Short Story by Susie Salley
I remember how hot it was in that field, the dirt so dry that it was cracked open. It didn’t matter, we had beans to pick; and pick, string and snap we did. I had been at my granddaddy and ma’s house in Lexington since midwinter and now it was blistering summertime. My younger sister and I had come here with our mama after she and daddy had a falling out. I was about nine and Cathy was about seven. Mama loaded us up and we took off one day leaving my dad and three older brothers to fend for themselves.
After a while mama and daddy made up and mama went back home to Memphis. We decided to stay in Lexington since we had enrolled in school and there were only a couple of months left before summer break. The end of school came and we still didn’t want to leave. I couldn’t leave. We had spent the spring preparing the garden and planting all those vegetables, and the corn field was being plowed under.
I loved living there with my granddaddy and grandma; we just called her ma. I loved working and walking through the fields. My granddaddy had a fine garden. I don’t mean a little kitchen garden. He had a huge garden. The largest field of his land was planted by his cousin, who raised corn to feed his livestock. Granddaddy didn’t charge him rent for the field, but we could have all the corn we wanted. Granddaddy called the corn, “rostneers”, country for roasting ears. He also had a pear tree that produced enough pears to make preserves for everybody.
My brother, Tommy also liked granddaddy’s garden. The most important part of the garden to me and my brother was the strawberry patch. My next favorite thing was picking the tomatoes, checking everyday to see what had ripened since my last check. Maybe I have a thing for red.
Granddaddy would always try to plant what everybody in the family liked. There was mama, daddy, two aunts, two uncles and a first cousin. My Mama had two sisters and only one had a child and she only had one - seemed funny to me since I was fourth in a brood of five. I had met so many other second, third and fourth cousins since coming to this little town of Lexington. Seemed everybody was kin to each other in some way or another. Mama always called them shirttail cousins, since I only had one first cousin and she was the oldest of us six grandchildren. She always wanted granddaddy to grow her some eggplants. I never liked the stuff, but thought the color was fabulous. I’m back to that color thing again. We all had our favorite garden items and granddaddy made sure we got them.
I don’t think I was aware of how much he taught me about gardening. I was just a tomboy that loved to play in the dirt. It didn’t matter as long as I was out there in the sun and dirt. I never minded getting hot and sweating. The bugs loved me; I was in the food chain. I picked the vegetables I would eat, while the bugs ate on me. To this day, bugs love to bite me and I have such a time keeping them off me. I learned how to till, weed, how to decide the right time for picking, and how to look for bugs, grubs, snails, and black spot. I learned what to do about each problem, how to cut off the sucker plants and just how to look at something to know if there’s a problem. I could name the plants, trees, shrubs and knew which plant families they belonged to.
Granddaddy had a way about him that was so gentle with the tender plants. He would prepare the ground and then he would place the plant in the earth, brushing the loose dirt into place. He would be ever so easy when he put his large foot next to the tender plant to press it down around all sides. He would talk me through it as he planted and then set me off to plant some myself. His rows were straight and clean and his plants flourished with his care. He had his beans strung on what looked like tee-pee frames. His tomato stakes were all at the same level and standing straight up, tied up with little white pieces of torn fabric. It looked like something out of the gardener’s journal, although he couldn’t read or write. It was apparent even at my young age what a smart man he was and how much he used his common sense to achieve all he did. His dirt even looked clean. I always think about what a beautiful garden my granddaddy had, how much pride he took in it and everything else he did. I was not yet able to appreciate what joy it was to see the cycle of life and know you had a hand in creating it.
Summer came and so did all the relatives to help pick the goods. Every family had their own bushel baskets and hauled a load back to the city every chance they got. Thinking back, each family had their own freezer stuck in the back of Ma and Granddaddy’s old house. We would have so many vegetables coming in at once that we would spend days scraping corn and putting it up in the freezer. Corn was my daddy’s favorite. We would cap strawberries and can green beans, lima beans, purple hull peas, every kind of vegetable you could imagine.
