I walked into her house, unsure of what my reception would be. I was 8 and had ridden with my father to see his parents. My mother had told me so many horrible things about them, and having not seen them in so long, I was frankly afraid. The house smelled of long lost suppers, heavy on the cured ham. The floors were free of dust, and the rooms had that empty feel of people long gone.
Then she came out. Chewing tobacco, all of 5 feet, she said, 'Well you must be Rays youngest girl. What are you doing in here? Why ain't you outside playing? I don't allow younguns to play in my house."
Wordless, and too scared to move, I nervously glanced around the room, and stared at an old rag doll hanging on the wall. "Don't think you can play with that doll, girl. That's my doll. You can't have it. Now, git outside and play. I don't allow children in the house."
I ran outside, making sure the wooden screen door didn't slam shut behind me. I was terrified. My mom was right. She was the meanest woman I ever saw. I saw my Dad, and ran to his side, where he was talking to my uncles. But seeing his smiling face, animated and happy, I left him alone. It was a rare thing to see him so happy, and I didn't want to spoil it. I wandered around, wanting to go into the old tobacco barn, dark and huge, but afraid of the spiders that my brother said lived in there. He said they dropped on your head and crawled around, and you wouldn't even know it until your head started to itch.
I saw my cousin, my age, playing in the dirt with another girl. I went over and said Hi. I was shy back then, or backward, as my Mother said. My cousin said Hi, and asked if I wanted to play. When I sat down, the other girl asked what my name was. I told her, and she asked how do you spell it. I told her. She proceeded to write my name in the dirt with a stick, and then looking at me with a sly grin, said, "That spells poop." I said, "No, it doesn't, that spells my name."
They doubled over in giggles, and I finally figured it out. They were calling me shit! I ran to my daddy's car, and waited, crying, pouting, plotting revenge against my blonde haired cousin and her evil troll friend until we went home.
Years later, I would still not like my cousin, but I would learn much more about my Grandmother. Grandma was born in the late 1800's. She was kicked out of her father's house when her mother died and he remarried. She was seven years old. She found a place to work, cleaning and cooking, and lived there until she was 14, when she met my Grandpa. They were married, and she bore him 9 children that lived. A set of twins died shortly after birth, and, from what I was told, she had a miscarriage while cooking supper. As it was told to me, she "shoved it aside with one foot and kept on cookin".
She always chewed tobacco, grown by my Grandfather, picked by the grand boys and hung to dry in the huge barn. Don't know if she drank corn liquor, but I do know that my dad had many stills that dotted the countryside during the 20's and 30's. He did tell me his father came upon one of his stills by the banks of the Coal River and promptly through it into the middle of the river. He said it was a mighty fine still, and was sorely missed.
By the time I came around, Grandma must have been in her early seventies.
When all of her children were home, she cooked a breakfast, dinner, and supper, for her huge family and all the men who worked for them. From the time I can remember her face was deeply wrinkled, her hair snow white, a testimony to her Indian ancestors. Perhaps when she saw my skinny-legged, bean pole self, she was aghast that her son could produce such an off-spring. I know I favored my Grandma on my mother's side, and there was no love lost between the two Grandma's. Actually, one of her son's (my dad) married my mother, and my mother's brother married my father's sister. I'll let you decipher that one. That made the children of these two marriages, again, what I was told, "cousins twice over." People today still can't tell me and my cousin Joan apart, especially when I'm skinny. And we speak in the same soft-spoken way. Half the time, my dad would call me Ruby, his sister's name. Perhaps that's where the family curse began, but I don't think so. My uncle lost his son. My brother lost his son. I've heard stories that my Great Grandma lost her son, and of course Grandma lost the twins. But, back to Grandma. I try to imagine what her life was like living in rural West Virginia at the turn of the century.
What a time to live and be young. Working from dawn to dusk, Sundays going to church, and Saturday's driving a mule-drawn cart into town, to sell vegetables or buy supplies. Church was the only outlet for fun and social gatherings. Where young women were courted, and gossip was whispered, and new clothes were shown off. If anyone really listened to the preacher, it's a miracle. . . Back then when you were baptized they dunked your head in the Coal River, winter or summer, and fire and brimstone lit up the pulpit like fireworks at a Kiss concert. My Grandma's life was hard, I know that much. Harder than even I can imagine, but she lived to a grand old age, making people jump to her tune to the very end. In her old age, she had acquired a certain wealth, and we all know how that affects the heirs. I hope she had a good time making them all hop to her demands. Though, I doubt by that time she had many demands, except keeping her supply of chewing tobacco well-stocked.
She and my mother never patched things up. Looking back, I can see that Grandma believed her son married beneath him. And that she thought my mother was nuts. But, then no one is perfect.
Grandma was not known for her affectionate nature, and was quick to criticize, but given her background, I would probably be a little harsh myself. My father was the oldest son, but was not her favorite. As my mother loved to tell me over and over again. All I remember was that Daddy was very respectful to his mother, and continually offered excuses for my mother's absence.
Not long before my Grandma died, a young woman doing a thesis on Appalachian culture, interviewed my Grandma. She found her story so fascinating that the tapes and transcripts are now locked away in the West Virginia archives. Quite an honor for a cantankerous, tobacco-chewing, salt of the earth hillbilly, now is it?