I just sent Lorianne Episode Four of JMac's Palace of Memories. If you're interested you can catch it on Wednesdays and Fridays at 10:30am PDT on Our Salon Radio. Here's a preview:
On January 6thFidel Castro arrived in Havana. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper and their pilot Roger Peterson bought the farm in Iowa; all dead and February 3rd became "The Day the Music Died" and as best as I can figure it out around that time we buried my father's father in Indiana.
Grandpa M was a mean looking old SOB with an ancient face frozen in a grim scowl. Being the youngest of nearly a dozen children, Mac’s parents were in their seventies, probably pushing eighty when I met them. His mother seldom spoke and her infrequent smiles and laughter were furtive and weak. She seemed to be permanently linked to the right arm of Grandpa M who, as I recall, never smiled or laughed. Deep in the early winter months of 1959 he gave up the ghost and Dad pulled us out of school to drive north for the funeral. As usual we were on the road before dawn to “beat the traffic,” and we drove straight through the nine hundred some odd miles, stopping only for gas and food.
We arrived at Pop’s farm a bit after dawn just as he was finishing up his morning chores. It was cold and miserable but we were very happy to see him and he was glad to have us. After Mom made breakfast, Mac drove over to meet with his family while we watched television and Mom went crazy cleaning the house. We were two days early for the funeral service and spent that night and most of the next day at Pop’s. Late in the afternoon, much to Mom’s chagrin, we all piled into the Chevy and drove the short distance to the dreary brick farmhouse of Mac’s clan. We’d have dinner with his family and spend the night there as well and that was the root of Mom’s anxiety.
With only two fireplaces and a coal fired cast iron kitchen stove, the century old structure had no indoor plumbing, no modern heating, and that night outside temperatures would drop well below zero. Aunt Martha hugged us one and all and scooted around the kitchen in her thick woolen sweater putting the finishing touches on dinner. Mom pitched in while brother Bill and Mac brought chairs and a side table in from the dining room to augment the small table and six chairs in the big kitchen. It was already too cold in the house to be comfortable at any distance from the stove or fireplaces. Dinner was served family style: baked ham, chicken & dumplings, home canned green beans, roasted potatoes, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, and fresh baked homemade biscuits and gravy.
Steam floated through the cool air beneath the double tube fluorescent light and we all ate quickly before the food got cold. Dessert was a three layer peanut butter chocolate cake with fudge icing and I happily ate my usual double portion. Coffee and smokes followed the meal and while Martha and Mom cleared the table and washed the dishes, I helped out by drying with a dish towel and stacking the plates, bowls and dinnerware .
Then water was set to boil and bricks went into the oven. The water filled hot water bottles and the bricks were wrapped in towels, carried into the bedrooms and placed under the layers of sheets, quilts and spreads to warm our beds. Each room had a fresh chamber pot and we all climbed into bed in our clothes and sweaters before eight that night, but we didn’t sleep much. Between the drafty cold air and the soft howl of the wind against the windows, our only relief was the soft crackle of burning coal in the fireplace and we didn’t fall asleep so much as we passed out from shivering exhaustion.
Everyone in the house was up before dawn and after we pulled on our shoes, jackets and gloves, we made our way down stairs to the kitchen where Mom and Aunt Martha thrust cups of hot chocolate Ovaltine into our cold fingers. The adults and brother Bill sipped coffee and huddled near the kitchen stove until Martha and Mom shooed us away so that they could cook breakfast: steaming oatmeal, followed by pancakes, fried bacon, ham and huge skillets of scrambled eggs and hot biscuits, slathered with warm maple syrup. We all ate our fill then washed up and dressed for the funeral service and burial ceremony. I dried dishes again and Aunt Martha rewarded me with one more warm biscuit fresh from the oven with melted butter and grape jelly.
After it was all said and done, the entire clan returned to the old house for the wake which was mercifully short and by mid-afternoon we drove back to Pop’s warm house and pulled off our sweaters for the first time in twenty hours. I didn’t really know it at the time but we’d experienced only one day and night from Mac’s childhood.
His clan was technically “poor white trash” struggling to survive on that hard scrabble farm and whatever work they could find during the Great Depression. Mom’s family wasn’t much better off, but they were fewer in number and managed to have more with less, so that by comparison they were relatively comfortable and prosperous. Over the years we'd learn how their early struggle to survive affected the lives of our parents and their siblings.
The Blissful Relief of Fresh Snow:
The next morning we were up before dawn, packed and ready to get back in the Chevy for the trip back to Texas. Dad wanted to get on the road to beat an Arctic front that threatened snow, but Mom insisted that she’d make a decent breakfast for Pop before we left. Things got very tense for a few moments until he backed off and after we sat down to eat, the snow began to fall. It started with a soft flurry, but by the time we carried our bags to the car there was an inch on the ground. Against his better judgment Mac allowed us fifteen minutes to play before we started our journey. We were an hour down the narrow county roads, when the flurries billowed over the windshield with so much snow that we could barely see the muddy gravel. Listening to the weather reports on our AM radio, we heard the announcement that local roads were being closed and tire chains would be required to drive on state highways. Mac snorted, banged his fist on the steering wheel and turned around. With no need in Florida or Texas, he had no chains.
