By Eileen Register
© 1991 All Rights Reserved
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 recycled jelly jars onto that table!)
"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 life.
Names and other identifying information have been changed to preserve the
privacy of my family members.