Blog, Family, grandmother

Mam-Maw’s Treasures and Fascinations

My paternal grandmother was always known to us as ‘Mam-Maw’ a fairly common southern term for grandmother. She was a prim and proper lady who always shouldered great burdens throughout her life. Her mother died when she was 16, and she married my grandfather (who was 17 years her senior) only 5 months later. She and my grandfather cared for her younger siblings until they married and moved out on their own. She gave birth to a stillborn child before my father was born and as a result, he was raised as an only child.

My grandmother as a young woman

I have always considered her home as the place where my foundation was established – much of that due to her influence. She was a wonderful cook and worked hard to keep a tidy house. She cared deeply for her belongings and took great care of them, considering everything as precious.

I was the youngest of four children and until I was old enough to venture out with my siblings, I spent a lot of time underfoot. I think she was a sentimentalist, always keeping letters and photos from friends and loved ones neatly tidied away in organized boxes. I loved looking though her things asking her questions. I remember the day I stumbled upon a photo of her as a young woman posed with cigarette in hand. When I asked her if she smoked she was mortified. She sat me down for a long chat explaining she and her friends were pretending to smoke while posing for the photo and how she was ashamed of it. I probably would not remember it at all except for her reaction.

Mam-Maw’s jewelry box was an old cardboard Whitman’s chocolate box. Inside the box were two black cardboard box dividers that fit so snugly against one another they did not appear removable. One day I did discover they lifted out of the box. Underneath was a black hand-sewn pouch containing 5 or 6 silver dollars. That same pouch and those same silver dollars sit in my safe deposit box today.

My grandmother did not have anything besides costume jewelry. Pins decorated with ornate flowers and strands of pale pink or ivory colored ‘pop beads’.  What a delight for a child to pop and un-pop those beads! I was often allowed to wear pop beads to church as long as I did not ‘pop’ them during the sermon.

In her wardrobe were boxes of nylons. When purchased from the store, the nylons were beautiful and in the perfect shape of a woman’s leg and foot. Hers often had seams down the back and when she wore them, they were rolled up just at the base of her knee.

Inside a cardboard shoe box was an old stereograph with two bunches of stereo cards. These double image cards produced a 3-D effect when viewed through the viewer. I would sit for hours amazed at the well dressed Victorian ladies bathing their cherub babies in porcelain wash tubs. There were images of highly decorative hotel lobbies in faraway cities and fields of tobacco in Panama. All images to inspire a child’s imagination. I still have this stereoscope and it still lives in the same shoebox that one day probably protected a new pair of my grandmother’s shoes.

In the room adjoining her bedroom was a box that contained all sorts of thermometers and glass hypodermic needles from her time as a home care nurse. I have two glass thermometers, but I am sure they are not the same ones. I would have loved to have one of the old glass hypodermic needles but somewhere through the years they disappeared.

My grandmother could be strict, although she had a soft spot for her grandchildren. She exercised a great deal pf patience with four small children underfoot day and night. But you would never know it.

My grandmother years later

When I think of her, three images of her come to mind. One of her sweeping away the snow under the forsythia bush to feed the birds, one of her singing hymns while she canned food in the kitchen, and third, sitting in my grandfather’s red recliner peeling apples into a metal pie tin – the peel in one long unbroken strip.


What Material Belongings Do You Cherish?

This morning a comment came across my phone that spoke of things you may have lost during your life that you wish you still had. It got me thinking not only about keepsakes that were lost through the years, but also about the things I have that I cherish.

When my mother-in-law’s home was ravaged by flood waters, her loss was palpable. Everything was such a mess. It was so hard to watch her struggle and try to account in dollars what she had lost for the insurance. How does one even remember all you have collected and held onto for a lifetime. I do recall she was most worried about a small child’s tea set that had belonged to her mother. Thankfully it survived, but so little did. She felt as if her life had been washed away.