We drove for over two hours at under twenty miles an hour to get back to Pop’s farm, where we found shelter from the storm that lingered for two days and dumped over two feet of snow before the clouds finally cleared. It was another two days before the crews finished plowing the county roads. We had four full glorious days to play in the bliss of fresh snow.
We began the trip to Texas on Friday morning, but because the storm had moved so slowly, there was still snow on the highways all the way south to Arkansas and north Texas. Mac surrendered to Mother Nature and we traveled back to Irving at a leisurely three hundred miles a day arriving in Dallas County late on Sunday afternoon. I can still remember his grin while he smoked his cigars and watched us play in the snow in the motel parking lots on our long way home.
After a weekend conversation with my brother Rick we realized that I’ve overlooked a couple of Black Sheep in our mother’s family: her Grandfather John and her Uncle Harrison. Papaw was arguably the worst of the lot. Born in 1869 and widowed in 1926, he spent the last thirty-two years of his life alone. The details of his nefarious past were never made fully clear to me and my memory of him is restricted to two fuzzy photographs in the family album and a Memorial Day weekend when Pop performed his annual ritual of cutting his father’s hair and shaving his beard.
Papaw was a big bear of a man who lived in a small house with a detached ramshackle garage at the end of a gravel lane not far from the hard scrabble farm owned by Mac’s family. I clearly remember the stone wall around a hand dug well under a lush green walnut tree and the chain and sprocket driven water wheel contraption that scooped cool clean water in galvanized steel cups on the chain. With the AM radio playing in the sparsely furnished kitchen playing the network broadcast of the Indianapolis 500, Mom and Aunt Edna swept and mopped the house, and unpacked and plated a cold fried chicken picnic lunch while Pop led the old man outside to sit in a chair next to the well.
Dressed in their ever present denim overalls, flannel shirts and work boots my grandfather tucked a white sheet into the collar of his father’s shirt, lifted the dusty black fedora from his shaggy head and with scissors and comb trimmed his long black and grey streaked hair and beard. I liked the squeak and rattle of the chain over the sprocket at the well and as Pop lathered up a shaving brush with Ivory soap in a soup bowl, I’d pull up water to fill a blue speckled porcelain enameled steel basin with water. Steaming towels wrapped Papaw’s face as Pop honed the edge of his straight razor on a big leather strop. The final sharpness test was a quick flick of the wrist that severed a single hair held between thumb and forefinger. Towels removed, whiskers lathered, my grandfather carefully tilted Papaw’s chin upward and went to work with his razor. It was a delicate operation that took less than five minutes all performed with silent concentration in an atmosphere of nearly religious tenor.
Hair tonic, a splash of Old Spice and a brief inspection with a silver plated hand mirror finalized the ritual and Papaw pulled the sheet from his shirt collar, stood up and placed the black fedora back on his huge head. He reached into the back pocket of his overalls pulled out a half pint of bourbon, took a draw and we all went into the kitchen filled our plates and came back outside to stuff our faces with chicken, potato salad, cold slaw and iced tea. We stayed until the end of the race broadcast and then as we prepared to leave, Papaw reached into the right front pocket of his overalls, pull out a huge roll of cash wrapped in a rubber band, peeled back the twenties, tens and fives, and presented each of his five great grandchildren with a one dollar bill.
Back at Pop’s place, I found Mom sitting on the back porch alone softly crying into her apron. Sensing that she needed some kind of company, I sat next to her and asked her what was wrong. She wiped her eyes and pulled herself together. “Nothing, really,” she said, “It’s just that every time we go over there I have bad memories. I can’t help but hate that old man. He was always scheming, and finagling with his drinking, guns and gambling, and always in trouble with the law. He ruined your great uncle Harrison, and I thank God Pop didn’t take after him. They finally sent him to prison for fooling around with some teenage tramp, and every time I see him I remember the afternoon when I was about your age. A bunch of men showed up and pulled every stick of furniture out of the house while me and your Grandma cried our eyes out. You’d think that kind of thing would make a man change his ways, but he never did. Seeing him pull that all money out and give you kids a dollar - that just made me want to cry! That’s the kind of thing he’d do with us -always thinking he could buy love.”
One night in 1958 Papaw pretty much died the way he lived, alone from a broken neck at the bottom of the cellar stairs, with his black fedora and a ten gauge single barrel shotgun at his side, a roll of cash and a half pint of whiskey in the pockets of his overalls.
I know practically nothing about Pop’s older brother Harrison except that according to the headstone over his grave, he was born in 1889 and died in 1954. That would make me four or five years old at the time of his funeral, which we probably attended. I probably met the man at least once and I think there may be photographs of him in the family albums but I couldn’t point him out to anyone. My recollection is that he looked a lot like Pop, but that he was taller.
I never knew the man but have vague recollections that he was an alcoholic ne’r-do-well who followed in Papaw’s footsteps and died drunk as he was walking home on a cold winter’s night passed out in a ditch by the side of the road. All that remains of him is his headstone and a rusty single shot .22 rifle that my brother Bill inherited and lost to local thieves a couple of years ago. They took Papaw's ten gauge too. Helluva a legacy for two men whose lives spanned the 19th and 20th Centuries, headstones and stolen guns - I suppose that’s why I’m writing this today.
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