Enjoy our “Reflections” post — one of many vignettes and stories featuring memories of days gone by. This installment is from J.A. Heitmueller.
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At the age of twelve I had never heard nor used the word mesmerized, but realize over sixty years later the term exactly describes my fascination with something I discovered floating in a glass on my grandma’s dresser that stormy summer morning in 1953.
One of the reasons I loved to spend summers with Grandma was because her household was so different from my own. Grandma cooked on a potbellied cook stove that reminded me of a huge, black bear lurking in the corner of the kitchen. Every morning she’d stuff crumbled newspapers and kindling wood into the stove, grab her stick match from the tin snuff can on the shelf and light a fire to get the stove roaring so she could cook breakfast. Everything tasted better cooked on Grandma’s old stove… blueberry pancakes, fried chicken, potato patties with onions she called scrongees, creamed corn, fried okra, cornbread, biscuits. Grandma and that old stove could deliver the best egg custard, apple pie and coconut cake I’ve ever put between my lips. She warned me to be very careful if I ever used a cook stove, reminding me that many years ago, when my grandfather’s mother was coloring Easter eggs for her children, the hem of her dress caught on fire. Screaming with terror, Granny Knight dashed out of the house into the yard and was so badly burned that she died two days later.
I never felt it was a chore when Grandma had me draw water from the deep rock well on the front porch. I loved to turn that worn oak crank and listen to the rusty chain squeak as water splashed over the rim of the bucket. I could hear it echoing in the water far below as I slowly inched the metal bucket upward, wondering what I would ever do if I slipped and tumbled over the edge one day. There was nothing more refreshing on a steamy summer day than a hearty gulp of that frigid well water from the scooped out gourd Grandpa carved into a ladle and hung on a hook beside the well. Folks in the neighborhood knew they were always welcome to stop by for a sip or two in the heat of the day. When I became a teen, old enough to work in the hay fields each summer, I could hardly wait to finish hauling those cumbersome bales to the barn loft so I could head straight to the well after hours in that blistering, southern sunshine. I not only drank the water, but liberally poured it over my head again and again, letting it cascade down my sweat soaked body, relishing every cooling drop.
One summer Grandma patiently taught me how to milk Bossy, the cow. Afterwards, we would sit out on her screened in back porch and churn milk to make butter. She stored the butter and extra milk in her icebox, kept chilled by a big block of ice that was delivered from Mr. Hauk’s ice factory every few days. That porch was a cool spot to shell peas and butter beans, or share a juicy, ripe watermelon or cantaloupe. Some Sunday afternoons we’d invite the neighbors over to join us. The kids would take turns turning the handle on the wooden ice cream freezer and keeping the bucket packed with chipped ice and salt, impatiently waiting for the delicious vanilla ice cream we’d soon be eagerly lapping up. Grandma would often surprise us with a big bowl of freshly sliced peaches or strawberries for the topping.
Each morning we’d head for the hen house out back behind the garage and gently reach under the setting hens to gather an apron full of warm, fragile eggs; then we’d sprinkle cracked corn and food scraps in the chicken yard so the hens could have their breakfast. Grandma let a few chickens wander in the yard to keep the area free of insects. My favorites were the prissy little bantam hens that strutted around like tiny majorettes proudly leading a parade. Grandma also kept white hens, brown hens and black and white speckled chickens. Sometimes I’d pick up the stray feathers and make a headband to use when I played cowboys and Indians with little Joe Willingham who lived down the road. I always wondered how many hundreds of feathers it took to make one of Grandma’s soft feather mattresses I buried myself in each night. My thoughts never lingered on what actions were necessary for us to enjoy a platter of Grandma’s delicious, crispy fried chicken for Sunday dinner. She warned me to keep my eye on “Old Tom”, the bedraggled, mean tempered rooster that woke me up every morning with his persistent crowing. One day I forgot those admonishments and found myself doing a frantic tap dance around the chicken yard with the devilish critter pecking angrily at my bare feet. You can bet I never turned my back on “Old Tom” again! Several days later, with a twinkle in her eye, Grandma confessed she had watched the entire performance with amusement from the kitchen window and knew I had learned my lesson.
