In the fall of 1990, we buried my grandmother.
Grandma Smith lived in a small community outside of Hallettsville. Her service was held at the funeral home in town, but she was buried in the Vienna Cemetery.
As we drove down the familiar road to Grandma’s after laying her to rest, I was reminded of all the trips we made to see her when I was growing up. There were certain landmarks we passed along the way to her country home which let us know how much longer we had to go on our journey.
The first true marker was The Lazy J, a small, rundown juke joint which was frequented by members of the Vienna community. A place where saints and sinners gathered under the cloak of darkness, imbibing on liquid courage which helped them to both remember and forget.
Because of this establishment’s name, the letter “J” on the sign was hanging somewhat off kilter, since of course, it was lazy. Like the dreams of many of its frequent flyers, the white paint had faded and was peeling off the wooden frame building. This, however, was overshadowed by the multi-colored Christmas lights which outlined the entire perimeter of the bar, adding a tired but honest effort of creating a happy facade.
As we passed The Lazy J, it was just as I remembered it, with one exception. My uncle’s pick-up, which was typically a permanent fixture at the local dive, wasn’t parked in front of the bar. Evidently, the other regulars were in attendance, as the parking lot was filled with jacked up trucks sporting oversized tires with curvaceous women outlined on the mud-flaps. In case there was any doubt, the vehicles at the Lazy J confirmed this was a place where rednecks reigned supreme.
A mile or so down the road we passed the next landmark which was the Bozka’s farm. A sign with their name on it was nailed to a large oak tree in front of their land and we knew this meant we were almost to Grandma’s as their acreage backed up to hers.
For all of my childhood and teenage years, I passed the Bozka’s place and it was quite a surprise when I met their niece, Ann, at Texas A&M. As soon as she told me her last name and that she was from Hallettsville I knew she had to be related to Grandma Smith’s neighbors. What I didn’t know was that she already knew a great deal about me from years of reading my Grandma’s column in the weekly paper. This was both a source of pride and humiliation as my Grandma shared many everyday things about all of her family, sparing no one’s feelings.
On this day, the day we laid my grandma to rest, we didn’t pull into the long unpaved driveway that led to Grandma’s house, and for once, Greg and I didn’t argue about who got to jump out of the car and open the gate. Instead, we veered across the road to my uncle’s double wide mobile home where the family gathered to eat, and visit, and remember Grandma Smith.
I looked wistfully across the way at my Grandma’s white framed farmhouse and was overwhelmed with so many memories of carefree days spent with my brother and cousins as we ran barefooted through her plush green yard. Many hours were spent climbing trees, skimming stones across the pond, chasing chickens and running for our lives as we darted across the cow pasture, ever afraid that “Shorty,” the Brahma bull, may gauge us with his horns, leading to our untimely deaths. Even though Shorty wasn’t a longhorn steer, we still believed him to be the devil incarnate.
At one time, Grandpa and Grandma Smith had been completely self-sufficient. Their farm consisted of cows, pigs, and chickens as well as a huge vegetable garden. There was a smokehouse where the meats were cured, and a barn filled with hay, rats, and snakes, one of the few forbidden places for the grandchildren.
I remember drinking fresh milk, and eating homemade rolls with hand churned butter. This was true country living at its finest and although I considered myself a city girl, I transformed rather easily into this lifestyle each time I visited. When I was there, I channeled my inner Fern Arable and believed the only thing missing between her life and mine was Charlotte’s web. Grandma Smith’s was always a place of escape from the trappings of the modern world. There, I had no worries or distractions and life was simple and good.
Often, when visiting Grandma, we trudged across the pasture to my Uncle Ollie’s and Aunt Hattie’s house. This was always entertaining as my overall clad uncle was quite a hoot and his appearance reminded me of a combination of Gus, the fireman on “Leave It to Beaver,” and Mr. Green Jeans from “Captain Kangaroo.” He was thin and gangly, and spoke with a voice that was pure country. When he talked, his “s” sounds whistled like a soft summer breeze blowing through white cotton sheets hanging on a clothesline, which further added to his homegrown charm.
Aunt Hattie was a plump and doting matronly figure who loved to fill us with sweets and share her home remedies. One day when we ventured to their house, I had a terrible cough. I was hacking and crouping and sounded dreadful. Aunt Hattie seemed concerned, but also a little too eager to give me something which would heal what ailed me. “Can I get you something for that cough?” she asked, looking like a fairy tale witch in front of her cauldron, knowing that whatever I said didn’t matter.
She was dead set on curing me with one of her special tonics or concoctions, and I really wasn’t ready to be turned into a toad. I had too much life left to live. I was as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs from many years of overhearing stories about Uncle Ollie’s “moonshining” days during Prohibition. I was halfway expecting to be given a shot of some kind of liquid elixir or “recipe” as the Baldwin sisters on Walton’s Mountain used to call it.
