Monthly Archives: November 2010

Mimi, My Ordinary Grandmother, Part I

Growing up I seldom got to have interesting vacations like other kids did, like up at Blue Ridge, down at Myrtle Beach, or over at Santee. All we could afford was ordinary vacations, and as their firstborn grandchild I spent a lot of summers with my mother’s parents (D.W. and Marena Powers) on their farm outside of Florence.

Mother was a black-haired Irish beauty married to a handsome blue-eyed Englishman. Her parents were called Mimi and Da, nicknames for Grandma and Grandpa. I loved her, but Mimi was just an ordinary grandma. She was just under five feet tall and maybe weighed a hundred pounds. She had fair skin, twinkling brown eyes, and grayish-auburn hair never styled except for funerals when she let a neighbor give her a curl.

Bright and early in the mornings, Mimi put on an ordinary housedress that she’d hand-sewn herself from flower-printed feed sacks. Theirs was just an ordinary farmhouse heated with fireplaces and a trash-burner in the kitchen, where Mimi prepared our breakfast. She started with ordinary grits cooked in a cast-iron pot for an hour or so. She flavored the grits with butter hand-churned the ordinary way, dashed with a little salt and a few drops of yellow food coloring. She sliced and fried slabs of bacon and scrambled ordinary eggs from her laying hens. There were ordinary buttermilk biscuits stuffed with homemade strawberry jam.

“Don’t spend the day in your pajamas,” Mimi warned as she left me to my own devices. I explored the chifforobe which served as a closet in my bedroom, full of old hats and shoes. I could hear her humming “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes” as Mimi swished her broom-straw broom across the linoleum. “Tch, tch, tch,” she’d say, her way of cussing the sandhill dirt tracked in on Da’s boots. After a while the front screen door slammed. I followed her outside and pestered her with questions as she constructed a fresh yard rake.

She let me choose skinny althea branches for my own rake. For hers, she trimmed twigs and leaves off a few chinaberry limbs, bunched them up and wrapped tobacco twine round and round for a handle. With a “Umm, umm, umm,” she tackled the trash in the front yard. “Make a pile! We’ll have a bonfire!” And so we did.

One day we started putting in tobacco. I had to earn my keep according to Da, so he set me to handing two or three tobacco leaves at a time to a stringer. By noon I’d made a whole dollar! While we did the hard work, Mimi did the ordinary stuff and fixed lunch for us and the farm hands. She just wrung the necks of two or three fryers, plucked the feathers, cleaned and fried the meat (she saved me the wishbone), boiled the beans and potatoes and turnip greens and baked more biscuits.

Before we could come in to eat, Mimi made Da and me wash our hands in a bowl of tomato juice left over from slicing tomatoes. That took the tobacco gum off, and then her homemade lye soap took off the tomato juice. Finally we sat down to eat, Da said “Thank the Lord for dinner” and we dug in. Mimi kept filling bowls and platters and tea glasses.

The ordinary things had to be done after the meal, like scrubbing pots and pans and feeding Da’s hound dogs. Mimi sang “When They Ring Those Golden Bells” amidst all the banging and clanging in the kitchen. It didn’t sound too bell-like to me, so I wandered outside again.

For a while after lunch, Da and some other men congregated out in the yard, circled round an upturned Pepsi-Cola crate. Bottle-caps would plop, plop, plop around the checker board, followed by “Crown me!” or “Got cha!” I didn’t get what the fun was in it, myself. They wouldn’t let me play.

When the game broke up, they went back to the barn and I went looking for Mimi. I was bored with the doll she’d made from dried corn shucks, feed-sack scraps for a dress and corn silk for hair. I decided to help with her butter bean shelling. “You have to get the beans not too little, not too big,” she said, and popped open a couple of hulls to show me the difference. So much trouble over ordinary old beans, I thought.

That first summer when August rolled around Mama and Daddy came to collect me. Da gave me my “pay for helping out” with a twinkle in his eye: three crisp dollar bills. Mimi hugged me tight and slipped me a brown paper package — a cheese and cookie sandwich for the ride home. She whispered, “Come back real soon, you hear,” and that was that. I munched and wondered as we drove back to town, what exciting stories would the other kids tell for What I Did on Summer Vacation? When it came my turn, I just mumbled, “I had to go stay with my grandma on the farm.” I made it a short story.