When I think back on my own life, there are some big things I could grieve over. Like my grandmother’s house. But more than that, it is the odd little things that were somehow lost or destroyed over the years that I wish I still had. Like the rolling pin my grandfather made me.

My sister was relocated by the Air Force several times during her career. When the military moves you, it is a well oiled machine that moves quickly!  When her furniture arrived at the new location, the lamb cake mold that belonged to our grandmother was gone. It was the cake pan that produced the cakes we all had for birthdays, a lamb covered in coconut with raisins for eyes. She was devastated.

Years ago, my sister bought our mother a Cameo ring. When mom passed away, the ring was given back to her. It was one of her prized possessions. When my sister passed away, the ring was never found. I have often wondered if she made a decision to give it to someone while she was alive to witness it.

Hubby and I have a few family heirlooms, but most things have no intrinsic value. They are all simple and unremarkable items, but all wrapped in memories. Those are the things we cherish.

I once asked my daughter what things she might want once we pass away. I laughed at her response. She wants the pan we always cooked our potatoes in when we got together for the holidays.

I think for me and my brood, it’s the memories that bring the value.


My Response to a Writing Prompt

Think of your childhood home. If you had several, pick one. Write a detailed description of walking into that house. Which rooms were where? What stories are sparked by writing that description? (Courtesy of Patti Digh)

As I stand looking at my grandmother’s house, it seems smaller than it did as a child. The single step up to the sidewalk remains the same although a few cracks give away its age. The hedges around the porch are gone, but the memories of that porch still live. As I look up I see the ceiling of the porch is still painted a pale green and the ovoid shaped, textured light fixture still hangs there by the same three rusty screws. There is no longer a glider, but I can still sense it there and can almost hear the sound it made as it moved back and forth.

I place my hand on the doorknob and a memory shoots through me of all the people whose hands turned that knob through its life. I feel the familiar texture of as it slips into my palm. As I turn it I remember watching my grandfather lubricating the lock with a puff of graphite from a squeeze bottle. Before I can even step into the house, I hear the pendulum clock ticking on the mantlepiece. I see my grandfather, his hair stark white, slowly winding it with the key kept in the tiny door at the base of the clock.

Immediately to my right are the stairs leading to the bedrooms and the bathroom upstairs. I remember pretending to be mountain climbers with my brother, scaling the stairs turned mountain peaks. At the base of the stairs is a bullet hole in the wood, put there when my father was a young boy. I see the banister and remember this was our makeshift pulpit when we played ‘church’.

The walls have been painted but they still have the spongy texture of some material I fear might have contained asbestos. The brick around the fireplace has been painted in a contemporary style, but it does not keep me from seeing the red brick hearth and the chestnuts nestled into the coals to roast. My grandfather’s red recliner sits near the fireplace, occupied by my grandmother after my grandfather passed away. I see her stockings rolled up at the base of her knees and she is playing the ukulele singing the song “Little Mohee”.

Under the stairs is the same little door and the same latch that led to the storage area where my grandmother stored her paper supplies she used to make paper flowers. I suddenly remember pulling one of the boxes and finding silverfish scurrying through the paper. Under the stairs the wall phone, the first one we ever had, no longer hangs on the wall, but I can still see the long tangled cord stretched by too many adolescent phone conversations.

To my right is my grandmother’s bedroom. I still see her dresser, covered with a silk dresser scarf, a neatly lined row of delicate bottles, and a round container of powder with its huge fluffy powder puff. I can still see her in front of the mirror getting ready for church. She wore pillbox hats with netting, dotted with miniature pearls, secured to her hair with long hat pins.

From the same spot, I look into the dining room with french doors that always stood open, flanking the double door entry. I always dreamed of closing those doors, but was told the floor would need to be sanded down before that could happen. To the left was the brown Siegler stove that heated the house. The long dining table was tucked into an alcove with a wall of glass divided into small windows by white molding. Beyond the window was the view of the back yard, with the large forsythia bush where my grandmother swept away the snow under its branches so she could feed the birds.

