Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Grandma's Story

'Grandmas hold our tiny hands for just a little while… but our hearts forever.' -unknown

I sat on my porch before dawn yesterday morning rocking, relaxing 
and enjoying my first cup of coffee. The woods around me clothed me in privacy and all was silent except for the sound of a slight breeze rustling the pines in symphony with the gurgling creek. I was reminded once again how blessed I am to be planted here in my hollow. 

As usual, the faint light from the window behind me cast halo shadows on two very precious items that take me back to a time of innocence and pain as they churn up their memories and serve them to me in silence. 

This old churn and butter mold had been handed down to my mama from her mother. I had been the one to inherit them upon my mother’s death due to the memories my sister knew I attached to them.

My mother’s mama, my Grandma Minnie Lethcoe, had a huge impact on my life as a young child; memories of her are as tendrils still clinging to smells, sights and sounds of an old country kitchen from decades ago.

I was a scrawny little blonde of nearly five when we moved our family of six into our ‘new’ home at 1314 Pennsylvania Avenue, Ext. in Bristol, TN. This older white framed house on a dead end street was a two bedroom, one bath home with a tiny kitchen, den and living room. The living room was for guests. 

Unfortunately, in its dirt basement it also housed a terrifying metal monster with gigantic arms that reached out to every area beneath the house and it breathed fire and brimstone, leaving me no place to hide from its grasp.

As I grew older, that monster became an even more sinister enemy. There was no way to escape the dirty light soot it spit on me and my siblings as we huddled over floor registers every morning to thaw out before school after my brothers had feed it its morning meal of coal.

After settling into this new neighborhood and autumn rolled around, my two older brothers and sister had to register in their new school, Central Elementary. Debbie and Dennis, the twins, were now six and that meant they were starting first grade. The oldest, Jackie, would be a fourth grader. Sandy had not yet been born so I was the only kid left alone at home as kindergarten was not yet a concept.

My dad left for work every morning but so did my mama. She cleaned homes for some of the more prominent folks in town. Where we lived in Pickel Holler prior to moving to our current address, there were a bevy of relatives who watched us kids. Alas, the problem now… what to do with me.

A few of the people Mama cleaned for said it would be fine for her to bring me along while she cleaned  and she did. It was at that tender age I was first exposed to the behavioral sciences and their various approaches.

To this day I remember the emotions I felt about the way my mama was treated by each family she cleaned for. There were situations where I would be overwhelmed with sadness and tear-filled eyes, feeling powerless to help her in her plight as a particular ‘lady of the house’ emotionally abused her with harsh words and excessive demands such as, "I want that bathroom toilet scrubbed with this toothbrush, Mary!"

Going to clean houses was but one option regarding where to leave me during the day while she worked. The other was my favorite! I would be dropped off at my Grandma Minnie’s to spend the day and when I arrived, she would wrap me in her arms, always smelling like her kitchen.

Now you need to understand, Grandma was not a "let’s start with playing jack rocks, sweetheart" kind of woman. In fact, I never remember once playing children’s games with her. Time with her was spent in a much deeper, more substantive way.

Once there, Grandma would take me by the hand and we would go to the corn crib and pull out ears of dried corn and shuck off the rough kernels to drop in the pan she brought. Then this feed would be taken down to the chicken pen to be scattered among the chickens. I so loved to stand there and watch them peck, peck, peck, laughing hysterically when they pecked each other on the head.

Next, we would get the pail with all the leftover scraps from the meals of the day before, mix that with some kind of grainy stuff and take it to the pig pen to dump in the trough. The two huge hogs wallowing there were very scary to me as they seemed to be mad all the time.

Grandma told me they were to be slaughtered for food; I told her I did not care, they were mean, muddy and smelled pukey. We would not eat the bunny rabbits would we, Grandma? No, she would smile and stroke my head gently. 

We would then stop for a few minutes and watch Grandpa Hunter, a kind and soft-spoken soul as well, as he plowed up the large field with Old Mader pulling the tiller in preparation for his tobacco and corn planting.


Then came my favorite time of the day. Grandma and I would return to her kitchen and she would tie one of her aprons around my waist, letting it fall to my feet. She would stand me up on a chair alongside where she would be standing and the magic began. Every experience brought something different, something delicious. This particular day it was to teach me how to make her size-of-a-saucer homemade biscuits.

