I’ve never written about any of my four grandparents. I never knew my dad’s father. Dad was just 14 when his dad died, so all I know about that grandfather is through a few photos, his business school workbook, his photographic memory, the fact that he outlived his first wife and that my father was the youngest child from his second marriage (imagine that your dad was 50 when you were born; at that time, 50 was like today’s 65 or 70), and that he was disillusioned with politics, having had a friend run for vice president and having attended a political convention and seeing, firsthand, the corruption that ran rife throughout politics, even 100 years ago.
The other grandfather died when I was 16. We saw him and my grandmother (mother’s mother) on vacations, but they did not come to visit us, as my grandfather’s driving days were pretty much over, and my grandmother never drove. I was told that she came to visit when I was born, but think she rode the train (we lived 135 miles apart).
Only one of my four grandparents ever drove.
My grandmothers were both elderly when I became old enough to have memories of them. My dad’s mother died when I was just a child. My mom’s mother died when I was 35, and my memories of her were her amazing meals – which included, but were not limited to, creamed tomatoes with torn-up pieces of bread, creamed corn, fried chicken I’ve never tasted the likes of since, chicken gravy made with pan drippings, mashed potatoes, all cooked without benefit of indoor plumbing (water came from a well, and very used water was pitched off the back porch, down the very steep hill); diminutive height (less than 5 feet tall); her sending me a newspaper clipping of an old, very swaybacked horse, knowing I was a horse lover from the get-go; and her pinch of Vicks VapORub carried in her lower lip, which made her kisses pretty “different.” Her “coffee-dunking cookies,” made from lard, flour, sugar and cut from the lid of a cracker box, were unpalatable by themselves, but when dunked in coffee, became wonderful treats! I have that cookie recipe to this day, though lard is not a staple in my kitchen ... I wonder if those cookies would taste as good if made with the extra-light olive oil of today.
Another memory of my mother’s parents was their rocking chairs. My grandfather’s was by far the biggest, because he was well over six feet tall. It was painted light blue. Grandma’s was considerably smaller, though still too big for any of us kids. There was one small rocking chair that we all used at various times. I remember when I grew tall enough that Grandma’s chair “fit” me well, and the satisfying feeling of that moment.
My grandparents’ home was two stories tall, with a central hallway that led from the front door straight through to the kitchen/dining room (the kitchen table was in this large room, with north and east-facing windows).
To the west of the house was the barn, at a 90-degree angle from the house, Grandad’s old sea-green Plymouth of unknown-but-early 1950s vintage permanently parked inside, amazing and prodigious dust critters hanging from old pieces of horse halters and harness, rust-caked bits and buckles hanging on even rustier nails, barn siding that had long since given up hope of paint, sunlight filtering through the cracks made when wood shrinks through the seasons and the years.
The hallway in the house was a space shared with the stairs – leading up to the bedrooms when first entering, or the dugout/basement when viewed from the kitchen side. The musty smell of the basement remains with me still, alongside the dangerousness of that short, steep stairway with its shelves on one side bearing the weight of home-canned peaches, apricots, corn, tomatoes and more. This place was better than any bank in town, for this was the place that held the wealth of the land and its people. It was not easy to wrest from the Appalachian foothills of eastern Ohio a living, and few people did. My grandparents, in their 60s and 70s, lived in this old frame house, had a long, narrow garden on the strip of hilltop east of the house – and the fruits of their labor gathered precious dust and cobwebs in the basement until family came to visit and the kitchen table was lengthened to accommodate the extra plates, steaming bowls of goodness, chairs and feet underneath.
On one side of this hallway was a room that became my parents’ room when we visited. The other side was the “sitting room,” akin to today’s living room, where the woodburning/coalburning stove resided. I remember Grandad taking the ashes out to dump, and the gray kind of “watering can”-looking ash bucket, which is listed at Amazon.com as a “galvanized steel coal hod.” It’s sobering to think that I took his labor for granted, that he’d keep the downstairs warm and the ashes carried out, and I’m ashamed to say that I never offered to help.
I recall with fondness that their outhouse was a “two holer” – and the Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogs AND their recycling purpose! In the house, upstairs where we slept, were “chamber pots” for when nature called and we couldn’t go out to the outhouse. There are few things colder than sitting down on a chamber pot in an unheated bedroom in the middle of the night.
I remember with a smile the many, many puzzle boxes with which we shared the two upstairs bedrooms. My young mind was awestruck by the thought of 1,000- and 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzles, when the 300- and 500-piece ones we kids tackled seemed tough enough. I remember my grandma’s fingers flying through the scattered-out puzzle pieces in search of the very important “border pieces.” Those old fingers, knotted and gnarled by arthritis, seemed to have wings, and there was no lack of dexterity in finding and fitting the right pieces!
It’s a bit uncomfortable, remembering my grandparents, not because of who they were, but because of who I was – a young person with my mind on myself rather than on others. Hopefully, God’s grace, my age and maturity have made me a better person.
Julie Kay Smithson is a freelance writer.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.