I have this memory from childhood
about a week my sisters and cousin and I spent at Grandmas one summer. The funny thing about this memory is I think it’s from several visits to Grandmas and my mind just compressed it into one week. Over the years I have told this story many times and like most stories told over and over it gets better every time. My sisters will probably read this and say that is not how it happened or I don’t remember doing that but it’s the way I remember it and it goes like this.
It was the summer of 1977 and we were spending a week with my Grandma. I was 8, Melissa 9, Leslie 4 and my cousin, Susan 7. We had stayed with my Grandma before so we knew what to expect. She lived in Rich Square, North Carolina in the old family home. Population today is under 1000. Originally the family home looked more like a barn when it was built in the mid 1700s and over the years it transformed into a classic antebellum home. The porch went from one end of the house to the other and wrapped around the turret-like corner down the side to the back of the house. There was a screened in porch on the back and an old garage with no door that smelled like rotting wood. We always went in and out of the back door, everyone did. There was a big old green freezer chest in the garage and that’s where Grandma kept the ice cream. The front door was a double door but small. My Grandma always had the doors open and the storm door closed to let the light in the foyer. The foyer was wide and long with a big pane glass door at the far end that lead to the back porch. The staircase wrapped around the curved wall and the upstairs foyer was just as grand as the downstairs foyer. The first room to the right when you walked in the house was the living room and that is where my Grandma spent most of her time. She rarely went upstairs. The first door on the left was the parlor. It had an old high back piano, a fireplace with a marble mantle and old creepy portraits that hung from wires around the room. You know the kind that follow you with their eyes. There was a rocking chair and a Victorian settee and small tables. On one of the tables sat a box with a Stereoscope Viewfinder and a bunch of vintage photographs. From the parlor you could enter the dining room or enter the dining room from the foyer or back porch. I can visualize gentlemen in their dinner jackets and ladies in their hoop skirts waiting in the parlor for dinner to be served. The dining room was a dark room. It had a fireplace with a marble mantle and a very long table that could seat at least 20 people. Well that’s the number I visualize. We always had dinner in the dining room but other meals we ate in the kitchen, the table was literally in the middle of the kitchen. Everything happened around the kitchen table. There was always something freshly baked sitting on the table, tins of sweet goodies and note pads and reminders and extra coffee cups in case there was a visitor, Grandmas romance novel, a jar of nuts and mail and shopping list, morning conversations and daily plans all centered around the kitchen table. The kitchen was like stepping back in time. There was an old gas stove and beside the stove was a built-in cupboard with glass doors. It went from floor to ceiling and the ceilings had to be at least 11 feet high, a step stool sat next to the cabinet door. The kitchen sink hung on the wall and was big and deep. On the far side of the kitchen was one of those Hoosier flour sifter cabinets. It was a creamy white enamel with a green counter top and had a bunch of cool drawers and gadgets. There was a desk against the wall when you walked in, this was my Grandmas command center. The old rotary phone was stationed here and a bunch of mail and notes piled on top. The ice box was a classic. The kind with the round top and big handle. I don’t think it had a freezer and maybe that is why she had the big green freezer chest in the garage.
A week with grandma was glorious
Lots of places to explore, lots of mischief to get into and lots of sweets to eat. The first night we would claim our rooms and our dress up outfits for the week. There was four spacious bedrooms upstairs, two on each side of the grand hallway and a big bathroom at the end of the hall. Two of the bedrooms had an adjoining door. There was the Blue Room, this was Grandma rooms but she slept downstairs, there was the Yellow Room, Dad’s Room and Uncle Bucks Room. Uncle Buck was Grandmas brother which I am sure I probably met but just don’t remember. That room was kind of a mess. It had two twin beds and a wardrobe full of old clothes we played dress up in, lots of trunks and boxes full of papers and pictures. Dad’s room had a big high back bed and it was just cool because it was Dad’s room. Melissa always slept in this room which had a door way to the Blue Room. This is where Susan and I would sleep. Leslie slept in a crib in our room that had screened sides. It had a top that was attached to a metal arm so you could pull it over the crib. The top was screened too. Grandma said the crib was used on the front porch and the screen kept the bugs off the baby. Susan and I loved to wait for Leslie to go to sleep and then pull the top over the crib. Leslie would wake up in the mornings all freaked out she couldn’t get out. Melissa would come in and save the day and Grandma would be yelling at us from the bottom of the stairs.
Our day usually started with sausage links and 5 dot toast with fresh pear preserves made from the pear tree in the front yard. We played a lot of dress up in all the old clothes and acted out silly dramas with a stuffed dog. We played the out of tune piano in the parlor until my Grandma would yell “ I can’t hear myself think”. In the afternoon Grandma would give us each a dollar and we walk over to Draper’s store and get a bag full of candy. Grandma could watch us walk over to the store from the front yard. Downtown Rich Square consisted of 5 buildings the grocery store was one of them. The Methodist Church was across the street. We spent a lot of time at the church and played in the pulpit. My Grandma sang in the choir and was very involved in church activities. Her family was one of many listed on the deed who donated the land back in 1896.
