I realized it was a god-send I lived with my maternal grandmother when I was nine years old. I might have completely lost my connection with spirits if she had not told me she saw them also. Looking back, I realized she was a healer, a medicine woman, a shaman and a psychic. She knew when to give me something to detoxify my liver, she drew splinters out of my feet with bile from a bile gland (saved after a cow or pig was slaughtered). It hung on the back porch until it was needed. It worked, too. She talked to the spirits that walked through her house and she read tea leaves or coffee grounds. She was a simple, hard-shell Southern Baptist no-nonsense, teetotaler, ‘don’t cut your nails on Sunday or the devil will be with you all the week’ kind of a woman who made the best biscuits this side of heaven and gave the best hugs even when she smelled of sweat and dirt. I wished I had paid more attention to her. I wonder what my life would have been like had she mentored my gifts. I regret the opportunities we missed but I will never forget my grannie.
Towards the end of her life, my mother asked Grannie to write down as much as she could remember. The Wood and Eason families (my maternal grandfather’s and grandmother’s families) tried to piece together the crazy quilt of our genealogy records. I noticed errors galore about our immediate family and wondered if others noticed similar errors about theirs. I decided I wanted to be remembered for who I am and not some erroneous entry on a list of names. I guess I am like my grannie in that way.
Genealogies are interesting to some people, but as Grannie said, “I don’t no [know] the Birth death or marriage of all of these so guess it don’t matter much.” What I wish Grannie had recorded was how she felt about her life which began in 1887. I’d like to know what she felt about the early ripple effect of the end of the Civil War and what it was like being a teenage girl in the South at the turn of the nineteenth century. I want to know how old she was when electric lights, telephones and indoor toilettes were used in her home. I want to know how she managed during the Depression and two World Wars. I want to know how she felt being the third of eight children and the mother of nine. I’m curious about why she ran away from her home to marry my Grand-Daddy and what her relationship was like with her parents, her husband and her children. Most of all, I would like to know how she learned the “medicine woman” ways, when she first saw ghosts and where she learned to read coffee grounds. I want to know what she dreamt about doing – if she had time for such dreams. Surely, she had a dream or two.
I realized that I don’t know much about my Grannie, but what I do know, what I do remember is this. I remember her smell more than her appearance. Although she passed away many years ago, every now and then, I get a whiff of a fragrance in the air that reminds me of Grannie. It’s not a fancy perfume or eau-de-toilette. It’s an earthier odor: the smell of sweat mixed with body oils, turned earth or the dust of freshly sifted flour. I remember the sounds of her whistling or the crack in her voice as she sang a hymnal off-key as she went about her chores. I still recall hearing the shuffle of her feet around the house and in the barn; the soft swish of her skirt or apron as she padded around the kitchen from one stove to the other or to the sink or the biscuit cupboard; and the creak of the screen door and the bounce when it closed behind her as she returned from milking the cows. It’s amazing how the memory of sounds and smells can stay with you over the years.
I remember Grannie’s apron – soft from wear with touches of flour on the corners where she gathered her apron to wipe her hands – those wrinkled, brown-specked hands. She called them liver spots. They dotted her face and legs too. Her apron covered the soft mounds of her breast which seemed to rest gently on her tummy. I remember being nestled into her pillowy mass – my cheek pressed against her apron, her earthy fragrance filled my nostrils.
Her hands were nimble whether she was teaching me how to quilt, tracing the lines as she read her Bible, milking cows, wringing clothes through the old wringer apparatus on wash day or pinching off biscuits.
One leg had a huge purplish-brownish thing that reminded me of the South American continent. She said it was caused from iron poisoning from where she was hit by the edge of a plow.
Even with her glasses, her sight was failing in her blue eyes. She didn’t hesitate to ask me to thread her needle or to remove a splinter from her hand. But she had another way of seeing the world or, I should say, the “other side.” She saw the ghosts that walked through her house as well as the ones that visited the gristmill near the pond. She wasn’t afraid or perturbed by them which was a good thing for me because I saw them too. One cold night as we sat around the wood burning stove drinking sassafras tea, I confessed to Grannie that I was afraid to go to bed because people stood by my bed at night. “Oh, don’t pay them no never mind,” she said, “They’re just here to see me but they’ve gone and forgets where I’m sleepin’. They’re relatives and they give me messages, but if they ever scare you, just you tell ‘em ‘God go between me and thee.’ They won’t hurt you.” I never told anyone that they followed me wherever I lived. They did scare me, especially when they touched me with their icy, cold fingers. For years, I repeated the words Grannie told me, slept with my light on and the Bible Grannie gave me on my chest, my crucifix necklace over the sheet pulled up to my chin and put my mattress and box spring directly on the floor.
