Welcome to My Autobiography
It just seems like a lot, because thereís so many.
††††††††††† By the time I turned five, my mother was dating a scary, cartoon giant. He was about six-three and, even though he was skinny, he still looked like a giant to me, a tall, skinny giant. Of course, when youíre five years old, all adults look like giants. But he was special. He was the scary giant in my life. He was 15 years older than my mother, but at the time, I thought she was 15 years older than she really was, so it didnít matter to me that he was almost as many years older than her as she was older than me. (Read it again. It really does make sense.)
I didnít know it at the time, but my life was about to become as darkly strange as a carnival funhouse with the crazy mirrors and the echoing laughter, where it starts out fun and ends up disconcerted and spooky, like one of those dreams you canít wake up from.And I couldnít wake up from this one, because it wasnít a dream. It was way too real.
††††††††††† But in the midst of this disconcerted scariness and abstraction called, ďMy Life,Ē there was one steady factor; Mommy and Papa. (Or is that two steady factors?) They were one in the Lord, so Iíll call them ďOne Steady Factor.Ē I would wind up living with Mommy and Papa, off and on, for the next twenty years.
††††††††††† Mommy and Papa had owned their own
laundry when they lived about 60 miles southeast of
††††††††††† Mommy and Papa were dependable and they never changed their minds about what they believed. They were two people who loved the Lord and were in church every time the doors were open. And when I stayed with them, I went to church, too. They were the biggest Christian influence in my life. They were always striving to do what the Bible told them to do. In fact, Papa was my first glimpse of Jesus, and isnít that what Christians are supposed to be to the world?
††††††††††† No. Papa wasnít perfect, but, like Jesus, he was generous, he loved people, especially the little children, he lost his temper a couple of times that I saw, but he found it real fast, and, he had a quiet, secluded place in his backyard where he could retreat to.
A Portrait of Jesus
††††††††††† Papa was a bit stooped over, and he always wore a fedora, straw in the summer and felt in the winter. Even though he was only about forty when I was born, he always looked like an old man to me. But, I guess, thatís what grandfathers are supposed to look like.
††††††††††† He wore long underwear most of the year, even to bed. I never saw him in pajamas or jockeys. I do remember seeing him in boxers and undershirts in the hottest part of the summer, though. In the fifties and sixties, if someone had an air conditioner, it was usually, only a window unit. And it never got turned on until the afternoon and then at bedtime you would turn it off and open the windows. If you were lucky, you had a little fan to blow the hot air across your sweaty body.
††††††††††† My grandparents did have a water-cooler in a window of one of their bedrooms. It was a huge metal box that filled the lower half of the window. It had big louvers in the front to direct the air, which was created by a large fan. Water dripped down a filter at the back of the box and collected in the bottom pan. From there it was pumped back to the top. I remember my grandfather would have to turn on the water hose outside to add water ever so often. It was cool on those hot summer days, and I would sit in front of it and talk to hear my voice quiver.
††††††††††† Now, my great grandmother had an attic fan. It was attached to the ceiling in her hallway. It also had large louvers, but they were just there to close it off when it was not in use. When it was turned on, it blew air into the attic, which sucked air from outside through the open windows. You only wanted to use it during the night; otherwise you were just sucking hot air into the house. But at night we would open the windows and turn on the fan and cool air would be pulled through the windows. In the morning you would wake up to a window screen covered with those little pink mimosa flowers. We kids talked about turning it on with all the windows and door closed, but we were afraid the walls might cave in and we would be in trouble, which was common.
††††††††††† I used to call Papaís long johns his ďghost suit.Ē When he got ready for bed, he would walk through the house in his long johns and I would run from him laughing and squealing. Of course, he was just walking to the kitchen or the bathroom and had no idea what I was doing. He just figured I was being a kid and he let me be one. The flap in the back of his long johns was always held up with two safety pins and I just thought that was the way they came from the store. When it got extremely cold, he would pin the top of his socks to the legs of his underwear to stop drafts, I guess.
††††††††††† Papa never threw anything away and usually Mommy threw everything away, then Papa would get it out of the trash. He even kept the bars of soap after they got too small to bathe with. He would put them in his shaving mug, which was an old coffee cup that Mommy had thrown away. I was so thankful for Papaís retrieval abilities when, years later, I found things I had thrown away, when I was young and stupid. Thatís why I still have my old baseball cards, even now.