I doubled over, coughing madly again, and decided to take Aunt Hattie up on her offer. “Would you like some Vicks?” Vicks. Well, that was something I had heard of, although I much preferred Luden’s cough drops because they tasted just like cherry candy. Aunt Hattie smiled and much to my relief I could see she had her teeth in. She reached into a cabinet, grabbed a jar, and ordered me to open my mouth.
Before I could protest, she dug her old wrinkled and pointy finger into a jar of Vick’s Vapor Rub and then smeared it across my tongue. I have a very avid gag reflex and it immediately kicked into action and I feared I may “upchuck” to use the colloquial phrase.
My mother, who was a witness to this method of witch-doctoring, quickly grabbed a Kleenex and wiped what she could off my tongue. I didn’t want to admit it for fear of a second helping, but the thick slather of Vapor Rub actually did give me a temporary détente from my hacking cough.
Years later I read the label on a jar of Vicks and shivered when I saw this warning, “If swallowed, get medical help or contact a Poison Control Center right away.”
After my Grandpa Smith died, things changed on the farm as someone else cared for the cows while the other animals were sold at auction and never replaced. Grandma kept a small garden and she still worked in her flower beds, which yielded some of the most beautiful red and orange cannas and pink and purple zinnias known to man. Butterflies and bees, crickets and grasshoppers all found homes in her floral gardens, along with a five foot long rattlesnake, which proudly showed off his twelve rattles before being blown away and hung in effigy for a photo-op by Grandma’s fearless tomboy neighbor, Sandy.
In some remote way, Grandma Smith reminded me of Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose from To Kill A Mockingbird, who was said to have the most splendid azaleas in all of Maycomb County. Grandma took the same pride in her beautiful flowers as Mrs. Dubose did, however she didn’t have a confederate pistol hidden under her shawl and the only yelling Grandma did was at the grandchildren when we ran in and out of the house slamming the wooden screen door, a noise inducing the same effect as fingernails methodically sliding down a chalkboard.
I’m sure Grandma was lonely and missed my Grandpa, but she filled her days with her companion dog Sugsy and several cats which kept her company as she whiled away the hours. She had always been an animal lover and passed this affection on to me as she shared stories about her pets and even let me borrow all of her James Herriot books.
When she became too feeble to care for her many feline friends, she gave her beautiful long haired black cat, Sugar Baby, to my Aunt Cleo. When Sugar Baby first arrived at her home, Cleo snapped Polaroid pictures of the cat posed all over the house and yard. Every few months she sent a new picture to Grandma. On the surface it looked to simply be a sweet gesture, but the underlying plan was pure genius–to have an abundance of pictures to send in case something happened to poor Sugar Baby while under her watch. Grandma would never have to know of the cat’s departure as the pictures would keep arriving long after Sugar Baby was gone.
In addition to her beloved pets, Grandma was entertained by her “stories” which she watched religiously every week day. This, along with a subscription of “Soap Opera Digest” kept her in close contact with all of the soap stars and their goings on. Grandma’s TV operated with an antenna or “rabbit ears” as we called it.
Cable had not found its way to her part of the world, and neither had a regular phone system. Grandma Smith was equipped with a “party line” which she shared with several of her neighbors. Each number was distinguished with a different ring pattern. Grandma’s was one long ring followed by two short ones.
This system amazed me because there was no assurance of privacy in the least. Without fail, every time I ever visited, and Grandma was on the phone, I heard her say, “Willie Mae! Get off that phone! I know you’re on there listening! I can hear you breathing. Hang up, Willie Mae!” This lament was always to Mrs. Sawyer who had a penchant for listening in on phone conversations and discussing and embellishing the information she obtained to whomever may listen.
Another creature comfort that Grandma lacked was central air and heat. In the winter we were buried in layers of homemade quilts and in the summer, we slumbered with just a sheet which covered us as the cool summer breeze flowed through the window and a couple of box fans blew air across our bodies.
Summer was my favorite time to be at Grandma’s because we were filled with bottomless glasses of her sweet tea, AKA the nectar of the gods. Each night, a chorus of crickets and frogs sang us to sleep, and every morning our alarm clock was the crack of dawn crowing of the roosters and cackling of the chickens.
There was always so much to do on the farm and we ate like royalty on fresh vegetables, fried chicken, watermelons and made from scratch rolls. Homemade sugar cookies filled her clown faced cookie jar, which in itself was a little creepy. (We didn’t know it at the time, but the clown bore a strong resemblance to Pennywise). Back in the day, our fear of this container subsided with each bite of cookie that melted in our mouth.
Grandma loved sweets and usually had banana pudding or her mayonnaise cake on hand, which was actually a Red Velvet Cake, a name I much prefer, as I had a severe and abhorrent aversion to mayo, thanks to a grotesque story told in the halls of all middle schools all around America about what mayonnaise is supposedly made of. My favorite delicacy, however, was her dewberry cobbler, which surely is what we will eat one day in Heaven.
