|This is me at one day of age. Grandpa’s chair…|
I don’t often have lucid dreams. But it seems that when I do, the fatigue of being dragged back out of the dreamworld lingers in my head, making me foggy. It is an alluring pull to feel as if the world imagined while sleeping might be more authentic than the mundane one I’ve awakened to. The dreams of my youth are coming with less frequency now. I wonder sometimes whether it is because age requires the penalty of forgetfulness from us, or perhaps whether it is the nature of life to lose the taste and feel of the simpler pleasures in life, when an entire universe could be housed in a much smaller space than is required of us as adults. When I was younger, I considered the taste of some candy to be as exquisite as fine cuisine. The wardrobe closet my grandparents had in my grandpa’s bedroom might as well been a secret warehouse, given the exaggerations of my imagination. Even though my grandparents world was relatively small, I never felt small or unappreciated there. Any activity could be made to be interesting. Even looking at pictures of family members I didn’t really know held interest and allure. One picture of a cousin of mine made age seem like an impossible barrier, for her graduation picture was always on the walls, even before I had started school. Grandma would tell me tales of when she was young and in my mind she might as well have been describing “Little House on the Prairie” to me. I had no true accounting of time nor of its insistent race to meet me.
I don’t mean to imply that modern life is not better or that times past hold an authenticity no longer possible. Quite the contrary. Life is much better, and among good people, the chances for a great life are better than ever. I don’t share many people’s pessimism toward our modern society. We have more opportunities for education, food, and healthcare. Nothing can trump the presence or absence of someone who loves you abundantly and dearly. In the past, modern contrivances weren’t so readily available to intervene between you and those you cherished. Stuff is no more of a negative now than it was then.It’s up to us whether we value people and experiences more than we do the things we fill our houses with.
Likewise, I know that my grandma and grandpa had many faults, especially when they were younger. But I wasn’t exposed to most of that. Even the mention of a lesser life was just a story bearing no resemblance to them, as they rarely looked at me with anything less than appreciation, even when I wasn’t being a joy for them. I like to think that my grandparents deserve all the credit for any good that blossomed in my personality and that most of the clouds that still darken my days as an adult were from the “other” of my youth. In fact, I know it to be true, even as this acknowledgement might wound those confined to the grouping of “others” in my childhood. My grandparents weren’t educated, but I learned my first letters and reading with them. I learned how to use a hammer without being screamed at for doing it wrong. (To grandpa, it was impossible to do it wrong. You did it until you figured out how to do it right.) I learned to sew and in the doing distinguished that most responsible people would find it to be a great asset in life. I learned that even though it might be 100 degrees on an August night, I wouldn’t melt. Grumbling was encouraged, especially if it were done in a creative way. But once it was time to stop grouching, it was simply time to deal with the situation and go on about your business.
On a recent night, my wife stirred and got up for an eternal minute. Prior to her stirring, my dreams had been evocative of rain, cotton and tree climbing. My dreams turned vivid after she came back to bed and I slowly slid back into a vivid dream. I woke up around 5 a.m. again, still hearing the false echo of rain beating on the tin roof at my grandparents house. Instead of being in my own bed, I expected to open my eyes and find myself looking out the window facing the porch at my grandma’s house, the window screen inches from my face, looking out at the acres of cotton growing around the house and across the road. Until this lucid dream, I had forgotten that the old “house on the hill” had a second door on the front of the house, one leading from near the porch swing to the back bedroom. How had I forgotten that? Grandma never used that door and it certainly didn’t make her feel comfortable. Thinking back on it, it seems strange that she could sleep next to an open window where anyone could reach inside – but a closed, lock door might cause her more concern.
In the dream, grandma had made me a coke special. To assemble it, she would take ice cubes, fold them into a towel, and then hammer the towel to crush the ice, which she would then put into an old snuff glass and pour coca-cola from a 2-quart bottle. She had also popped popcorn, leaving the kernels in the bowl for me. It always concerned her that I enjoyed trying to break my teeth on the unpopped kernels, a habit I still love to this day. (If was a cold day and the living room wood stove was lit, she let me put the unpopped kernels on it to burn them. There’s nothing like the taste of burned kernels!)
