Tag Archives: Grandmama Irene

An Orange in the Toe of Your Stocking

This morning, when I tied the last few bows around the last few presents for my kids, I remembered a similar feeling from when I was a teenager, many Christmases ago. I loved wrapping presents. Loved it loved it loved it. I wrapped all the gifts my mom had bought. Then I went up the road and wrapped presents for my Aunt Dixie. Then Mom drove me into town and dropped me off at Pop and Grandmama Irene’s house for an afternoon so I could wrap presents for them, too.

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Grandmama pulled everything out of the hall closets and made sure each box was labeled on the outside (so I wouldn’t have to peek inside to see what was what). I laid out the tubes of wrapping paper, the scissors and the tape on the braided rug in their bedroom, right in front of the warm gas logs. I worked along steadily in my own happy place. After a while, Grandmama came in to check on me. When she saw that I had it under control and there was nothing she needed to do, she stretched out across the white coverlet on the four-poster bed.

Like so many things in Grandmama’s house, we kids walked carefully around that bed. And woe be unto you if you so much as laid a hand on or god forbid leaned against the spindle that ran between the footposts. That bed was so old that it had been made by slaves owned by Pop’s side of the family. I had seen Grandmama lie down for a nap before, but never across the bed to chat. She stretched out on her side to watch me with one hand propped under her head. Her feet hung off the side of the bed like a teenager at a slumber party, with her shoes clear of the perfect white chenille spread.

“I sure am glad you like to wrap packages because I surely don’t.” She grinned and bounced her foot. I remember feeling that I needed to be careful, to not break this gentle magic. Grandmama was almost always busy and not much of a chatter. Most every action and word in her world had a POINT. I wanted to keep the conversation going, so I asked, “Did you like to wrap packages when you were my age?”

“Oh, we didn’t have any such as that when I was your age.” (I want to type that as “yo age” because that’s how she talks, not a terminal -r to be found) “For Christmas, we might get a piece of candy and an orange but that was it. Daddy always got us an orange.”

Grandmama was born in 1918, so her teenage years were the dark years of the Depression. Aunt Eula, Grandmama’s older sister by a few years, had come to stand in the doorway. “Irene, remember that year we got an apple AND an orange?” They went on to tell me about life on the farm down along the river, how they each had two dresses–one to wear and one to wash–while I sat there wrapping gifts in shiny paper and tying ribbons.

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Twenty years later, I told that story to Richard and my dad one morning while we were sitting out on the deck in the sunshine. Daddy was born in 1942, but his brothers were 10 and 13 years older, so they were young in the Depression. Their father made a living cutting lumber for furniture makers in Atlanta and business had just about dried up. Nobody had money for furniture. Daddy told us how things got so bad one winter that his father had to leave a guard with the team of mules in the woods so that no one stole the animals for meat. That winter, my Grandfather Joe didn’t know how he was going to pay his hands, much less have anything left to make a little Christmas for Uncle Kenneth and Uncle Charles. Then just a few days before Christmas, he got an order for lumber, and it was enough to, in Daddy’s memory of hearing the story when he was a boy, “pay the hands, buy a little wooden train for Kenneth and Charles, and surprise the family with a bag of oranges.”

These two stories explain why Santa puts an orange in the toe of my kids’ stockings every year. This year, slogging through my own cold Depression, I keep hearing my grandmother saying “Daddy always got us an orange.” I think about how this might be the saddest Christmas of my life because I won’t hear any stories from my dad. He won’t be baking pies or slicing tenderloin for Christmas Eve dinner. He won’t be wearing a red and green tartan buttondown shirt under his flour-covered apron. He won’t make us a bag of oranges to take home from the box Uncle Kenneth sends up from Florida.

Those oranges in my kids’ stockings remind me that our family has had it worse. We’ve lived through some lean times and mean times. Some years are so bad you gotta worry about hungry folks boiling the mule. And some years you get an apple AND an orange.