††††††††††† When bottles of shampoo or liquid detergent got low, he would fill them back up with water to make them go farther. Of course Mommy hated this, but she couldnít catch him to stop him. He even watered down the tea and ran water through used coffee grounds.
††††††††††† People would throw out cans of paint with a little paint still in the bottom and Papa would retrieve them and pour in paint thinner, also retrieved. There was no such thing as thick paint at Papaís house. Most of it just had a hint of color in it.
††††††††††† Mommy and Papaís house started out as a small, white-frame pier and beam with two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, laundry room/breakfast room nook, and a very small, one-car garage. The driveway was two small strips of concrete all the way into the garage. It did have a large, concrete front porch.
††††††††††† The house grew over the years as they added two more bedrooms, one where the garage was, and a large den. There wasnít any insulation in the attic and at night you could hear rats running with their toenails clicking on the ceiling. But as boy I didnít care, that was just part of the adventure. And thatís what going to grandparentís house should be; an adventure.
††††††††††† Another part of the adventure was that every drawer in the house was full of neat stuff like pens and pins and screws and springs and wire and string and pencils and cloth bags and broken knives and broken toys and broken jewelry and bent nails and pieces of this and that and all kinds of what-knots and do-dads. This stuff also filled cigar boxes that were stacked high on every shelf of every closet. Even the walls of Papaís garage (before it was converted into a bedroom in 1961) were full of this stuff.
††††††††††† Perhaps picking up and collecting everything he found was due to having lived through two wars and the depression. But, then, so did Mommy and she didnít have any problem, at all, getting rid of stuff. Although, perhaps, unconsciously, she knew Papa would retrieve it.
††††††††††† His quiet secluded place in their backyard was a ramshackle building that he had built out of old boards and nails he had found. It looked like it had never been painted because he had painted it with his special, thinned down paint. The building was packed full of stuff. There was just a long, narrow passageway from the front door to the back wall, so he could get in to add more stuff. The shed grew over the years as Papa kept finding more stuff to put in it. It had a sudden edition added when the garage was transformed into a bedroom.
I used to love to go through Papaís ďhouse.Ē It was like a store where you could have anything you wanted. If you wanted it, Papa would give it to you. In fact, even if you didnít want it he would give it to you. Most grandfathers just have a desk drawer full of stuff that the grandchildren can rummage through. And they canít have any of it. At least until grandfather dies.
††††††††††† Every time we went to Papa's house, or he came to ours, he would leave stuff under the seat in our car. I always think of the tree in front of Boo Radley's house in To Kill A Mockingbird. Mother tried to remember to lock the car, but he would still manage to get stuff under the seat. We figured he just got the keys out of her purse when she wasn't looking. Or maybe he just kept trying the hundreds of old keys he had found until one worked. We never knew.
Oil and Water
††††††††††† Like I mentioned earlier, Mommy was just the opposite of Papa. Sooner or later she got rid of everything and Papa would retrieve it and put it in his shed. And she was always fussing at him about all his junk cluttering up her drawers and closets.
††††††††††† Mommy was a small, rather petite woman. She must have taken after her father, because her mother (I called her Maw-maw) was a big-boned, big bosomed woman.† I remember Mommy was always dressed immaculately. I donít ever remember her leaving the house without make-up, nice clothes, and her hair fixed.
††††††††††† She always used phrases like, "Raise that window down."† "Right now in a minute,Ē and ďGo take a shower-bath.Ē I used to think she talked to birds, because she would always say, "A little bird told me." I now think she was just† tight with God because ď...a bird of the air may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say.Ē (Ecclesiastes 10:20b)
††††††††††† Mommy and Papa were very colorful people. Without them the story of my life wouldn't be as interesting and would probably have a much different ending.
††††††††††† I remember the weekends I would
spend with them. Saturday afternoons were filled with country music shows on
channel 11(An independent television station in the
††††††††††† Papa loved Saturday night wrestling. I can still hear him shouting at the wrestlers when they talked trash between fights. You would have thought Duke Keomuka and Fritz Von Eric were in the room with him. The only thing that would make him more emotional would be someone telling him studio wrestling wasn't real.
††††††††††† Talking was probably Papa's second favorite thing. He would talk to anyone, about anything, whether he knew anything about the subject or not. He could work the topic around to something he knew about, or could, at least, make something up.