When I turned ten, Grandma finally gave me permission to use the prized possession she kept stored safely in the woodshed out back. In summer’s past I sometimes wiped the dirt away from the cracked windowpane and peeked inside the little dilapidated building, dreaming of the day I could push Grandpa’s old lawnmower. A couple of times I got brave enough to ease open the rickety, wooden door and sneak inside to take a closer glance under the tattered tarp. As was her normal routine with any new task, Grandma gave me detailed instructions as to the use and care of the mower. I kept shifting from foot to foot, hardly able to stand still while politely enduring her lesson, but managed to do so until she told me I could get the mower out and give it a trial run. Not only was I in charge of mowing Grandma’s yard that summer, but her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Metz, paid me to look after her yard. At the end of the summer I had saved a total of $36 from my work, plus Grandma’s promise that when she passed away, the mower would be mine.
Although she was known as a very dignified lady, I was twelve the summer I discovered there was also a bit of humor tucked securely in my grandma’s personality. It happened soon after the stormy morning Grandma was sitting in her rocker mending a tablecloth, while Percy, the cat, snuggled comfortably in her lap and I was sprawled in the floor, deeply absorbed in the latest adventure of Robinson Crusoe and his pal, Friday.
“Bobby, would you please go to my room and get my thimble off the dresser?”
I quickly obeyed and darted down the narrow, dark hallway to her bedroom. Since this was her private domain, I was a bit tentative about entering and knew I shouldn’t linger. I let my eyes scan the items on the dresser and soon spied the shiny thimble. Just as I reached for it, I glimpsed an unusual container pushed toward the back of the dresser. It was a tall glass filled with cloudy water with some odd looking pink and white objects floating around. I couldn’t imagine what it might be and leaned forward to look closer. Suddenly, Grandma’s voice startled me.
“Bobby,” I heard her call, “did you find it?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’ll be right there.”
Over the next few days, I completely forgot about that puzzling discovery and didn’t think about it again until the evening I happened to be passing the door of Grandma’s room on my way to bed. I glanced up just in time to see her put something in the glass. I tossed and turned all night, wondering just what could possibly be in that container. My childish curiosity was running rampant!
“What’s the matter? You’re awfully quiet. Is something wrong, Bobby?” Grandma asked as she tied her apron and began to cook breakfast the next morning.
“Well, Grandma. Do you mind if I ask you a question?” I was a bit reluctant to just plainly blurt out the question, but I’d gotten this far, so figured I’d better finish what I started.
“What do you want to know, Son?” She cracked an egg and began to stir the pancake batter with a wooden spoon.
“Do you remember the other day when you asked me to get your thimble?”
“Yes,” she nodded, turning a pancake in the skillet.
“I really wasn’t trying to be nosy, but I saw something really strange in a glass on your dresser and I wondered what it was.”
Suddenly, my grandma burst out laughing. She whirled around to face me as her hand flew up to her mouth.
“You mean these?”
I jumped up, knocking my chair over with a loud thud, scaring Percy, who shrieked and bounded from her basket behind the stove, sending it tumbling across the floor in front of me. Shocked, I grabbed my chest and backed away from the table as Grandma yanked her teeth from her mouth and stood there giggling and smacking her gums together. She looked so funny without any teeth. It was hard to believe that strange looking person was really my grandma. She looked exactly like the evil witch I’d read about in Hansel and Gretel.
“Dear me, I didn’t mean to frighten you, Bobby. I thought you knew I had false teeth. I take them out every night to let them soak clean in a glass of water.” She gave me a comforting pat on the head.
“Actually, I have two pairs. If I break one, I’ll have a spare. Dr. Bledsoe suggested I do that.”
After the occurrence of that startling pronouncement, my grandma and I developed a special camaraderie. During the next few years, as I grew to adulthood, the two of us had a clever little trick up our sleeves whenever young children came to visit. When the unsuspecting child greeted her, Grandma would flash a quick wink my way, lean toward the child with a big smile and abruptly let her teeth fall out. I knew exactly how that poor, innocent child felt, yet I couldn’t help laughing every time.
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