That’s where my ma was at her finest, except for making biscuits. She was the hardest working woman I had ever met. She worked as hard as anybody ever worked in the garden or in the kitchen. Ma was part American Indian and I was reminded daily how much I was like her. Granddaddy called me “Romie Jr.” Ma’s name was Jeromie Elizabeth Rush Moore, Romie for short. I remember how funny she was and I don’t remember anyone else having the sense of humor she had. She was down right silly sometimes, but I loved her dearly and her laugh - I can still hear it in my head today. What a wonderful thing.
Ma had so many little saying, poems and songs. She would sing out loud to the radio in the kitchen. She was always making jokes and pulling stunts. A few of my favorite old sayings from her are, “Don’t hit a child in the face for God provided a better place”; “If it don’t look good, don’t put it on the porch”; and, “It ain’t a sin to be poor, but it’s a sin to be dirty”. Thinking back, that’s powerful stuff. She also loved her flowers. Right outside the kitchen window she had a flowerbed that she dumped her coffee grounds in everyday. Needless to say, those flowers were stimulated without chemicals. She told a story about her mother winning a blue ribbon every year at the county fair for her hanging basket of fern. How she would go to the barn, milk the cow and when she finished she would rinse out her bucket and water the fern with the water that had a little milk mixed in. Ma said, “I guess that’s why that fern grew so big”. Miracle Grow, country style. I learned so many things and didn’t even know I was learning anything. It all seemed like fun to me.
Sometimes on Sunday we would take a ride in the car. Ma didn’t drive and she would say “Clyde take us up to the Natchez Trace Park area.” This was actually their old home place, before the government came in during the depression and decided to make the area into a park. The old family cemetery is still there inside the park. My mama and her sisters were all born there just like their parents and their parents before them. My great grandmother, whom I’m named after, was the local mid-wife. She was called Ma Sudie, Sudie being short for Susan. After the area was turned over to the National Parks, my granddaddy worked for them planting pine trees. He referred to the park area as “the arie” and he helped create it. While he worked planting trees all day, Ma worked at the Lodge down by the lake. She said there was a little store at the lodge where they would have dances and meetings. My mama was just a little girl and they lived in a house owned by the Park Service. The house has since been torn down now, but I found where it had been. My husband and I discovered some brick left from the foundation. I brought them home and put them in my flowerbed. Sentimental me.
I enjoyed riding in the car, hearing all the old stories granddaddy had to tell about all the different events that had taken place in the area. He was born in these woods and had never forgotten a single tale or anybody’s name. If he did recollect wrong, my Ma would correct him. She had been born in the same woods and knew all the same stories and folks. It was amazing to me that a man that couldn’t read or write could remember so many details about everything and a woman that could read and write never learned to drive a car. What a pair they were. Ma did teach Granddaddy to sign his name, but that’s all he would do.
The time spent living with Clyde and Romie started out as a heart-breaking experience and ended up being my favorite memories of childhood. All good things must come to an end and summer did. We moved back home and I started sixth grade at my old school in Memphis. I went back to visit Ma and Granddaddy every summer and every chance I could. I always felt like I was a part of that place and I belonged there.
After I was grown and had children of my own, we would go and stay a few days with my Granddaddy. My Ma had passed on and he was alone in that big old rambling house. One night he pulled out an old jar with a rusty lid on it and we had us a big time drinking some Muscadine wine that some old man had made years before. Granddaddy would light his King Edward cigar and we would swing on the porch. He never smoked in the house; he would just chew indoors. He still had a garden and all the old women around town would come by to bring him some fried fruit pies or some chicken. He would send them home with a load of something he couldn’t get shed of. I believe he would have been a good catch for one of those old ladies except he never would have done that to Romie. They had been sweethearts since a very young age, married in the back seat of a model T car, on the corner, in town, where a Justice of the Peace married them and another couple at the same time. Years passed on and so did he. Not a day or two goes by before I call all these memories up again.
