Tag Archives: 1940s

Rolling stores and locker plants

RollingStore1939TennesseeI tend to wait till my cats run out of food before I go grocery shopping. Of course, by then we’re nearly out of people food too and by the time I get everything checked off my list, my buggy is piled high.

Back at home I try to find a way to wedge more stuff into the freezer compartment of my refrigerator. Bags of broccoli, boxes of waffles, shrink-wrapped corn on the cob and trays of hamburger — try as I might they refuse to stack neatly. Oh well, maybe the air can circulate better if things aren’t too orderly.

I usually shop in the supermarket closest to home for convenience sake. I don’t have to drive too far, there’s a handy drug store, a gas station on the corner and even a Burger King in case I don’t want to cook some of that stuff I just bought.

I don’t have a separate food freezer in my condo, but I think about shopping for one every summer when all the fresh vegetables are on display at the Pee Dee Farmer’s Market.

When I was growing up, a farmer with a pickup truck came through our neighborhood every week or so. His truck bed was loaded down with fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, butter beans in the hull or already shelled and bagged up. Wooden baskets were piled high with cabbages, string beans, yellow squash and ears of white or yellow corn, sometimes even peaches or watermelons.

It was nice to have such a selection to choose from, right there at our front door. Of course, we lived in town so if the farmer didn’t come by we could run right down to the A & P for what we needed.

Listening to Tim’s mom and other folks around town recount stories of their childhood days, I have a fresh appreciation of how easy we have it today.

Shopping wasn’t so convenient in the decade or so before I was born, and especially not out in the country. Many farm families had no automobile and some that did couldn’t afford to drive it.

Trips to town for the things the family didn’t grow or raise might be made in a mule-drawn wagon once every few months, and if you ran out of something, you might have to do without it for a while — unless the rolling store came through your “neck of the woods.”

The rolling store was a big truck with sides built up and a cover on top. Inside, two rows of tall shelves were loaded with staple goods of every kind, a narrow aisle running down the center just wide enough for one shopper at a time.

Cash was short, and not every family had ready spending money to pay for their purchases. So, large crates were attached to the back of the truck to hold live chickens, fresh eggs and newly churned butter, traded to the rolling store for sugar, salt or coffee, maybe dress fabric, smoking tobacco or penny candy.

From about 1947 until 1964, D. C. McFadden operated a rolling store in Williamsburg County, a large speaker mounted on top to let folks know he was coming.

A former bread truck, his store had a feature many others lacked — a cooler for soft drinks and ice cream. Tim’s dad Theron Cox had helped him install it and rigged up a power cord.

He’d leave the cooler plugged in overnight, thus as he made his route during the day the ice cream would stay frozen and the cold drinks would stay cold. It was a popular attraction for all the neighborhood kids to hear Mr. McFadden’s store coming!

Most meat and produce were consumed fresh, dried, canned or salted at that time. There wasn’t any other way to keep perishable food. Only large cities had “locker plants,” refrigerated buildings containing rows of individual meat lockers, rented (and locked up) by folks needing a place to store large quantities of meat or vegetables.

Many Pee Dee area homes still used ice boxes, and actual refrigerators had small freezer compartments, only big enough for an ice tray or two.

After WWII, Theron Cox began putting his refrigeration skills to work. Locker plants began to appear throughout lower South Carolina, and plant owners hired Theron to install the equipment to make them work.

Now a family could purchase a side of beef or bring in their own pork and poultry, rent one or more lockers by the month to freeze and store their meat until needed.

Families could have fresh-frozen meat and vegetables year round, although they might have to travel many miles to get to their locker.

As home deep freezers began to appear, gradually locker plants around the state began to close down. Supermarkets with adjacent locker plants began offering meat cutting services, sausage grinding, hickory smoking or sugar curing for hams in order to maintain their customer base. Jim’s IGA over in Lake City was one of those.

These days an ice cream truck comes through our neighborhood in the summer time. The musical melody that announces its presence brings back fond memories of popsicles and moo bars, vanilla ice cream cups and wooden spoons. But I’d love to see a rolling store come by my house, even if I don’t have any live chickens to trade.

Can’t Get There From Here

NDarganStGuarantyBldgFor a while in the late 1940’s, my father worked as a professional photographer.

“Where was your daddy’s photography studio?” a fellow asked me one day.