Grannie had a routine after lunch. She’d sit a spell in the front room. She’d take her well-worn Bible down from the shelf over the sofa and pick up where she’d left off. Florence and I would wash the lunch dishes and sweep the floors and then we’d settle in the front room and beg Grannie to let us comb her hair. I’d take the pins out of her hair which was usually braided into one or two braids and then twisted into one or two buns. Her hair was thin but not too fine although not as coarse as mine. It was mostly white but with gray hairs throughout. I remember how she’d sweat in the summer. Her hair would be wringing wet and smelly, but as I unwrapped the braids and combed the hair – wavy from being in the braids for so long – Grannie’s hair dried somewhat. I brushed and combed not quite a hundred strokes like someone – I don’t remember who – said in the movies. We watched the soaps: Days of Our Lives or General Hospital or As the World Turns as we went through this ritual.
The lines in Grannie’s face seem to soften. I wondered what she must have thought about her three half-breed grandchildren being plopped on her at her age. She should have been sitting back enjoying life but there she was taking care of her invalid husband and three kids under the age of thirteen, and the cows, chickens, pigs and garden. If she ever resented it, I never knew.
Grannie’s hairs parted easily with the comb exposing the pinkish skin on her scalp. Each section was divided into three rows held apart by my fingers. Her hair was easy to braid and easy to wrap into a bun – securing the edges with special bobby pins, the wavy ones that make a “V” shape.
When I finished her hair, she slouched down on the sofa: sometimes one leg would be up on the sofa but the other one would be down with her foot on the floor. Her stockings – a strange fleshy color, probably support hose – usually covered the deformed leg. She had a way of pulling the knee-high stocking up to straighten out the wrinkles and, then, she’d twist the top around her index finger until the stockings were tight. She deftly twisted the excess under the top edge. It formed a blob, but she didn’t seem to care. It made me nervous to watch the veins in her legs bulge and to think about her big, brown spot.
A nap was the next order of the day. I curled up on one of the chairs with my Nancy Drew or Mary Stewart book or I’d read a magazine, turning the pages softly and quietly while Grannie slept. Sometimes my sister, Florence, and I would peruse the Sears catalog and dog ear the pages of the things we liked. I guess we hoped someone would pick up on the hints. We didn’t fully realize how poor we were as we made our wishes known. “I like that one.” was followed by “No, I like that one.” or “Me, too.” Sometimes, we napped also. Grand-Daddy napped a lot. It was how we whiled away the hot summer afternoons when we weren’t gathering things from the garden, shucking corn, shelling peas and “putting up” vegetables and fruit for the winter months. I remember shelling butter beans until my thumb nails hurt, pricking my fingers when we picked blackberries, stirring the seeds from the side of the pot back into the fig preserves, straining cooked tomatoes through a sieve and churning butter.
Grannie had a way with farm animals. She had a special call for the cows: Cooooooooooet aaaaaaaaaattttt. The cows came around quickly when she called. She had a gentle but firm touch with her cows even towards the ones that would try to kick after they got set up in the feeding stall. She knew to position her milking stool as far away from Bossie’s rear end as possible. No big “cow eyes” would keep her from doing what was prudent and practical. After securing the cow into the stall with a stock, she washed the cow’s utters with warm water before she sat down on her milking stool, milk bucket tucked between her knees, which were covered by her long skirt and apron. A hand pushed into the bag of milk imitating the calf’s actions. I can still hear late-afternoon rain during the Dog Days of Summer on the barn’s tin roof and smell the feed freshly thrown in the trough for the cows. I remember Grannie jump up quickly if the cow decided to take a dump in the middle of the milking, cover the pail with her apron and walk over to the square blade shovel. Grannie matter-of-factly scooped up the hot, steaming pile of dung and threw it into her worm pail. She picked up the rag in the bucket of warm water she had used to wipe off the cows utters before milking and re-wiped them before she sat down again to finish her milking. The cats knew to come around during milking time because they might get a squirt of fresh milk. Grannie tilted the teat sideways and hit the cat’s mouth with the aim of a marksman. The cats loved it and the grandchildren squealed with delight. We wanted to try our luck at squirting milk to the cats, too.
