into or out of her clothes. She had a chair by the telephone, and if she sat down after taking a call you could bet it was her mother calling long distance from Farwell, trying perhaps to top the $90 monthly long distance bill for which she was famous. (You young folks, if any of you are out there, need to know that $90 was cash money in the early ‘70s.) Granny generally had her cane with her when she sat so that she could use it as a prop when she got back up. I never felt so close to her as I did four years after she died, when I, not yet forty, spent a year walking with my own cane as we tried to get me over a spot of bone necrosis in my left knee that made walking and stair-climbing painful. There’s another thing I have in common with her, besides cooking for the family every day and for everyone and his dog on feast days. Someday, my knee tells me, I will have a titanium joint, too.
That I have things in common with her is due to her, of course, and not just by nature but by nurture. I spent a lot of time watching her. Now, I watched my grandpa work as well, of course, though I was never able to imagine myself doing what he did—which was really a bit of everything including plowing, plumbing, carpentry, welding, gelding, and rigging—unless it was maybe in coming up with one of those contrivances of his that he cobbled together out of cast-aside bits of whatnot from the heap of scrap metal that my sister only just got cleaned up and made a pretty penny of. Grandpa scared my wife and I half to death one time in his late 70s as he proudly demonstrated a tree-spraying contraption he had made out of an old, self-propelled rototiller and some crazy piece of farm equipment, which clattering smoking device he was only just barely able to shut off before it crashed into the side of his storage shed. I could see myself doing that.
No, on Sundays Grandpa was not interesting to watch, and though I liked church music well enough, I still had a strange allergy to ‘Sons of the Pioneers.’ It was much more interesting to watch Granny, and if you stood around watching she was bound to find something for you to do. That’s how it started, really. Granny made me a cook. I don’t mind telling you she made me a damned good one, too.
They all always wondered that I didn’t make a chef (see, guys could cook; it wasn’t just for girls) but I never wondered, because I could see how hard of a work it was and that was something else to which I’ve always been more or less allergic, though it hasn’t got me out of doing much of it, and at times when other people are having fun. There I was again during our Christmas party (my 27th, now), and on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day, and New Year’s, cooking away so everybody else could eat.
That’s the way I remember her, and always more so when I’m doing what she always did. One of the first things she did, she taught me how to make candy, so I always make candy at Christmastime the way she used to do. She would have just about every kind of candy you could think of: divinity, fudge, peanut brittle, bon-bons, date-nut balls, taffy, everything except for caramel which omission I had rectified before I was 16. (I make awesome caramel and I use it to make turtles.) Granny had a ferocious sweet-tooth, which is why I can make fun of her being four-foot eleven around as well as high, so she made candy as much for herself as anything and that’s something else I got from her. From her I also learned how to watch how the syrup boils, and to see the changes in viscosity that came as it passes through different stages and gets close to being done. I can hear her now: “Cook it until it spins a thread.” We may have to make popcorn balls this weekend.
If I do, or even if I don’t, I think I will remember how hard my Granny had to work, lame and short to boot, and always working to ensure everybody else had a good time, whether she was sewing quilt patches for gift-money or pitching a kick ball or making custard for grandpa (“I’ll just square this off,” he would say as he cut off an extra large hunk of whatever dessert was on offer, leaving a neat right angle behind). I will remember, especially with Christmas only just passed, how I stood in her last kitchen in 1994, watching her cook the last Christmas Eve dinner she ever made or ate, and how when I casually remarked “Well, Granny, here it is Christmas Eve again” she replied, almost wearily: “I know. It’s just one right after the other.” It will occur to me, as I think back on all the days of her life about which I have any knowledge, the Mondays and Fridays and birthdays and Christmases I mean to share with you here, as it occurred to me forcefully and poignantly as I drove back home recently with a trunk full of groceries, that the poor woman never had a day off.
I’m going to start blogging about my grandmother’s life out in the country as I remember it. I’ll organize my writing around the days of the week and other days such as holidays and birthdays. It will be a chance to use some of the material I was unable to work into my novel Celestial Grace.