This photo was taken in 1942 – it’s my great grandmother assessing hail damage in the cotton fields after a big storm. It was just three years after the Great Depression and our country was still struggling to recover from a more than 25 percent rise in unemployment. Farming and rural areas had been hit hard and were hanging on by hope as their crop prices that had dropped by nearly 60 percent.
My great grandmother was a tough-love kind of gal. Widowed twice and known for her penny-pinching, she was a woman of contradictions. In a time when women didn’t call the shots, she rolled up her sleeves and fought her way through to keep the farm alive, kicking and screaming. She was a devout Christian woman who cursed freely and loudly in the front yard of the church after the sermon. She was the type of woman I always imaged slinging a shotgun in her right arm while balancing a baby on her left.
She had a houseful of help – a cook, two maids and a caretaker for her second husband, all in freshly pressed black and white uniform dresses (that I would pretty much give my crooked right pinkie to have and be able to wear on Halloween nowadays). I used to sit on the countertop and watch the staff cook up a storm. Maybe my mom wasn’t a short-order cook, but great grandmother sure had one, and I liked to take full advantage of mid-day snack requests. In her pantry she had a never-ending supply of the most delicious homemade crisp, yet chewy, chocolate chip cookies that I have, to this day, ever tasted. She kept them in a stained plastic container on a shelf next to three-years-expired peas and canned peaches, and stacks of nicely folded empty Rainbow Bread bags that she saved and reused. And reused. And reused.
She’s in one of my favorite memories of growing up on the farm, and also in one of my worst…
We used to raise turkeys on the farm every year around late summer and sell them around Thanksgiving time. They’d arrive in stackable crates, similar to the plastic Coke crates that you see at the grocery store. Around ages five and six I used to spend hours upon hours with the chicks. Snuggling them, singing to them, giving them fresh water and seed, and making them soft beds and pillows out of fresh-picked cotton. I gave each one of them individual attention – naming them, talking to them, letting them run around free for a mini-adventure, then putting them safely back in their crates with the rest of their sisters, brothers, cousins and neighbors, and tucking them away with little cotton blankets for a mid-day nap. I’d separate the weaker ones into less-crowded crates so that they wouldn’t get stepped on. I gave those chicks extra food, and saved the best songs for them. I did my best to nurture them and love them. Some I nursed back to health, others died and I buried with their cotton bed in a shallow pecan field grave, just outside the turkey pens. I chased them around once they got older and hand-fed them birdseed and granola bar crumbs from the stash I’d bring in my pockets. I fought off every thought about what happened to them after they were sold, and I deliberately ignored the bloody tree stump with an axe resting on it behind the pens.
My great grandmother came in one morning to check on the turkeys as I was giving the sickies some fresh water. I showed off my cotton blankets and pointed out what good care I’d been giving to the weakest babies. She walked over to the noisy chicks in the healthy crates, squawking around, flapping their wings, dancing their waddle dance and pecking at leftover seeds. She walked over to the sick crate and hovered for a while just peering in. She picked up two chicks. She ripped their heads off as if she was twisting the cap off of a beer bottle, tossed the heads in the trashcan right next to me, followed by the lifeless pale yellow feathered bodies.
“Go wash yer hands, honey. It’s almost supper time and yer mamma’s gonna be calling for you soon.”
Worst. Childhood. Memory. Ever.
But she was good to me. She took me to Sunday school each and every weekend. She slipped 50 cents into my coin purse for the offering. She showed me how to mix formula for the kittens and how to soothe their crusty unopened eyes with a damp washcloth. She clapped for my summersaults and belly flops into the pool. She sent me out into her garden with scissors and paper sack and let me cut all the roses and flowers I wanted. She sat with me while I showed off my newest piano-playing skills. She taught me to stand up straight and to keep my head held high.
She tucked me in and sang me to sleep with How Great Thou Art the night my other great grandmother died.
She rubbed a lot of people the wrong way in her day, but all the memories I have of her are beautiful. Except the one.