Old Wives Tales and Periods

imageI knew there was some kind of big, stupid mystery even before my “sometimes” friend Margaret Green broke the news to me in the fourth grade.  My grandma had started badgering me not to go barefoot and had taken to sneaking peeks at my underwear when she was sorting laundry.

This is some interesting information and dire warnings I was given regarding health care of young ladies after the onset of puberty. My maternal grandmother hissed these warnings at me, though she was hazy on rationale  Girls should never go barefoot or get their feet wet after they go into puberty. (She made no mention of how I was to wash my feet or bathe.). I must never bathe or get my head wet or ride a horse during my period.  She offered as proof the fact that when my grandpa’s sister was only sixteen, she was riding a horse just before she got ready to take a job as a teacher in her first school.  She got caught in a rainstorm while she was having her period and was soaked to the skin.  She got galloping pneumonia and died before daybreak.  I was never sure if all these variables had to be included for the situation to be deadly.  Perhaps if she had been fifteen, walking to her job as a clerk in a store while she was having her period and broke out in chicken pox, she might have escaped with only a few scars on her face.

Also, Grandma warned me young girls shouldn’t ever go swimming.  “Never?”  I was appalled.

For some reason, going barefoot was deadly, especially if there was dew on the ground.  There was something called “dew poisoning.”  Dew poisoning “stopped” periods.  How could that be a bad thing?  I didn’t want periods anyway.  Not only that, dew poisoning caused rampant infections should it enter a tiny wound on the foot, but I don’t remember her ever harassing my brother about going barefoot.  Maybe she wasn’t looking out for him.

Then she told me of a stubborn cousin of hers who went swimming all the time.  “Even when she was expecting!  Everyone of her kids had epileptic fits!”  That didn’t concern me at all since I had no intention of doing anything to cause children, in view of my recent sex education.

Mother had her own ridiculous rules about hygiene.  Hair could only be washed once a week, and never during you period.  That was a disaster for us with our oily hair.  I’d try to slip around and wash it more often, but she watched us.  She insisted on giving us hideous home perms.  They were awful!  I was so glad when Mother had to much on her mind to to to keep up with trying to enforce all her mindless rules.

The More Things Change (part 2)

imageAs I hold my tiny granddaughter, I remember melting into Grandma’s pillowy softness, smelling her Cashmere Bouquet Talcum Powder, unaware she’d ever played any role but “Grandma.” Though I’d always heard Mother address her as “Mama” I stung with jealousy when I found out Grandma actually was her mother. Sure, I was her favorite grandchild, I later learned the other kids thought the same things, the mark of a good grandmother.

We only visited Grandma In summers, since she lived a few hours away.  I loved following her to tend the chickens where She made that praise Della, her Dominecker Hen for laying a double-yoked egg yesterday, remarking to the others they might consider doing the same. She told Sally not to start acting “Broody.” She didn’t have enough her eggs to “set” her yet. She counted her chickens and found Susie missing. Grandma got a long stick and poked under bushes till she flushed Susie out from her “stolen” nest. I felt so important crawling way under the bush bringing two warm eggs. Chiding Juanita, an ornery red hen, she threatened to invite her to Sunday Dinner, saying “You’ll make some mighty fine dumplings if you don’t lay a couple of eggs this week!” I wasn’t that invested in Juanita and don’t recall whether we had dumplings or not.  Once I had the thrill of seeing Grandma fearlessly make short work of a black chicken snake lounging in a nest with an egg in his mouth.  Unbelievably, she grabbed him barehanded and slung him to the ground, where she dispatched him to snake heaven with the shovel she always carried outdoors.

Daily, we walked her yard, shovel in hand,checking out the flowers, moving one or two that needed a better home, filling a hole here, rooting out a weed there.  She gathered tomatoes, okra, and squash from the garden, later serving them at lunch, tomatoes still warm from the sun.  Before one, we made the ritual walk to the mailbox with a letter or two.  Grandma often got two or three letters a day since she wrote to numerous friends and relatives.  She’d read these to us as a group, “Oh!  Winnie’s girl Opal’s little girl is a princess in the school play.  She’s your third cousin.  All of Winnie’s kids did good.  They were all smart as whips!” going on to tell us stories of her girlhood with the distant Wiinie.