I am the product of many generations of people who found a way to hold some sweetness, even in the darkest time of the year.

And that is why there will always be an orange in the toe of your stocking, kids.

The Light Gets Brighter With Every Year

Today is my birthday.  Just like any other Tuesday, it’s the best day of my life.

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We’re gonna need a bigger cake.

When I was a kid, Grandmama Irene made my birthday cake each year.  She was famous for her cakes–even had a story in Georgia Magazine that dubbed her “The Cake Lady of Gay.”  Legend has it that she bought so many 50lb bags of sugar that the revenuers got a little suspicious and thought she might have a still going somewhere out in the woods!  

Some years I chose red velvet with the cream cheese and pecan frosting piled thick between three layers.  Other years, I asked for a lemon cheese cake with the glistening lemon frosting.  Those of you from other parts of the world may think I meant to say “lemon cheesecake,” but no, that’s something totally different.  A lemon cheese cake is a tower of three heavenly white cake layers filled and frosted with translucent and tart lemon curd.  There were a couple of years that I chose chocolate or caramel–buttery yellow layers cloaked in hard-cooked icing that got better as the days went by.  By the time I went to college, she opted for chocolate pound cakes because they traveled well.  

In my teenage years, my dad discovered that I loved coconut cakes as much as he did.  He set out to make me a coconut birthday cake.  Even though he’s a great cook, there was some kind of black cloud curse over the coconut cake baking process.  It got to be a running joke.  One year, he said he spent $45 on 3 different batches of frosting and it all still slid off the cake in a glop.  It was delicious anyway!  The next year, he nailed it with a coconut pound cake and avoided the subject of frosting altogether.  

But we all know how kids are, right?  Because I had been raised on astounding homemade cakes I yearned for a big old grocery store cake.  One with pink frosting roses and my name spelled in piping.  Maybe even some of those hard sugar princess castle decorations they sold at the grocery store. Don’t get me wrong–I appreciated every morsel of the cakes Grandmama made for me.  But they didn’t look the cakes on TV.  And when you’re seven…y’know.  You think life is supposed to look like “The Facts of Life.”

I wished for candles.  Grandmama made cakes for birthdays, not birthday cakes, so they didn’t come with candles.  I really really really wanted candles.  I had some wishes I wanted to make. 

In my first year at Wesleyan, my friends surprised me with a cake–and it had candles on it.  I was so unfamiliar with the process that I caught my thumbnail on fire trying to light all eighteen tiny candles.  We had a great laugh and I got to make my wish.  I don’t remember what I wished for.  

Here’s what I learned from all those birthday cakes.  The real treasure, the greatest gifts, were those cakes made by people who love me.  Butter, sugar, eggs, time, patience, a light touch–alchemy that spins ordinary food into a celebration.  Birthdays are when a family looks back to celebrate the day that the family got bigger.  Eating cake reminds us of that sweetness.  The candles, though, the candles are for the future, for wishing and thinking about what is to come.  

I used every birthday candle from the age of about 28 to 37 to wish for a child.  As luck would have it, on my 38th birthday, I hosted a Leukemia Society chili party.  I was feeling really light-headed, had to go lie down, but I got my legs back under me in time for dessert.  My friend, Karen, remembered that it was my birthday and brought a butter cream dream of a cake.  We fired it up and I wished for a family of my own on those candles….and a few weeks later found out that my wish had already come true.  Vivi was there for my 39th birthday.  

That’s the thing about candles–and family–the light gets brighter with every year.  

Fartbuster’s Red Hot

Back in the day, Fartbuster went through a vegetarian phase.  It didn’t really work out the way he had planned it.  As one of our coworkers put it, “Don’t get me wrong, but you’re the BIGGEST vegetarian I’ve ever seen.”  Basically, we just replaced meat that we had been eating with an equivalent portion of cheese and gained a bunch of weight.  But this was back when he was being all Zen so I guess he didn’t mind looking like the Buddha.