“Well, I went to his studio once or twice when I was little. Remember when the China Shop used to be downtown? (No.) Next door to the old Post Office on West Evans? (Okay.) I thought it was upstairs in that building but then somebody told me his studio was somewhere else. (Where?) Remember the bank on West Evans with the back door on Dargan Street?” (No.)

“Well, remember the Kresses downtown that had a back door on Dargan?” (Oh, yeah.) “The back door of the bank was next to the back door of Kresses. There were some offices upstairs in that building. Daddy supposedly had a studio up there.”

Notice all the “remembers?” Well, there’s no China Shop downtown any more. No bank on West Evans and Dargan and no Kresses. If that fellow had been any younger, I probably would have had to walk him down the street and show him in person!

Our conversation was sort of like giving directions to get somewhere out in the county. “Remember when old man Kirby’s tobacco barn burned down? Twenty years or so back? Turn left just past there.” Unless you grew up around here, you might not be able to get there from here!

Of course, all that made me remember some other things from the 1950’s. Like the fact that banks in downtown Florence used to close at 1:00 o’clock every day. One day a week, I think it was Wednesday, they weren’t open at all. And of course nobody ever heard of a branch bank.

Or the fact that you could set your watch by the whistle at Florence Manufacturing Company just outside of town. For years nearly every working woman in Florence had a job in that sewing plant, down at the end of Chase Street near the Darlington Highway railroad tracks. Some days they made shirts, other days they made dresses.

Every drug store had a soda fountain and a soda jerk, something you seldom see these days. I can hear some of you young’uns ask, “Soda jerk, what’s a soda jerk?” (Look it up.) High school kids hung out at their favorite fountain after school.

One on the corner of West Evans and South Irby Street had black and white hexagonal ceramic tile floors, tiny glass-top tables and bow-legged metal chairs.

Fountain Coke was served in hourglass-shaped glasses and cherry coke came with a real cherry on top of crushed ice. Banana splits were available but few teenagers had enough cash for one of those. We usually made do with scoops of plain vanilla.

Remember “white coat hypertension?” It’s when your blood pressure goes up when you see the doctor in his white coat. When was the last time your doctor wore a white coat in his office? Or a nurse wore a white uniform and white cap?

Remember when Dr. Sylvester’s office was in the little house on South Irby? Across from where the Florence Morning News used to be? He was my doctor in the early 1960’s and he was the first one that I’d ever seen not wearing a white coat in his office.

All the businessmen wore suits and ties and hats, and women wore dresses, hose and heels. High school kids did not wear jeans. The guys wore slacks and button-downs, the girls wore skirts with twin sets, penny loafers and bobby socks.

I have a collection of historical and pictorial books about Florence, town and county. Every one of them feature the 100 block of West Evans showing the businesses at various incarnations from the early 1900’s to the 1960’s. Remember what’s at the end of that block? The Lake’s Drug Store building, later known as the McCown-Smith Department Store building, used to be there.

florencedowntownIt was a Florence icon, that building. It was probably the oldest continually-used building downtown, appearing in the very earliest maps and photos of Florence. Today it’s an empty lot. Planted with grass, but still an empty lot.

Reminiscing can be contagious and addictive when you run into an old friend, and your speech may be liberally sprinkled with “remembers.” I love those conversations… some are bittersweet these days.

The Irresistible Power of Dirt

Betty and Harold Motte with their Uncle Mike Powers at Mimi and Da’s, late 1940’s.

We’re posing for a photo, probably on a Sunday since we have on shoes and socks. Da’s field behind us beckons where we loved digging for arrowheads. We found quite a few over those summers…

Even though I live in a condo I’ve been watching a lot of Home and Garden TV lately, admiring the way talented landscapers transform an ordinary lawn into a sunken garden complete with waterfall. I’m with them – no more mowing! But then my thoughts and memories began to wander back a few decades, to my childhood days of playing outside in the yard.

We didn’t have “lawns” in those days. Everybody had a front yard and a back yard, maybe a side yard too. Gardens were where you planted tomatoes and butter beans and some city yards had a little garden too, way at the back of their regular yard.

To a city kid raised in the middle of town, ordinary grass was what everybody had in their yard, unexciting, turned-brown-in-the-summer, plain grass. There might be a little square of bare dirt in an unpaved driveway or neighborhood park, but it was usually a puny little patch.

