Up the Road Apiece
One recent morning while hiking through a local nature preserve, I grew bored with the views of the migratory birds, most of whom had left for the summer. I had just reached the top of a steep incline, when something skittered past me in the brush to my left. Following the sound, hoping for some excitement, I ventured off the public pathway and pushed through a thick stand of trees and shrubs. As I lifted a large branch and scrambled down the embankment, I was hit with a pungent sweet smell of damp needles and wet earth that transported me back to central Louisiana in 1955.
I could see myself vividly, walking along a path, down to the creek, to pick blackberries and raspberries from the tangles of vines that grew beneath the tall pine trees outside Olla, Louisiana. It was a clear, cloudless morning in early June as I walked with my Granny, Miss Edna, down the pea gravel road past the weathered chicken coop and the deserted barn. The cows that had once wandered loose and free had been sold. Granny had become too frail to milk them. The chicken coop was silent, for she could no longer stoop to gather the eggs she had once prepared each morning. She had always been old in my mind, as grandmothers usually are.
On this particular day I was ten years old, no longer the small child frightened of the chickens that had once encircled us as we tossed them grain each morning. I had shed plenty of tears as a youngster when they ran toward us, wings arched and open, pecking at my legs and hands as Granny forced open my clenched fists to release the kernels of corn. Gone, too, was my terror of the large steers that had once crossed the dirt road into the front yard of Granny’s small three-room frame house. Armadillos had become just part of the landscape, and I had learned to accept the nightly ritual of the head to toe “tick inspections.”
The night before, we had sat together on the front porch and rocked in the old wooden high-backs. I loved watching her take the bobby pins from the large bun at the back of her head; watched in awe at the sight of her hair falling silently like a rapid stream flowing down her back past her hips, below the horsehair seat of her chair. Her hands took the large tortoise brush, and she slowly pulled it through the long strands, one plait at a time. She brushed until her dark black hair glistened with the shine of natural oils. My grandmother never cut her hair, and in later years, at one hundred and two, when she needed assistance with nearly every activity of life, she performed this nightly ritual alone.
Miss Edna, my father’s mother, was the strong matriarch of a family of five boys and one girl. Only 4’8”, she ruled with force and fierceness. She was a daughter of the land in the early 1900’s. Raised not far from the family farm, my grandmother had married young, birthed six children in ten years and rose each morning at 4:00 a.m. to milk the cows and gather the eggs before preparing breakfast for the field hands. Breakfast dishes were washed with buckets of water cranked from the old cistern on the over-sized back porch, the same porch where meals were served at the long rectangular table surrounded by mismatched wood chairs. No sooner had that task been completed than she began preparing dinner, the largest meal of the day, which always consisted of large slabs of meat, mountains of potatoes and gravy, home-made biscuits and vegetables either fresh from the garden or canned and preserved the autumn before.
She took pride in her job of feeding the large crew three times a day and somehow found time to complete her household chores without running water, indoor-plumbing and very little electricity. Granny washed the men’s heavy work clothes by hand, heating the water on the stove before she filled the large metal tub that sat in the middle of the bedroom. Later in the evening that same tub was used for a nightly bath. The heavy old iron was heated on the gas range before she pressed the wrinkles from the bib overalls that Grandpa and the boys wore in the field. By 1955 she had acquired a ringer washer that sat on the back porch, but we still drew water from the cistern and heated it on the old gas range for my nightly baths.
Those days had made my Granny tough and strong, leaving her with a gruff demeanor that often made me fear her as a child. When WWII broke out, Granny watched as all five of her boys put on the brown uniforms of the U.S. Army and left Louisiana at the same time. The old black and white photo of her and her “boys” in uniform sat on the mantel of the fireplace until her death. Miss Edna survived hot, humid, mosquito filled summers and bitter cold nights. There was a living room fireplace and a large cast iron wood-burning stove in the one large bedroom. She and granddaddy had slept on the large goose down mattress with all six children bedded down around the edges of the room. Her chest puffed out with pride when she talked about the two large oval-framed photos that hung over the bed; sepia toned stern faces of her mother and father.
The chime of my cell phone brought me back to this hot June day in Arizona, and as I made my way back to the pavement that circled the man-made lake, I wondered why that particular morning with Granny had surfaced so unexpectedly. Perhaps it was because I had her to myself. My dad was one of only two siblings who did not return to the family compound after World War II. Granny never forgave either of them, or the women they married. I had been too young to understand the power struggles that were silently played out each summer between my mother and Granny, didn’t understand those subtle but harsh looks that rolled across Granny’s face when mother poured sugar and milk on my rice or allowed me to use the inside “night bucket” instead of the fly-filled outhouse that sat in the back yard.
Our annual summer visits were filled with aunts and uncles and a dozen cousins who lived just up the road apiece. I was the city stranger and seldom felt part of the clan. I was the grandchild who demanded milk from the store and refused to eat the grits that were served at every meal. But each evening I felt drawn into their warmth. We ate in shifts, and five of us would cram into the small narrow kitchen taking turns washing and drying the supper dishes, singing loudly “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” or “My Darling Clementine”. At dusk we youngin’s sat on the front porch quietly listening to the tall tales our daddies told as they perched precariously on the back two legs of their wood chairs. The time Uncle Nelson had caught a forty- pound catfish up the crick aways. The time they had all gotten drunk and drove smack into a bull, tearing up the front of granddaddy’s old Ford pickup. The old man who waited in the woods to take little boys and girls who wandered off.
But on that bright summer morning there we were, Granny and I by ourselves, ambling along; talking about nothing in particular; stopping first to mail a letter. The aging post office sat alone framed by tall pines hung heavily with Spanish moss. There were no other buildings in sight for several miles; the same held true of the Free Baptist church on up the road. These structures seemed to rise out of the soil making little islands of their own.
As we climbed down the side of the creek bed, brambles of the blackberry bushes painted my arms and ankles with the stains of their berries and the droplets of blood from the cuts and scratches they tattooed on my skin. The day was sticky and warm, and I swatted at the constant zinging of flies and gnats and honeybees.
I could see my grandmother lifting her head to the cloudless blue sky, then smiling down at me with encouragement as we filled the old wood-handled tin water bucket that was becoming too heavy for my small ten-year-old body to carry. Granny picked it up when I struggled, and we moved from the bushes of blackberries to the arched purple vines of raspberries growing wild on the bank above us. My feet slipped on the wet soil, and her weathered hand reached for mine as she pulled me up the steep riverbank. For a brief moment, Miss Edna’s tight stern face softened, and her eyes sparkled. In that instant I saw through her gruffness to the soft maternal woman she hid so well and found myself wishing that I, too, lived up the road apiece.
Connie Wesala is a retired educator and spent most of her career as a Guidance Counselor and Administrator. Prior to counseling, she taught high school English. She has returned to CGCC to study something she loves to do – read and write. They say that when you lose all track of time and the hours pass like minutes, you’re doing something you truly love. This is what happens for Connie when she sits down to write. She hopes that others will connect with her life experiences and her personal truths.