That year on Christmas Day, we went to Pop and Grandmama Irene’s house for breakfast–homemade biscuits with blackberry jelly, scrambled eggs, chow chow, and red link sausages from that little gas station up the highway in Brooks.  Deeeee lish.

We’re all fixing our plates and filling coffee cups and passing bowls around.  Grandmama looks over Fartbuster’s plate of eggs and biscuits and says, “There’s plenty of sausages.  Get some.”  She holds the bowl out to him.  He tells her “No, thanks” and keeps on eating.

A couple of minutes later, she says, “I’ve got more on the stove, go on and have some sausage if you want.”  He got kind of nervous at all the attention and stammered, “Oh, I’m OK, I’m fine.”  Grandmama Irene pops my grandfather on the arm and says, “Dick!  Pass him the sausages!”  But Pop had his hearing aids on the “holiday” setting.  Off.

Finally, my mom cuts in and say, “Mama!  He doesn’t EAT sausage!  He’s a vegetarian.”

Grandmama throws her hands up in the air and huffs, “Well why didn’t anybody tell me?  I could have made HAM.”

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Grandmama’s Little Helpers

About 10 years ago, I was renting a house that had a bad flea infestation.  My three dachsies were going crazy with the scratching.  My dad gave me some of the veterinary clinic grade flea bombs to clear out my house but the damn nuisances kept coming back.  He told me I was going to have to spray my backyard to get them gone for good.  I called him a couple of days later and said, “That was great advice!  I sprayed the yard with diazepam and haven’t seen a flea since.”  He chuckled and said, “I guess the fleas just don’t care enough to jump on the dogs?”  I get those two fancy words mixed up:  diazanon is the insecticide; diazepam is the Valium.  I sprayed the yard with diazanon, not diazepam.  I better add that to the “My Lowe’s” website list of preferred products.  

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I first tried Valium when I had my four wisdom teeth cut out at the tender age of 32.  It’s the only drug I’ve ever taken that made me think, “Hey, I’d like to get to know you BETTER!”  Wisely, the oral surgeon only gave me two.  I liked it because I didn’t feel loopy–I just didn’t give a shit.  That surgery was right around the time that Fartbuster told me about his pregnant girlfriend.  He was still trying to be Mr. Nice Guy, so he volunteered to drive me back and forth to the doctor and take care of me while I was recovering.  So you can see why it was attractive to have a little pill that made me not give a rat’s ass about anything.

My doctor gave me 15 Valium a couple of weeks before Richard died because I couldn’t sleep.  So I’ve had a total of 17 of the little wonders in my 44 years.  Which is probably why I found this next story so darn funny when it happened.

One Christmas at the grandparents’ house, my sister–The Doctor–volunteered to check over all the medications that Grandmama and Pop had in the bathroom cabinet.  She spread them out on the kitchen table and began her inventory.  When she came across a prescription bottle filled with Valium, she held it up with a giggle and asked, “Grandmama?  What are you doing with these?”

Grandmama said, “Oh, I just take a couple when you kids are coming over!” and went right on wiping down the countertops.

The Doctor replied, “You really shouldn’t be taking them.  They can be habit forming.”

Grandmama waved her hand in dismissal.  “Pshhh.  My doctor told me that when he first wrote the prescription, but I’ve been taking them for 30 years and never had a problem!”

Come to think of it, that might have been the year she told me what to do if I ever walked out of my panties.  This explains a lot.