But on those summer occasions when my brother and I got to spend time at Mimi’s house, we had great expanses of exciting, inviting dirt. She did have some flower beds near the house which were strictly off-limits, but she also had something us city-dwellers didn’t have – a huge side yard and back yard full of mostly weed-free dirt.

The color of dirt can be quite varied here in the Pee Dee, ranging from blackish-brown just right to plant vegetables, to gooey yellow clay that seldom washed completely out of your clothes, to whitish-tan sandy stuff. Mimi’s dirt was medium brown, not gooey at all but sort of sandy.

Mimi’s dirt was just right for us little kids with long summer days to fill with exploration, excavation and other assorted outdoor fun. It didn’t make sticky tracks in the house, which was a good thing, considering that a favorite pastime was running in and out of the house with a brief pause in the kitchen for a drink of cool water.

There’s just something about the smell of dirt right before, during and after a summer rain shower. If it only sprinkled and didn’t pour, you got the full flavor of it. It drew you right outside to splash or stomp, if you could find the right size puddle.

You could make neat mud pies to serve to your companions – usually a kitten or an old doll baby in my case. Or if the dirt was just damp and not soppy wet, you could draw major house plans which would stay put on the ground for a while. Dry dirt was better for playing marbles, of course.

The texture of dirt was also interesting. Once the weather warmed up we went barefooted most of the time. That first feel of hot summer dirt on my bare feet was so luscious, so luxuriating, the grit between my toes was hardly noticeable. If we had to put on sandals for a ride to the store, we seldom washed our feet first. Why wash? They were just going to get dirty again soon. Sandals off, back to bare feet ASAP, that was our motto.

In examining the possibilities of dirt, we discovered that sandy dirt doesn’t stick together too well unless it’s just the right consistency and dampness. Even then, when it dries out it tends to fall apart. You needed to mix in a bit of granddaddy’s dirt to make good building material, such as for walls around a mud puddle to keep beetles or small turtles in, or to deepen the puddle for floating twig-boats and popsicle-stick barges.

Da’s field dirt was darker brown than Mimi’s yard dirt. A cross between sandy and loamy, the dirt in the plowed fields beyond the house was where granddaddy planted watermelons, or tobacco, or cotton. After his tractor made neat straight rows but before the seeds went in, that dirt was perfect for investigating and excavating.

We loved digging there for arrowheads. We found quite a few over those summers but for some strange reason Mimi and Da didn’t want us to make real arrows with them, just save them for “show and tell” at school later on. When not on one of our archeological digs, Da’s field was excellent for seeing how deep we could bury our feet, or shoveling up a bucket full for later use.

I haven’t gone barefooted in years but I believe my feet retain the memory! The closer summer gets, the more my toes seem to yearn for Mimi’s warm yards and Da’s fresh-plowed fields. I really have fond memories of most things about dirt, except the tin tub baths that Mimi insisted we take at night to remove it from our persons.

Childhood misadventures (and memories of Dr. Price)

MRI’s, CT scans, x-rays and angiograms – the older we get, the more those terms become familiar to us. But when was the last time you had an old-fashioned fluoroscope?

I was four or five the last time I had one. Chewing on things like little rubber dolls and fingernails was an “unattractive habit,” according to mama. She tried to discourage me from putting non-food items into my mouth, but how else can a little kid tell what things are made of, if you don’t taste them?

Many interesting things invited a bite or a taste, like the tangy popsicle stick after the frozen orange flavor was gone, or the salty-sweet coated paper lining the Cracker Jacks box, or the chewy wax bottle once the syrupy contents were sucked dry.

But I have to agree, the nickle shouldn’t have been one of those things. That metallic flavor was very different from anything sweet or salty, you couldn’t suck any further taste out of it, and it was entirely too easy to swallow accidentally. Which is what I did, much to the dismay of my mother.

I had to tell her; after all, I wanted my nickle back. A nickle would buy something good, like a tootsie roll or two, and I didn’t come by too many nickles in those days.

Mama’s reaction was a bit extreme, I thought. “Oh my Lord, what did you swallow?!” Bundled into the car in a flash, down to Dr. Price’s exam room we went. From there I was rushed over to a strange room at McLeod Infirmary, conveniently located next door to the doctor’s office.

Lying still on that hard table was scary, especially when all the lights were off. And then came the stern admonishment from normally jovial Dr. Price: Go home, lie in the bed and read comic books, don’t play outside, don’t run or jump or do anything fun for several days, and things will “work themselves out.” And of course they did, in due time.

