(Published in Georgia Magazine, 1999, written from the perspective of my 12 year old self.)
In August, Brinson, Georgia is the hottest place on earth. The heat hangs visible outside the windows of our brand new 1972 Chrysler Town and Country wagon; the streets bubble with melted tar. We hate the heat, but the bugs revel in it. Swarming gnats lend nervous motion to the quiet countryside. They enjoy this time of day when they are even more irritating than the local mosquitoes.
Brinson: it’s hardly a plush vacation spot.
Yet we vacation here every summer; to us, there is no place more magical than this town because this is where our grandmama lives. From our car windows, we spy endless fields laid out with a buffet of giant jelly rolls. Black crows swoop down in an attempt to make a dent in the feast before them. As the station wagon bumps its way over Brinson’s railroad tracks, trees, bewitched by a past field fire and left unproductive, beckon us down the road to Grandmama’s house. In daylight, these witchy trees are harmless. But when night falls, they will taunt us with their sharp, unnatural forms and earn their nickname.
The short dirt path that is Grandmama’s driveway leads us to the back of her white clapboard farmhouse. We run toward the house, our flip-flops squishing rotten figs fallen from Grandmama’s trees. Grandmama is waiting for us at the door when we bound up the brick steps. The screen door, speckled with holes repaired with criss-crossed fishing twine, squeaks a welcome. Its spring, having lost its spring decades earlier, leaves the door clinging to the side of the house.
Quickly wiping our figgy feet on the rubber door mat provided for that purpose, we spill into the dining room. The wood paneled room, made bright both by the wall of open windows on one side and the gallery of family photos on another, welcomes us with a flood of the familiar. The table dominates the room. An enormous oak construction, it is thick and sturdy enough to withstand armies of excited grandchildren. An oscillating fan keeps a summer breeze moving through the room. We make silly sounds in front of the fan, just to hear how it contorts our voices. We take turns; we laugh; we are at Grandmama’s house.
The kitchen hints that Grandmama has spent her day laboring in love over her famous Southern fare. The sweet smell of just-baked peach cobbler directs us to the bubbling desserts anxiously waiting for us to finish our supper. Black-eyed peas, seasoned with a meaty ham bone, simmer in one corner of the stove; green beans from the garden are cooking on low on another eye. Fresh corn, shucked and silked, is piled pyramid style in a pan on the counter. And judging from the potato peelings heaped in a bucket by the door, supper will include real mashed potatoes, not the boxed kind we always have at home. The biscuits aren't ready yet. But the fresh baked aroma floating from the oven lets us know they are coming.
Later, we'll go out and rock on the front porch and tell stories about the abandoned school across the street. We will walk to the country store on the corner or go to visit our cousin up the road. Maybe we'll even search the garden for a ripe watermelon. But for now, we'll just stay right here in Grandmama’s dining room and wait for supper.
Published September 2009
Grandmama Mitchell didn’t play.
She gave birth to eight children. Seven of them grew to be adults; she buried her oldest daughter when little Annie was just eight years old. A couple of decades after that funeral, her husband, my grandfather, died in an automobile accident that very literally shook their town. She sent a son or two off to Vietnam; buried a daughter-in-law who left two of her young grandchildren motherless; and watched her children suffer divorce, abuse, and countless other frustrations.
So, Grandmama didn’t play. Her life was just too hard.
Grandmama had . . . well, let’s see . . . at least 21 grandchildren, and I have no idea how many great-grands. Most of her kids and their families lived within Georgia’s state lines. But not us. Daddy, Grandmama’s middle boy, wound up staying in North Carolina after completing his seminary degree. (He and Mother married after her college graduation and before Daddy started grad school.) So, to the Mitchells, my brother, sister, and I were the cousins-from-far-away.
Every summer, we piled into our station wagon du jour, and drove the long, hot hours to visit Grandmama. She lived in an old farm-like house that made no pretenses. Springs had long since been sprung—in the screen doors and in the mattresses. Flies buzzed in unafraid of Grandmama’s lethal swat; mice, unaware of the loaded traps waiting for them, just came right on in. Box fans propped in the windows dispelled any hope visitors might have of really cooling off. (During South Georgia summers, a fan just doesn’t do the job—no matter how hard it tries.)
The front porch, though, offered those same guests their choice of seats—plenty of rockers to go around. Grandmama’s doors were always unlocked, and she could always squeeze one more around the table. So it was to that hot, old, creaky house that my family rushed with annual urgency. Because it was Grandmama’s house, that’s why, and it was the most wonderful place in the world.
Grandmama welcomed us with hot baked peach cobbler, homemade biscuits, and a watermelon fresh from the garden. She would have been shelling peas before we arrived—her efforts bubbled on the stove in anticipation of a family supper. Everybody knew we were on the way; Grandmama was expecting all the kids in time for the blessing.
It always baffled me. How could my no-nonsense Grandmama make such a big deal out of us when she had so many other grandchildren to love? I mean, the three of us together made up only a little over ten percent of the total. Yet she always worked so hard to make things special just for us. Amazing.
Grandmama seemed to enjoy our visits so much:
I remember her laughing at the stories told round the table.
I remember her—a bright twinkle in her eyes—fussing at the men who would always be her boys.
I remember her, hands in the front pockets on her house dress, coming in before we went to sleep that first night and asking my mother if we had everything we needed: “There’s plenty of clean towels and bath cloths there for you.”
A week later, when our last day popped up out of nowhere, I remember Grandmama fretting over us as we prepared to go. It seemed she didn’t want the week to be over any more than we did.
Back in the station wagon, we’d wave good-bye to Grandmama who stood outside the back door, watching us go. She’d wave for a minute, then fold her arms at her chest, then wave again. The tears she had kept in submission throughout the day, always got the better of her before we were out of the driveway. I don’t know when she went back inside after she’d seen us off. As far as I know, she stood right there until we got back the next year.
No, Grandmama Mitchell didn’t play. But Grandmama Mitchell loved. She loved well.
It’s Grandparent’s Day (no matter what the calendar says). Call your grandparents. Tell them you love them.