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Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found.
Was blind, but now I see!
Ah! The memories those words evoke...Granny sat on the porch of her old, rundown
house, her cane-bottomed rocking chair, its wooden frame gray and cracked from
many years of weathering, rocking slightly lop-sided on the sagging wooden
floor. At the top of her lungs, Granny sang..."Amazing Grace..." in her shrill,
purely country twang. The old rocker screeked and creaked its accompaniment to
the slow rhythm of her off-tune serenade. Bracing a medium-sized clay pottery
bowl between her knees, she used a dinner fork to whip and churn cream from ol'
Bessie's daily milking into the freshest, sweetest butter in the world.
Although she was only in her mid-fifties, to her nine grandchildren, especially
me, she seemed ancient. Her face, glowing with the joy of her righteous,
Christian love for God and music, bore roadmaps of her many years on the farm.
The sun had tanned her features to a golden, rosy hue, and her bright,
cornflower blue eyes wore wreaths of wrinkled flesh. Grin lines, deeply etched,
arched downward from the outer edges of her nostrils, curved around each corner
of her small, puckered mouth. When she smiled, her perfectly straight,
pearl-like teeth gleamed from their many soakings in the jar on the stand by her
bed. Her pointed chin emphasized the smallness of her homely but beautiful face.
The delicious smell of buttermilk biscuits wafted through the screen panels of
the warped old door behind her to the left, and Granny rose slowly, cradling her
precious bowl of homemade butter in her flour-sack apron. Just as she reached
for the thread-spool door knob, one of her grandchildren burst from the house,
grazing her arm with the rickety old door in his haste to escape the grasp of
the older cousin chasing close behind him. "Ella Mae! " (that's my mama) she
cried, "come git these youngin's before I have to cut me a plum switch!" The two
rowdy cousins ignored the cement-block steps as usual and bounded off the porch,
deftly clearing Granny's prize rose bushes and brightly blooming petunias but
knocking over a few of the upended bricks that marked the margin of the
flowerbed. They raced around the side of the old, asbestos-shingled house to
escape the wrath of Granny. "James! Tommy! Git yerselves back here and fix that
flowerbed!" Granny screeched in her raspy southern drawl, as she jerked the screen door open and rushed (in her slow, grandma
kind of way) toward the kitchen at the back of the tiny house.
Lying longways in the wooden two-seater swing at one end of the porch, I swung
for the sheer joy of hearing the rusty chains that held up the swing sing their
rhythmic squeak-squeal. I giggled secretly to myself, quite sure that Granny
would head on out the back door and over to the plum tree to fetch a sturdy,
leg-stinging switch for those naughty boys. I especially enjoyed the thought of
hearing my mean, ornery brother, James, yelp when Granny landed a few swats
across his bare, sweaty calves! I stilled the noisy swing and listened for the
back door. Alas, I guessed there'd be no spanking tonight...Darn!
After a few minutes, I jumped up from the swing, opened the screen door, stepped
quietly inside and carefully pulled the door shut; Granny got real mad when we
slammed that door, which was a million time a day, and I certainly didn't want
to wear "striped pajamas" to bed!
The living room - or as Granny called it, the "sittin' room," looked like
Granny. Its slightly grease-streaked walls were warped; years of wallpaper
layers formed creases and wrinkles under the "new" sandalwood beige paint
Grandpa had just put on five or six years before. The worn rug had aged to a
non-descript grayish-brown, with paths criss-crossing it, one from front door to
the edge of the dining room where equally worn linoleum took over, and one
diagonally across it from bedroom to bedroom. An old, plaid vinyl couch occupied
the wall to the left. A cheap but beautiful wooden coo-coo clock and several
gaudy, cardboard posters with Bible verses etched in silver and gold glitter,
filled the wall behind the couch in some kind of order understood only by
Granny. The other two corners of the room held little, slightly battered
platform rockers; the swivel-rock mechanisms rusty and needing a good greasing,
made that same "rusty chain porch swing screek" when anyone sat and rocked in them.
As I tiptoed through the room, I whispered a quick little prayer that I wouldn't
be the unlucky one that got chosen to share that uncomfortable old sofa when
bedtime came. (I now know it's called a "jack-knife sleeper-sofa", but the child
in the memory only knew that it was hard and lumpy and one side was smaller than
the other when it was opened by lifting up on the seat and letting the back
section fall down until the two surfaces were - relatively - level. And the
child, being one of the youngest, always got stuck on the narrow "half", jammed
up against the wall!)
I peeked around the corner from the dining room to see if Granny was still "in a
snit." Pans banged and clanged as she washed up the pots and cooking utensils,
humming "Amazing Grace" while she made the kitchen spic-n-span before calling
her brood in for supper. Behind me on the table, huge bowls of steaming chicken
and dumplings, turnip greens (Yuk!), steamed cabbage, corn-on-the-cob and
various other delightful products from Granny's garden filled every space. (Even
now, I can't figure out how Granny managed to squeeze all that food, SEVENTEEN
mismatched china dinner plates, and SEVENTEEN tea glasses and jelly jars onto
"Granny, can I dry?" I asked, proud that I was at last old enough to offer and
thinking it might be a good idea to stay on her good side tonight. Handing me
the flour-sack dish cloth (she used those darn flour sacks for EVERYTHING!), she
turned back to the sink and scrubbed a blue enamel pot lid. Rinsing the soap
bubbles off, she handed it to me. "Git that dish rag off yer shoulder, Lainey,"
she commanded, and I began to sweat, visions of plum switches dancing before my
eyes. (I had committed one of the cardinal sins - one never lets a clean dish
cloth touch one's clothes, let alone hanging it on one's shoulder!) Snatching
the offended rag from my pudgy hands, she replaced it with another, and I
diligently dried the lid. Opening the cupboard behind me, I forced the lid into
the overstuffed metal rack that hung on the inside of the door. Soon all the
pots, pans, lids, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, occupied their accustomed
places in the ancient, homemade wooden cupboards...my growling stomach was glad...now we could EAT!
