This is an excerpt from my memoirs of the same name… It is a story of my Transcendental roots at their best…in the harshest of times.
Nanny’s house was a small, two bedrooms, wooden framed one near a cotton mill. She and my great-grandfather had worked at the mill. Back in those days, the companies felt it was best to have workers that lived near the mills. They built what was called mill villages, dozens and hundreds of basic houses near their plants. Then they sold them to the workers, taking mortgage payments out of their paycheck each week. The South is dotted with the remnants of these kinder, gentler days.
By the time that I came along, few of the residents still worked in the mill. Most were retired or like my great grandfather dead of cancer from the chemicals that the mill used to process the cotton. I can still remember the acrid smell of the tiny creek that wound its way along the back of the mill.
All of the neighbors were friends of my Nanny, old women and men, who remembered the Great Depression and leaner times. There were no children to play with, except for the grand-daughters of the couple across the street. But the Church girls were snobbish. They reminded me of Nellie Olsen from the Little House on the Prairie television show. Eventually, a family with four sons moved into a rental house when the original owner died or moved away. But they were boys and more suited to play with my younger brother than me and my Barbie’s.
My best friends were Nanny’s peers: Miss Ethel, Mrs. McCall, Aunt Mildred and Nana Tattley. From them, I learned to sew, crochet and make apple butter. I sat fascinated at their feet as they told horrific stories of loss and life. I watched soap operas and the Watergate Trials with them. I can still hear Aunt Mildred’s voice ring out…Terri Lynn. It may sound like an unusual childhood, but it was not a bad one.
Miss Ethel was the precursor to the modern woman. While the other women wore simple cotton house dresses as they were called, Miss Ethel donned tight polyester pants suits, things that my mother would wear. She was several years, perhaps a decade younger than Nanny. While Nanny’s body had long since gone soft with chicken wings that I would flap while watching television and breasts that when not confined by a bra would sag like empty balloons to her navel, Miss Ethel was still a handsome woman.
And a brazen one as well, from the moment that the late spring sun began to heat the day to a comfortable temperature, she could be found on the folding chair in her back yard…sometimes in a bikini. She spent many hours in those warm months basking in the sun. Enough that her tan would last virtually the whole winter long. It was a vanity that was to eventually cost her life. She died a couple of years before Nanny of skin cancer. But even with the pain of end stage melanoma, I am not certain that she would have traded her tans for a few more years.
Her hair was never allowed to go grey or white. Instead she dyed it a platinum blond and faithfully kept her weekly appointment at the hair dressers, which just so happened to be the chicken shit yellow linoleum floored kitchen of my house. She would come over after dinner. Nanny would boil water and the smells of instant coffee, cigarette smoke and peroxide would mix like a cherished family recipe. I would sit under the ugly green and yellow table that would fetch a pretty penny today as art deco or retro. I played quietly with my Barbie’s as I listened to these women reminisce of days gone by.
As Nanny would color or curl Miss Ethel’s hair, they would talk, laugh and poot. You see women; especially Southern women of this era were too delicate to fart or even to pass wind. They pooted. These women would without a word of warning or apology lift a butt cheek off of the sticky plastic seat and for lack of a more delicate word…let it fly. They did not even stop their conversation. The sound and smell were simply punctuations marks of life. What a simple and amazing sign of community, this acceptance of the most basic of human bodily functions.
I have often wondered how two such different women became such good friends. My Nanny with her strict manner and common sense approach to life. Her drab grey hair, soft curves and smell of baby powder was so very different from this larger than life woman. Besides the obvious of being next door neighbors, there must have been something else.
I think part of it might have been their husbands. My great grandfather Mr. Clyde as he was called had died before even my mother was born. He had left my Nanny a widow in her early forties with a teenage son and a wild as sin daughter that was about to enter her turbulent teens without benefit of a strong father. It was a recipe for disaster, even then.
I remember little of Mr. Willy. He died suddenly, a heart attack I think. I was quite young, although I remember bits and pieces of neighbors collecting at the house, bringing food and support to Miss Ethel. But then again, I attended so many funerals as a child that they all seem to run together. What little I can piece together of this man was in keeping with the pictures I saw of my great grandfather. He was thin with short grey hair and an easy smile. And he adored his unusual wife…worshipped would perhaps be a better word.
It is often hard for us to imagine our parents or our grandparents as sexual beings with needs, desires and love like our own. But not when you saw Mr. Willy look at his wife or the way he said…Yes, Ethel to anything she wanted. Some might see it as hen peeked or pussy whipped, but it was mutual. A love between equals…something that our modern divorce rates say we have failed to comprehend or capture.
In those days, weeks and months after Mr. Willy passed as we so eloquently called death; Miss Ethel became an almost nightly fixture in our kitchen. The cigarette smoke added another layer of yellow to the walls as these women shared the pain of loss. I do not remember all of their stories, but I will never forget the strength, love and companionship of those nights.
There is one story that I do remember. I hold it close to my heart. For me it epitomizes these people, their lives and the sense of community that I have never found again. It is a story of a particularly hard winter during the Great Depression.
Money was always hard to come by for these working class people, but the Great Depression brought with it a lack and hunger that even they found worrisome. That winter there was very little money to be found. Priorities were paying the mortgage, keeping fires burning to warm their children at night and at least one meal a day. But sometimes even those three simple needs were more than they had money to fulfill.
That winter though one of them had planted a simple vegetable garden with potatoes and onions. The other owned a couple of old hens, enough to ensure a daily supply of three to four eggs each day. These two strong women, who worked long hours in the cotton mill for next to no pay, would come home in time to make dinner of fried potatoes and onions with scrambled eggs. They would stretch their simple feast to feed two husbands, three children and themselves. And on payday they would celebrate with lard and flour enough to add biscuits to their fair.
Occasionally when one of the hens stopped laying eggs they would ring its neck. They told me of how you had to swing it very fast to break the neck quickly and not inflict too much pain on the animal. It may seem brutal, but it was a necessity of life in those days. And if you could have heard them talk of it, you would realize the respect for life that they had…even a chicken’s life that had kept their children alive during the worst of times.
Those occasions were ‘high eatin’ as they would say. A lying chicken was much too tough meat to bake or fry, so they threw it into a pot with some of the onions and potatoes. Sometimes they would even trade a neighbor, a chicken leg for some carrots to sweeten the stew. That Sunday after church the two families would truly have something to give thanks for. And Monday evening they would thin the leftovers with more water and have chicken soup.
Today, we live in times that are for many of us almost as trying as those days. But most of us must navigate these times alone. Of course, we have things they never dreamt of…unemployment, food stamps and social security. Perhaps for a time these social safety nets may even soften our falls. But the sense of community that led these women to share what little they had is not common sight in our modern world.
Instead we hold fast to what little we have. Mine is our mantra. If we have onions and potatoes, we hold tight to them, afraid our children will go hungry if we do not. If we have eggs, it is the same story. We forget that scrambled eggs taste better with fried potatoes and onions. That by keeping what’s ours we are limiting the nutritional value…one child has protein, the other vitamins from fresh vegetables.
But together we could have had a complete meal. That is what community is…something that is more than the sum of its parts…making a complete meal out of a couple of onions, potatoes and eggs. Having more together than you would have had apart.