Grandma and Grandpa Williams’ house rested on the crest of a small hill overlooking the Ohio River near the Gallipolis dam. From the porch, if I looked between the houses across the road, I saw numerous barges and freighters, some clearly full, riding low, just above water line. Others bounced on the wake of passing ships, much like a bar of soap floating in a tub of hot water.
Sunday afternoons were spent with my brother and I chewing the gum my mother forbade, while Grandpa worked on accurately spitting tobacco juice into an old tin can. When he missed, there was a disgusting splat, adding to a constantly growing pile of partially digested tobacco. I pretended not to see or hear, preferring to watch the ships and speculate as to what the cargo might be and where the ships might be going.
Much of their house was a combination of put-together rooms, a rather ramshackle affair that, at one time or another, housed up to ten people. Not one board on the outside had ever seen a drop of paint, and the roof was nothing more than tin sheets nailed together in an overlapping pattern. It didn’t leak, which was all my grandparents cared about. I worried about how they kept warm during Ohio’s cold, snowy winters.
The house was so old that there was no electricity or running water inside. Grandma Williams lit the house with candles and kerosene lanterns, long enough to do “piece-work,” as she called it, for a few hours after dark. She had a pedal-operated sewing machine that she used for “fine” stitching, such as sewing on a lace collar or finishing off her quilts. Spools of thread sorted by color, with white always on the top, were stacked on a rounded stick that Grandpa had lovingly whittled.
Grandma’s hand sewing was accurate and precise, each stitch neatly following the next, marching in a straight line of equal length and breadth. It amazed me that she could create such perfection without benefit of modern machinery, and while I owned one of the best sewing machines available, my workmanship fell into the barely adequate, yet serviceable category.
A coal-burning stove sat majestically in the front room, providing the only heat for the house. When the stove was “cookin’,” as Grandpa colorfully said, no one could stand within a few feet of it without feeling feverish. Next to the stove sat a black tub filled with odd sized chunks of coal and next to that, a dusty black shovel.
When Grandpa opened the door in the front of the stove to dump in scoops of coal, the interior reminded me of the fires of hell. While I relished the warmth it created, I was terrified of being sucked into its cavernous interior. The fire called to me, hypnotizing me, saying, “Come closer, come closer.” Only when the door was shut and firmly latched was I able to break free and step away.
There wasn’t much in the way of furniture. A crate served as an end table, covered with a dishtowel hand embroidered in rose-colored flowers and meandering vines. A kerosene lantern took center place, with odds and ends scattered about, ceramic and pewter “doodads” that folks had given Grandma over the years. Crystal birds, miniature horses, and dolls’ heads stood with a grace befitting gold bracelets and diamond tiaras. While Grandma encouraged me to touch her beloved treasures, I never did; I was too afraid of breaking both the item and her memory.
There was a loveseat big enough for two and a half grownups, but plenty of room for four kids. The cushioned seat lifted up, disclosing storage room underneath, like a pirate’s chest holding gold doubloons. This is where Grandma kept her quilts and pillows, always ready for company in case anyone stopped by looking for a place to sleep. Every quilt was of a different folk pattern, all made by Grandma, all perfectly crafted in mesmerizing patterns of shape and color. The fabrics Grandma used amazed me: pieces of Grandpa’s well-worn overalls, a sleeve from Uncle Dowie’s flannel shirt, a pocket from a gingham apron, and the collar from her old calico blouse.
Not one picture hung on the walls or sat on a flat surface. My grandparents believed that a person’s soul was a tenuous thing, easily stolen, and so they forbade photographs either being displayed or being taken.
As they aged, my grandparents relaxed a bit in their beliefs, and so after much begging, allowed the taking of two well-cherished photos which now sit in my bookcase as reminders of two people who loved me unconditionally.
Grandma’s kitchen was so small that two people could manage to work in there at the same time, but only by carefully orchestrating the changing of places. When we visited, my mother helped while I watched from the back porch. Too little to help, too inexperienced in the art of cooking, all I was capable of doing was running for more wood or sweeping up spilled flour. What amazed me, however, was the magical dance the two most important women in my life performed as they, soundlessly, moved past each other, butts touching in a tender way.
Longing to share in their loving togetherness, I stayed close enough that one of them could reach out and brush my cheek. Sometimes my grandma blessed me with a floury kiss or a sticky touch, and then my heart leapt like a stag through the forest.
Along one wall was a good-sized cast iron stove. A box of cut wood sat nearby. Off and on Grandma picked up a stick, opened the bottom door of the stove and threw in the wood. She then wiped her hands on her well-worn gingham apron and went back to peeling and coring apples or rolling out a crust or boiling eggs.
She cooked with heavy cast iron skillets that she stored inside the oven, and cast iron pans that stayed stacked on the flat burners until she put them to use. She did own a few cheap aluminum cookie sheets, pie tins, and measuring cups that were dented like pockmarked faces, but she didn’t like to use them, believing that food never came out tasting as good as when cooked in cast iron.