I envied my unknown cousin, though I’d never wanted to be a princess before or since.  Sometimes, the letters included pictures, which we poured over.

As my granddaughter and I relaxed in a dear friend’s garden, I collected cleome seed to share with her sometime down the road, a reminder of this day.  I do hope my little one recalls sweet stories of our our times together.

The More Things Change

 

family6Grandma slipped silently out the back door.  The last I remembered, I’d been asleep on the train.  Not wanting to be left alone, I rolled to my belly and hung off the edge of her high bed, my pudgy feet peddling till I thudded solidly to the unfinished wood floor.  Following her out into the dewy grass of the early daylight, I saw her lurching one-sidedly under the burden of a heavy bucket of corn in one hand, a shovel in the other, totally unaware of being tailed.  As I padded silently behind, sandburs pierced my baby feet.  Dropping to my round bottom, I screamed at the insult.  The grass at home was soft and welcoming.  Startled by my banshee cries, Grandma turned.  “Oh my Lord.  I thought I shut the door behind me.  You could have gotten in the road!”

Dropping the bucket of corn, she rushed over to comfort me, seating me on the shovel blade to pick sandburs out of my feet.  By the time she’d finished, I pointed out a huge yellow road grader a few yards away on the side of the dirt road.  “You want to see that?  Okay.  We’ll Go over.  It’ll be a while before the workers get here.”  I stood on the shovel blade and bent to hold the handle as she pulled me over to have a closer look, lifting me as high as she could to get a closer look at the gigantic tires.   I am still fascinated by heavy machinery. 

After I had my fill of the road grader, we went back for her bucket of corn to feed her chickens.  I liked the chickens just fine, though they weren’t nearly as interesting as the road machine.  We had chickens at home.  The barn next to the chicken yard was a different matter.  Since the grass was worn away between the two, I toddled over to have a look.  A chain with a padlock ran through two holes in the big double doors, denying me entry.  I peeked through into the shade of the barn to see a child-sized table and chairs, rocking horse, tricycle, and a red wagon.  Grandma’s little black and white dog dropped to his belly and wiggled into the barn through deep, sandy hole worn under the doors.  I dropped to my belly tunneling right behind him.  Had Grandma moved just a little slower, I’d have earned my prize.  Instead, she pulled me by my bare feet back into the barn yard. 

I howled in protest as she explained those things belonged to the child of the landlord and were off limits to me.  I couldn’t wrap my thoughts around that, having no idea what a landlord was, but I knew what toys were, and meant to have them.

Back in the house, after that major disappointment, Grandma cooked breakfast, and I met my first true love, bacon.  I have not tasted anything that wonderful before or after.

That is my first conscious memory, though I must have been familiar with Grandma.  Mother dated it to around the time I was eighteen months old.  I am older now than Grandma was then, and  like her, carry a shovel as I putter in the yard, an excellent implement to have on hand for a little impromptu digging or snake-killing.  Some things never change.

sun hat

 

Wearing Out Your Welcome

Cousins on Christmas

Cousins on Christmas

parents wedding pic

family6My mother found this hilarious letter among her things today. My grandmother was in a foul mood when she wrote it. I recalled this weekend like it was yesterday when I read the letter. Grandma was nosy. If she’d been an animal, she’d have been a ferret. She like to get right behind Daddy, quizzing him about his business and his family. “How come your mama moved off the Henderson Place? Seems like she was set up real well there. How come Ella May and her husband separated? They looked like they were doing good?” If she didn’t get enough answers, she picked us kids. “When did Suzie get married?”

None of this endeared her to Daddy. He wasn’t a patient man. If he’d been an animal, he’d have made a fine bear. She had already been visiting two weeks by the time this letter was written. She was thinking her son was on his way to get her when she got a call, learning it would be another two weeks. It didn’t make her or my dad happy to know they had another two weeks to spend together. My dad was on strike at the time, throwing them together, even more. His family came in to visit that weekend, creating a perfect storm. I expected them to kill each other!

