Sunday, January 25, 2009

ANOTHER TREE

Daddy’s parents were plain old country-folk; Grampa died when I was in third grade, he of the shiny-butt black suit and string tie, with Circuit Judge to his title. I still have his old “notary” stamp somewhere, with its tiny raised mirror-letters, almost an exact match to the one a young notary used recently on some papers I had to sign.

Mammaw B (to distinguish her from just Mammaw, who was my Mother's Mother), was a tiny woman whose children numbered seven, two of whom died in the Great Flu Epidemic of ’18, before Daddy was born---my mind won't wrap around such devastation and sorrow. All of the family but Daddy moved to Memphis; all prospered and had families and visited seldom---the youngest sister still lives in Memphis.

When Daddy was in his teens, Mammaw was bitten by a rattlesnake in the pea-patch, and he drove the nine miles into town to the doctor as fast as he could make the old Ford go, while his sisters held Mammaw through her convulsions in the back seat. She swoll up fit to pop, but she lived, and was a tough little nut, because of or in spite of.

And Daddy had two more sisters, from his Daddy’s first marriage, but unknown to him until one of them came and introduced herself to him at his workplace one day after I was almost grown. Mammaw had made Grampa promise never to mention his “other family” after they married. I have more regret and embarrassment for coming from that kind of people, than I do for the Grand-Dam who killed a marauder in a hideously vengeful fashion. But I cannot countenance or respect a wife who would demand that, or a husband who would just slough off a family like dandruff. I’m glad I didn’t know until later in life, when I was far away and visits few.

After Aunt Margie’s death so soon after Grampa’s, Mammaw made the rounds of the four other households, living three months with one, then moving on to the next. She tried to stay out of Mother's way, and it was never enough---Mother treated her shabbily and resented her from the moment she set foot in the house til she left.

Mammaw mostly read (I still have the crumbly-paged Perry Masons that we both read over and over) and did a little housework and crocheted to make you weep. She’d go up to the drugstore, get over in behind the big rack of magazines and comic books, look at the pictures in the crochet magazines, then come home and turn out a pineapple doily or stole by suppertime.

And Mammaw B. dipped, carrying that shiny little Garrett can in her apron pocket at all times, getting up from time to time to go into the bathroom to spit into the toilet. I still have yards of her lovely needlework, now outlasted possibly five pillowslips apiece, wound and put away safe for stitching onto new pairs for the Grandchildren’s wedding gifts. Thread and a needle and the knowing hands that created such lovely work---those are worth remembering.

Both Mammaw B and her own Mother, an even tinier woman who was part Mississippi Choctaw (and not, like the antecedents of most who claim them, a Chief’s Daughter) each lived to within a few weeks of their ninety-ninth birthdays. I did not get the crochet gene, though I tried valiantly; my touch is too tight. I can do you up a dozen Barbie hats, but then I’m done. I give up and never go further---I’ve entertained the notion that if I did, the product would probably make an excellent cigar cozy, should there be a need.

Of Mammaw B.: I remember her cooking twice in all the time she stayed with us: Once a dish of whole, peeled carrots, cooked in their tender youngness to a sumptuous creamy texture, with all the first-from-the-garden flavor. Mother was out for the afternoon; the bountiful garden was RIGHT THERE, and Mammaw picked and cooked stuff for supper.

Mother believed in getting the most go for her money out of a seed---our usual dish of carrots was of big checker-sized slices, so overgrown and woody in the middles that the outsides began to melt away into the boiling water before the corky insides were tender. Our carrots were “creamed” with a big glug of Pet Milk, and the showerings of pepper from the big old McCormick can made the whole bowlful gray, with an unpleasant throat-blast of heat. Perhaps that's why I especially remember that lovely plate of tender golden cylinders, a little glisten of butter shining their lengths---Miss Marthy would have gladly sat down to a dish of those.

The other dish was a “dirty rice” into which she tucked an entire head of shredded lettuce, to wilt in the under-lid heat and add texture to the dish. That one was not particularly memorable, except I'd never seen anyone "cook" lettuce before.

Mammaw was the nurse present in the delivery room at my own birth; she “holped” at home births as well, going to stay with the prospective mothers days before due date, and staying several days after to look after mother and baby til the mom was back on her feet.

Of Grampa, I remember only his one rusty-black suit, worn with the vest over an equally-dingy white shirt. I never saw him once without that vest, the scallop of a watch-chain draped across the expanse of his old-man belly. I was standing in his hospital room on the day he died, and was scurried out when the time came---I suppose he was wearing a hospital gown then. I'd broken my wrist some time earlier, and happened to be there because I'd just been upstairs to get the cast off. I remember leaning against the green wall with my arm behind my back, and being amazed at the cool of it, and the odd feeling that something was missing as my long-covered skin made elbow-to-wrist contact with the smooth plaster.

I do not remember their ever having a home, a car, a family meal or holiday at their house. They did live in the house catty-corner to ours when Daddy was a boy and when “our” lots were still the vacant space of ground where all the neighborhood kids gathered for ball games and tree-climbing and mumbly-peg.

One tree in our yard bore testament to the childhood years of many a local Tom Sawyer and Tarzan and Robinson Crusoe---way high over my rope-swing on a lower limb, there were four moss-verdigrised planks, the last vestiges of Daddy’s tree-house, with the limbs grown tight around the edges like clutching fingers. I looked up through the tinted window of the “family car” as we passed in Daddy’s funeral procession---not at the house where I'd lived for so long, but for one last glimpse of those old boards through the the Winter-bare limbs.

I did not know that side of my family very well; they did not visit much and we went to see them seldom. I regret that, and have a gentle dolor for what we all missed.

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