One day my Great Aunt Minnie came to visit from Norfolk, Virginia. She was Grandmas younger sister. Minnie was fun and kind of full of herself. I just remember she laughed a lot and was always smiling. We had been feeding this dog and didn’t tell Grandma about it. Some how Minnie got involved and decided to tail the dog in her car to see where he goes every day. We followed that dog all over town, down dirt roads, a long side corn fields and behind buildings. That dog was getting meals at every stop. After that Minnie wouldn’t let us feed him anymore and he stopped coming around. Minnie had dinner with us that night and I remember sitting at the dining room table listening to her tell Grandma about the dog and all of us laughing so hard we cried. Grandma always sat at the end of the table closest to the kitchen. Melissa usually sat at the other end. I was on one side of the table with Leslie and Susan was on the other. The table was long and seemed like we were miles away from each other. Conversations were loud and echoed in the room. Grandma would give each of us a spit of wine in a fancy glass as if we were attending an adult dinner party. I’m pretty sure it was watered down too.
One of our favorite events when visiting Grandma was going to Dr. Stephenson’s house to swim in his indoor pool. His house was probably a quarter mile up the street but seemed longer. Grandma would say he lived over yonder. We would drive towards downtown which was a stone throw away and ver to the right down a tree lined road. Dr. Stephenson lived up on the right in an old brick house with his wife and daughter Helen, who was stricken with MS. Helen had a tube in her throat and was always sitting in a wheel chair when we visited. She couldn’t speak and the only limb she could move was her finger. I’m not sure she knew we were there but Grandma would make us speak to her. Dr. Stephenson had an indoor pool built for Helen’s rehabilitation. I remember watching them lower her in the pool one time. They strapped her in a harness and put her on a stretcher that floated on top of the water. Dr. Stephenson was a hoot. I don’t remember much about Mrs. Stephenson. Dr. Stephenson would call us flower names. One of us was Petunia and he would call one of us Tulip and one of Rose and Lilac. We always argued later on who was what flower. I think we all wanted to be called Petunia. The pool was in a separate building on the side yard. You could smell the chlorine from the road. Grandma would sit in a chair and watch us play and read her book. When it was time to go we would wrap up in towels soaking wet and jump in the car. Our knees were burning from the fake grass carpet that surrounded the pool and our eyes were stinking from the chlorine but we always had fun at Dr. Stephenson.
There was lots of things to do at Grandmas house. The front lawn was huge and even though Grandma was on Main Street which was where all the traffic was, we were never in any danger of playing too close to the road. There was a walkway that went from the end of the front steps to the street. Halfway down the walkway was a 5 foot round section with stones around it and ivy and flowers planted inside. In the middle of the planted section was a light post. Grandma said back in the day it used to be a pond full of fish. I always tried to visualize a pond there and thought how fun that would be to fish in the front yard. As I mentioned, the front porch wrapped around the house and we would spend hours chasing each other around it and running in between the old rattan rocking chairs that hadn’t been moved in 100 years. At the end of the front steps there was a tree stump right next to the pear tree. Big toad frogs would hide in there and we would spend hours trying to get them to come out. Along the side of the house was a gravel dirt road that circled around to the garage. There was an old barn in the back of the house and it backed up to farm fields. Sometimes there was corn and sometimes it was tobacco. We would run in the fields and hide in the barn and dream up all kinds of pretend games. The barn was full of old furniture, barn tools and an old washing machine; the kind where you put the clothes through a roller. The garage was not really a garage or maybe it was but it didn’t have a door on it and was all exposed wood beams. A set of rickety steps took you to the back door and along side the back door is where the green freezer chest was located. Grandma parked her car in front of the garage opening. When you walked in the back door you walked into the screened in porch which was a typical southern porch with floral patterned cushions on wicker oak furniture, a braided rug, a coffee table, floor lamp beside the chair where Grandma would read, and of course sweet tea.
One day we were all running around on the front porch chasing each other and hiding behind the pear tree when we saw a big truck coming down the road. It was a big 18 wheeler with a shiny red hood and stuff was flying off the top of it. From far away it looked like trash but as it got closer it looked like snow. We all ran to the end of the walkway to investigate. As the truck got closer the snow got bigger and started to cover the yard next door. We ran towards the white balls with excitement. How could it be snow and if it is snow why is it not melting it’s summer. The truck was coming faster and the balls were flying everywhere. We ran to them in the front yard. The balls were fluffy, like cotton and covered the front yard like a fresh snow. Grandma came running outside yelling at us to get away from the road. We were so excited we didn’t realize how close we were. “Grandma it’s snow” we yelled as we scooped up the fluffy balls and ran back to the porch. Grandma looked at us shacking her head. “That is cotton” she said. We knew it was cotton but wanted to believe it was snow. “Came from the farm up yonder and has made a mess of my yard” she declared. We volunteered to clean it up and the neighbors yard. Those cotton balls entertained us for hours. I wish there was a picture somewhere of that day. I’m sure the yard wasn’t covered like I want to remember it.