††††††††††† He had lots of different jobs in my lifetime, usually working at furniture stores or gas stations. I remember sometimes going to work with him at a gas station and he would start talking to people while he filled their tank and washed their windshield and checked their fluids, which was a common thing for a friendly attendant to do. But after he was through and they had paid, Papa was still talking. Sometimes they would be trying to drive away and he would be walking beside the car finishing his story. I take that back, his stories never ended.
††††††††††† It seemed to me that Papa always drove thirty miles per hour, whether he was turning a corner or driving on a major highway. It was kind of scary riding in a car when Papa was driving. He would sometimes run a red light then wonder why people were cussing at him. "What's wrong with them?" he would ask. "You ran a red light, Papa," I would answer. To which he would reply, "No I didn't." And that was that. To proceed any farther would be like saying studio wrestling wasn't real. Needless to say, I know God was watching over us all when Papa was driving. I know Mommy trusted God, but, when she was in the car, Papa didnít drive.
††††††††††† Papa was stubborn. You could never convince him he was wrong, even with glaring proof. I can remember Mommy trying to tell him something he didnít want to hear and he would start humming. She would get mad and talk louder and he would hum louder, and she would get madder and shout and he would put his hands over his ears as he hummed louder and left the house, retreating to his secluded place in the backyard. That was one place he knew Mommy would never go. I eventually understood the real reason he built that house. It wasnít a place to keep his stuff. It was a place to keep his self. It was his refuge, his clubhouse. And what boy didnít want a clubhouse.
††††††††††† I remember, every time a beer or liquor commercial would come on the television, Papa would get up (no remote control back then) and turn the sound down. I know, now, he was trying to protect me from the evils of the world, but he was really just drawing my attention to them.
††††††††††† Papaís jobs were usually within
walking distance of the house, since Mommy used the car, because she worked
††††††††††† Papaís head would nod in church and Mommy would punch him in the ribs with her elbow. He would sit up straight for a few minutes; then would start to nod again. Sometimes his head would fall backward and he would let out a snore. Thatís when everyone was afraid Mommy might crack one of his ribs, but he would just straighten up like nothing happened and say, ďI was just resting my eyes.Ē
††††††††††† Of all the different jobs Papa had, I mostly remember him working for Martin Furniture Store just about four blocks from his house. He drove a delivery truck for them and he would bring it home at night. The back of that huge truck was a ship or a fort, anything but a truck. I played in the back of that truck even when it was a hundred and forty degrees inside that metal oven, but kids back then didnít care about heat. Besides, there wasnít anything fun to do in the house.
††††††††††† I havenít seen a kid in years with ďgrandmaís beadsĒ around his neck. For those of you who donít know, thatís what we called the mud and sweat that got caked up in the folds of kidís necks almost every day of every summer back in the fifties and sixties. Itís hard to get ďgrandmaís beadsĒ sitting in an air-conditioned room playing video games.
††††††††††††††††††††††† Mommyís mother, had been a widow since 1948, and lived in the house across the street from Mommy and Papa. I called her, maw-maw. (We spelled it m-a-m-a.) She had four stepchildren and thirteen natural children, of which Mommy was the oldest. I guess anytime thereís that many children involved in a family, anything can happen. And in my family it usually did.
Mama told me she met her husband-to-be when she was fifteen and he was a thirty-four year old widower with four children. Today, he would be considered a pedophile and arrested, but back then her family was probably relieved that she wasnít going to be an old maid.
††††††††††† She said they traveled by covered
††††††††††† I later read somewhere that Indians
would leave people alone if thought they were crazy. So I always figured
thatís why my motherís family made it safely to central
††††††††††† †But another reason they werenít attacked could have been the fact that mama looked like a full blood Cherokee Indian; a really large full blood Cherokee Indian; a really large, really angry full blood Cherokee IndianÖwith a tomahawk. And I think she carried that tomahawk around in the pocket of her big olí dress. It was a floppy dress with a lot of flowing material that looked very similar to those sun dresses that look good on slim women. But it didnít hang so well on mama. It didnít really have that flow to it, especially since she had to wear a belt around her waist to keep her big olí boobs from dragging the ground.
††††††††††† She may not have been large and angry back in her younger days, but she sure was by the time I knew her. By that time she had given birth to 13 children and was a widow. Thatís enough to make anybody large and angry.
††††††††††† Now, Iíve got to admit, mama may not have been as large a woman as I remember, but when youíre only three feet tall, everybody seems big and mama seemed to be bigger than everybody else. She seemed large. And the fact that she never smiled made her daunting, too.