I quit trying to use my taste buds to determine the make-up of inedible objects for a while after that.

Several years and bouts of sore throats later, Dr. Price made a pronouncement to me with a smile as he prepared a penicillin shot: “Next time you’re in here with tonsillitis, we’re going to yank those tonsils right out.”

That was the last time I was in there with tonsillitis! Believe me, whenever I got a sore throat after that I never let on to anybody. I may have snuck into the bathroom and gargled with salt water a few times, taken an aspirin or two, but no horrible tonsil-yanking for me. I wasn’t sure how they went about it but it didn’t sound too pleasant. I didn’t intend to find out.

I made it from grammar school to junior high without too many misadventures, until the amazing ambulance ride from school to the hospital one afternoon. Sometimes with a head cold I’d get a tickle in the back of my throat, caused by a swollen soft palate. I’d learned that if a tickle evolved into a cough, I could easily stop it with a few sprinkles of table salt. Accordingly my pockets usually held one or two little salt packs (like you get with french fries), and just a bit of salt licked off the palm of my hand would do the trick.

This particular day I was all out of salt when the tickle started. Soon a cough developed, and after a couple of minutes I couldn’t stop coughing. I tried to tell the teacher I needed some salt but she thought I was nuts. Cough, cough, salt, please get me some salt, cough, cough! Instead she got me a cup of cold water, which just made things worse.

Worried by then, she did what any responsible teacher would do: she sent for the ambulance. Now, in those days, there was no EMS – the ambulances looked a lot like hearses. I was a real star, coughing my head off while the attendants in white uniforms laid me out on a stretcher and loaded me in the back of that long white car.

My fellow students watched and waved as off we went to McLeod Infirmary, probably thinking they’d never see me again.

Of course by the time we pulled up to the emergency entrance at McLeod, the cough had run its course. I guess I’d sweated enough from all that coughing that licking my damp salty palms was enough to stop it. There at the hospital door was my anxious mother, who soon understood my problem. A simple cough triggered by a simple tickle, the whole thing avoidable with a simple application of table salt.

No matter, I was there, Dr. Price was there, and I had to be checked out for the sake of the school officials. After a brief listen to my lungs, a look down my throat and a “tch, tch, tonsils still there, hmmm?” I was declared fit to go home. My star status was dimmed somewhat when I turned up at school the next day none the worse for wear, several salt packets stowed in my pocket.

Well, today I seldom have sore throats or coughs that can’t be stopped with a sprinkle of salt. But I do still have my tonsils, thanks to Dr. Julian Price’s penicillin shots – or his “yank-’em-right-out” promise, depending on your point of view!

Girlie Show at the Fair

Wall of Death, Two-Headed Monsters and the Girlie Show – The Fair’s in Town! I loved the fair as a kid, all the smells, the feels, the sights and the sounds, from greasy grilled onions on a hot dog to baby pigs and cows, sawdust to mud puddles, bright neon lights to hawkers hawking wares: “Get Your Weight Guessed Right Here,” “Get Your Foot Long Dogs Right Here,” “Get Your Fortune Told Right Here!”

In the very early 1950’s I was thrilled at the possibility of riding the big wheel – not the Big Wheel my children peddled in later years – the really big wheel. The Ferris Wheel. Every year I”d beg to go on that ride but every year either my parents or the ticket taker would crush my hopes with “Maybe next year, you’re a little too short.”

Finally the year of my dreams came when I was eight or so and I got to go on that wonderful contraption. With some strange kid I’d never met in the seat beside me, we rode up, up and away. We thought the headlights on Highway 76 looked like strings of glowing pearls in the night as cars lined up to turn into the fairgrounds. The wheel paused occasionally to let people on or off and once we sat at the tip-top for a few moments. We gripped the hand-bar for dear life as the car jerked to a stop, but we could see everything for miles and miles and I wished the ride would last forever.

It didn’t, of course, so we made the circle of the fairway and my brother Harold and I rode everything we could. The Bullet looked too scary even for me but there was plenty of other stuff to do, rings to toss over Coke bottles and coins to skip across plates hoping to win a prize. We ate sticky cotton candy and corn dogs on a stick, then tried our hand at shooting the little assembly line of moving ducks. Lacking enough muscle power in our skinny little arms, we watched teenage athletes throwing power pitches to dunk guys in a vat of chilly water. That was a blast.

