Not sure I can isolate my first memory of my grandparents. I can say all the memories I have of them bring a warmth to my heart that can only be described as… well, I’m not sure there is a word that can describe it. Any bad memory I have, that is associated with my grandparents, stem from my own actions; certainly not theirs. I am ashamed to admit I lost the opportunity to create memories with them on a regular basis. As I got older (by “older” I refer to the expanse of my teen years) I thought time spent with them was a waste and better spent doing childish things. It did not become clear to me how wrong I was until much later and sadly after they had left this life. There was so very much I could have learned from them had I been mature enough to realize what stood before me.
As a child my Mother would take us to visit her parents on a regular basis—often times spending the whole weekend with them. Also, during the summer, each of us would stay a week alone with them. During all of those visits I do not remember my grandparents saying anything bad about anyone. My grandmother’s favorite saying (or at least I believe it was her favorite) was, “If you can’t say anything good about someone then don’t say anything at all.” I can remember only one time when my grandmother was angry with me and she had every right to be angry—maybe more on that. Or maybe not as I am still ashamed of what I did.
My grandparents were in constant motion. My grandmother had a small garden in the front yard and if she was not in the kitchen canning fruit or in the living room sewing she was in that garden. My grandfather was the same way. I do not recall how many acres he had, but he worked them all daily and did so with an old tractor. He had cows to milk and pigs to tend to and more chickens than one child could count—I tried a number of times but could never get them to line up properly.
I recall a batch of piglets my grandma had and assume they were a litter from one of the sows in the large pig pen behind the house. I do not recall how many there were but do recall at night they would wake me up as their tiny feet pattered across the wood floor to get closer to the heat stove in the living room—yes, she kept them in the house due to the harsh winter cold of the midwest.
On one particular morning I walked from the living room toward the kitchen and saw grandma carrying one of the piglets out and it was obvious to me the pig had died during the night. I asked her, “Is it dead?” She nodded her head and said “yes.” I recall feeling bad for the little pig but do not recall it making me feel so bad that I cried—not sure how old I was, but I was quite young. The cold hard facts did not become clear to me until much later in life as I recalled that incident. The death of that little pig probably equated to a month’s worth of income. Certainly had that pig lived then life that year would have been at least a bit better. Life on that farm was hard I’m sure.
I think my grandfather tolerated me as I followed him around the farm—watching and wanting to help. I’m sure I was more trouble than I was worth. I recall helping him replace a corner post on the fence that surrounded my grandmother’s garden. I don’t recall who, but someone backed into it then sped off. Actually, I think I do remember, I just don’t want to throw anyone under the bus. I helped him set it up straight and recall pounding in the nails to get the pig fence back in an acceptably secure position. That memory stuck with me for a long time. All the while thinking I had been a big help that day. Many years later, perhaps in the late ‘90s I was driving down Route 121 between Sullivan and Bethany and decided to stop by the old property. Of course the house, shed and barns were long since gone. I walked around a bit and reminisced and envisioned where the shed was, how the house was angled on the property and where the barns were. I tried to find the fresh water spring that seeped from the side of the hill that was a perpetual supply of fresh water for the horse trough—but I never found it. I also plotted where grandma’s garden had been. It was then I spied the remnants of a broken down old pig fence and there, in the corner of that remembered piece of ground, was a post laying on its side. I walked over and picked it up and saw an assortment of old nails half pounded in and all crooked—so much for being a great help that day. With my mind’s eye I envisioned the look on my grandfather’s face as I pounded those nails in. I’m sure he was amused and in fact I was amused with what my mind conjured up as the expression on his face. I dislodged the post from the rusted remnants of the pig fence and threw it in the trunk of my car. That post still holds a prominent space at my house. As a continued to walk around the property I found an old rusted horse shoe—which resides today with that post.
I recall waking up early one morning and seeing my grandfather sitting in his chair—but will hold onto that memory for a bit. Perhaps I will divulge that memory later, but more likely than not if you want to hear this particular memory you’ll have to read my book, “Solitary—Without the Confinement.” I also recall the 6:00am train that woke us up almost every morning with the smell of coal. Even today when I smell coal burning I feel a sense of security and safe haven; as if nothing can harm me.
When privileged enough to spend the week with them during the summer I recall going with my grandmother to the market. Someone would come by and pick us up because grandma didn’t drive. We would hit the grocery store then the meat market and maybe one or two other shops—this was before the days of the Super-Wal-Mart. I knew, before we headed home, we would stop and she would buy me an ice-cream cone. Again, it did not dawn on me until much later that she could not afford to buy me an ice-cream cone, but she did anyway.
I recall two oval pictures hanging in the living room and I believe they were of my grandfather’s parents. I often wonder what happened to those pictures. I do have a picture that I believe is a portrait of either my grandmother’s parents or perhaps my grandfather’s; not sure which. Who we are, at least in part, is molded by those who pass before us. By their actions my grandparents tried to show me the right way to live my life. I thank them for that and one of my regrets is I did not thank them in person when I had the chance.
The more I think on this the more recollections break free of my obscured memory. Memories of my grandparents filter through my mind like a mist. Some memories are very clear and others are faint and hard to discern. I suspect some memories are patched together based on multiple memories mixed together. My grandparent’s farm was a perfect example of a menagerie and included pigs, horses, cows, dogs, cats, chickens and pretty much any other animal that might be associated with a farm.