Hammerin’ Hank

On summer nights when I was a kid, my Pop sat in his recliner on the back porch and listened to the Braves game.  In the early years of my life, he’d have the TV set to the game with the sound turned down and a radio playing Skip Caray’s commentary.  Once TBS came along, he didn’t have to bother with the radio.  The voice of Skip Caray will always equal baseball for me.  The “back porch” was actually more of a den–with walls, windows, doors, a gas heater, ceiling fan, recliners, a chest freezer, indoor/outdoor carpet, a wall filled with Grandmama Irene‘s oil paintings, school pictures of six grandchildren–but it had started life as a back porch and you know that’s how it is in the  South, we call something by what it was, not what it is.  Pop called everybody by a nickname, probably because he had been saddled with “Meredith Gaither Mathews” in 1902 when he was born the baby of six children.  His nickname quickly turned to Dick and as he grew older it was Mr. Dick or M. Gaither or Pop.  My mother was “Sweet Pea” and my Aunt Dixie was “Babe.”   Nicknames were everything and they STUCK.  In our town, you could pick your nose in kindergarten and they’d still be calling you Booger at the prom.

Pop’s recliner was the center of our summertime universe.  He kept a stack of Louis L’Amour paperbacks on the side table, along with his glasses, a pipe rack, a packet of Levi Garrett tobacco and in later years, a remote and the phone.  If he was working on a chaw, he didn’t talk, but he’d nod at you and wave so you knew you were loved.  If the game was on, he didn’t move from that chair except to get up every now and then and spit out the door.  I wouldn’t be surprised if that oak tree by the back porch steps sprouted tobacco shoots one of these days because that was the only place he was allowed to spit tobacco.  Oh, and we all know that tobacco products are bad for you.  Pop died at the tender age of 103.  For his funeral, my mom sent flowers with a Braves hat included in the spray.

Speaking of funerals, this side note will give you some hint of Pop’s devotion to the Braves.  When Grandmama Irene wrote out the instructions for her funeral on a yellow legal pad and dropped them off at the Wade H. Gilbert Funeral Home, she included this note:  “If I die during baseball season, please schedule my funeral around the Braves game.  I would like for Dick to be there.”  She has never been one to let things slip and I assume they are still of file with 20 years worth of addenda.

I enjoyed throwing the ball around and I probably have a dusty cracked glove somewhere in the house, but I’ve never become a fan of baseball.  I’ve only been to two professional baseball games in my life and my favorite part was the $7 beer and the roasted peanuts.  I just never know where to LOOK in baseball.  Too many people all spread out.  When it comes to watching sports, football makes me holler, basketball keeps my attention, soccer makes me tense, golf makes me feel lower middle class, and baseball mostly reminds me of Pop.  

But I woke up today thinking about baseball because I have been obsessing about “hits” of my own.  I’ve only been blogging for a couple of months and I’m thrilled with the progress I’ve made, but I keep looking for more hits (my word for the number of views this site gets).  I chase my tail wondering if I should write different topics, change the background, increase my marketing, tweak the tags or edit the slugs.  Some days, I hit one out of the park (like with that panties thing), or a solid double (like teaching my daughter the A word).  Some posts are bunts, some are walks and some are “a high fly ball to left field and it’s three and out for the Braves.”  

Who was the greatest Brave ever?  Hammerin’ Hank, since we use nicknames on Pop’s back porch.  Hank Aaron was in his heyday on those summer nights when I sat on the scratchy carpet and listened to the game with Pop.  Even I know that Hank Aaron hit 755 home runs (and I think those steroid freaks shouldn’t count in the record books so I don’t know where the current “record” stands).  But Hammerin’ Hank also struck out 1,383 times…almost twice as much.  You strike out when you’re TRYING for a home run and all that energy doesn’t go in the right direction at the right moment.  Hank Aaron had 3,771 hits over his career.  He just kept swinging.  He generated 2,297 runs for his teams.  When he came up for nomination into the Hall of Fame, he was a shoo in with almost 98% of the vote on the first ballot.  Yes, sir, hold the door open for him and walk right through.  

So the lesson I learned today from Hammerin’ Hank is that a career is about pursuing something you love, not just about the times you hit it out of the park.  I don’t have to be the best every day to get joy from what I do.

