My father’s mom

My dearest memories of childhood include her

MY GRANDMOTHER”S IRON BED

Posted by on Nov 7, 2006 in My father's mom, Spirit | 0 comments

The man’s name was Hardin Porter and he was suppose to be a cousin to my Dad’s mother, but I have searched the family tree and have yet to shake out a Porter from its branches. I know he existed, because I have an article about him rafting logs down the Rough River in Grayson County, a dangerous and highly skilled job. The article mentions his sons, Harvey and Mike, who remembered their Dad … careening downstream at the rear of a 200-foot log raft, yelling orders to the oarsmen: “A lick to the left! Two licks to the right! Half a lick to the left!” It was a tough and rowdy bunch, and I think I might hesitate in suggesting any kinship to them if they were alive today, but times were different in Kentucky at the turn of the century. The newspaper article I have came from the Courier-Journal about 24 years ago, and Hardin’s son Mike was 78, his father long dead. It was a great story that told about a way of life wilder and more grueling than I can imagine.

In between times of rolling logs down the river, Hardin was a farmer and raised cattle. I do not know if it was a common occurrence, but the facts passed down to me were that on at least one occasion he took a trip to Louisville on the train to sell a load of livestock. He returned without mentioned anything of his adventures to his family, but when a train car full of furniture arrived for him the next month, his sons questioned their Dad about the extraordinary event. He had to admit that he had gotten drunk in the big city and did vaguely recall buying the things. Having no storage for the items, he was forced to sell them off at a discount to family and friends. My Grandmother bought a beautiful iron bed for the princely sum of two dollars cash, or perhaps $1.50, depending on whether my sister or I have the better memory.

I don’t know what color it was in the beginning, but I recall it in my grandmother’s house painted a ghastly shade of dark brown. Perhaps because of the cheap price, they did not value the massive thing, and were trying to make it look like wood. As all members of the family can attest, it is a solid piece of furniture, possibly indestructible, so I imagine all of it’s friends from the freight car are still around the country somewhere, unless they were melted down during the war to make tanks. My sister was in possession of it after my grandmother died, but she graciously passed it on to me when Eva was born. It came over the Appalachian Mountains to Virginia in a u-haul trailer with other assorted pieces, to furnish her then empty room in our first suburban home. The trip was memorable because it’s when my husband and I confirmed some fundamental things about our children and Pontiac products. Two facts were crystal clear as we pulled into a mountain gas station at 3 in the morning, with steam pouring out from under the hood, and hysterically tired children in the back seat. Since it was our fifth, or perhaps sixth stop to fill up the radiator, we were quite sure that our babies really, really, did not sleep in cars, and the cooling systems of Pontiac station wagons are really, really, not designed for hauling trailers.

There was a lot of cursing and grumbling as we hauled the heavy frame up the stairs late the next day, but I have a feeling the bed has heard it all over the years. It looked innocent enough, decked out with a coat of white paint and adorned with an antique quilt made by a great, great, aunt. You would never know by looking that it had lived such an exciting life. In many ghost stories, pieces of furniture hold memories from long ago, and I like to think that some part of my grandparent’s energy is somehow tied to the bed. I remember sleeping in it when I stayed overnight at Mamaw’s house when I was a child, bundled under homemade quilts on a feather mattress. Eva was never really fond of the bed, because it provided no soft, cozy, resting spot for her back. I also fussed with her often about the two tiny brass balls that were screwed onto the ironwork as finials. Evidently the desire to unscrew them was unbearable, and I would have to crawl around under the bed to search for them frequently. Because it is one of the few physical links I have to fond memories of my grandmother, plus the fact that the grandfather I never met slept in this very bed, it will continue to be a part of my family as long as I live.

