I don’t know when their house had last been painted. As a child, it seemed a mansion. The Victorian farmhouse was a simple design, really. Two wings which met perpendicularly at the left corner as you faced the front door. Each wing constructed a single room wide so that you passed from room to room without benefit of a hallway on the first floor. On the second, a narrow hall was taken from a middle room to allow more privacy for a small, but practical bedroom. The driveway swept up to the rear of the house. A short sidewalk stretched to the back porch; a porch which ran from the rear of the entry hall, past the kitchen, and ended at the washroom. In a Victorian home, the entry hall was a welcoming room that accommodated overcoats and riding boots.
I was ten before I understood that the house had existed longer than the road we drove in on, crossing a railroad as we turned off the highway and passing Granny and Granddaddy’s church before we turned into their familiar, curved, dirt drive that swept around a field and past a stand of pulpwood pines. Their house had turned its back on this new road, peering back toward the land it had been taken from, the land of my grandfather’s mother’s family, which could now only be accessed by way of a five-mile, circuitous route over tar and gravel roads. Discovering this fact was the first time in my young life that the plate tectonics of time shifted within me and I realized the present was directly influenced by the past.
I dearly loved my Granddaddy and Granny. I knew them as they aged through their last decade and a half and their skin shifted from leathery and sun-spotted to bloodless white and papery. Their clothes, run through the wringer on a washing machine which required filling with a bucket in the wash house once every week or two, still retained their musky scent through the swishing vat of frothy water, a slight smell of the weeks before. It was their smell. It was a fresh, clean, human smell that spoke of springtime and summer breezes, crisp winter nights with a whiff of wood smoke from the pot-bellied stoves which served to heat their home, and sun from the clotheslines hung behind the kitchen.
In the summer, we cousins would often visit for a couple of weeks. Perhaps other wealthier kids had their summer camp with mock Indian names and canoeing, horseback riding, archery and the like. Our experience at Granny and Granddaddy’s was far richer. There was no bugle call or bell clanging in the mornings to wake us from dead tired sleep the night before. We woke with the first light of dawn within a cocoon of moist, grass and flower cool air that shifted softly between the window screens on either side of the room. In late July and August, the coolness warmed before we put our feet on the floor. If we were early enough, we could race to the bottom of the hill with cane poles to catch grasshoppers, and with them as bait, bream and sunfish, which Granny would quickly clean and fry, fresh and lightly breaded, for our breakfast. Her preferred pan for this task was a black iron skillet that seemed to hold a permanent position on the central, immovable fixture in the kitchen, Granny’s wood stove. All of us, cousins, aunts and uncles, referred to this hulking, hot mass of iron as ‘Granny’s wood stove,’ as if there were other lesser stoves in the universe, but only this stove was capable of creating the fried chicken and fish, the Thanksgiving turkey, the biscuits and Granny’s glorious coconut-custard pie.
After breakfast, we might follow behind or run ahead of Granddaddy to the garden where, earlier in the year, he had turned soil and planted row upon row of seed. Most abundant in the rows were butterbeans and ‘snaps’ (more commonly called string beans), followed by sweet corn, onions, and cabbage. In a half-row which benefitted from shade cast by a quince tree for the early part of the day and remained moist in all but the driest spell, grew a pampered line of cantaloupes, what Granddaddy referred to as his ‘mush-melons’. By this time in the season, the seed had germinated in the manner preordained by DNA and processed sun, earth and water in their internal alchemy. They stretched upward in the strength of organically produced sugars, bloomed and were fertilized in that still mysterious to our young minds act of multiplying. Here, in the rows of snaps and beans, Granddaddy would instruct us as to which pod of this plant’s future we were to steal to ensure our own tomorrow and nourish our dreams.
As we carefully plucked our way down the rows, Granddaddy might pick up a hoe and work out weeds. On one or two occasions, the hoe dismembered a snake. Granddaddy worked along quietly, keeping a careful eye on us, less some serpent entangled our legs or our hearts. He was tall, patient, a man of few words, each weighed for clarity, meaning, love, before parsing his lips. They fell on our ears gently, like a soft hand on the head of an old, faithful dog, smoothing and drawing the fur into lines down the neck.
No one checked the time or was bored as we progressed down the rows. If we brought two buckets, we knew without asking that we would complete this task when the buckets were sufficiently full of the crop it was intended to carry. In the earlier days of ripening produce, the buckets contained less. But in the later days, as the plants flourished in warmer sun, more and more ripened vegetables needed to be gathered before they hardened past palatable. The sun crept higher in the morning sky. Our shadows walked up to us, closer and closer, though they never quite disappeared underfoot. With most of the morning spent, we’d return to the kitchen porch on the cool side of the house and deposit the buckets in a shaded corner.