We passed by the multicolored Fortune Teller’s Tent, tripped through the House of Mirrors and Fun House and ended up with the Tunnel of Love. When spooky vampires jumped out of the walls or Frankenstein’s monster dropped suddenly from the ceiling, teenage girls squealed in fear and inched closer to their boyfriends. (After a few years I understood all that a bit better.)

Right outside the fairway was Hit the Bell with the big sledge hammer. No winners there. A few yards over, the weight-guesser was so good at it that I wondered if a scale was hidden under the dirt somewhere. For supper we headed to a civic club booth for hamburgers, fries and Pepsis, then meandered through the Exhibition Buildings to look at all the blue-ribbon winners. Pumpkins. Pumpkin pies. Quilts. Tractors. Chicks. Hogs.

Every year Mama played Bingo at least one night. Harold and I wandered around the Exhibition Buildings with Daddy while she tried for a table lamp or a portable radio. She always brought something home but I’m sure she paid full value for it. “B-9 is the number,” I can still hear that voice ringing out.

By the late 1950’s my teenage friends and I disdained the Ferris Wheel for the Tilt-A-Whirl and Round-Up, then made our way to The Wall of Death, the Two-Headed Monsters and the Girlie Show! The Wall of Death is still around, motorcycles zooming around a circular wooden wall or even inside a ball-shaped metal cage. (I watched that online one day, complete with sound effects. Still impressive!)

The two-headed monsters were disappointing, just cloudy pickle jars with unfortunate dead lizards floating in formaldehyde. What next? The boys talked us into it, and we made a beeline for the Girlie Show.

I was about 16 years old and my date 17, but the bored ticket-taker acted like he thought we were grownups and let us in. We huddled like criminals in the dimly-lit tent but when the show started there wasn’t much to see. A plump lady wearing lots of greasepaint, pink feathers, silver sequins and high-heel slippers did a modified burlesque number, flung her feather boa into the “crowd” (all five of us), then ducked behind a curtain and tossed out what was supposedly the rest of her costume.

That ended the Girlie Show, all five or six minutes of it. Of course, if we had actually been adults the performance may have gone a little differently.

When my children were small they loved the fair as much as I did. One year my daughter won a nearly life-size purple gorilla, bigger than she was. She happily lugged him home where he lived among her teddy bears for many years. One day he got left outdoors in damp weather and developed a bad case of dirt-and-mold smell. Too big for the washer, he resided in the outside storage room until it became obvious that his lumpy stuffing and purple fake fur were beyond redemption. We held a sad burial service for him in the back garden.

These days I don’t have the energy to tromp around the fairway and my stomach doesn’t dare try the rides. But I wouldn’t mind touring the blue-ribbon winners or enjoying a foot-long hot dog slathered with grilled onions. I don’t think they have Girlie Shows at the fair any more, do they?

First Grade at McKenzie School

bettefirstgradeThe first day I walked into McKenzie School I loved it. Except for McLeod Infirmary (where I’d spent a memorable few hours in the X-ray department once after swallowing a nickle), it was the most interesting building I’d ever seen. 

There were so many fascinating niches and stairwells to explore, steps going up here a few steps, down there a few steps.  Down a long hallway were corners leading to short hallways and more corners.

My mother accompanied me that very first day, knowing I was academically ready for the work but not sure I would find the right room on my own. She was too familiar with my innate curiosity and snoopiness, I guess.

The academic aromas at McKenzie were interesting. I could stand in the front middle hallway and smell the odors of hardwood floors and fresh bread baking in the school kitchen. School lunchrooms had working kitchens back then and hot meals were prepared right there on site. There was the hint of turpentine too, probably left over from cleaning paintbrushes. Everything gleamed with new paint!

The classroom blackboards were really black, and no chalk dust yet coated the board or erasers. Two sides of my first grade room had blackboards. Mounted to the wall above them were large printed and cursive ABC’s and numbers. I already knew how to write those but my handwriting didn’t come close to resembling those flowing curves and arrow-straight lines.

Colorful posters about Dick and Jane hung on part of the third wall, in between doors to a small cloakroom where we hung sweaters, jackets and coats in cold weather.