I didn’t understand how extraordinary Mimi was until she had been dead for twenty years. I discovered she had been a school teacher when she met, loved and married a railroad man. She retired from teaching to raise a family. The railroad had massive layoffs and Da became first a truck farmer, then just a farmer.

Those summers, Mimi taught me how to sing while you work, how to help your neighbor, how to enjoy your own company, how to use your brain and your imagination and your heart, and I thought it was all so ordinary. Thank you, Mimi. How I wish I’d appreciated you, your full worth’s worth, while you were living.

Mimi, My Ordinary Grandmother, Part II

MimiDaOnFrontPorchCroppedOr, Why I Love Murder Mysteries.

The summers I spent with my grandmother Mimi and my grandfather Da weren’t all ordinary work in the house, yard, garden or farm. I did my share of exploring and excavating the sand hill dirt for arrowheads. Found a few, too.

My brother Bud, young uncle Mike and I climbed our share of chinaberry trees, stringing tobacco twine and tin cans for telephones or walkie-talkies. Police detectives! Soldiers! Spies! We quarreled over who’d be the good guys since no-one wanted to be the enemy – they always lost.

I felt my share of itchy sawdust inside my jeans from zooming down the sawdust piles on makeshift sleds of pine bark. I received my fair share of maypop hand grenade blasts, coating the outside of my jeans with more sawdust. Red bugs loved sawdust as much as I did, I discovered. Kerosene in the bathwater!

Mimi scrubbed our jeans with lye soap, muttering under her breath words not understandable to young ears, probably not repeatable either.

But some days it rained and some days it was just too hot to play outside. One such afternoon I was helping Mimi with butterbean shelling when the mailman’s car pulled up to the edge of the yard. Mimi set down her pan, shook out her apron, and walked out to the mailbox.

She pulled out catalogs addressed to Occupant or to grandpa, sorted through duns and circulars, and that’s when our day became a bit more fun. Her True Crime magazine and Reader’s Digest had arrived.

Mimi and Da got the Florence newspaper delivered bright and early every morning. In the mail, Da got his farm-to-market bulletins and Popular Mechanics and Farmer’s Almanac. In a pinch these would do for light reading, if you were bored enough. But Mimi subscribed to True Crime and Reader’s Digest, McCall Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, Woman’s Day, and Red Book!

Back inside the house, we took a break. Mimi leaned back in her armchair with her feet propped up, I sprawled on the sofa by the window and she handed me the Reader’s Digest. She kept the True Crime.

Mimi loved murder mysteries. She enjoyed short stories and hard news. Biographical articles. Recipes. Gardening, repairing, sewing, buying and selling, but she loved adventure stories and murder mysteries. And I learned to read and enjoy them too, right along with the short stories, hard news, even the Farmer’s Almanac and Popular Mechanics.

On days when I had no playmates for company, I created my own. I meandered along ditch banks from one end of the tobacco fields to the other, ignoring blackberry brambles and sandspurs as I plotted mysteries of my own.

I foiled many dastardly deeds as I went, demolishing dirt clods and bad guys. In my stories I always won the heart of the brave detective and became the toast of the town, or something equally wonderful.

When school time rolled around, not only did I head for new classes with new teachers and new classmates, I headed for the library. Nancy Drew. The Hardy Boys. Mignon Eberhardt. Agatha Christie.

My parents didn’t subscribe to all the magazines that Mimi did, but I discovered the library got copies too so I didn’t miss out in those months away from Mimi’s stacks.

Today, I still love murder mysteries. I have a collection of my own that grows by leaps and bounds since the advent of E-Bay. I no longer stroll along ditch banks, tobacco fields or blackberry vines, today I just peddle away on my exercise bike. But I still plot my own adventure stories and murder mysteries as I go, and still us good guys always win…

Thank you, Mimi!