Each morning when I arose in the country, I joined my Grandma with a cup of coffee, one she had doctored up for me with lots of sugar and cream, and we sat and visited in her living room. She and my mother talked about the family and retold stories of days gone by. It was there that I learned my Grandpa’s favorite baseball team was the Dodgers (until the Astros franchise began in 1962) and he used to listen to games on the radio.
I heard about my mom’s childhood and how she and my father met. Like clockwork, after Grandma re-lived that story, she always said, “There is no finer man on this earth than Charles Brown. No finer man.” Grandma adored my Dad and he adored the place of prominence she gave him. She always made his favorite homemade soup and catered to his every need.
Years later, when she was unable to care for herself, Grandma spent a year with my parents, which as you can understand, was stressful for all parties involved. While Grandma sang the praises of my Dad and all that he did to help around the house, she counted the number of shoes in my mother’s closet, passing this information along to her friends, viewing it as unabashed extravagance on an even greater level than Imelda Marcos.
Sitting in her chair with her feet propped up on a footstool, Grandma told story after story, many of which I had heard before, but I never tired of this, because I was usually seated in her lap, my place of importance.
Over the years, I gained knowledge and insight on some adult matters of the world, and it was during this era that I moved to what I considered a more mature place on the sofa, still sipping on coffee, but with my pinky finger pointing out.
I intently listened to my grandmother’s endless diatribes concerning the various wives of my Uncle Wesley, one of whom she referred to simply as “the snake” a creature who slithered into Wesley’s life and filled it with venom and deceit. She dressed like a call girl, the five and dime variety, and sent me reeling close to the edge each time she endearingly referred to Uncle Wesley as “Pee Wee” in her nasally, twangy, grammatically incorrect voice.
As harsh as this description of “the snake” may seem, Grandma’s was even more scathing. As I heard her characterization of this woman, I scribbled a mental note to myself: Never make Grandma Smith mad. Once you got on my grandma’s bad side, you tended to stay there. Her memory was like a vault where she stored each and every transgression against her and she rarely forgot or forgave.
Grandma also had clearly defined limits and rules, and especially deep rooted fire and brimstone opinions on the evils of alcohol. No one who was under the influence or had even a hint of liquor on his breath was allowed in her house. This played out in many fun nights for me and my brother as we could overhear the conversations between my Grandma and Uncle Wesley through the open windows, their words attaching themselves on the breeze which slowly blew into our room; fictitious tales and yarns spun by my inebriated uncle, all of which I regret I failed to document in a notebook to reflect upon in my later years.
With his Merle Haggard looks and his George Jones ways, a more interesting, endearing and flawed character has yet to dance across the pages of a book. For years, I thought Uncle Wesley was sitting with my Grandma in the living room during these chats, but as I left my childhood behind I realized that during all of those conversations, he had actually been on the front porch conversing with Grandma through the window screen, just stopping by for a visit after a night at the Lazy J.
And now, on the day we buried my grandma, we sat in Wesley’s home, remembering all the good things about her. She left quite a legacy, and one in which she partly determined herself, since she did write her own obituary:
Mrs. Ruby Oleta Smith was born on February 3, 1911, in Vienna, Texas. She was a kind and friendly person who liked people and loved to talk. She was always willing to lend a hand in sickness or help in any way. She had many friends and relatives who enjoyed the hospitality of her home; to be able to do something for a friend was always a pleasure to her.
She had a great love for animals, especially cats and dogs. Many hungry, homeless, and helpless stray creatures received the benefit of her kindness.
Being a very independent person, Mrs. Smith had a strong will to stand behind her convictions when she thought she was right, and never changed her mind once she had made a decision. That was a part of her life, and she lived it that way throughout the years.
As we sat around recalling old times and anecdotes, I watched my mother who was slowly and methodically perusing the room. When the talk died down, Mother stated in a very reverent and succinct tone, “Wesley. It’s quite a tribute to Mother that all of your former wives attended her funeral and are here paying their respects.” Wesley turned to Mom and said with a wink and sheepish grin, “What can I say? All my exes live in Texas.”
That day as we drove back from Vienna into Hallettsville on our way home, I felt different. I was no longer the young girl without a care in the world, pretending I was Laura Ingalls Wilder, roughing it in the countryside. I was a young wife and mother; a grown up. The fun and frolicking of days gone by was now a distant memory.
I hoped that in the days to come, I would continue to cherish the memories and the strength of the generations of women before me. By melding these traits along with my own strengths, I hoped to make a difference in the lives of those around me. Realizing I had great responsibilities before me, my heart yearned for another stay at Grandma’s house. If I could only hear that screen door slam one more time.
Chevelle Rule #2: Chevelles embrace their past and use the strength, intelligence, and grace learned from those who have gone before them, to forge ahead and impact future generations.