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.