“Cruising the View”

ETV recently lamented the demise of old style drive-in restaurants, the kind with the speaker on a pedestal right by your car and your food delivered to the car window. A film crew visited the Sky View, interviewing patrons about the way “Cruising the Sky View” used to be. One late 1950’s Cruising the View adventure is still vivid in my mind.

Eating places were as different as car styles in the 1950’s and Florence had a variety of choices for any taste buds. Smiley’s, on East Palmetto where Cheves Street veers off for downtown, offered the world’s best cheeseburgers. Fried chicken lovers headed to Ed Turner’s Chicken Basket at Coles Crossroads. You might drop in to the Sanitary Lunch across from McLeod Infirmary for a hot Apple Jack. If you had a really sweet tooth, you visited the Donut Dinette on West Palmetto for a dozen of those melt-in-the-mouth, hot-out-of-the-grease doughnuts. Quite a few full-fledged restaurants, corner cafes, serious steak houses and fish camps were scattered around town, each one unique.

For teenage drivers, however, the Beacon Drive-in on South Irby offered places to park, grab a bite to eat and listen to the radio. Palmetto Street offered two great destinations with similar fare and service, the 301 Drive-In across from the main Fire Station and the Sky View at Five Points. All three featured curb service, hamburgers, fries, milk shakes and fountain drinks. Remember Clarinets? Cruising the View in the 1950’s came to include making the rounds of all three several times an evening, boys in their cars, girls in theirs if not out on a date.

Tri-Hi-Y met at the YMCA downtown and I was fortunate enough to be trusted with my daddy’s car to attend these meetings. Since they were over early in the evening, all the kids hunted up refreshments afterwards. It was only natural that my friend Sally and I would do likewise. The way this activity worked, we might order a fountain coke at the 301, sip on it a while and watch other cars go by. We’d check out who was driving what and who was riding with who, then crank up and head over to the Beacon. There we’d park again, order french fries, munch and watch other cars go by.

Now, daddy had given me definite instructions about where I could drive his car and how many hours I could stay out, and I was supposed to keep his car in the downtown area. That meant no Sky View ( it was too far out on West Palmetto). But once you’ve cruised the Beacon and 301 a couple of times, it’s too obvious to keep on circling those two. It was only natural that you’d follow the cruising crowd out to the Sky View, right? And if we paid for the extra gas, daddy really wouldn’t mind, right?

Half way out to Five Points, we had a flat tire. In those days there were almost no businesses between downtown and Five Points, no gas stations and no tire companies, only residences. We made it to the phone booth at the Dairy Queen and sat in the car a few minutes, contemplating our dilemma. Who did we know that could change a tire? Having a flat tire wasn’t that big a problem — where we had the flat tire was a big problem! My earlier reasoning about Cruising the Sky View suddenly felt a little faulty even to me.

“Honesty is the best policy,” Daddy had drummed that into my skull a few times and when I finally ran out of options I called him. I was honest. We’d had a flat tire, and we were where we’d been told not to be, out in the middle of “nowhere,” way out on West Palmetto Street headed toward the Sky View. I don’t remember who came to change the tire, somebody daddy called, but I do remember the consequences. No more driving daddy’s car to Tri-Hi-Y meetings, no more going anywhere at night for a month, and definitely no more Cruising the View in his car.

We did Cruise the Sky View in later days (in Sally’s car) and it was still fun ordering a burger here, onion rings there, and a Clarinet somewhere else, watching the other cars go by and seeing who was riding with who.

A few years ago Tim and I would visit the Sonic out on West Palmetto, park and enjoy milkshakes on hot summer afternoons. As we sipped our shakes and listened to the radio, I watched other cars go by and realized cruising is still alive and well with a brand-new generation of teenagers, plus an extra destination or two. ETV may have lamented the demise of the old-time drive-in restaurants a little too early.

1954

hazel
The Garden City home of Mr. and Mrs. Jake Todd of Columbia was destroyed by Hurricane Hazel.  Shown above with a bed spring, one of the few things left on the home site.  The second story of the house is in the background a block away. From http://www.thestate.com/news/special-reports/state-125/article40879107.html

Moving seemed to be an annual event when I was small.  We went from small apartment to large, then to a duplex, and by early 1954 we had a whole house to ourselves at Coles Crossroads. The large frame house had a tin roof which made for interesting sound effects when it rained, and it had huge yards front and back.