I will transcribe for you”

Dear BL, Just time for word. Hope all are getting along all right. Sure hope your daddys neck is feeling better I don’t feel too good Such a crowd here last night Bonnie, Edward, their 3 kids & Geneva came Ester, Junie, and their 5 hienas. Cat Young & her bunch of Angel then 2 bunches of neighbors & their familys & it was so quiet it hurts my ears til yet. running & slamming doors. I thought they would never leave. Kack(my mother)is fixing to take Cat Young to Springhill she has to go to the bank on business & Arnold had to go help Edward finish his filling station today & use his car& he ask her to take her to the bank. I intended to go & found out Kack was going to take all her kids. I better close. O I talked to John yest he ask me if I’de mind staying here two weeks longer til schools out that he hated to come one day & go back the next.so I told him I’de wait they are beginning to make a little progress in their talks about settling the strike they are all hoping the mill will open after July the 4th Bill got to work 2 days for another construction job, he had to walk the picket line last night for an hour for two must close Kacks ready to start tell your daddy Bill is wanting to give away their big collie does he want him to go with Blue. Must stop now. Please write soon. Love to all Grandma

I had forgotten until I reread this letter that Grandma didn’t bother with punctuation, though she had been a teacher.

Champ and the Easter Hat

Horse and Hat

Illustration by Kathleen Holdaway Swain

I knew Champ, our horse, loved me since he trotted up to the fence every time he saw me. I carefully held my hand flat and let him snuffle up goodies with his velvety muzzle. My big sister said it he’d love anyone who slipped him apples, sugar and carrots, but she was just being mean. I didn’t tell my friends and cousins the trick, so they were scared he’d bite them. Before long, I found he could help himself to treats out of my pocket or off my shoulder.

My grandmother had written that she was coming for Easter and bringing Easter outfits with hats and shoes. I didn’t hear much except the part about outfits with hats and shoes. I was thrilled! I had been dying for a cowboy outfit with red boots, red hat, and shiny pistols in a holster but Mother said I needed other things worse. Good old Grandma knew what really mattered! I was up before daylight waiting for her. Breakfast and lunch dragged by…..…..nothing. I was getting more and more upset. Maybe Grandma wasn’t coming. Maybe she got lost. Just before dark an old black car crept up. We all flew out to the car, trying to get to her first. “What did you bring me? What did you bring me?” Mother tried to shush us, but nobody listened. Grandma was slow getting out of the car and slower getting in the house. No wonder it took her so long to get here. We got busy and helped with her bags and a big brown box from the back seat. There was plenty of room in there for a cowboy suit and lots of other good stuff.

Even though we were dying, Mother made us wait till Grandma went to the bathroom, got a cup of coffee, and caught her breath. She was slow at that, too. Finally, Grandma got the scissors and started cutting the strings on the box. She was so old her fingers shook. It took forever. I could have ripped into that box in a second, but would Mother let me? Noooooo!

Just before I died of old age, Grandma started pulling things out of the box. I knew she always saved the best for last. I got a gumball machine full of gumballs. That was great!! Next she pulled out a baby doll and handed it to me. Grandma couldn’t seem to remember I hated dolls, but I tried to be nice about it. All baby dolls were good for was burying when we played funeral. I tried to be patient till she got to the cowboy outfit. Finally, she hit bottom. She made me and my sister close our eyes and hold out our hands for our outfits.

I peeked just a little and was furious!! This was a horrible joke! We were both holding fancy Easter dresses, big ridiculous straw hats with flowers, and shiny white shoes. I hated them! Where were my cowboy boots and guns? My mother gave me a dirty look before I could tell Grandma what I really thought. I hated dresses, but Mother made us put on our Easter getups and pose next to the fence for a picture. It was hot. The clothes were scratchy. We looked stupid. My prissy big sister kept dancing around like a ballerina while the mean kids from next door laughed at us across the fence. I’d be dealing with them later. Boy was I disgusted.

Mother was as slow as Grandma. While I stood there like a dope waiting for her to take that darn picture, Champ came up behind me expecting a treat. We both got a big surprise. I felt a big scrunchy chomp on my head. The strap on my hat stretched tight, snapped, and that horrible hat with the flowers was gone. I flipped around, and Champ was eating my Easter hat. He still had straw and flowers sticking out of his mouth, but I could see he didn’t think too much of it either. He was the best horse ever. I never had to wear that hat again. He did love me!