Her kitchen table was huge, solid wood and worn in the places where she prepared most of her food. The 'chopping' end had tiny knife pocks in the wood. The end of the table where biscuits were made was especially smooth and slightly hollowed in the shape of a large round of dough that had been beaten in with her fists on that table God only knew how many times.

 In preparation for biscuit making, first Grandma and I had to walk out to the spring house to get buttermilk, butter, strawberry jam and milk. The springhouse was near the main house and was a small building cut into the side of a hill so only the front part of the small house was exposed. A small doorway gave entrance and you had to bend over if you were big people. Once inside, it was very, very cool.

This little house was built on top of a cold water spring and there were large smooth stones set around the cold pool of water in the middle. On these stones sat a crock of butter, cold jams and jellies, large glass containers of milk and buttermilk from the cow; bacon, sausage, hams and hocks from the pigs; and eggs from those pecking chickens.  

As I looked around with my grandma, I recognized the items I had been a part of placing there. She had taught me how to pour raw milk into her churn from the cow we'd milked and then we'd lift the staff and plunge it up and down, up and down, up and down. That would cause butter to rise to the top. 

Then that butter would be scooped up and she helped me put it in a cloth and we would squeeze it ‘til there was no liquid left. We would then stuff it tight into that butter mold and carry it to the springhouse to turn firm. When it was done and we turned it out on a plate, it had a flower from the mold on top of it!

I also helped Grandma steal the chicken’s eggs from them. I gathered apples from the ground while grandma picked from the trees so we could peel and cook them with sugar and cinnamon and then pour them into jars. We picked strawberries from her berry patch, one for for the basket...another for me... and delicious jam was made.

This day the buttermilk, butter, milk and strawberry jam were gathered, we settled back in the kitchen and the big wooden mixing bowl was set out. First, a whole bunch of flour was dumped into that bowl and then a pinch of salt, a large lump of white stuff she called lard. This was followed by a splash of melted butter. A great big wooden spoon stirred all this together and then we finally filled grandma's favorite tin cup with cold buttermilk and more mixing.

Another handful of flour went scattering out over that table top and the sticky mess was dumped in the middle. Then grandma’s hands were flying so fast over that huge ball I could hardly see them. To this day I love the sound and sight of dough 'being worked' on a floured table. After she got control of it and most of the stickiness out, she told me to grab hold; I needed to knead it, she said.

The old oven door of the wood burning stove was popped open and the pre-heated pan drawn out. A quick lard coating of that pan, the biscuit shaped dough plopped on and then back inside that roaring fire heat.

Then came the part Grandma and I loved best. We sat at her kitchen table with the big platter of homemade biscuits, country butter and strawberry jam between us with large glasses of cold milk. We ate and laughed and talked about things that were especially important to a really old lady and a tiny blonde kid.

Of all the giggling and telling of tales that day, there was one thing this woman I loved so much failed to share with me.
She was dying.
My mama began to stay with me during my special time with my Grandma Minnie. Then eventually my grandma took to her bed and she never rose from it again. My mama fed, bathed and continually cried over her mama while I wandered aimlessly around the farm.

Mama then began to bring all us kids down to grandma and grandpa's every weekend. Mama's sisters and brothers and our cousins all came as well. Grandma's adult children all gathered in grandma's room and we kids romped and played outside in the tobacco barn and scattered over the cornfields, clueless of the 'death watch' taking place inside the old weathered house where grandma lay.
I had finally turned six and would be starting first grade soon. I knew my days of staying with my grandma during the school days would then be over.
I just hadn't internalized my days with my grandma would soon be over forever.

This gentle and wonderful woman died not long afterwards, after much agony from cervical cancer. She was prepared for burial and brought in her casket to our little home on Pennsylvania Avenue and set to rest in our living room used only for guests. I have no memory of crying. I do remember someone putting a tall stool beside her open casket for the kids to climb up on and sit. I did, staring at her, emotionless. And my mind is blank from then on regarding her funeral and the aftermath. 
It has been said that Grandmas hold our tiny hands for just a little while… but our hearts forever.

I will always cherish our churn and butter mold, Grandma...and my memories of our time together are as slender tendrils clinging to those smells, sights and sounds of your wonderful old country kitchen from decades ago.


  1. This took me back to my own memories, bringing the sights, sounds, tastes and feelings to the surface once again where I could recall them. Thanks for this beautiful story, Linda!!

  2. Thank you Brandy and Linda for the lovely comments. Much appreciated. :-)