The ice cubes were too big. They weren’t cubes, either. They were round, from the “ice-o-matic” brown refrigerator. I didn’t like the newfangled, fancy, round ice. I couldn’t crunch it. The whole point in drinking all the tea was to crunch up the ice, like she always did. I couldn’t be pacified even when she crushed my ice with a hammer. The following day Bill’s Dollar Store sold their entire inventory of plastic ice trays. And the happy co-crunching commenced.
Summers in Alabama were sweltering. (So were Spring, and most of Fall.) There was no air conditioning, just an old box fan stuck up in the window. She liked to say not even a stiff wind could push through the humidity. Half the day was spent swatting gnats, shelling peas, and crunching ice. The other half was spent watching baseball with Pa, the six o’clock report with Aunt Inie, and waiting for the whistle.
The cotton mills seemed so far away. When the ten o’clock whistle blew, I’d hop into the kitchen to set out the ice cream. By the time I filled my cup, she’d be home to pour the milk.
It never occurred to me that I was spoiled. It never occurred to me that she wasn’t.
She was born during a time of extreme hardship, not the oldest and not the youngest. Her family had few possessions and no money. For a long period of time, half the flooring in their three room home was missing- they’d burned the wood planks for heat. Schooling was not encouraged. After her daddy’s death, she was sent to work in the mills. When she worked a little late because her loom kept breaking down, her mother beat her with a broom handle, accusing her of running around with boys. She was sixteen. Half a century later, she still never once spoke of her mother with disrespect.
She was a well grounded Christian. She told me, once, that she could’ve clung to hell, or she could embrace Jesus, and Alabama was hot enough, already. Her Bible was leather bound and white, but dingy from use. She wrote notes in the margins, and marked important pages with bobby pins. Even after the binding was worn through, and the pages were crumbling, she was reluctant to use another Bible.
When she needed to blow off steam, she worked her flower beds. She and Pa saved coffee grounds and egg shells. She crushed the egg shells into the coffee grounds and worked them into her flower beds. Day lilies, tiger lilies, amaryllis, canna lilies, sunflowers, daisies, azaleas, and three shades of iris all flourished under her steam. She’d get up at daybreak to get in a couple of hours before the heat became oppressive. She was happiest when covered in dirt.
When it was too cold or dark to dig, she’d sew. Appliqué, embroidery, quilting- anything to keep her hands moving. She never minded if I talked. She was sassy and quick. I loved her stories; they were mostly centered around Mama and my uncle’s antics as children. Pa never seemed to be paying attention, but he’d slide in a comment here and there, which tickled her. I was much older before she disclosed the full details of her childhood. She always felt she could empathize and understand that women of her mama’s generation lived what they’d learned. She always referred to her lineage as dirt poor, and took pride in having actually BEEN dirt poor. Making do with nothing allowed her to grow and appreciate everything, indebted to none.
Even after we moved away, I spent every school break back home, listening for the ten o’clock whistle. She took me to Vacation Bible School and to church. She gave me offering envelopes to write on and hard candy to eat between hymns. After church, we ate ham sandwiches and crunched ice, talked about everything and nothing, and laughed until the crickets sang. Every day was an adventure.
She gave me pie pans and taught me to make mud pies (which weren’t fittin to eat). She kept a running subscription to Highlights magazine, which I read cover to cover. We made jump ropes out of braided bread bags, and sprinklers from Maxwell House cans. She tried her best to teach me to cook. When I couldn’t even throw together a fittin to eat mud pie, she taught me to fish, with a cane pole and worms. She never learned to use a rod and reel, so neither did I. Turned out the creek was a bit deeper than it appeared, and a whole lot colder. She laughed so hard at me, she fell in, too. Pa made us both ride home in the back of the truck.
I went through a rough period during my junior high years. There were two directions from which to choose, and I wanted to give up and take the easy out. She flatly refused to let me give up. She took me inside the mill, right in the peak of summer. I followed her around her job for the entire shift. When the whistle blew, she blew off the cotton fibers from my clothes with an air hose just outside the mill door. We were both covered in the wispy white strands of cotton. Nobody wore a mask; nobody wore ear protection. Breaks were 10 minutes, twenty for lunch. The next afternoon she asked me if I was ready to go back. When I emphatically declined, she barely hid her smile.
I was in high school when she decided she’d like to take GED classes at the community college. She said she felt like a hypocrite for constantly harassing me about my schoolwork, and my future. She “graduated”, and walked with the church’s seniors, in her cap and gown, a full thirty six years after she’d been compelled to forego schooling for the cotton mills.
She was never a hypocrite. She was always my hero.
Now that I’m older, I’ve come to understand that the cotton mills weren’t really so far away, canna lilies can and will take over a garden, only utilized Bibles fall apart, and knowledge is power. Beauty is as beauty does. Ugly sticks forever. And although grace can get messy, it’s still grace.
There will never be anyone else on this spinning disaster that will love me so much. I miss her every single day. But I am completely secure in knowing just how much she did love me, and how proud she always was of me and for me. I’m simply grateful to have been blessed by her grace. Be blessed, Y’all.
~ Tucked in her Bible ~