10:00 p.m.and I still had homework left in English for the next day. Sitting in Grandma Eller’s bed, propped up on what had been her pillows, fatigue prevented me from comprehending anything I read, and all I could think of was the alarm clock that would shake me awake at 4:30 the next morning with its loud clanging. I needed to rest, and I needed to sleep, but I also needed to complete my homework.
By 10:30, I knew I would never get all the reading finished. I had never gone to school without my homework finished, but the next morning would disprove that fact. I would have to do something else I had never done the next morning; I would have to beg for an extension on the reading and the critique that went with it. I put the book away, turned off the light, and collapsed into the warmth of Grandma Eller’s bed.
At 14, I was a freshman at Northwest Ashe High School and was just about half way through the six weeks that Maw and Paw would need for me to live with them. Maw had had cataract surgery all the way over in Johnson City, TN just about three weeks before and had lived going from the bed to the couch and from the couch to the bed ever since. In those days, cataract surgery was not the neat procedure it is now, and complete bed rest was required to avoid complications and heal appropriately. There were no home health nurses and no housekeepers. That’s not the way things worked in the mountains. Here, we took care of our own. I knew I had been entrusted with a tradition of care and love. But even trying to fill one of Mom’s shoes was hard, and I was so tired.
All these things tormented my dreams, and before I even realized I had slept, the alarm rang out. It was 4:30 already. I wiped the sleep out of my eyes, threw the heavy covers back, and dropped my feet down to the cold floor. I dressed for school, put on an old sweater, and headed toward the kitchen where the light shone from around the corner and into the darkness of the living room. I took time to stop to turn on the oil stove. It was in the lower 20s outside and didn’t feel a whole lot warmer inside. Paw wouldn’t even talk about leaving any heat on overnight. Paw was so tight he squeaked when he walked!
Music from the radio greeted me as I entered the kitchen, and I saw Paw sitting on the red stool in the corner between the stove and the cabinets. Already dressed in a flannel shirt and overalls, his only acknowledgment of me was a wide grin and a nod of his head. I slipped one of Maw’s aprons over my head and got started on the huge breakfast that Paw ate every morning. I had gotten faster and faster at preparing it, but it still took me a while. After setting the table, I put some coffee on to perk, turned on the oven, poured milk for the gravy in a bowl, and got some sausage going in the cast iron skillet before starting to make out enough biscuits for our breakfast with some left over for Maw and Paw’s dinner.
By the time I popped the biscuits in the hot oven, the homemade sausage was done. I left one piece in the skillet and put the rest on a plate and set it towards the back of the stove where it would stay warm. I mashed up the piece of sausage in the skillet, added just a pinch of salt and a big spoonful of flour. I stirred this mixture until it was brown and bubbly, then poured in the milk. As I gently stirred the gravy, I peeped in on the biscuits. They were not yet brown. The gravy began to thicken as Paw looked on intently. While the biscuits continued to bake, I took out another skillet and spooned a little grease from the grease can into it, then broke four eggs in it to scramble, By the time the eggs were finished, the crusty biscuits were ready to come out of the oven.
I looked at the clock. It had taken only 25 minutes to get breakfast on the table this morning. I was pretty pleased with myself. Paw moved from the red stool to his chair at the head of the table. By the time I had a plate ready for Maw, he had filled his plate with two pieces of sausage, two biscuits with gravy, and about half of the scrambled eggs. He added some homemade strawberry preserves for good measure before digging into his food. I made a much smaller plate for myself and sat down at the other end of the red speckled formica covered kitchen table. By the time I had taken my first bite, Paw had moved on to a large bowl of Cornflakes covered with transparent applesauce, some sugar, and some cream. He took another biscuit to eat with it.
We both finished up, and Paw stood up, saying, “That was mighty good, young’un.” And with that, he disappeared out in the dark to go milk the cows. Normally, Maw helped, too, but I didn’t have time to take her place out there in the morning. I cleared the table and washed the dishes. It was time to move on to the rest of the house.
Maw “went over” the house every morning, so I did, too. I started by making both beds. Next, I swept all the floors in the house, then went over them again with the dust mop to pick up any remaining dust. Maw talked to me from the couch as I worked reminding me to go around the baseboards and into the corners. With that done, I got out the dust rag and dusted all the furniture in the lived-in rooms.
6:00 came, and so did Paw, carrying two big buckets full of milk. I met him outside and took them from him. He would go back for a third one while I prepared the milk strainer and then knocked the lid off the milk can. We took extra care straining the milk so that nothing but milk would flow down into the milk can. When you sell milk, you sure don’t want any stray specks of anything in it. I saved back enough milk for us and Mom, Dad, and Libby to have to drink and cook with. Once all three buckets had been strained, I put the lid back on the milk can, and Paw carried it across the road and sunk it down into the cold water of the branch that ran just down the hill a bit. I took what was left inside and strained it into two half gallon jars that then went directly into the refrigerator. Finally, I washed the strainer and buckets really well and put them up until that evening when we would milk the cows again.
6:45 and almost done. I stripped off Maw’s apron, shed the tattered sweater, and made a beeline to the bathroom to brush my teeth. Finally, I put on my coat, scooped up my school things, checked on Maw one last time, then hit out the door to go to the foot of the yard where I would catch the bus. It was 6:55. Five more minutes passed, and I stepped on the bus.
I found concentrating on any of my classes difficult until I finally got to English class. I raced to the classroom from my previous class and cornered my teacher as the other kids dribbled in one or two at a time. Even though I had perfectly valid reasons for asking for the extension on my assignment, I still felt like I was making excuses when I talked with her. I should have known better than to be anxious, though, since my English teacher was one of the best teachers I had ever had. She knew my work, and I had never asked for an extension before. She readily granted my request, and I felt my anxiety melt away. Things would be okay now. I could catch up over the weekend, and I would be able to take care of Maw and Paw and still keep my grades up.
The rest of the day flew by, and before I knew it, the bus had delivered me back to Maw and Paw’s house. Paw and I would milk the cows, and I would scrounge something up for supper. With the dishes washed, dried, and put away, lights would go off in the kitchen until Paw got up the next morning to sit on the red stool and listen to the radio. I would put drops in Maw’s eyes, and they would watch the news and game shows while I read. We would all head to bed by 8:00-8:30. Maw and Paw would go to sleep, but I would prop myself up in Grandma Eller’s bed and work on homework until I couldn’t hold my eyes open any longer. 4:30 would come awfully early the next morning.