On another day we woke up to a thunderstorm. There was no central air conditioning in Grandmas house. The windows were always open in the summer and there was a hot southern breeze that would blow through the house. We had gone through the wardrobes upstairs and found the perfect getup to spend the day in and act like grownups. We usually played in the parlor and gave names to the creepy portraits that hung around the room while Melissa played Disney songs on the out of tune piano. Sometimes we would pretend the house was a hotel and we were guests staying in the Yellow Room. We would get ready for parties and sit at the vanity table and powder our nose and spritz dried up perfume on our necks. The rain continued to pour outside. The humidity was thick and we had had enough of moth ball smelling dress up clothes. We settled on playing in the garage. The garage temperature was cool and the smell of the rain masked the old wood smell. We played with Dad’s old metal toy trucks from his childhood and dared each other to get an ice cream sandwich out of the freezer chest without Grandma catching us. We heard the rotary phone rang and Grandma answer it and then slam the phone down and start yelling for us. “What’s going on Grandma” we all said as we ran into the kitchen. “The pig truck is coming and I need for you to go upstairs and close the windows” she said. “Why do we have the close the windows?” Leslie said. She was at that age where she questioned everything. Why is the sky blue? Why do I have to go to bed? Why do I have to get in the car? “I’ll close the windows downstairs” Grandma said. So we all ran upstairs and did as we were told. When we came back down Grandma was standing in front of the living room window. “We closed the windows” I said. She looked relieved as she stared outside and watched the 18 wheeler carrying pigs roll by. “That was a close one. Those pigs stink to high heaven”. We ran back to the garage and continued our playing but this time the garage didn’t smell like rain or old wood it smelled like stinky pig poo. It was hours before Grandma opened the windows back up.
Before bed every night we took a bath and washed off the days dirt. The bathroom upstairs was huge. It had one of those toilets with the tanks up high and the pull chain. The tub was an old cast iron white claw foot tub. It was deep and big. Beside the tub was a wooden rack with towels and wash cloths. Grandma liked thin wash cloths. She said they soap up better than the thick ones. Melissa took her bath by herself. Leslie, Susan and I would take turns getting in and out of the tub. Leslie was little and Grandma was usually around to supervise. In the hallway upstairs there was a long trunk against the wall. We always imagined a dead body in there or a treasure of some sort. Grandma finally opened it for us and the disappointment must have showed on our faces. She pulled out some quilts and black netted veils and a few baby outfits she said Dad wore but nothing like a dead body or lost treasure. As she sifted through the items you could see her eyes traveling back in time. She pulled out a white box with silver embossed writing on top. The box looked new next to all the old relics. She opened the box and their was a blue velvet pouch inside with a silver rope strap. She reached in the pouch and pulled out a Victorian mesh purse. It was in perfect condition. The handle was silver with a blue Art Nouveau design and the colors in the mesh were vibrant. Grandma opened the purse and pulled out a little silver round mirror. “Did you know that mirror was in the purse?” I asked her. “Yes” she said. “My first boyfriend gave me this purse”. I don’t think she ever used it. I was mesmerized by the purse. I imagined Grandma in a large hoop skirt with lots of lace and white gloves over her elbows sitting in the parlor being courted by a handsome young fellow. Of course hoop skirts were way before Grandmas time but I was eight and that is how I imagined it. Years later Grandma gave me that Victorian mesh purse and I still have it and the little silver round mirror.
By the end of the week at Grandmas we were full of baked apples, Brunswick stew, pimento cheese sandwiches, homemade fudge, and pear preserves. We had played in every corner of the house outside and in and our dirty clothes showed for it. For a week we pretended to live in a world that stepped back in time and was imaginary to us but real for Grandma. We left with stories of Grandma burning toast and serving wine and Great Aunt Minnie tailing stray dogs and Mr. Outland across the street making us leather bracelets. We had a bag of cotton balls and a funny story about stinky pigs. I don’t think we stopped telling stories on that ride home back to Virginia Beach. It’s not just the memory that stays with me from that week, it’s the air that surrounded me, and the smell of honey suckle at Dr. Stephenson’s house and the musty smells from the wardrobes upstairs and the feel of Grandmas soft crocheted blanket on her sofa bed and the smell of tobacco when we played in the fields behind the house. It’s more than just a memory I’ve concocted in my head. It’s a feeling. It’s a feeling like a bear hug that wraps around you and you don’t fight it you embrace it. I sit here and look out the window at the palm trees and listen to the parrots squawking and think I am worlds away from that place I was 42 years ago but no matter where I end up, the week at Grandmas will always come with me.