I have a few memories of my grandparents from my father’s side of the family. I remember there was always uneasiness when they were around. Even as a kid, I knew it didn’t feel the same. My daddy was an only child. His parents both worked in career fields and lived in the city - totally opposite from my county grand folks. We called my father’s father “Granddaddy”, but we called Grandmother just that, “Grandmother”, no pet grand name for her. They always seemed so formal and cold to me. She had been brought up as a fine, southern lady - her mother being a seamstress for a leading department store downtown. She and her two sisters, Ruby and Snow, had been dressed to the hilt since birth. Grandmother was a medical transcriber, which was a fine career for a lady in the 1920’s. My Granddaddy was an engineer who built bridges and professional buildings. He was the first of my grandparent to pass away. I didn’t really know him. They say he was very harsh and mean. I never spent enough time around either of them to tell you for sure. They never had any children other than my dad and shipped him off to military school at age 12! My Grandmother was always real partial towards my three older brothers, never gave me or my sister much time. We spent more time with Ruby and Snow when we were young girls. Neither of Grandmother’s two sisters had any children, although they both had married. Humm… I asked my mama one day why I had always gotten the cold shoulder from my Grandmother. I was 16 years old when I asked her. She said that Grandmother had always been partial to boys, and added that Grandmother didn’t even think I was my daddy’s child. What a startling discovery. The years have proved her very wrong; I’m so much like my daddy I scare myself sometimes.
Grandmother lived on for years in the house Granddaddy had built for them after their retirement. It was on the outskirts of the city - a nice sturdy brick, one-level ranch house sitting in the middle of a large track of land which he had later subdivided and sold off in acre lots. When Grandmother was about 88 years old, my daddy asked me about how to sell this property. He was in bad health and my Grandmother needed living assistance. I had been a realtor for years and just couldn’t see selling the house to an investor for next to nothing. I knew the place was in bad shape. It had seen about 25 years of neglect since my granddaddy’s death. It had been 15 years since I had been out to the house myself. I told my husband not to expect much when we left to meet my daddy at the house.
At this time, Grandmother had not lived in the house for about two months; she was staying with her sister, Snow. We walked into a dark, musky mess. We couldn’t even find a light bulb that was working. The windows were all dark from layers of old rusty blinds and thick drapes. Grandmother was never a housekeeper and was a depression child to boot. She didn’t throw anything away her entire life. This house was so dirty, so stuffed, so abused it was overwhelming. After a few minutes of trying to find some light, we all started itching. We went outside to discover we had fleas all over our legs; the rugs were full of them. Daddy said a few choice curse words; we sprayed our legs with repellent and went back in.
We must have been crazy, but me and my husband Bob bought that place and spent a year cleaning and painting the interior and gutting the kitchen. It was a diamond in the rough; under the grime there were hardwood floors throughout, smooth ceilings and perfect condition crown molding. Granddaddy spared no expense when he built it. Good materials had been used and expert carpenters. About an acre of land was left around the house. The lot had been so unkept that it was a forest. You couldn’t even see the house from the road. The back lot had been left to the squirrels for years. It took us six months to find the back corner of the lot. It was so overgrown with poison ivy and privet hedge you couldn’t walk through without a machete. Someone had cut down a hundred foot Southern Pine and left it to rot across the lot. What a job we had in front of us, but we had to finish the house first.
We cut everything down to the ground in the front yard of the house. The hedges were towering above the roofline. We removed the gutters since they were falling down anyway. We replaced the doors and windows that had been repaired with duct tape and refinished the hardwood floors. We replaced the kitchen floor with tile, replaced the counter tops and sink, installed a dishwasher and disposal after we moved the washer and dryer from the small kitchen to the garage. My husband Bob is a wonderful man. When I say “we” did this, I mean “we” did this, except for a few things like major electrical and the installation of the tile kitchen floor. It took us about a year and then we moved in. We would tackle the back lot after moving in. It was late May when we moved in and everything was growing like weeds, because they were weeds.