Our room overlooked the semicircular curve of Gregg Avenue as it turned into Cheves Street, and the fourth wall was a bank of tempting wide windows with venetian blinds kept raised halfway up. There was always something neat to see out there…

Miss Leftwich was a young teacher but she seemed so sophisticated, so intelligent and wise, and to top it off so beautiful that I don’t remember any of our class ever misbehaving (much) in her room.  She and her classroom were ours for the whole day, the whole year. We could settle down and make ourselves at home, knowing that stuff stashed in the desk stayed there, no worries about papers and pencils having to be carted home and back the next day.

After she called the roll that first day, she rearranged us to desks she preferred for each one.  Wigglers in front, perhaps? Or alphabetical? I’m not sure, but I felt fortunate to have my desk be mid-row next to the windows.

Our first assignment was probably to demonstrate how well we could write our letters and numbers.  Fat yellow pencils were distributed along with coarse ruled paper, darker blue lines interspersed with lighter blue lines so we’d get the heights of the d’s and depths of the g’s right.

Some of us former kindergarteners had this pencil-gripping part down pat. The rest were treated to a few extra minutes of personal attention as Miss Leftwich positioned their pencils and guided their fingers in making an A. Then at the blackboard with smooth sticks of new chalk, she used large strokes to show the proper way to make a capital A.

Soon the black turned to a dusty gray as she filled one section with triangles and crossbars to create A’s, the next section with 1’s and 3’s jammed together for the B’s. I made a neat row of A’s and B’s, then stared out of the window and imagined adventure stories in my mind for a while. “Daydreams too much” appeared on my report cards on a regular basis.

At story time Miss Leftwich handed out Dick and Jane books, read a sentence aloud and pointed out how individual letters made up words. We had embarked on learning to read, my favorite of all subjects ever in school. Already a reader, I flipped ahead to see how the story came out — it had a happy ending, I was glad to find.

Recess came too soon to suit me. Around the schoolyard to the back, girls and boys were separated for playtime. I’d rather stay inside to read or explore but that wasn’t allowed. Who knows what boys did at recess, but for the girls jump ropes were brought out and new songs taught to go with various routines. Double ropes were provided for the older, more nimble girls. Not a good rope-jumper, I joined the hopscotch contingent.

While the front and sides of the building were planted in sturdy green grass, the playground was mostly dirt with small trees and bushes against the back fence, a few oaks providing shade plus handy twigs for drawing implements.

Tiring of other activities, stomping on acorns to hear them crack and feel them crunch supplemented our exercise. We were entertained no end by counting how many acorns we could stomp before the bell rang. “One potato, two potato, three potato STOMP,” we’d sing as we stomped our way around the oak tree.

The lunchroom was a low-ceilinged room where each class sat together around a rectangular table.  Miss Leftwich had us bow our heads. We respectfully repeated “God is great, God is good, now we thank Him for our food” and tucked into our lunch.

No hot dogs, no hamburgers, no tacos: we enjoyed real rice and gravy, meat loaf and garden peas, dinner roll and whole milk. Dessert might be cubes of red or green jello, squares of yellow cake with chocolate icing or halves of canned peaches. The room was noisy but lunch time was short.

Recess had worked up a good appetite so there wasn’t a lot of chatting. But with our mouths full we could still make plenty of noise with feet and shoes, jiggling our chairs and “accidentally” kicking our neighbors. Clanking our dishes while jabbing our elbows at each other added to the clatter. If demerits had been handed out to first graders we’d have run up quite a record, but Miss Leftwich kept us more or less in line with a stern look and a raised eyebrow.

Then it was back to the classroom for naptime, believe it or not. We were instructed to put our heads down on our desks and shut our eyes for a few minutes while Miss Leftwich did paperwork. “Pssst.”  “Shhhh.”  “Psssssssst.” “Shhhhhh!” If anyone actually fell asleep it was a miracle.

We didn’t pass notes since we didn’t know how yet, but the boys flicked folded-up squares of paper at each other like miniature missiles. The girls just giggled at the boys. “Eyes shut!” In ten minutes or so Miss Leftwich would declare naptime over and we’d move on to our next adventure in learning.

I don’t remember all that we learned in first grade, but we surely loved Miss Leftwich. Toward the end of that first year we were devastated to be told we’d have a new teacher next fall. Oh, no! No, No, No!

We were convinced our broken hearts proved persuasive, for indeed Miss Leftwich was promoted to the second grade, right along with us. That next year she expanded our education with memorizing one plus one equals two and two plus two equals four, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat, improving our handwriting and reading more wonderful stories about good old Dick and Jane.

 

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!