Beyond the dining room to the left was the kitchen. There was a small free standing refrigerator with a small radio on top. There were small corner knick knack shelves where my grandmother displayed her collection of ceramic birds. Inside the far cabinet was where my grandfather kept his medicinal liniment from which he swallowed a tablespoon every morning. Tucked away in a corner cabinet, was where my grandmother squirreled away her little glass jar of Tang she drank for the vitamin C.

Outside the kitchen was the closed-in back porch with a freezer and a small table. In the freezer was always an old Maxwell House coffee can filled with cookies easily defrosted for an unplanned treat. The windows were covered with rolled bamboo shades that could be lowered to block the summer sun. The door led outside into the side yard.

I could have written so much more. So many memories I revealed that could easily have taken me down multiple rabbit holes. I did not even go through the upstairs in the house.  This reminded me of things I had not thought of for years. Such a good exercise for opening the doors to memories lying dormant for so long. I recommend it if you are so inclined.


Slumber Parties – A Rite of Passage

Creator unknown but will credit when known

When this meme started popping up all over Twitter and Facebook, it reminded me of the slumber parties of my youth. Slumber parties were a bit of a rite of passage for adolescent girls. I attended a few and hosted a few and we always tried to make them memorable.

I was young when I attended my first slumber party at my best friend’s house. There were probably 8 or 10 girls in attendance and We were probably in 4th or 5th grade which would make us between nine and ten years old. Boys raided the party and her older brother tossed them out – literally. Later everyone donned their pajamas and curled up in sleeping bags. There was a terrible thunderstorm in the night and our hostess, my best friend, left us in the living room and went to sleep with her mom because the storm frightened her.

When we moved to Ohio, slumber parties became more sophisticated. There was always some sort of prank or mischief involved. There was a time that seances were a big thing. Of course, we had no idea what a seance really was, but we went through the motions like we did. It was a suitable way to invoke a lot of screams and laughter.

Elijah Bond (1847–1921) and Charles Kennard (1856–1925), Ouija board – Kennard Novelty Company, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

Then there was the Ouija board, a popular ‘game’ of the 60’s which was supposed to be a way to communicate with the spirit world. They seemed to make an appearance at slumber parties sometime during the night. We would ask questions and the planchette would move as two people had their fingers on it. There were always accusations “she is moving it!” as answers were presumably given.

Then there was the chant “I believe in Mary Worth”, which honestly I never understood until I just researched it today. That did not keep me from acting like I understood it all and joining in.

We tried to hypnotize one another with dangling pendants to no avail.

Honestly though most of the time we gossiped, talked about boys, and played pranks on one another. You never wanted to be the first one to fall asleep or you might be subjected to the dreaded ‘one hand in cold water and one hand in warm water’ which no one wanted. At one party the first person to fall asleep  had french onion dip spread on her glasses so when she out them on she might think it had snowed. It all seems mean now, but no one was spared. Everyone knew the risk of being the first to fall asleep.

My worst experience was the night we slept in a tent in my friend’s back yard. We decided we were going to ‘TP’ a house. At midnight we headed toward the house. As we were readying ourselves for the dastardly deed, a car pulled into the driveway, but not just any car – a police car! We made a dive for the bushes which were unfortunately rose bushes. We waited for it to leave, but it never did. We cowered in the bushes until the lights went out. We finally made it back to her house, our arms covered in scratches and our toilet paper unused.

As an adult recalling all this, I can see how kids get into mischief often unaware. It’s all about being included at certain ages. These childhood slumber party memories have become fodder for many a horror movie throughout the years. It’s always about the scare, but I am no fan of horror movies. Especially anything involving children.


Life on the Farm, Part III Final

Swift Home Place

My parents moved us around a good bit considering the times. I think we were the generation when a lot of our parents threw their nets wider, looking for better jobs. Our travels would have us living in Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, and Ohio. This made our trips back home so much more special.