Blackie and the Great Diaper Monster

My grandparents, Roscoe and Lizzie Holdaway, a few months after her stroke.  She was about 4″8″ tall.  Note the large, black purse on her left arm.

family6

Grandma had a stroke when she was fifty-eight.  The doctor came out to see her and said she’d never walk again.  Ignoring him, she scooted around in an old desk chair for about three months because she wasn’t about to waste money on a wheelchair she’d never use again.  After that, she put up with a cane for a few days till she was sick of it, then it was business as usual.  Ever afterwards, she was a little weak on the right side and her gait was off a little, but she didn’t let it hold her back.  She just carried her gigantic old-lady black purse on the left side to balance herself.  She crawled in every time the car started, and made every trip anyone else did, be it the hardware store, grocery store, or vacation.  Her stroke just made it a little easier for us to keep up with her.

She lived far enough away that she always stayed a couple of weeks when she visited.  Upon her arrival, she insisted on taking over the family laundry, washing, hanging out on the line, and folding.  We always had mountains of laundry with five kids, including two babies in diapers, so Mother was glad to have the help.   Always afraid the neighbors would talk about her for letting Grandma toddle back and forth with the laundry, she always sent one of us to help.  I always volunteered, since Grandma was known to hand out nickels when she was pleased.  I endeavored to make sure the other kids didn’t stumble into this gold mine.

The whole time I was growing up, we had a sequence of gentle black dogs, usually named Blackiefamily6.  I have no idea how many we may have had, but we always had one.  Numerous though they had to have been over the eighteen years I lived at home, they all merged into one in my memory.  One hot summer afternoon, as Grandma tottered back from the clothesline to the back door, the poor dog must have awakened from his nap in the shade only to see a short-legged, top-heavy voluminous load of fluffy, white diapers advancing toward him, lurching from side to side.

Terrified, he leapt up barking and lunged at the terrifying diaper monster, pushing her over backwards, the diapers landing atop her.  Mother had seen the whole thing and rushed out to rescue Grandma from the jaws of the slavering beast.  As soon as the dog heard Mother coming for him, he took off.  We were all sure Grandma was dead.  Mother tore at the pile of diapers only to find Grandma laughing so hard she couldn’t get up.  She had to get her laughing fit over before we could pull her to her feet.  She was totally unhurt, except for the indignity of wet pants.  I can’t speak to the poor dog’s shocked condition.

Time and Again

As I hold my tiny granddaughter, I remember melting into my grandma’s pillowy softness and smelling her Cashmere Bouquet Talcum Powder unaware she’d ever played any role but “Grandma.”  Though I’d always heard Mother address her as “Mama”  I stung with jealousy when I found out Grandma actually was her mother.  I felt as though they’d somehow cheated me by knowing each other first.  My first conscious memory was of toddling barefoot behind Grandma as we headed out to see her chickens.  I spotted a road-grader and strayed off the path to investigate, stepping into a nest of sand-burrs, those mean little stickers that hide in short grass.  I howling as Grandma hurried over with her flat-edged shovel and seated me on it as she pulled the stickers out of my tender feet.

We went on to check on the chickens where Grandma praised Della, her Dominecker Hen for laying a double-yoked egg yesterday, remarking to the others they might consider doing the same.  She told Sally not to start acting “Broody.”  She didn’t have enough eggs to “set” her yet.  She counted her chickens and found Susie missing.  Grandma got a long stick and poked under bushes till she flushed Susie out from her “stolen” nest.   I felt so important crawling way under the bush bringing baimageck two warm eggs. Chiding Juanita, a ornerny red hen, she threatened to invite her to Sunday Dinner, saying “You’ll make some mighty fine dumplings if you don’t lay a couple of eggs this week!”  I wasn’t that invested in Juanita and don’t recall whether we had dumplings or not.

The barn fascinated me most of all as I peeked through the crack between its chained doors  at the child’s table and chairs stored in its mysterious shadowy interior.  My grandparents and uncle had only rented the furnished house.  The barn and its contents were off limits to me.  Nothing could have made it more desirable as I imagined  the treasures it held.  Surely, there was a tricycle, a wagon, and since it was a barn, of course, a pony!  The longer I was denied, the more the list grew.  Never was a child so deprived or tormented by desire.

I do hope my little one recalls sweet stories of our our times together one day.