I remember my cow, Pinky. I called her that because she had sort of a pink haze to her coloring. She was half Guernsey and half Charlais. She wasn’t a great milking cow according to Grannie, but she produced good butchering calves. Red was Grannie’s favorite milk cow and you could see a difference in the color and consistency of her milk versus Pinky’s. It didn’t matter because Grannie mixed them together and began the process of curing the milk.
I love old country pitchers because they remind me of the cream stage of the curing process. Grannie strained the fresh milk and poured it into shallow pails which were covered with straining cloth and put them in the refrigerator. She checked the previous day’s cream pitcher and skimmed off the crème de la crème into a separate pitcher. That’s the one we used to make whipped cream. There was nothing like fresh – and I mean really fresh – whipped cream for Grannie’s home-made from scratch chocolate pie or fruit cobbler. Then, she checked the previous day’s pails to see if cream had formed and skimmed the cream into the pitcher. I don’t remember which pitcher or pail we used to make butter but we saved that chore for the afternoons so we could watch the “soaps” while the butter was churned. The “thud-thud-thud” sound of the dasher hitting the milk in the crockery churner was a familiar sound of my youth and the days I spent with Grannie. We didn’t use fancy butter molds but rather we made a mound of butter that we used generously with hot biscuits. The buttermilk that was left after the butter was churned out of the milk was saved and used to make biscuits. We did not make cheese as a milk by-product, but Grannie did have another low pail of milk that she stored in the “safe” (an open cupboard that was protected by screening). In the room temperature, the milk in that pail went sour as it fermented into a congealed mass called “clabber”. It smelled to high heaven, but Grand-Daddy loved to dip his cornbread into a plate full of clabber mixed with honey. I was happy to mix old bread into the clabber pail and feed it to the chickens.
I am surprised that I have so many memories of my time with Grannie. I could go on and on, but the telling would not be complete without remembering walking or riding in a rickety old wagon in the woods or remembering Grannie’s biscuits.
As much as I used to dread it at the time, one of my fondest memories was walking through the woods. There was no set routine, but I knew what it meant when Grannie picked up her walking stick that hung next to the pouch of a bile gland on the wall of the back porch. As if on cue, I picked up a small bucket and a smaller walking stick and followed behind Grannie. Sometimes, we walked up the hill behind the pond – tapping the sticks along the ground to scare off any critters, especially snakes, or to clear the cob webs in front of us. Other times, we just walked along the clay road in front of her house. When it had rained a lot, we walked in the ruts or balanced on the ridges created by the tires pushing the clay into deep ruts. We’d pause by the gum tree where Grannie took her pocket knife out and made a cut into the bark. Sap oozed out of the cut and gathered into a blob while she grabbed a young branch and cut the tip off. She feathered the cut end of the branch with her knife and then dipped it into the sappy blob. She handed the branch to me as if offering a Popsicle. “Go ahead. Chew on it. It’s Mother Nature’s toothbrush. It’s what I used as a child,” she said. And, sure enough, it tasted fresh like chewing gum and the woody brush felt good against my teeth and gums.
Sometimes, Grannie hitched her mule to the wagon and we’d climb up on to the wagon seat. We’d ride down to the far end of the cow pasture. “Be sure to wear your hat,” she said before we headed out. “There are flying squirrels and bats down there and they’re hard to get out of your hair.” Her hat was a wide brimmed straw hat with a cord that fastened under her small chin, but sometimes she wore a floppier cloth version. She stored them behind the kitchen door next to her aprons.
The woods at the end of the cow pasture had tall trees and plenty of open space where the cows could rest in the shade. It seemed to be a favorite birthing spot for the cows. I remember watching a cow give birth on the pine straw bed under the trees. I remember the wet calf poke its head through the placenta casing as the mother cow pulled it from her calf and licked her newborn. Within moments the calf was up on its feet and instinctively calling to its mother. The mother cow mooed back, and the calf nuzzled the mother’s belly until it found the milk bag and utters. A wobble in its stance was quickly adjusted into a firm position. The calf nudged its nose into the milk bag, wrapped its mouth around the teat and sucked until milky foam oozed out of its mouth. Birth and death are natural parts of life on the farm.