††††††††††† She wore her hair up in a Pentecostal bun and at night, before she went to bed, she would let it down and brush it. The first time I saw her with her hair down and her teeth outÖWell, letís just say, I still have nightmares.
††††††††††† She had a black and white, oval shaped photo of one of her sons who died when he was a teenager, hanging on a bedroom wall. It was a typical 1920ís portrait, stern faced with eyes that followed the viewer. It was a creepy picture to us kids, who used to make up spooky stories while sitting in the room where that portrait hung. Then we couldnít sleep, especially those of us who had to sleep in that room.† But if mama said, sleep in that room, you slept in that room. Or, at least, you lay awake in that room staring at that picture all night to make sure it didnít move.
Run Rabbit Run
††††††††††† My second cousin, Rabbit, who was a year younger than me, lived with Mama. By the time I was five and Rabbit was four, we were getting into trouble together. Mama always blamed me for the trouble we got into and my mother always blamed Rabbit. The truth was we took turns thinking of things to get into. We should have never been allowed together in the first place; ever.
††††††††††† Our first endeavor into mischief was really quite innocent. We went camping in Mamaís house. There was really no problem until we made our campfire on the closet floor with wadded up papers. I think there is still a black spot on that closet floor. And that was also my first encounter with the wrath of Mama.
††††††††††† †When she would whip us, she would usually break a limber, green limb off of an unsuspecting tree and strip off the leaves (swoosh) with one swipe of her big olí hand. It was quite a breathtaking thing to see. She would then grab her victim, usually me and/or Rabbit, by the arm with her left hand and proceed to whip us with the switch. You could hear it coming as it cut through the air with an eerie, whistling sound (I can still hear it), and you could run all you wanted to, because you would only go in circles around her and that buggy whip. And, like a newly elected president, there was nothing you could do about it. That thing would cut into my naked legs and I could feel the whelps popping up. She never seemed to whip us in the winter when we were wearing long pants. And Iím not sure how that happened, since getting into trouble was a year-round job for us.
††††††††††† Before mother remarried and quit her job, I stayed with Mama every day. Not only did Rabbit live with her, but she kept two other children, while their parents worked. She also took in laundry, so all day long she was either washing, ironing, or hanging out clothes. We kids had lots of time to get into trouble, and we took full advantage of every opportunity.
††††††††††† After mother remarried and we
††††††††††† As Rabbit and I got older one of our favorite things to do was to break into Papaís shed, which wasnít hard to do since most of the boards it was built with, were rotten when he built it. If we found something we really liked we stole it, which was really dumb, since all we had to do was ask and Papa would give it to us. But there wasnít any fun in that.
††††††††††† When he discovered something was missing, which was surprisingly often, he would immediately blame some of the kids in the neighborhood. He would never blame anyone in his family. I remember feeling a twinge of guilt, but never enough to confess.
††††††††††† I was always kind of surprised he didnít blame the neighborhood kids for the death of his rooster. Of course, that could have been because the rooster was so old its feathers were gray, it had a bald spot on top of its head, it walked with a limp, and it had a false beak. Well, I may be exaggerating about the beak, but it did have a bald spot on its head, because every time Papa sat in the backyard the rooster would get on his lap and Papa would pet that bird like a dog, and eventually rubbed all the feathers off its head.
††††††††††† By the way, Papa could make a pet out of any animal and would eventually have it acting like a dog. I had one of those little red-eared turtles and he had it standing on its hind legs begging for food. Iím serious.
Got Your Nosey Neighbor
Mommy and Papa had a nosey next-door neighbor who tried to hide her nosiness by hanging out her clothes, then staying out there picking every tiny piece of lint off every single sock, shirt, and pair of underwear. By the time she got through, the clothes were dry so she could take them in, then she would start sweeping her driveway. That lady had the cleanest sidewalks and driveway I ever saw. You could eat off of them. And Iím surprised she didnít, then she wouldnít have missed all the things that happened during dinnertime.
She developed a cancer on the outer portion of one ear and eventually had an ear-ectomy. Now, Iím not making fun of her handicap, but it does seem a bit ironic that she was so nosey and then she lost an ear. Okay, I admit it sounded funnier inside my head. Thereís some humor in there somewhere without being a jerk. If you find it, just enjoy it and keep it to yourself.