Volume IX, No. 2, Winter 1981
WHEN GRANDMOTHER LIVED WITH US
by Loma L. Paulson
Grandmother was a woman of many moods and varied habits. Privations during the War Between the States made her a living storybook. So as children in the early part of the century, we eagerly awaited her stay with us.
Grandmother, like many widows before the advent of Social Security, shared her time with her children and their families. Living with eight different families would have confused a woman of less stability. But not Grandmother! She brought the love and memories of her own home in an enormous round top trunk which she brought into each household.
Grandmother came, as always, on the little black train that huffed and puffed through the Ozark mountains. As the train came to a stop, a pert little brake\-man hopped off, swinging a foot stool to the platform.
Grandmother, not to be hurried, appeared at her leisurely pace between the chair car and the smoker, carrying a soft black leather satchel which she entrusted to no one. Her black dress, over many petticoats, was amply covered by an apron, barely clearing the floor. Only the toes of her old lady's "easies" showed as she walked. Clutching a large gray shawl of the softest cashmere, she pushed back her bonnet of black sateen.
How different Grandmother looked in summer when she wore a dress of flowered calico and a white bonnet trimmed in real Irish lace. And never, in warmer weather, without her palm leaf fan! She would "as leave forget" her petticoats.
Pointing to the big gray trunk, Grandmother said, "Well, here's what I brought from what was left from my home." Neighbors helped Papa haul the trunk home and place it in the center of the living room. With delirious anticipation my brother, sister and I waited the opening of the trunk when Grandmother would no longer be a guest, but a member of the family.
After supper Papa glanced toward the trunk and asked, "Do you want it opened now?" Grandmother nodded and Papa untied the small ropes and carefully wound them in a ball. Next he pulled the stiff leather straps from brass buckles. Fishing the key from her hand satchel, Grandmother turned the key as she asked, "Now, what shall be first?"
"The pictures," we chorused, gathering around. Grandmother repeated the ceremony of unwrapping the pictures and samplers and hanging them on the wall over the bed in the living room where she was to sleep. We watched the first with the pungent fragrance of lavender sachet, then a baby shoe, a candy heart, a cigar box filled with cards and ribbons, a miniature red tin trunk full of trinkets and coins, Grandmother's clothes, quilts and pillows, the big family Bible and several books with brown, brittle flowers between the pages. Finally Grandmother said, "Now, there's only the patchwork quilt to look at another day."
Our way of life changed with Grandmother's coming. Now we children came tip-toe down the stairs lest we waken Grandmother who liked her morning sleep. If we found her sitting in her rocker, we said, "Good morning," and nothing more. She often gave little brother a big hug, but she did not talk until after ten o'clock.
Mama confided to me when I was older that Grandmother's morning mood was a little "pouting spell." And since Grandmother was sixty-five, we must never upset her routine. Grandmother could, however, change it at any time.
Her laundry day was a special time, as she entrusted her clothes to no one. With any decision, such as her laundry day, she always said, "If the Lord be willing."
This meant Papa got up early to draw tubs of water from the cistern. Little brother found the kindling to start a fire under the iron wash boiler placed on two large rocks. With two tubs of water and a pan of starch, Grandmother began. By noon the clothes lines were filled with fluffy petticoats, lace trimmed drawers and corset covers which Grandmother called "underbodies." Flowered calico dresses and aprons hung in the shade of trees lest the sun fade them.
On wash day, Grandmother expected a boiled dinner of hog jowl, potatoes, cabbage and a steaming pan of hot corn bread. However, wash day was not over until we children carried the wash water to the hogs' wallow.
Grandmother, because we were good helpers, promised a story. Clustered at her feet, we waited anxiously as Grandmother settled back in her rocking chair, took a clay pipe from a deep pocket in her shirt, filled it from a tiny cloth sack, and happily puffed billows of Old Durham over our heads. Spreading a patchwork quilt across her knees, she said, "My stories are like the things in the trunk--they're old."
Little Mary asked, "Where is the piece of Aunt Ella's alpaca cape with red roses?"
"What's alpaca?" I wanted to know. "Alpaca," Grandmother explained, "is wool cloth that works well with silk or cotton to make a fine piece of clothing"
Little Jim said, "Please tell about the Bald Knobber patch in the quilt."
"What's a Bald Knobber?" little Mary interrupted.
"These were brave men that banded together to catch outlaws that robbed the wagon train freight shipped from Fayetteville, Arkansas to Springfield, Missouri. And this is how it happened that here's a piece of a Bald Knobber's coat among the patches. Your grandpapa was plowin' in the cornfield and come to the house to tell thar's shootin' over the ridge. A band of Bald Knobbers went by like a streak of lightning. One of them lost his coat in the trail past the cabin. It was good blue serge and your grandpapa wore it a long time."
We all wanted to hear about the time Papa borrowed fire. "How can anybody borrow fire?" little Mary asked. Slowly Grandmother puffed on her pipe. "We moved from Arkansas to Taney County in Missouri, and there was no fire in the fireplace where we had to cook. Your papa was just a strip of a lad and mighty fast on his feet. So he took a little iron pot to a nearby cabin to borrow some live coals. I can almost see him now running through a clearing in the timber, those long legs leaping like a young deer."
Pushing her glasses up on her forehead, Grandmother said, "This was a hard time, but we could see a better day ahead. The war was over and the states could work together with no more slavery. It's good, children, that you remember what happened before your time."
We went to bed dreaming of Grandmother spending time with us. As she remembered, we knew we would learn more about our family heritage.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.