Along the opposite wall of the kitchen was a metal sink as dull as an unpolished car. On the end nearest the window was a hand pump that intrigued me. Lifting the handle up and down, up and down, again and again, brought the coldest, crispest water imaginable.
When, Grandma pumped her arm muscles bulged with effort. For the longest time, nothing happened, and then a dribble showed up, followed by another and another. The dribbles turned into a gush, caught by the bucket that Grandma hung just under the faucet. As the bucket filled, I often wondered why it didn’t slip, no matter how full it got. Grandma never explained the mystery to me, but when I was much older and touring an old Louisiana plantation, the docent pointed to a barely discernable niche in the spout, just deep enough to hold a bucket handle in place: and then I understood.
Grandma knew how much I yearned for her attention, without my saying so. One of the first things she did whenever we arrived was to bring me into the kitchen, dip the cup into the bucket and give me a cool drink of water. She smiled as I drank, and then patted my head as softly as she would a newborn babe. Grandma didn’t have to do much to let me know that I was loved, even though she never said the words.
Off the kitchen was the porch: Grandma’s greenhouse. Over the years Grandpa had enclosed the room, using pieces of discarded wood and scraps of screen. The floor’s composition was equally mismatched: boards and bricks, tiles and dirt. Being a hodgepodge affair, the porch emitted an aura unlike anything else I knew. It was homey and peculiar, safe and mysterious. A place of growth and death.
There were no tables, just a collection of old boards balanced on homemade sawhorses, reminiscent of shacks built by hoboes in days gone by. Every flat surface was covered with plants: mostly vegetable, some flower. They grew in cans, ceramic pots, old buckets and cups, tubs, glassware, all of various sizes and shapes.
Knowing that my mother would not have tolerated such a mishmash made Grandma’s collection even more amazing. As a child I thought plants required properly identified, single purpose pots, but Grandma’s green house proved me wrong. Her touch was as golden as King Midas’ in the fairy tales, for greenery sprouted far and wide.
Grandma carefully pinched off dead leaves, repotted plants that had grown too large for their containers, watered each plant, one by one with a gentle spray of water. She hummed as she worked, quiet tunes that were mostly hymnals that I recognized from records my mom listened to in the afternoons when my dad was at work.
Once I joined in the humming, thinking that my grandma might share her love of music with me, bonding us together as tightly as a snail and its shell, but that was a mistake. Grandma, immersed in her labor of love, had forgotten that anyone else was around until she heard my child’s soft voice blending with hers. Her face registered surprise and then horror, almost as if I had caught her performing a criminal act. From then on, Grandma never hummed when I was nearby.
There was only one bedroom. A large feather bed took up most of the space. A few of Grandma’s quilts covered the bed and a pair of pillows stuffed with chicken feathers sat at the head. One for Grandma. One for Grandpa. A lace doily, reminiscent of the ones Spanish dancers wore in storybooks, daintily covered each pillow. The bed was surprisingly soft, an amazing thing for a child whose mattress was as hard as the cement floor of a garage. I loved to crawl up on the bed, stretch out full length, and sink into the comforting softness.
The only other piece of furniture was a chest of drawers. It was of a dark wood, with four drawers and mismatched knobs. A large doily spread across the top, along with Grandma’s hairbrush and hand mirror, facial powder and lotion, barrettes and combs and even a ragged hairnet or two.
If I looked closely at the knobs, I saw indentations where Grandma’s fingernails cut into the soft wood and smudge marks where Grandpa’s farm-dirt hands pulled open his drawers.
Next to the bed was an oval rag rug. Grandma made one for the living room as well. Beginning with odd sized scraps of cloth, Grandma twisted each piece into a “rope” of color, then wound and wound the rope around its center until a large oval took shape.
Most of the colors were shades of blue, pieces from overalls Grandpa had worn through. One of my favorite things to do was to sit on the rug and run my fingers along the track of the rope, inside out, outside in, sensing Grandma’s tender touch as surely as a baker senses the yeast working to raise the dough.
Because there was no running water, there was no indoor bathroom. One of the sons had built an outhouse in the field behind the greenhouse; nothing more than a narrow building with a plank for a toilet seat. High on one wall a narrow window provided the only light, and that was always kept open thanks to a couple of nails and a piece of twine. No toilet paper. Old store catalogues with missing pages sat next to the hole, giving indication as to how they disappeared.
Flies buzzed around and spider webs clung to the ceiling. The stench was indescribable and unforgettable, the sight intolerable and sickening.
Not understanding the nature of outhouses, I wondered why it was in a different spot on every visit. Years passed before I broached such a sensitive topic. My Uncle Joe roared with laughter, making a point of sharing my outlandish question with every member of the family within calling distance. From then on, whenever I stepped foot on my grandparent’s gravel driveway, somoene hollered out the location of the outhouse, to my endless embarrassment.
Primitive though it was, my grandparent’s house was bursting with love. Anyone who wandered up from down below found a warm meal, warm hearts, warm fire, accompanied by welcoming company.
To me, arriving at the small house at the crest of the hill was like coming home.