Mammaw WROTE to people. She’d take out her big ole black Parker, fat as a cigar, grab one of her half-sized tablets off the dining room buffet, and sit right down to discourse as personal as over teacups. There was always a “Dear . . .” as greeting, even in those to her constant correspondents, the Burpee and Park and Gurney seed companies, whose letter-headed replies were as warm and newsy as the small pages of her two-o’clock cursive. She had her own little rustic
84 Charing Cross Road
going on for years, with plants instead of books.
She might have been an Austen lady at her escritoire answering the Morning Post, as she sat at that old kitchen table (in early days before the “new house,” in close proximity to the spot where she’d just had her daily bath in the #2 galvanized tub brought in from the nail on the porch---water drawn from the one big spigot over the kitchen sink and heated in the same BIG tea-kittle which had just scalded the noon-day dinner dishes).
And despite the fact that we were on the same phone exchange and talked to each other daily, we WROTE. Our letters criss-crossed for years, as my jottings of the night before, pen and paper laid aside just as I switched off the lamp, were mailed in the morning to be in her hands before suppertime. And her own to me, with descriptions of her garden from peas to petunias in colorful detail, with who stopped by and admired, who came to ask for some cuttings, whose daughter was getting married next month and had come by to speak for several dozen pink for bouquets and boutoneers.
She tended her roses like she tended the big rows of beans and tomatoes and all those wonderful, colorful peppers and hills of squash. Her hoe was as much a part of her life as her glasses and The Commercial Appeal, I think---the hoe handle satined as her rolling pin, and the blade thinned from years of lap-whetting to less than the width of her butcher knife. Her small push-plow received similar sharpening before and after every planting-time, and I can see her cleaving that thing through the soft earth like a boat through a lake, turning back furrows in that dirt so enriched by all those years of carefully-seasoned chicken manure (she called it maloster, and I’ve never heard the word before or since). The rock-picking and Fall-cleaning and straw-strewing of her patch of ground were rituals as carefully tended as beloved pets.
A great part of her conversation was of her gardens, and thus her letters were filled with descriptions of everything from blossoms to bugs (the time she hung a big ole tomato worm up on the fence with a loop of Coats & Clarks as a lesson to other invaders is family legend).
What Mammaw called her p.m. letter was waiting for me in the morning, and my letter-of-the-night-before reached her in the three-o’clock mailsack. Our two small towns were close, and hers being the smaller, they received their post through ours. I’ve no doubt Miss Doris would have brought me a cake in the backseat of her dusty old Ford, had Mammaw handed it to her, and she frequently arrived with a sack of tomatoes or some just-shelled butterbeans, with her own bag of garden goodies for her trouble.
In Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, he wrote of his Aunt Sook, whose Christmas fruitcakes seemed the culmination of her work year---she’d save up for the citron, hoard the flour and sugar, pick up her own pecans, and she sent the fragrant packages to people of note---for years, one reached the White House every Christmas, with a lovely note from Mrs. Roosevelt in return.
Mammaw’s own reaching-out to her far-away correspondents was limited to letters, and the occasional nice lagniappe of some special seeds or shoots or bulbs from one company or the other, and she spoke of them as of family. “I got a nice letter from Park,” she’d mention. “They said they’d be putting out the new pink floribunda this Spring.” “Burpee said my Mawve Dahlias were the biggest anybody’s ever sent in,” (she’d laid a dollar on the table for the picture to illustrate the size).
Mammaw always said she “lived by the clock and the calendar,” and I think Mail-Time punctuated her days as pleasantly as a gift. There are a few of her letters in a drawer here behind me, the last of those long-ago days of putting down thoughts in our own hand.
And possibly, if I lifted an envelope or two and upended them gently over the tablecloth, a dusty thought of long-ago seeds might come drifting out.