No memory of Grannie is more vivid than seeing her at the biscuit cupboard sifting flour in her biscuit pan. The sifter and biscuit pan were both the same width as the flour bin, about 15” in diameter. When not in use, they rested inside the top of the flour bin. I’ve never seen pans quite like them. Instead of the usual type of sifter that has a beater which turns the flour over and over in the sifter; Grannie scooped out flour from the flour bin into the sifter pan which rested above the biscuit pan. Then, she shook the pans from side to side. The flour ended up in the biscuit pan and crumbles of hardened flour stayed in the sifter pan. Her skirt swayed from side to side during the process accompanied by a soft swishing sound of the skirt and the sifting action. I remember Grannie standing there with flour all over her hands kneading the biscuit dough together into a soft ball; then, squeezing a smaller ball out of the dough, patting it from hand to hand until it flattened before she dipped it into a pre-heated pan filled with hot oil. She turned the biscuit over exposing an oil glazed side and went back to the bigger ball. She repeated this procedure over again until the baking pan was filled with shiny biscuits. Even though she didn’t use any measuring tools as she mixed the oil and buttermilk into the bowl of flour she had formed with the back of her fist, the amount of dough was perfect leaving no waste. A few moments later, the air was filled with the odor of freshly baked biscuits and my thoughts raced ahead to sitting at the farm table with a hot biscuit loaded with butter and strawberry preserves. I’ve tried many times to make biscuits like Grannie’s, but I haven’t been successful yet. I’ll keep trying until I get them just right . . . until I can be a master of biscuit making.
It might seem like a tragedy to find yourself left on a milk farm with two old people two thousands of miles away from your father and a hundred miles away from your mother, but the way I see it, it was a blessing in disguise. It was a hard life and yet all the work helped me find healing in ordinary ways. It was a boring life by today’s standards but the time alone gave me time to think and dream and to talk to the spirits that followed me everywhere . . . even under the oak tree on the Hudson’s farm where I sat one day after picking cotton. The hundred foot spread of the tree’s umbrella and the roots that sculpted the ground beneath it with flowing, organic lines talked to me. Spirits sat with me on the logs under the tree where other little girls played house and I dreamed of designing houses like Frank Lloyd Wright. My sixth grade teacher told us Frank Lloyd Wright, one of America’s foremost architects/designers, had died that year and although I did not know how I would do it, I knew I would be a unique designer, too.
Grannie lived to be ninety-seven years and twenty-six days old; most of those years were on the farm. Could it be that working on her farm is what kept Grannie going for so long? Was it the constant work or was it the closeness to nature?
I cannot cook a meal or clean my house or walk in the woods without thinking about my Grannie and wondering if she taught me about nature – not just about the animals, plants and the woods, but also the nature of things — just by being in it. I wonder if that is why I feel peaceful when I am chopping an ingredient for a recipe, or washing the dishes after the meal; or why I seek a spot in nature to remind me of the order of all things.
I used to wish I had paid more attention to what she gathered on our walks in the woods and how she used herbs and potions to heal. I wish I had learned her gardening ways and I wish she had taught me how to use the Farmer’s Almanac to help my plants grow and how to keep my body healthy. I wish I had talked to her more about the ghosts that walked through her house and stood by my bed and about the things I saw when I stared into space so intently that people would say to me “Earth to Carole”.
I have come to believe that Grannie had gifts as a healer and a seer because she was so close to nature and to God and that was something that she could not teach me so much in words. I smell her unique odor and hear her whistling the gospel “Amazing Grace” and I know that she has become one of my friendly ghosts.
It was the not knowing about Grannie as well as the knowing that inspired me to write my story so that my grandchild could read the pages and peruse the pictures and have a sense of who I am long after I am gone. I want to be more than some tucked away photograph or a name on a genealogy list followed by a few “facts”. I want my grandchildren to know my struggles and how I rose above them; my fears and how I overcame them; and my dreams and which ones came true. I hope they’ll find in my story a wealth of feelings and a priceless legacy.
What I have learned about blood lines goes beyond the family tree I’ve traced on my mother’s side of the family that go as far back as the 1600’s or the roots on my father’s side which go back to the Yellow Emperor of China. Contrary to what most people believe, I believe that I chose my families for a reason. As strange as it may seem, I have learned that whatever my lineage, I have an opportunity in this lifetime to create my destiny. Even if I do not experience the effects of my choices in this lifetime, I know that my actions in this lifetime are creating my future life experiences.
Like my father, Grannie came to me in spirit to teach me what she did not when she walked the Earth. I realized even when she was alive, she taught me in miraculous ways. I believe she knew even in doing mundane things, I would learn very profound lessons. To this day, I find mundane chores a way to become “centered” and to allow my connection to spirits and the Universe to happen easily.