"Okay, youngin's, git to the porch and wash up fer supper!" Granny squawked from
the back porch door. From every corner of the dirt-covered back yard,
dirt-covered kids flocked to the wash stand on the shelf that traversed one side
of the porch. The sparkling white enameled wash basin wouldn't stay that way for
long. Turning on the spigot that stuck up from the ground at the outer edge of
the shelf and extended a foot or so above it, my brother sent a torrent of water
splashing everywhere. Very little stayed in the wash basin. Slowing the stream
of water with a mischievous grin on his face, James lathered up his hands and
arms, then splashed water from the basin to rinse off the muddy suds. One more
splash for his grimy face and he proclaimed himself clean. As he reached for the
clean, white towel hanging on the nail by the door, Granny grabbed it from his
still-filthy hands and ordered him to the back of the line. The next one in line
knew he'd better do a bit better; Granny didn't cotton to having her clean white towel used as a secondary wash cloth!
(Thinking of that clean towel reminds me of the time my brother thought Granny
wasn't looking. So he picked a huge gob of "boogers" from his nose and slashed
it across that pristine whiteness. Lordy, Lordy, I thought Granny was going to
have a heart attack, she was so upset! In fact, I guess she was even too upset
to employ the plum switch because James got away with only a tongue-lashing,
albeit the loudest one I'd ever heard.)
As each of us was inspected for left-over grime, Granny herded us into the
small, overpacked dining room. Scrambling for the best of the odd assortment of
chairs, benches, vanity stools, and upended bushel baskets, we squeezed up to
the table, each of us trying to end up as far from our own parents as possible.
(I always seemed to end up right next to Granny, which would have been fine
except that I had a habit of constantly shaking my foot under the table, which
invariably got me a firm slap on the thigh and an order to "quit yer jigglin'.")
One would think that the huge crowd of "starving youngin's" would immediately
grab everything in sight, but NOT AT GRANNY'S TABLE! No...first came grace, and
what an "amazin' grace" it was. We all - parents included - bowed our heads and
prayed under our breaths...we prayed that just this once Granny would say GRACE,
not a SERMON! (I never did figure out how we managed to end up eating HOT food,
with all that washing and praying before we got our first morsel, but somehow,
the food was always just right.)
Granny's gone now. She went downhill rapidly after Grandpa fell dead of a heart
attack at the school where he had spent many happy years as the head janitor. I
can still remember the story of how someone came to Granny's door before the
school could send to tell her - someone who loved Grandpa as much as we and
everyone did - and blurted out the horrible news that Grandpa was dead. Poor ol'
Granny, still in her old, flour-sack dress (like I said, she used those sacks
for everything!) and flour-sack apron, dusted with the flour of lunchtime
biscuits that were still in the oven, stumbled off the porch in a daze and
headed down the road toward the school. Tears coursed down her lovely, wrinkled
face; her eyes were glazed with grief; she was suddenly deaf and dumb, totally
unaware of anything except that she had to get to Grandpa - he needed her. For
years I had overheard people say that Granny was a bit feeble-minded; now her
mind teetered at the brink of oblivion.
After the funeral, Granny lived alone in that tiny old shack of a house, until
finally, her behavior proved that she could no longer be trusted to do so. Her
ample, pear-shaped body soon began to grow thin and gaunt. She became a
wanderer, getting on a bus to Palatka or Lake City and talking to the strangers
she met about what she had in the bank (it wasn't a whole lot, but enough to
encourage some bum to follow her home someday).
The final convincing blow was when she went to Aunt Linda Ruth's beauty shop and
got her hair cut and permed. You see, Granny had long, thin white hair, so thin
her clean, pink scalp peeked through. It had never been cut, and but for the
loss and breakage caused by old age, it would have touched the backs of her
knees. To Granny, a woman's hair was her crowning glory and an absolute SIN to
cut. She had always worn it in a tight, little bun on top of her head, except
when she let it down and, sitting on the side of her bed, bent over to comb it;
it dragged the floor then.
Finally, my mother and her brother and sister knew they had to do something.
Granny, now suffering from senility (hardening of the arteries - now they call
it Alzheimer's disease), had to go somewhere, and it was obvious that she
wouldn't last a day with any of her three kids and their loud, rambunctious
families. First they found a beautiful, peaceful retirement home where Granny
was allowed to help; she set the table for every meal, carefully arranging each
piece of silverware just so. Then she grew violent, forceful, dangerous. Left
with no other choice, the children (seems funny to call my mother a child!)
placed her in a state hospital. The last time I saw her, she still possessed
those bright, cornflower blue eyes, but there was nothing behind them. She shook
from head to foot due to palsy, and she spoke gibberish most of the time. She
didn't know me, but she loved my "pretty blue eyes."
Granny's funeral was almost a celebration...we all knew she was finally with
Grandpa. Still, tears streaked down our faces as the organist played and we
sang..."Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me..." God,
I miss them both.
Please note: Many of the events and descriptions in this story are from real
Names and other identifying information have been changed to preserve the
privacy of my family members.
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