As children we would go to the pasture and stand on the end of the wagon and wait. After a bit ol’ Red would wonder by and stop at the end of the wagon and let one of us climb on. Red would walk around the pasture once or twice then return to the corner of the wagon to let the next child ride. Red would continue to do this as long as there was a kid waiting on the corner of the wagon.
I recall a particularly rainy Saturday afternoon when grandpa led one of his ponies into the enclosed front entry of the house. Of course we kids were ecstatic about having a horse in the house but grandma was not amused. Exasperated or not grandma allowed it because it brought such joy to the grandkids. Grandma may have given grandpa an ear full after we left but I really doubt that happened. I think grandpa enjoyed the fact that he excited the grandkids and I suspect grandma felt the same way.
As a very small child I was climbing around on an old rusted combine in the pasture. I suspect in my mind I was scaling a large mountain trying to reach the cold rigid peak. Being so enthralled with my adventure I did not see the multitude of cows who decided to congregate around the base of the combine. As a small child I was rather frightened of cows—I saw them as mean animals. Sometime prior to this I saw one of the cows in the barn step back and squash the head of a small feral cat … that head was squashed as flat as a penny. The cow could not have cared less about that poor little cat or the artistic design of a flattened kitty-cat head. If a cow could squash the head of a cat then go about eating as if nothing was wrong it made perfect sense to me that a cow would take great pleasure in squashing my little head. Long story short—I was afraid to come down from the combine. I’m not real sure, but I think I may have conjured up enough courage to pee on one of them from my secure position—I might have made that part up but my memory tells me it happened. I do not recall the exact amount of time but memory tells me I spent three or four days up on that combine waiting for those cows to leave. Perhaps my memory is not all that clear about this particular bit of the story—might have been up there for an hour or so before grandpa saw my predicament and climbed the great mountain to rescue me.
Pigs and chickens were a different story. We would chase the chickens and try to ride the pigs—emphasis on try. We would stand on the fence and wait for a pig to venture into our trap and once they were close enough we would jump off the fence, pounce onto the back of the unfortunate pig, and ride it for as long as we could. I do not think we ever reached the rumored eight second requirement prevalent in rodeos, but we tried many, many times. Grandpa would stand by the fence, gesture with his hand and shout, “you darn fool kids are gonna break your neck” but laugh out loud and pound on the fence as he watched the mayhem.
I recall grandpa hitching up the wagon to the horse and allow us to lead the horse around just like those cowboys on TV. I do not believe we ever got the talent of leading a horse to any level of efficiency. In fact I recall my youngest brother Tim being flipped out the right side of the wagon as the wagon wheel hit a large tractor tire at the edge of the lane. Not sure which one of us got a spanking over that one but I suspect someone did and it would be anyone’s guess if the recipient of the administered punishment was actually the one steering the wagon. I guess, if the truth were told, we all got a quick swat after which we all scurried off to enter into other forms of mischief.
My grandpa’s skill at ringing the neck of a chicken was legendary in the region. He would reach down, snatch up a chicken, and in less than two shakes of his hand the chicken was dancing headless on the ground—that chicken didn’t see it coming. On the flip side of that story we see me chasing a chicken for what seemed like hours and once I had one in my grip I would shake that poor chicken by the head like a mad man putting out a fire. The chicken would always get away and run off never knowing what it had done to deserve such treatment. I’m sure my attempts at imitating Colonel Sanders were an amusement to both grandma and grandpa.
My grandma or my mom would take the headless body of the chicken—the product of my grandfather’s execution—and dip it into boiling water. It was the job of any adolesent in the area to pluck all the feathers and get the convicted chicken ready for dismemberment. Execute a defenseless chicken, watch it dance headless until all the blood spurted out, dunk it in scalding water, pluck the poor thing of its feathers, hack and dismember it into pieces and … well, what better way to get ready for a nice Sunday afternoon family dinner.
A little ways down the road was a creek that winded its way east and west through their farm. I’m sure it has a name but it eludes me. It had on old rickety bridge that announced anyone approaching from the north. I would go there to skip stones and try my hand at cane pole fishing—I don’t think I ever caught anything. Back then a child could wander around the country side and not have to worry about that car approaching. The occupants of the car were likely gracious and wonderful people just like my grandparents.
On farther down the road and west a mile or so was an old cemetery—Mitchell Cemetery I think it was called. I found wonder in looking at the old stones and trying to make out the dates. Many of the stones marked the passing of people over a hundred years prior. I wondered who they were at the time but lacking the ability at that young age I did not ponder who they were. All those people buried there were sons, daughters, parents and probably grandparents as well. Perhaps in a hundred years or so some child will stumble across the Oak Grove Cemetery and wonder who those two were with the stone depicting a white and black horse pulling a plow. I’m here to tell you they were wonderful people who toiled through life to sustain their family. They suffered loss and basked in the joy of God’s grace. They felt the pride as well as the sorrow of sending a son to fight a war in Europe and thanked God for his return—a war hero in the eyes of many. Who raised their children during the depression of the ‘30s and lived the life of a grandparent—a grandparent any grandchild would be honored to love.