I think dreams of being a gentleman farmer had attracted daddy to the place; an already-constructed, fenced-in chicken pen occupied a prominent position behind the house.  A visit to Kirby’s Hatchery downtown was in order and soon little yellow bitties were scratching their hearts out for store-bought chicken feed.  Several setting hens and a strutting red rooster completed daddy’s menagerie and we were all set to enjoy our own fresh eggs and delicious fryers.

To the left of our new town-and-country home was a fascinating new “playground” for Harold and me, an auction barn dealing in farm animals.  The dirt parking lot was frequently filled with trucks and trailers, farmers and farm hands in jeans and boots.  The patter of the fast-talking auctioneer competed with oinking, mooing or braying from whatever was being offered for sale.  We’d spent enough time on our grandparents’ farm to know the difference between a mule and a milk cow; farm animals by themselves weren’t an attraction.

But all those animals under one roof, all those people milling around, comparing the virtues and values of this versus that — the place was a natural magnet for a couple of mostly city kids.  This was better than the fair!

Behind our chicken yards lay several fenced pastures, one right behind the other all the way back to the railroad track.  During the summer that year a bull took up residence in the far pasture, no doubt awaiting auction.  He didn’t seem that scary to us and we thought we’d take a look at him up close.  We clambered over one fence, then another, until we arrived in his private pasture.  I guess we didn’t seem that scary to him either, and he thought he’d take a closer look at us.

When his gaze turned into a head-down trek in our direction, we’d looked at him enough.  We made for the fence as fast as our feet would carry us.

Remember that old joke about the two fellows being chased by a bear?  “How are we going to outrun that bear?” one guy asked the other.  “I don’t have to outrun the bear,” his friend answered, “I just have to outrun you!”  Well, that’s sort of the way it was with us and the bull.  I made it over the fence first, caring nothing for the well-being of my brother according to him.  We bid the bull goodbye, hoping we didn’t have to explain any scrapes to skin or damage to duds to mama and daddy later.

When school started in September, for the first time we had to ride a big yellow bus.  It was way too far to walk to school; no more detours, no more exploring new routes to McKenzie in the mornings.  All my old friends were back in the old neighborhood and everyone else on the bus had their favorite seatmates.  It took me a while to adjust.  Still, school was pretty much the same as always and we soon settled into a routine.  September came and went uneventfully.

The first week in October was a pretty normal one at our house.  School, chores, supper, and listening to “The Shadow Knows” on the radio before bedtime.  By the middle of the second week the weather had gotten a little funky.

You know, weird.  The sky took on a strange color, not exactly blue, not exactly gray, not exactly any recognizable color.  The hair on the back of your arms wanted to stand up.

We’d had storms before, lots of rain clattering our tin roof, followed by lots of warm puddles outside to splash in.  This wasn’t like that.  The sky was peculiar and still, and then it wasn’t.  Once the rain started it never seemed to stop.  It was Thursday, a school day, but we didn’t go to school and mama and daddy didn’t go to work.

The wind drove the rain sideways across our yard, so strong we couldn’t see through it.  The tin roof thundered overhead sounding like it might be ripped off any minute.  The rattling windows sounded like they might be blown right out of their frames.

We all hunkered down in the middle of the dining room, trying not to be afraid, trying to listen to the radio, trying to read, trying to do anything to take our minds off the mayhem outside.  Hours later the storm let up a little, the winds lessened and the pounding and the rattling quieted down.  We went to bed early, having done nothing all day but feeling exhausted anyway.

The next morning our family surveyed the damage in our neighborhood.  Limbs and debris covered the ground as far as the eye could see, up and down Irby Street.  A fully grown apple tree to the left of the house lay over sideways, half its root system sticking out of the ground.

