My mother’s family was incredibly poor. They owned their clothes, which were mostly hand-me-downs from wealthier relatives, a few pots and pans and some utensils. Whatever they had traveled with them as they moved from one farming job to another.
With packs on their backs, they’d trudge around the Ohio River area, occasionally crossing over into West Virginia.
My grandfather could not read. His math skills were poor and when his coffee was only available in cans, he’d make the shop owner open the can and weigh the grounds on the scale. He was afraid of being taken advantage of.
For much of his last years Grandpa was a tenant farmer. The land was way up in the hills, a long walk. He had no wagon, cart, mule or horse. When he worked the fields, he’d walk for hours, leaving early in the morning, coming home well after dark. He was in his eighties, still working as a farm hand.
My mother explained, often, that she only had one pair of shoes. She’d go barefoot no matter the weather. On school days she’d carry her shoes over her shoulder, putting them on when she reached the schoolhouse. As soon as class was over, off they’d go.
At times her family lived in the woods, camping under the stars or building shelter out of branches and leaves. If they were lucky, someone would let them live in a barn during the winter.
It was a rough life. As soon as my mother turned fourteen, she left home, moving to Dayton, Ohio to live with an older sister. That sister helped my mom get a job at Woolworth’s, a job she loved.
In fact, when I was a teenager, my mom got hired at a Woolworth’s near our home, and despite her eighth grade education, worked her way up to manager where she oversaw purchasing, sales, and some bookkeeping.
We never lived near my grandparents. Whenever we did visit, we left early in the morning for the long drive, heading south through the countryside. We’d stay for a bit, then make the drive home, arriving after dark.
I hated their house. The coal-fired furnace terrified me. To me, it represented the fires of hell, only made worse when an uncle would pick me up and pretend to stick me inside.
There was no running water. The outhouse out back smelled pretty bad, the wooden seat had splinters and huge spiders lived in the corners of the ceiling. Flies circled about, landing on you as you took care of business.
They never did get electricity. Back then we didn’t have a television, so not having one didn’t seem odd. My grandmother had a treadle sewing machine, something I found fascinating. My grandmother loved showing me how it worked. The rhythmic sound of the peddle mesmerized me. And the things she made!
My grandmother was a terrific seamstress considering the lack of tools. She hand-sewed squares, triangles and diamonds into the most beautiful quilts. Each one was made of bits and pieces of overalls, shirts, dresses, anything that was no longer wearable.
She also had made every rug in the house. She showed me how she’d weave together scraps, tying them together as she went. The weave grew longer and longer, turning into a multicolor rope. That would be woven into an ever-lengthening spiral, then sewed together. They were soft on the feet and intriguing to look at.
When both of my grandparents had died, within months of each other, my mother dreamt of getting one quilt and one rug. Because we lived so far away, my dad had to arrange time off in order to drive my mom there.
Her siblings lived nearby, so had first access to anything of value. Granted my grandparents owned nothing that, at the time, was marketable. However, those quilts were what everyone wanted.
Grandma had made at least five. When we visited, I’d beg her to show them to me. She was a shy, quiet woman who didn’t like to bask in the glory, so it took quite a bit of persuasion on my part. Even at my young age, I appreciated their beauty.
By the time my mother finally got to the house, her siblings had claimed every quilt, every rug. They had taken the metal cup that everyone drank out of. Gone were the clothes, which would have been faded and stained. My grandmother owned no jewelry, or that would have been gone as well.
My mother was so distraught that she sought solace in the barn at the back of the property. She walked about with tears in her eyes, fingering her father’s old tools. None of them were usable anymore, which was why there were still there.
Up on a shelf something caught my mother’s eye. Reaching high overhead, she wrapped her fingers around the thing. It was the tool her father used to remove kernels off the cob. It looked like a can opener, which most likely it was when new. Grandpa had attached a leather strap to it.
He’d slip his fingers under the strap, then rake off the kernels. The strap was stained with his sweat.
Holding it brought back memories. My mother slipped it into her dress pocket and after saying goodbye, headed home. She never told anyone that she had it.
I admired it. Imagining grandpa working with it allowed my mind to create original stories. The fact that not only had he created it, but that his sweat stained it, endeared it to me.
Many years later when my mother’s mind began to fail, she insisted that my siblings and I claim things in the house. My brother got first choice, and even though my sister was the youngest, she got second.
Every time I’d mention something I’d like, one of them had already claimed it. Until I thought of Grandpa’s tool.
I was told I’d have to wait until my mother died before I could take it, one day she surprised me by placing it in my hand.
That was my inheritance: a reminder of where my family came from.