The only grandparents I knew were Daddy’s and their farm was about a mile south of ours in Montgomery County, Tennessee, about sixty miles northwest of Nashville. Pappy and Mammy, as we called them, had seven children and Daddy was the baby of the family. Pappy was widely loved and respected and served for many years as the superintendent of Sunday school at Shiloh Cumberland Presbyterian Church, where we attended.
Their house was on the southern edge of a wide creek bottom, with their front porch facing a limestone bluff with a cemetery at the top and another large, beautiful hill to the east of the cemetery. Beneath their long back porch facing the creek was the beginning of a small swampy area leading to a shallow pond. Clumps of cattails grew in this water, and the muddy area between the house and the pond was dotted with circular mounds of little mud balls made by the burrowing of crawdaddys, or crawfish, or crayfish. In dry weather I liked to walk among those crawdad holes, but I never wanted to eat those little critters. None of our family did. (People in Louisiana won’t believe this!)
Pappy was noted for frugality, efficiency, and neatness. He saved everything of any potential value. When I was about eight years old, in Pappy ‘s waning years, I explored an old tool shed that sat in a patch of dried weeds by the one-lane dirt road that led to my grandparents’ house. In it I found an abandoned forge. The shed was filled with sorted piles of scrap metal, cut-up tree branches grouped by size from a few inches in diameter down to the smallest tips of branches. Every pile was neat and ordered from large to small diameters.
An approximately three by six foot shelf was covered with Maxwell House coffee cans, all punctured in the bottom to let blowing rain and melting snow drain out. Each can contained different sizes of old rusty and bent nails that had been pulled out of bygone buildings and fence posts, miscellaneous bolts and nuts, machine and wood screws, and little bundles of small wire of various gauges. It was easy to see that Pappy thought all of this stuff may come in handy someday, and some of it no doubt did.
Mammy was not religious from all indications that I saw. She was a snuff dipper with definite opinions. Electricity and TVs came to our area in the late 1940s and early 1950s. When the NBC News program “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley came on in the mid 1950s and they would look straight into the camera, she would tug on her long dress and pull it tightly around her ankles. When I asked her why she did that, she said over the snuff in her lower lip,
“I’m not going to let them look up my dress!”
Another behavior of Mammy’s left a clear memory of her sitting in front of their fireplace in the cool months. She sat directly in front of the fireplace, about ten feet from the roaring coal-fueled fire, in a high-backed wooden rocker and rocked gently and steadily. As she talked the tobacco juice from the snuff built up and she began to rock in longer arcs. When it came time to spit out the juice, she rocked at full arc and spit a fine stream directly in the center of the fire on the forward rock. Sparks flew up with a sizzle as she then resumed her normal, slower rocking. She did this so reliably and accurately that she must have had many years of practice at it.
Family gatherings at their house were something to behold when aunts, uncles, and cousins assembled for feasts and stories from the land. Before I started to school, I liked to sit in Pappy’s lap and brush his silver, thinning hair when he sat in his rocker on the front porch. He apparently enjoyed it as much as I did because I was allowed to do that quite often. He was always calm and thoughtful. I never saw him get mad or heard him raise his voice.
But after I grew up Daddy told me about “Old Dr. Brake,” a country doctor with a full, white beard who made rounds with a horse and buggy early in the twentieth century. Daddy always used the word “old” when he mentioned Dr. Brake. He told Daddy something about Pappy that was meant figuratively, not literally—as I understood the meaning of the story. He said, apparently with a lot of admiration and respect,
“Your father is a fine and gentle man, but if you cross him he will kick your ass.”
Mother’s parents died before I was born. They produced three children, and Mother was the baby. She had a number of half brothers and sisters from her father’s first marriage, so I had an abundance of cousins that tended to scatter more widely than my cousins from Daddy’s side of the family, partly because there were so many more of them. Mother’s father farmed and worked for a number of years in a sawmill until he suffered a crippling injury there and was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. An older distant cousin recently told me at a funeral visitation that this resulted in people referring to him as “Cripple Bob,” but it is unclear if anyone ever called him that to his face.
Daddy often spoke of Mother’s mother with admiration, and he obviously liked her. He talked about how smart she was, that she was always thinking about something in a way that I later interpreted as an intellectual bent. She was an avid reader with a penetrating gaze and a quick wit. Daddy recounted a time at her house when a mouse scampered across the living room floor. He said to no one in particular,
“I wonder where that mouse’s hole is.”
My grandmother reportedly said, without looking up from the book she was reading,
“Under his tail!”
Now my grandparents and parents are gone. But as I reflect on what I knew and heard about my colorful grandparents, I can see a number of their characteristics that I knew in my parents. I can even see some of them in myself, such as the way I keep and sort dozens of tools and countless pieces of miscellaneous hardware in our garage. Like Pappy, I have no way of knowing what I’ll need from there next, so I save it all just in case.