I was sitting on the living room floor to the right of the unlit stove, the window air conditioner to my right, enjoying it blowing cold air across the top of my head. It was a cool day for summertime and the air conditioner was off more than on, a rare thing in those mosquito-dominated fields. Grandma was behind me, sitting in her chair, talking to me about General Hospital. The bowl of popcorn containing enough popped corn to feed 5 children, a cluck of chickens and two monkeys and a glass of coke were in front of me, almost forming a food altar. Grandma gave me an appreciation for the use of food as an expression of love. It was a perfect summer afternoon. My only goal was to consume an inhuman amount of popcorn and swill it down with another equally devastating dose of coke.
A weather warning interrupted the intense drama of General Hospital. A storm was moving across the southern part of Arkansas. Grandma didn’t distinguish between a distant storm 100 miles away and one overhead – they were all equally menacing. A fatal storm had ravaged my hometown in the early 1900s when she was a very young girl and countless storms since then had hammered the apprehension of storms to a fine point. Grandpa was outside sitting on the porch, facing the side of the house and the cotton field just a few feet away, ignoring grandma’s hollering for him to get inside. “Wooly! It’s fixing to start. Get on in here.”
(Grandma tended to pronounce his name “Willie” as if it were “wooly.” I didn’t know any better for many, many years.)
Instead of grandpa coming inside, I went outside on the porch (as grandma was fervently listening and watching the weather bulletin on the television). I walked barefoot – always barefoot! – along the length of the front porch to sit next to him, jumping up to sit. He pulled out his plug of Cannonball tobacco, jokingly offering to cut me off a sliver with his ever-present pocket knife. This time, I accepted. He sliced off a shaving so thin that it could have been an eyelash. I took it off the point of his knife and put it in my mouth. The harsh yet pleasant taste of tobacco flooded my mouth. I knew better than to swallow it, though. After a minute I jumped off the swing and leaned over the edge of the porch and attempted to spit it as far toward the edge of the cotton field as I could. I missed by at least ten feet, of course. Grandpa laughed. The wind had picked up and another weather bulletin could be heard, interrupting Grandma’s episode of General Hospital. After a long interval, grandma hollered once again for us to get back inside. Grandpa just slightly shook his head, having no intention of going inside. Even with the approach of an actual funnel cloud, his usual course of action was to stay outside as long as humanly possible or until he feared that grandma was going to have a stroke shouting at him to get his fool neck in the storm shelter. A couple of yellow jackets lazily buzzed around grandpa’s head and then across his hand, which was wrapped around the chain supported the wooden swing. He didn’t even bother to wave them away. His approach to wasps was the same as everything else at that point in his life: if it were going to bother him, he’d wait and let it decide for itself. When we watched “Kung Fu” together on the black-and-white tv, I could tell he got a kick out of the simple lessons being taught to Grasshopper in the show. I think his approach to wasps would have fit nicely into “Kung Fu.”
By then, the wind had begun to make the galvanized tin sheets comprising the roof to pop with more force. Losing the roof was a real concern. While it might cause damage, replacing one of those tin roofs was a much simpler and inexpensive task than a modern roof, plus they provided a sound that cannot be matched in our modern society: the sound of rain pattering upon a tin roof. Nothing compares to that sound, not even the call for supper when you are hungry or the feel of the first sip of a coke special, handmade by your grandmother. While I’ve never considered it before, I can’t remember a mention of my maternal grandparents ever owning a house, either. Whether he owned the house or not, grandpa would build a storm shelter into the ground using nothing except hand tools. I remember when they moved to the “house on the hill,” watching him use an ax, shovel and saw to carve a place into the ground and build grandma another storm shelter. It was grueling work.
I know that there are a lot of pictures out in the world from the time when Grandma and Grandpa lived in that shotgun house in Rich. It would be a gift indeed if they were all loose in the world. Each contains a moment and a reminder. Perhaps one day everyone with legacy pictures will allow them to be shared. Perhaps.
P.S. I know that we have metal roofs in abundance now, but they aren’t comparable to the bygone tin roofs of days past. (But much safer!) A shotgun house with a tin roof had a different set of rules governing its comforting acoustic sound of rain upon it. Unlike modern houses, insulation was rare in such houses. The space between you and sky could instantly be made apparent if the roof were peeled back, as nothing but 2 X 4s, tin and plywood usually kept your head indoors. Were it raining, there was no need to stick one’s head out of the confines of the house – the metal roof telegraphed perfectly the intensity of every weather change. As a bonus, an average man could learn how to fix a tin roof without too much danger or intelligence, something that is no longer true with our houses.