Granny often had a cookie and fresh, cold milk waiting for us. Some days it might be Ritz crackers spread with Peter Pan peanut butter. Their well pumped up cold water from deep below us. It was refreshing, with a metallic tang that told of the copper and iron it passed on its way to the kitchen spigot. Granny’s white enameled sink was mounted in the corner of the kitchen adjoining the drying table. Over the years since electricity had come to this rural outpost and indoor plumbing been installed, the sink had steadily shifted in color from white to green in sympathy to copper oxidation. To this day, nothing gives me a sense of place, of land, of permanence like the taste of unfiltered, regional, well water.
In the afternoon, Granddaddy would lay on a red leather fainting couch, having slipped off his house shoes so that his long feet in off-white socks dangled over the end. He would twist onto his side in bib overalls, so that his shoulder slipped into the crease, where the flat of the couch met the upward incline at the head of the couch. Folding his arms across his chest, Indian style, to support the upper shoulder, he would quickly fall asleep for a half-hour before waking to read the newspaper in the living room. The cool of the morning remained in the living room through most of the afternoon. He and Granny would often sit in this semi-dark room and read, or Granny might sew a stitch or two.
Meanwhile, for the cousins, afternoon was free time. It might be hot, and we might be sweaty, but there were ninety or a hundred acres of woods, fields, slowly collapsing out-buildings, sawdust piles, creeks and beaver ponds to explore. We would wander out until thirst or hunger drove us back to the two-story house. On sun drenched days, thirst might become unbearable after two hours of romping, damming the creek or catching peep frogs. On overcast days, when less water leeched through our skins, hunger rounded us back to the house by late afternoon.
Truly, these were salad days. Days when afternoon cooking was kept to a minimum so that heat didn’t compile on top of heat in the kitchen. Dinner might be fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, each sliced in Granny’s hands and given sugar, vinegar, salt and pepper. Butterbeans and snaps seasoned with bacon would be quickly heated in a saucepan on the electric stove, the wood stove having been allowed to go to cooler embers, to carry it through the night. Cole slaw, possibly corn and a cold biscuit or sliced bread, as the Nolde’s store bought bread was called, would round out dinner. For a treat, Granny would make ‘freezer cream’. Unlike ice cream, freezer cream was not slowly churned inside a canister twirling by hand-crank in salted ice. No, freezer cream was egg custard, thick and rich with whole cream, milk and deep yellow yoked eggs from the chickens that prowled the yard outside, flavored with real vanilla extract and a quantity of sugar, and then set level on a shelf in the freezer to chill, form ice crystals and be occasionally stirred with a table fork until it congealed solid. She would serve this cold confection in a dish with strawberries frozen earlier in the year or peaches or even damsons, the plums which grew in a small grove at the end of the front yard.
After dinner, the back porch cast a shadow over us. Granny and Granddaddy would retrieve the buckets of beans picked in the morning and set them on the board floor at their feet. They sat at either end of the glider, a metal porch couch slung on steel supports that shifted back and forth on a flat plane, like a Franklin rocking chair. Together, they would reach in the bucket and draw out a handful of beans and shuck the pods or nip off the ends, depending to the type. Still full of energy, we cousins might taunt and tussle with any of myriad kittens that seemed to always be born under the porch. These kittens could be coaxed to show themselves by dangling a piece of cotton string down a knothole in the floor. The string would jig for a moment before jerking against our fingers. Our game was to see who could get the kitten’s paw to pop up through the hole in the floor the fastest as it hunted about in search of its kitten quarry. Once the kitten was sufficiently excited, we could often draw it out through the ventilation spaces in the rock foundation. Then, with small trust established between kitten and kid, we could lead the furry fluff of future cat in merry circles and laugh at the antics and acrobatics of feline flips. Finding that these cute, tiny creatures had needle like claws and teeth was always a shock and an affront, though bloody scratches and small punctures were small price to pay for the chance at holding a warm, purring, young creature in the palms of the hand. As Granny and Granddaddy sat rocking and processing the morning crop, they talked softly together or chuckled at our entertainment in the yard.
Kids and kittens soon tire. We’d sit on the step at the apron of the sidewalk, or on the warm concrete to rest our backs against the porch. In time, we’d ask to be shown how to string beans or shuck the butterbeans and begin helping. In early evenings we chatted with each other, sometimes listening to Granny and Granddaddy speak of earlier years, when the lumber mill my Granddaddy owned and operated processed logs into board and posts or the lathe room fashioned newel posts, stiles, and decorative moldings. His labor carried his family and a host of laborers comfortably through the depression of the 1930’s.
Usually, by the time the security light poured a sulfur glow on the yard and fireflies signaled in their own yellow chemical beacons with whippoorwills and katydids working up to a cacophony in an otherwise silent, gathering dark, the processed beans were gathered in a single wash pan and assessed as to how many quart jars they would fill. We didn’t know we watched them count treasure. We didn’t know the value of dime sized beans lying green in a broad brimmed, white pan might each carry a chest of memories. If we cousins had, we might have paid more attention. But that is not the provenance of youth. The value of stored things is left to be carried forward by age, knowledge and wisdom. These things are not present things that shine brightly. Instead, they glow beneath a patina born of experience, pain, reflection and fleeting mirth, until we leave this world and feed the soil.