We started working on the back lot as soon as we could. There was an old shed that I thought I wanted to make into a greenhouse. The more stuff we removed the worse it leaned. The possum living in the shed was relocated, against his will. Finally, Bob had the shed down. We just kicked it and it fell. We removed the fencing that separated the back lot into two sections. We hauled so much debris to the street the garbage man couldn’t keep it picked up quick enough for us. We had piles of different materials such as iron pipes that granddaddy brought home from building sites; we put them into our heavy metal pile; rolled up fencing with vines intertwined, cabinets that had rotted in the leaking shed; those went in the wood pile. The windows in the old shed had all been broken by some misfit children along the way, and glass was everywhere. Every time it rained I could pick up a five-gallon bucket full of glass. It would wash to the surface and shine in the sunlight. I love to go barefoot, but you couldn’t around here for many years. My mama had given me a pair of lopping shears. She said, “You sure are gonna need them.” I have logged so many miles on those shears now that I have a nickname for them - my Cyndi Loppers. I have sharpened, oiled, and kept them clean. Mama gave them to me; she’s gone now. We cut privet hedge that were at least 20 feet tall and poison ivy vines that, no lie, were as big around as my arm. I have become an expert on poison ivy, an expert on having it and killing it.
There was no real plan for this back area but we kept on cutting and hauling. Eventually we could see how the land laid. You could see that there was a plateau effect and drainage ravine. We tried to save any plant we could identify such as a small redbud tree or a forsythia bush. It had all been covered over for so long, the sun never hit the ground in most places. Wild rose bushes mingled into everything, and boy, were they hard to cut back - everywhere thorns. I was held hostage once by a wild rose, but Bob rescued me. The best part is that all of our activity and the prior lack of activity took place under the canopy of a pecan grove, planted by my Granddaddy in 1960.
All those rose bushes had been planted by my Granddaddy, and in the spring after we cleared the underbrush, when the sun was able to hit the ground, all kinds of surprises starting happening. Bulbs that had not surfaced in years, surfaced. Bushes that had not flowered were reborn. Lily of the valley bloomed everywhere. The border of the property is lined in pine trees with a redbud between each pine and then the pecan trees in the middle. I allowed the area to take on its own personality, working around what was already there. Scraping 40 years of pine needles off the ground to find it black as night and rich as gold. Three years have passed since we first uncovered the surprise. I have planted, planned and constructed rose arbors that the old vines grow new on. I have hauled out trash and hauled in stones, bricks, statues, benches, birdhouses, birdbaths and every shade-loving plant or shrub I could find. I have cherished every backbreaking minute of it. What I don’t understand is how could a man that everyone said was so harsh and mean have left me such a wonderful gift to uncover. I’m sure he never expected me, his granddaughter to uncover his garden. I know it was his garden. My Daddy told me his father planted all the roses, bulbs and trees. That he loved to garden. I was so proud the day my daddy said to me “I sure wished my daddy could see this place now.” Said he would be real pleased. I have a beautiful natural shade garden. We take a lot of pride in its beauty. A garden that has lots of new things to discover each time you sit and enjoy. Only I know what was already there and how it got there. A little piece of paradise we like to call it. The squirrels and birds like the remodel, too.
I never gave much thought to the connection between my granddaddies. They were so opposite of the other. Indirectly I have been given a gift from each of them - the first gift being the ability to know what to do with the second gift. I was thinking about how lucky I was to have this place, this garden. How special it is to know that I didn’t start it, I just keep it growing. How very fortunate I am to love gardening and to have been taught so well by an uneducated man. You can’t learn love of any kind from a book. Sometimes you can’t see the love of others without looking real hard. When the weather is nice, I can’t stay in the house. I find myself out back with my shoes all muddy, my hands all dirty, sweating, and swatting bugs. Some things never change.