Hank_aaron_jerseyNow, this is the part that made me cry.  As much as I remember about Hank Aaron, I didn’t recall his number.  This is a picture of the jersey he was wearing when he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record.  Guess how old I am this year?  Forty four.  Yeah, it’s been a long time since those summer nights on the back porch.  Pop has been gone for seven years and his recliner is still there.  I miss him so much, but this is my place to write about him.  And that makes me feel solidly on base.  

If You Walk Out of Your Panties…

Yesterday, I shared with you some sage advice about fools from my father’s side of the family.  Today, let’s turn to my mother’s side of the family.  I’d like to share a nugget of advice that my Grandmama Irene told me 30 years ago that I have never forgotten:

“If you ever walk out of your panties, just keep walking.”

 

“Come again?” you might ask, as you clutch your pearls and lean in across your chicken salad plate.  Honey, you heard me.  I don’t stutter and your ears don’t flap.  If you ever walk out of your panties, just keep walking.

Grandmama Irene is 94 and has amassed a wealth of great advice over her years.  I think of her whenever I make a big breakfast because she always said, “Breakfast is the hardest meal of the day to get everything hot at the right time.”  Or when I’m cooking a big meal–“Wash pots as you go along and you won’t have such a mess when you’re finished.”  If it’s too humid, I don’t make divinity candy because she taught me that candy just won’t set if there’s too much moisture in the air.  (Well, to be honest, I’ve never made divinity because it’s too damn hard, but I know to BLAME IT  on the humidity.)  On budgetary matters, I hear Grandmama saying, “Pay your bills THEN buy your groceries.”  She’s right–you can always eat beans if the power bill was high that month.

But no advice compares to the jewel in the crown:  If you ever walk out of your panties, just keep walking.  I think I love this piece of advice so much because it came out of the clear blue.  It’s not like I was walking along with Grandmama Irene when my panties tangled up around my feet and she saved the day with sage advice.  Nope.  We were just puttering around the kitchen, probably cleaning up after a holiday meal, when she grabbed my wrist and said with a great sense of urgency, “Oh!  Ashley!  If you ever walk out of your panties (finger pointing for emphasis), just.keep.walking.”

She was born in 1918, in an age when elastic was…less dependable.  Now, I’m not one to reveal specifics about how this life lesson was learned, but back in the 1940’s on a lovely summer day, a lady might have found herself walking in downtown Atlanta, right past Rich’s department store, when her elastic decided to head south.  Should one find oneself on a sidewalk in a metropolitan area when one detects a certain “breeziness” in her skirt, one must NOT attempt to retrieve said underthings.  LET THEM GO.  Keep walking.  To quote a more modern sage, Obi-wan Kenobi:  “Those are not the panties you are looking for.”  Once they head south, they are no longer your panties and you will compromise your dignity if you stoop to pick them up.  They are feral panties at that point and belong to the street.

Keep Moving!  Nothing to see here!

Keep Moving! Nothing to see here!

Why do I share this advice with you today?  Because as I was walking through the parking lot at work this morning, I see a bright pink pair of cotton panties lying right there on the asphalt.  

Someone’s mama has raised her right.  I bet you a dollar those panties are still there at 5pm today.  

If you’re thinking, “That’s good advice, but it’s never going to apply to me.”  Maybe not, but let’s take it from the specific panty-dropping probability and take a more metaphorical perspective.  Just think of the life situations where this applies!

  • Do you have a cheating husband?  Girl, he has walked out of your panties, so just keep walking.
  • Have you been eating right and exercising?  Hey!  You walked out of your panties!  Keep walking!
  • Are you breaking free of the bonds of appropriateness and embracing authenticity?  Sister, it’s time to walk out of those panties.
  • Is it time to leave the past behind?  Walk out of your panties and keeeeeeeep walking.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a Grandmama Irene, so PLEASE share this advice with everyone you know!  Keep it breezy!

 

gi and vivi

P.S.  Some of you have asked for a photo of Grandmama Irene herself.  Here she is at Vivi’s first birthday luau, talking about cake.  She has been famous for her homemade cakes for half a century!