my childhood as i remember it

I remember …

Those words are a gate to my past and even swing open slightly to allow me to creep into the past of my mother and grandmother.  They don’t, however, open the doors to the past of my male relatives. I can’t move into a male memory, not even in my imagination.

My brother Chip and I spent three summers with my grandparents in the country outside Clio, S.C.  (half of those summers we also spent with my father’s family in Columbus, Ga.) Those years my father was stationed overseas or out west with the U.S. Air Force and my mother was earning her master’s degree at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville. I was 10 and Chip was 8 that first summer.

My grandparents’ yard was sandy, and my grandmother swept it with a straw broom. I never understood why she would sweep dirt (now I realize she was clearing away chicken droppings as the hens and roosters roamed the yard). An old well was located near the house. It seemed to me the dark, still water in it might reach halfway to the center of the earth. I avoided that well because I feared it would cave in and take me with it.

The air was heavy with heat and sometimes seemed sullen. But the house wasn’t too hot (except for the kitchen) even though my grandparents had no air conditioning and I don’t remember any electric fans.

Since no kids lived nearby and my cousins lived about five miles away on the other side of Clio, Chip and I entertained ourselves. We played paper dolls with Sears catalog cutouts. Chip spent time with Dubert, our uncle. They often drove to Bennettsville and I occasionally joined them. Mother – the name we called my grandmother – let us help her peel apples when she made jelly. We competed to create the longest peeling; we must have wasted most of the apple in that endeavor, but she never fussed.

Chip and I played in the woods across the dirt road during those sultry, lazy days. We swung on a sinuous vine that crawled up a tree. The creek ran clear and shallow and we could wade in it if we watched for snakes. We also had to be careful and avoid the briars which infested the woods. They hurt.

I read, a pastime I still enjoy.  While my grandparents didn’t have many books, a favorite one was “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” My grandmother also had a travel book I read over and over. But even the dictionary was reading material for me. I remember hearing somebody talk about rape one time. I knew enough to know that I should not ask for a definition. So I made my way to the dictionary to look up rape. There was the definition – the act of being raped. I knew no more when I finished than when I started.

My grandmother also would tell us stories about growing up in Dillon, just down the road in another county, and about some of our relatives. She also told us that the Japanese doll and oiled paper umbrella came from my parents (we lived in Japan for a year).  I wish I remembered her stories more clearly. But it never occurred to me that she would not always be around.

In my mind’s eye, I can see Mother, a sturdy woman with dull gray hair pulled back in a bun and bandages covering both legs at least part of the time. She had serious problems with varicose veins that ulcerated. But she wound those elastic bandages around her leg more neatly and smoothly than anything I have ever seen. She always seemed to be wearing an apron (I have one of them hanging on my pantry door).

Mother spent most of her time in the kitchen, puttering around. I loved her cooking except for her gravy – you had to skim the grease off but then it was delicious – and her unsalted hoe cakes (which I thought tasted like raw cornmeal). I also felt guilty for liking store-bought apple jelly better than the jelly she made, which was too sweet for my taste. But her grape preserves were to die for.

My grandfather, a farmer, was a tall, slender man with a head full of beautiful silver hair. As he aged, it gradually got whiter and thinner.  Papa would go to the gristmill and take us. He’d go to the country store and talk with the old men there. But he had to go when someone else could drive him there since he didn’t have a car. He’d also sit on the front porch with us watching the dusty road which may have seen one car an hour – if that many.

As much as I loved the old farm house, there were things I was afraid of. The outhouse was in the corn field. When the stalks were over my head, I thought I’d get lost on the way there or back. I never did.  And I always “knew” a black widow spider would bite me on the butt. I didn’t want to die in an outhouse. Besides that, I hated using newspaper or catalog pages for toilet paper.  Just as bad, however, was using a chamber pot in the house and hearing the noise it made. That was embarrassing.

I was scared of the rats in the house as well as the rat traps. I never figured out which would be worse – a rat getting on the bed with me or getting my toe caught like a mouse. After we went to bed in the middle room, Dubert would sneak around outside and scratch on the window. We knew it was him and still scared ourselves silly about someone getting in and stealing us.

But the good outweighed the potentially bad.

We had the first watermelon from the field on July 4. That’s when Papa said they were ready. I still don’t buy watermelon until then. We had homemade ice cream, made in a freezer that you churned. But even more often, my grandmother would make ice cream in ice trays – just a little for the family. Dubert made buckets of lemonade, which lemon slices and ice cubes floating there. We had home-grown vegetables from the garden. My grandmother cooked full breakfasts and she made salmon rolls, a recipe she created. She also never had a meal without both cornbread and biscuits or flour bread, which was cooked on top of the stove.

– Jenny Munro