Trees in the back yard were broken or leaning, the fences partially demolished around the chicken yard.  Daddy’s chickens were gone — not dead, just gone.  We never found any sign of them.

hazel_1954_trackHazel had hit in broad daylight.  It had come ashore just north of Cherry Grove at 140 miles an hour, a Category 4 storm that really only brushed Florence.  We didn’t know Myrtle Beach had been devastated, the entire coastline of South and North Carolina had been devastated, that dozens of people had already died and hundreds more still would die, as Hazel hit state after state on its track northward through the United States and into Canada.

That year was memorable to me for several reasons, a new house, a new playground (auction barn) next door, and a new mode of transportation to school, but for anyone living in South Carolina that year, Hurricane Hazel is what comes to mind when you say 1954.  We moved back into town the following year.

You’re the Dog Lady!

Dogs and cats, rabbits and lizards – pets have always been part of my family’s life.  Most have been welcome, pure-bred or mongrel.

Back in the 1970’s I had a bit of an adventure with six half-grown pups.  Our mini-farm was thirteen miles from town, out of sight of any other houses and with lots of room for pets to roam.  We had just the right number, a couple of hounds to satisfy the dog-lovers among us and several cats to satisfy us cat-lovers.

Then one day six half-grown pups showed up.  Dropped off without permission, they sported perky ears and humongous paws.  Mastiffs?! I thought as they pranced around my feet.  No, probably labrador mixed with something else.  They were friendly, lively and very hungry.  Our resident pets took cover under the station wagon and atop the tool shed, barking and growling to beat the band.  The visitors didn’t seem to mind. Their curiosity took over and nose to ground they went snooping around the car to see what the fuss was all about.

After a couple of days the uninvited visitors had outgrown their welcome.  No bush or tree or blade of grass had gone unscathed and I began to understand why their former master had made us this “gift.”  Our own animals couldn’t eat their dinner outdoors any more, the cats seldom ventured down out of trees and reluctantly I realized it was going to be my task to solve this problem.

The next Saturday the children and I spent the morning rounding up the herd, one of the kids opening the back door of the station wagon a little as I grabbed a pup around the middle and squeezed him inside the car.  If we weren’t careful, while pup number two was going in, pup number one was coming out!  By the time we had all six loaded up I was covered with dog hair, sweat, and general gook the pups had acquired while exploring woods and ditches.  Even with the air conditioner wide open the doggy smell was pretty powerful inside that car.  Off we headed to the dog pound.

Three miles down the road I hit a highway patrol inspection check.  I rolled my window down a few inches, handed the officer my driver’s license and tried to ignore the barks coming from the back seat.  After circling the car, the young man handed me back my license with these words:  “You can’t drive anywhere on those tires, ma’am.”

I stared at him in shock.  “What?”

“You’ve got one bald tire and the others don’t look too good.  You can’t drive anywhere ‘till you get some tires.”

Tears started down my face as I thought back to the morning.  My silent children were wondering what on earth mama’s going to do now, and so was I.

“These your dogs?”  By now the din was hard for the fellow to ignore.  I was so glad he asked.

“No, they were dropped off at my house and it’s taken us all morning to get them in the car to take them to the dog pound.  Can’t I at least do that?”  I guess my free-flowing tears got to him.

“Tell you what.  If you promise you won’t go anywhere else until you get some tires, I’ll let you take them to the pound.  But don’t come home until you get tires on this car, okay?”  I would have promised him the moon and stars, but I just said, “Thank you, thank you, yes I promise!”  And on down the road we went.

After a lengthy explanation at the pound of why we wanted to drop off “our” puppies, we headed to B&G Firestone.  I marched right in as if I wasn’t covered in dog hair and smell.  The kids kept their distance, although from our similar appearance it was obvious we were together.  I sat there and reeked while reading a magazine, and after another hour or so we rode home on new tires.  By now the roadblock was gone.  It took several baths for me, the children and the station wagon, but we finally scrubbed our skins and scents back to normal.

On my way to town a couple of weeks later, lo and behold there was another inspection check in the very same spot.  And wouldn’t you know it?  The very same officer circled the car, checked the tires, then said with a smile, “I remember you, you’re the dog lady!”

“And I have new tires!”  I smiled back.  As he waved me on my way, I thought to myself, “Dog lady —  I guess there are worse ways to be remembered by the highway patrol!”