Categories > Original > Humor > Grandfather0 Reviews
Another tale of the rural South early in the twentieth century.
In spite of its small size and the tottering piles of rocks which composed its foundation, the farmhouse had one unique amenity. An area just outside the kitchen door, fitting into the wedge formed by the kitchen and the main bedroom, had been enclosed by low wooden walls topped by screens and an extension of the roof to make a summer sitting area, free of insects and open to whatever winds were about. The flat bare ground of this semi-room had been spread with concrete to keep down dust and the large space was centered by the homestead's well. Now this well was one of the old-fashioned kind, with a windlass and a bucket sitting on the rim of the stone and plank structure which kept unwary children and animals from falling into the cool, dark depths below. If you leaned over the opening, a whisper of a breeze always brushed against your cheek and the scent of water made you thirsty.
Doors opened into the rooms which gave onto this space and the lumpy steps leading inside made places for people to sit in the twilight and talk. It was there, sitting on my grandfather's knee that I listened to the history of my family. My grandfather, in overalls and a shirt worn to softness, would plunk himself down on the step next to the kitchen and beckon me to his lap. I would cuddle against him, smelling the warm comforting fragrance of the cows he had just finished milking and blissfully safe in his arms while he talked about how things had been in the early days.
The man, who could neither read nor write, had a gift of gab. He could talk the birds from the trees and the eggs from the hens. He told me how his grandfather came from Ireland and landed at Savannah then made his way to Charleston, South Carolina and met up with "Joel R. Poinsett, you know, the one they named that hotel in Greenville after. It seems Mr. Poinsett was hiring those days and my grand-daddy signed on with him and that's how we came to live here. My grand-daddy moved on up to the Piedmont, that's what they call this part of the state, and when he finished working for Mr. Poinsett, he got to buy some land for his own and set out to farming."
To an exiled Irishman, Heaven was in the land. Forbidden by the British to own land in their own country, they hungered for even the smallest parcel of real dirt to call their own and they treasured deeds the way richer men treasured bonds.
There, I learned to see what he saw when he looked around the acres he walked with an owner's proud step. It was a good farm with rich soil which smelled like peanuts from all the nitrogen present in it. There was enough space for a section of forest to be left alone to provide Christmas trees for a growing tribe of families, space for barns and animals to be housed in decency. There was even room for a share-cropper, another poor family trying to save up to buy their own little farm.
So what if the outhouses stood a little too near the main house. Indoor plumbing would come when he could afford it. Grandfather despised and feared debt the way Grandmother despised and feared the Devil. He provided for his family within his means and hid away tiny sums to use to buy a surprise now and then when he went to town to hawk his produce.
He brought me softly supple moleskins to stroke against my cheek. "Powderpuffs", he called them even though I was far too young for any power other than talcum. Baby chickens peeped behind the wood stove and made playmates for me until they graduated, first to the yard and then to the table. Tiny pink rats scurried among the hay in the sheds when he took me with him and gently lifted away the tops of the nests he had found and marked for my delight.
But most of all, I treasured leaning against his chest and hearing his deep voice talk about the old days. "Your great-uncle just had one arm," he would start. He knew what sort of stories children like to hear and how to tell them.
"Which uncle was that?" I would sleepily whisper.
"Uncle Flem. He just had one arm because he got a bad cut on the other one and it rotted off." No tale of maiming and death bothered me when my grandfather told them. They were like the fairy tales - still authentically Grimm - which I read in my library books. "Yes, it just rotted away all summer long until we could cut it off and he never looked back."
"Why didn't you cut it off to begin with?" He never minded questions.
"We couldn't because that's not the way it's done. Uncle Flem was skinning a rabbit and his knife was bloody so it slipped and he made a bad cut on his left hand. We put some grease on it and some sulphur but it still got the sickness in it and started turning green."
"Green as that sour grass you like to eat. He got long streaks of green up his arm and it started swelling. That's how we knew there was no saving it. So we put him to bed and made him as comfortable as we could and watched. Your great-aunt Mamie sat by the bed and dipped a rag into water to keep him cool. She would sit there and dip and wring out that rag and lay it on his head or his neck to keep him cool. He just lay there and moaned, real quiet back in his throat. That was a long summer."
"Why didn't he go to the doctor?" My treble and his bass blended in a practiced counterpoint.
"No money and too far. It would've took too long and we couldn't spare the time. So he just had to lay there and rot."
"What did it smell like?" I had heard the story before and was not about to miss a single line of it.
"It was kind of sweet, like when something in the storehouse goes bad. Like when the curing didn't take on a ham. Sweet and heavy. It made you gag."
"And then you cut it off?"
"After my daddy thought it was ripe enough. He called us boys together and we got our knives sharp as we could and, while we held old Flem down so he wouldn't jerk off the table, Daddy cut through the shoulder bone like he would on a hog and that rotten arm just came off slick as you could want. Soon as that arm was off, Flem got up and started eating and was all right. He never did seem to miss that arm."
"Ewww! You put him on the table to do it." That was the only part which bothered me, little savage that I was.
Grandfather would laugh and rub his fingers through my sweaty hair. "We washed it with lye when we were done. You ate your supper off that same table tonight."
"Ewwww." I would squirm out of his lap and run off to hide behind the well before I would hurl myself back into him lap and wheedle as I rubbed my face against the cool metal of his galluses, "Tell me about the black widow spider now. How hard did Great Uncle Wylie's belly get?"
"Oh, about as hard as a blowed up pig bladder."