It often seems in the busy lives we live now, we lose connections with the past memories, sometimes present memories, and even our whole connection to neighbors and community. I found myself in just such a state last October when I took the kids out for some hurried Halloween treating in our neighborhood, the neighborhood where I have lived my whole life. I drove across a bridge over Helton Creek and beyond the tall tress that grew beside it and there I was back in time, back to my childhood.
Ahead of me, there was something I had not thought of in years or really even noticed. There were people I am ashamed to say that I had not thought of in years. There was Grandma’s house. The house was more worn and distressed, but I was happy to see it still stood. Not my grandma either, but the grandma of my childhood best friend. Both her grandmother and mine it seemed, their grandmotherly titles seemed more a name than a title. It was what everyone called them. Luckily, her grandmother was called Grandma and mine was called Granny, so there was no confusion there. We didn’t know, my friend and I, that our grandmothers were really first cousins. I guess we must have been too young to realize that in mountain communities it seems everyone is kin. All I knew was I was 8 years old and I had made a best friend, whose grandmother only lived a mile from my house. A mile was well within walking distance for me.
My excitement died down somewhat when I discovered the two choices I had in getting to Grandma’s house. One way was to walk, by myself, through the fields from my house and around a hill. This would have been a big adventure except in the fields a long the way there lived a bull. He was a big and cantankerous bull too. He always seemed to know if I was on my way to Grandma’s and here he came to push against the wire on the fence. He had to show off what a bull he was and do a little stamping and pawing at the ground. Head, rared back his big mouth then opened to begin his bellowing cry. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with a bellowing bull, but let me tell you that when you are eight years old and there is only a few pieces of rusty wire between you and an angry critter, that begins his noisy tirade with a low growl that reaches operatic proportions in height and longevity, it is a scary sound.
My mom always gave me useless advice on what to do. “If the bull pushes through the wire, you run fast as you can to try to get over the fence somewhere else.” I didn’t tell her I just plain old ran whenever I saw the bull. I usually ended up running through part of the swamp and was covered in nettles. The nettles took an hour to pick off my clothes, but I always blamed it on inattention, instead of a fear of battling the bull. I never told my mom about my fear, but sometimes I thought she suspected.
The other way I had of getting to Grandma’s sounds more promising, but was to me almost worse. I could walk by road for about a mile, but then I had to cross Helton Creek, which seemed a long crossing, using a swinging bridge. This was my first and last dealings with a swinging bridge and not just any swinging bridge either. This bridge was not much over a foot wide and in some places several boards were missing. I would look down through those holes and see the rocky creek below. There were no hand rails on either side and this wasn’t just a swinging bridge, it was a jumping, twisting, dancing contraption.
To me it seemed less of a bridge than an obstacle course whose soul purpose was to throw you in the creek below and your object was to stop it in some way. So I discovered that not only was I afraid of bulls, but I was also terrified of swinging bridges and heights. My trips across the bridge usually consisted of my father taking my hands and pulling me across kicking and screaming. In the middle of the walk I would pull back and scream, No!! I can’t do it!! I’m going to fall!!” A few times I almost begged them to just leave me at Grandma’s house. I could stay there forever and never leave the place. It would be alright. The whole situation wasn’t good for the pride of a cocky little girl trying to show how independent she was.
You would think with the difficulties of getting to Grandma’s house I wouldn’t want to go, but I loved it and went every chance I got. I remember my first visit and being a little nervous as I didn’t know any of the family. Grandma dressed in her flowered dress and obligatory apron had her wood cook stove going and I could see the chicken in the big cast iron skillets turning a crispy brown. Memories of that wonderful aroma can still make my mouth water.
It was that day that I observed some things that I grew to love at Grandma’s. First off, in watching Grandma cook, she had the very first Hoosier type cabinet that I had ever seen. At the time I was entering my biscuit making phase and this seemed to me the most amazing thing I had ever seen. At home, I often had the job of sifting the flour, but this cabinet had a bin to store the flour and a giant sieve was hooked onto it, so you could do the whole job without using a hand sieve. Then there was a dough board that pulled out in front to roll your dough on. Then you cleaned the board and pushed it right back under the top. All the mess cleaned up in seconds. I decided right then and there that the cabinet would be the first piece of furniture I bought when I stared purchasing my grown up stuff.
Then Grandma had a floor that I had seen one like in other houses and I really wanted one in my house. I asked my parents about getting one, but they just never answered. I don’t know if any of you remember the floors that were uneven, especially on one side it seemed. At age eight though these floors were a dream come true. You could lay down and roll down hill and then run back up hill, right in your own home. You could roll balls and cars down these hills and it was so much fun. You had a hill right inside your house. I thought they should be standard issue in all houses.
The final thing that I saw in Grandma’s house that I had never seen before, was a place me and my friend spent countless hours in when we were growing up. Right off from the kitchen you stepped into a spring house. A spring house right in your house. The floor and tub were made of cement and it was always cool in there. The best, cold water ever poured from a pipe in the tub and it ran continuously. There were no cries from the parents, “Get out of the water and don’t make a mess on the floor.” Apparently you could make a mess with this water. Often through the years, when my friend and I could scrape up a few pennies we would walk to the store below her house and get a few red hot, jaw breakers. These still exist today under the name of Atomic Fire Balls. Anyway, we would take our jaw breakers to the spring house room and get us a glass of cold water. That way if the jaw breaker got too hot we were prepared with endless water. I think we just like the atmosphere in there too while we giggled and gossiped.
As I stood that October night and looked at Grandma’s old house I was flooded by all these memories and more. I remember Grandma always working in her flower garden which was bigger than most people’s vegetable garden. I remember my friend and I mischievously, teasing Grandma by saying every time we saw her, “Well Grandma how are you and your boyfriend getting along?” And I remember Grandma never breaking stride and answering every time, “Well, we couldn’t be much better. We’re doing just as fine as frog hair and you know how fine that is. It is so fine you can’t even see it. Yes mams that is how fine that is.” Then we all shared a laugh as Grandma didn’t have a boyfriend.
As I am flooded by the memories, I find myself wishing that once again the biggest problem I had was whether to battle the bull or face the obstacle course bridge. That I could sit in the evening sun waiting for a scrumptious piece of fried chicken. That life was just as fine as frog hair. That I traveled more often back in my mind to those far away times when happiness seemed to reign supreme. Memories, spaces of time that contain gems from the past. Gems of love, of laughter of an innocence that we will not find again in this life. What would we do without memories?