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Sunday Stories from the South
It was after one of those big family get-togethers when Grandaddy said it. We menfolk had made our way into the living room after helping clear the dining room table of dirty dishes. Dad gathered up the Dixie cups on which we had inscribed our names with a Sharpie marker. The “fine china,” Grandmother called it. Uncle Tony carried the last of the empty pots and skillets to the sink as I picked the fat off some poor hog that had donated most of its hindquarters for dinner. The dogs would get the fat meat and the final remains would be interred in a pot of pinto beans at some later date.
Grandmother shooed us out of the kitchen while she, my stepmother, and my aunt finished up the washing. After a few minutes of talking about fishing holes and lay offs down at the paper mill, the chin wagging in the living room reached a low ebb.
My grandpa always had the tv muted but tuned to some outdoor show. If he couldn’t be in the woods, he at least wanted to watch other folks traipse around in some brush pile hunting game. Someone in some far flung place like Montana had bagged an elk.
“My my,” he said.
“Look at that,” my uncle said to no one in particular.
“Biggun’,” said Dad.
I am not much of a hunter, so I decided to keep my monosyllabic comments to myself so as not to look like a fool in front of such experts.
At once, we heard the shrill noise laughing women and clanging silverware. We didn’t know, never will know, and don’t need to know what caused it.
“Reckon what they’re carrying on about,” said Dad.
“No tellin’.” Grandaddy said.
And for a few minutes we just sat there and listened to them cackle like a bunch of old laying hens while the fella field dressed a buck on the tv set.
After a while, Grandaddy looked at us and waxed philosophical. “What would we do without these women?” He said.
Looking back, it seems like one of life’s big questions.
Grandmother is the heart and soul of the family. I was tempted to say she is the backbone, but backbones can be broken. She never has been. And probably never will.
She grew up hard. Living as she did in a house with a father who usually drank what little paycheck he had and loved every woman he knew except the one he had at home.
She married young, accepting a man who promised her a good life but only succeeded in giving her more of the same kind of life she had always known. In the end, he just gave her two sons and one big broken heart.
In 1984, after she had taken all she could of his womanizing ways, she left him standing in the driveway in front of the house she had built by stacking boxes at the paper mill and turning her fingertips into pin cushions at the shirt factory.
Then she met the man I call “Grandaddy” while working in the storeroom at Georgia Pacific. About the time they started seeing one another, the union organized a strike. They both lost their jobs. Their first date was a drive-thru meal at MacDonald’s. They split six chicken nuggets. And they were so broke that they had to pool their money for the food.
But it soon became evident that he loved her. She had never had that before. So they decided to team up and tackle the world together, come what may.
It was about that time that my own mother decided to hightail it to Texas. She and dad had been no good for each other. I was conceived while they were in High School, and though it sounds noble, founding a marriage on a night of teenage foolishness is hardly a recipe for domestic tranquility. I witnessed more brawls between them by the time I was two than most people see in a lifetime. At least, more than anyone should have to see. Those memories are stuck in the back of my mind like a jagged piece of broken glass.
Mom was a fighter. And I mean bare knuckle, no holds barred. On Easter of 83’, she whipped one of my aunt’s after Sunday dinner. When her husband tried to intervene, she whipped him too. Papa, my dad’s dad, decided to step in and put a stop to the whole sordid affair. He squared off, balled up his fists, and hit her in the face like a man. She just rocked a little and said, “That better not be all you got.” It was. And she commenced to whipping him too.
The violence came to a head one evening when my dad came home from work and noticed the wedding picture on the wall when he stepped inside the door of our small, single-wide trailer. There was a steak knife protruding from right between his eyes. They argued for a while, but he never hit her. But after he sat down in the recliner she came down the hall with a tire iron and worked him over from shin to chin. He decided that was enough.
No one knows exactly when, but mom had met a man in Texas during that time. She showed up one afternoon at Grandmother’s house and said, “I’m leaving. I’m going to Texas.”
“It’s probably for the best.” Grandmother said, as she held me in her lap.
“I’m taking him with me,” said Mom, nodding her head in my direction.
“That ain’t happenin’” Grandmother said.
Mom tried to take me out of her arms. And then Grandmother did what my aunt, my aunt’s husband, Papa, and dad had all been unsuccessful at doing. Dad told me a few years ago, “I walked into that house and there was not a single piece of furniture standing rightside up. Lamps were knocked over. Chairs were overturned. The couch was laying on its side where the two of them had gone over it. And your grandmother was bouncing your mamma off of every wall in that house.”
Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. My grandmother is a sweet and gentle lady. But she becomes like a she-bear if she thinks you are a threat to one of her cubs. Suffice it to say that Mom left for Texas empty handed.
Grandmother became my mother that day. She is the one who has stood with me, for me, behind me and beside me. She is the one who tucked me in at night and made sure I said my prayers. She is the one who dug the gravel out of my skint knees and blew on all my cuts and kissed all my “boo-boos.” She became my first call whenever the news was too good to keep to myself or too bad to share with anyone else. I would say that she became the center of my world but she would never have any of that. Because as far as she’s concerned, this whole big ball of mud revolves around me.
What would we do without these women?
Sonya entered the story a few years after mom left and my grandmother remarried. Two packs of sour grape Big League Chew. That’s my earliest memory of her.
I couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6. She was about to marry my dad and was trying to make a good impression on me. Of course I had no say in the matter, but she cared that I approved. So she bought gum.
Most of the men in our family chewed or dipped or smoked, but Big League Chew was my vice. One night she invited me to stay with her and her son Justin who is four years younger than me. And on the way to pick me up, she bought me a gift. “That’s my brand!” I said, as I tore into the sticky package.
I remember her impressive collection of video cassettes. More movies than I had ever seen in one place. My grandparents didn’t even own a VCR at the time.
We watched Schwarzenegger’s “Conan” and Tom Hanks’ “Big” while sitting on bean bags with jaws full of bubble gum. We were determined to chew it all.
When it was time for bed, she told us to spit it out. We did. But we stuck it behind a lamp so we could get right back to it when the lights went out.
Sometime in the middle of the night, my soon-to-be-brother woke us all up crying like a banshee. Sonya rushed into the room to find him wailing with fingers trying in vain to pluck matted globs of grape gum from his fiery red hair. I started laughing before I realized that I too had half a pack of chew stuck to my scalp.
She grabbed a fist full of ice hoping to freeze the gum until it was hard enough to break. It was so cold that it burned. And the melting ice only succeeded in making us as wet as we were sticky.
“I’ve heard that peanut butter will work it loose,” she said.
The next thing we know she comes into the bedroom with a large can of Jif. The crunchy kind. Choosy moms and all that. Then she proceeded to smear our heads like she was greasing up prized pigs for the county fair.
Justin continued wailing; I sat wide-eyed, marveling at the physical sensation of gum, melted ice, and peanut oil all about my neck and ears. But the peanut butter didn’t help in the slightest. Nothing doing but to just put us in the tub at this point.
After bathing us in a concoction of about five different shampoos, she gave up hope of getting the gum out. All that was left was the surgical method. She found her scissors and began cutting clumps of hair from our heads. Our heads looked like rugs left too close to the fire place where coals had tumbled and burned wiry holes down to the naked floor beneath. Justin cranked up his wailing again.
Then she grabbed some electric clippers and sheared us. Our scalps were well exfoliated and rehydrated now. The tops of our heads were as soft and supple as the first batch of peaches in early spring.
She felt horrible. I was practically giddy. Finally, we all laughed.
Even so, I am not among those, like Sinatra, who will be able to look back on my life and say, “Regrets? Yeah, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention.” I’ve had regrets by the trailer load. Sonya is one of them.
I regret that I didn’t warm to her until she had been married to my father for nearly two decades. She tried. I wouldn’t have it. Though I am sure that much of that was tethered to the fear that she, like my biological mother, would leave me. But she tried.
My stepmother was tough, but that toughness was hemmed in by a grizzled grace. I like to think of it as velvet steel. She stayed married to my father for over 30 years and that bespeaks a tenacity that is rare these days. He has been known to be a difficult man.
After watching her for years, seeing her stick with him through more thin than thick, it dawned on me that I never gave her a fair shake. And I am glad to say that we were close for the last ten years or so.
But then, just as I feared those many years ago, she did leave me. Much too soon. At around 2:30 in the morning, on March 24th. Her last words to my father were simple, clear, and true: “I am dying. I love you. I don’t regret a thing.”
What would we do without these women?
I don’t even want to contemplate life without them. The years are coming too fast now, like someone greased the wheels of time. And I know that it won’t be much longer until Grandmother's kitchen is as quiet as a tomb. One of those voices has already been silenced.
But in that place nearest my heart, where I tuck old memories away in hopes of keeping them warm, I still hear the sound of splashing water and feminine giggles. Though the years have been hard and oftentimes cruel, these women are in the kitchen laughing. And I am tempted to cite this as evidence to anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles.
Thank God we didn’t have to do without these women.