The highlight for me as a kid was going with Granddaddy to round up the cows for milking. I am not sure how much of the 33 acres were available for pasturing the cows, but I would guess at least 5-10 acres. Of course we were never awake for the morning milking, but the evening milking was a different story.

We would all pile in the back of his old black 1951 Chevy truck and off we would go down the long road toward the barn. Once past the barn, the chase would be on! The truck would climb the hills and make a large loop around the back to urge the cows toward the barn. The windows would be down and Granddaddy would yell at the cows as the truck bounced up and down the hilly terrain. It seemed like the truck flew, but I’m not sure we went over 15 or 20 mph. It was the farm version of an amusement park ride!

It’s funny what the mind holds onto and what it files away for safe keeping. As I started writing this, the inside of the truck cab materialized. I could breathe in the familiar musty smell as if I was sitting inside the truck today. I could see the dashboard, the speedometer and the manual gear shift that my grandfather would move through with ease.

I only remember Granny milking the cows, but her purview was also the yard and the garden. The garden was huge by today’s standards. From corn to tomatoes to cucumbers to potatoes to beans, onions and everything in between, it was all canned and preserved for winter. You could expect Granny hollering upstairs at 7:00 am to get us up to go pick beans or hoe potatoes. There were always chores and everyone did their part.

At the end of the driveway near the road, stood an apple tree. It had been grafted with what Granny referred to as ‘pound apples’ each one weighing almost a pound each. This was the apple used for her applesauce and apple jelly. For us, it was a great climbing tree with a wide Y, perfect for gaining your initial footing. In the fall, we had to be careful and dodge the bees that fed off the overripe apples that fell to the ground.

There was no such thing as eating out, or food ‘to go’. Every meal was cooked and served at the dining room table, although with large family gatherings, the cousins were relegated to any spot we could find – the couch, the stairs, the piano bench, the floor, or even outside. Milk was cold and fresh and butter was freshly churned from the fat that rose to the top of the milk jug. Bread consisted of homemade biscuits or rolls, and cornbread.

Granny had two special recipes she made on special occasions. Idiot Rolls were made for large gatherings and Angel Biscuits for Sunday dinners. They were works of art and although I have her recipes, mine never look like hers did.

And there was almost always a cake of some sort. Sometimes Granny would use a boxed cake mix, but never without adjusting it by adding addional eggs or other ingredients. Almost every cake had a handful of nuts thrown in and most times were iced with a hard brown sugar caramel frosting. The kids (and my father) were well known for sneaking into the dining room and breaking off a piece of the hard candy frosting. Granny often ended up with a partially naked cake.

Every Saturday during the spring and summer, Granny would cut flowers and deliver them to the church to be used on the altar during Sunday service. She grew the most beautifully colored gladiolas I think I have ever seen.

Evenings we marveled at the ‘robot’ eyes we saw in the shed, making up stories about what we saw. The glowing lights were actually the lights from the controls for the electric fences that surrounded the fields. On cold nights, we would pull the rocking chairs my grandfather made close to the fire. Those chairs were precarious. The rockers were long and always made you feel like you were going to fall over backwards!

My brother and my oldest male cousin always loved GrandDaddy’s old muzzleloader rifle. Under his watchful eye, they would follow the steps to clean, lubricate, load and fire the gun. I never had a fascination for guns but they sure did. You can see the instructions here if you are so inclined.

The hay loft was also a place of great fun. The loft was in the upper portion of the barn where baled hay was stored. Access was by ladder, through a hole in the floor. The smell of the hay permeated the barn. We often played there, looking out the upper door that dropped to the ground. (I wonder if this is why I have a fear of heights?)

After a full day, feather beds would be pulled out of the closet and spread on the floor for the kids to sleep on. I can still remember the feel of my head on the pillows and often pulling on a lone sharp feather that had poked its way through the blue striped ticking.

I am sure some kids, somewhere in the midwest and maybe some isolated farms in the south still have experiences similar to these. For me it was 50 some odd years ago. When I spend my time recalling those days, the memories come flooding back. It was a great time to be a kid.