So I am grateful to Hardin Porter, a man I never met, but have tried to imagine from the first time I learned about the bed as a child. His story was a bit risqué when I was young, what with the drinking and all, but as I have grown older, I view it in a different light. I doubt that Hardin traveled as far in his lifetime as the bed has, and I picture him in the unaccustomed bright lights of Louisville, tempted to check out one of the establishments where you could actually go in and order a drink from the bar. I like to think he stayed in a hotel, had a bath in a big claw foot tub, and dressed in his cleanest duds to go out and do the town with his cattle money. If he had been a hard drinking man, he would have been more cautious, but unaccustomed to spirits, he quickly became drunk and was vulnerable to whatever shyster took him in. I have no idea if that’s how it happened, but I enjoy the false memory of him waking bleary eyed and puzzled the next day, checking out of his hotel, wondering where his money went, then catching the train home. My children, who are exhausted from my constant probing curiosity, will be amazed that I never asked more about Hardin years ago when his sons were living.

While others study the great tides of history, I find myself drawn to these trivial rivulets that are rarely recorded. The human equation tells us why, not just what and when, and even though we know mortal weakness all too well, it is somehow comforting to know we didn’t invent folly. The bed sits solid and substantial, and for me, a tangible symbol of both abiding love and reckless behavior, the kind of conduct we all say is idiotic, but that we secretly find intriguing. I hope the bed, along with the story, will pass down in the family, and that unscrewing the brass finials will fascinate some future grandchild, or great grandchild.

p.s. Lulu Estelle Renfrow Crume, my grandmother, was born April 1, 1882 and died September 1, 1970

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Grandmother’s Front Porch

Posted by on Sep 3, 2005 in My father's mom | 1 comment

Her tiny house was built of an odd red block I’ve never seen used since. When it was constructed in 1945 it was the only material available, due to post war shortages. We lived next door, close enough that my dad’s powerful arm could have thrown a stick the distance. Both houses sat on a tranquil cul de sac in the quiet town of Beaver Dam, Kentucky. I was born at home in November of 1945, the third and last living child of my parents. Until the age of five I shared a bedroom with my brother and sister in our modest white frame house. Mom and Dad slept on a fold out sofa in the living room. After the war, my Dad used the welding skills he honed building battleships to start an auto body repair business. His work place was in a large cinder block building separated from our back door by a circle of grass and a gravel parking lot. Most of the money he earned was put back into the business until the summer of 1950, when construction started on a two-bedroom addition to our home. Mom indulged in a king size bed for her new room and for the first time since their 1936 marriage they had a comfortable bed with room enough for her 6’3’ husband to stretch out and leave a space for her too. I remember all her 6 brothers and sisters, the in laws, and their children being taken for a tour of the room to see a bed that was the first of its’ kind in the area.

Mother was up with the sun making mouth watering biscuits, eggs, bacon or sausage, or sometimes fried county ham. Gravy almost always accompanied the meal, cream gravy or the red eye variety served with ham. In the summer, when blackberries were ripe, mother would occasionally make cobbler for breakfast. Served with top cream from the bottles left on the doorstep by Westerfield’s dairy, it was a treat beyond belief for all of us; dessert for breakfast! Even on days when we were conserving, and mother made a pot of oatmeal, we still had those lighter than air biscuits dabbed with country butter and homemade jam. So what did this deprived child do immediately after eating a farm hand breakfast? Well, when my chores were done, I ran to my grandmother’s little red block house, sat down on one of the ice cream parlor chairs around the oak pedestal table and had a second breakfast! Usually it was another biscuit, this one made with lard, smeared with butter and sprinkled with sugar from her cut glass bowl. After I could eat no more, we started our day’s routine.

In my memory it was summer much of the time and the chores of summer were a delight to me. I would pester my grandmother relentlessly, “Mamaw, when are we going to check the garden?” She would laugh while she put on one of the stiff, starched, bonnets she made from calico feed sacks, because I slammed out the back door as soon as I saw her take the bonnet off the nail. We walked the path beside the house checking each lovely rose and shrub for damage or insects, smelling the wonderful smells and perhaps picking a few to grace the table. We checked the vegetable garden, vines, and brambles for the fruits of the earth and her toil, picking the ripest and deciding what should wait for another day. We “stole” eggs the hens had lain overnight, ignoring their squawking indignation. Silence and twitching noses greeted us through the wire of the rabbit cage, then the chewing sound of tiny rodent teeth as they munched the special fresh leaves I poked through the hextangle holes. After, we would sit on the front porch swing and wile away the hours, talking about anything and everything. Dad’s old black and tan hound sometimes tried to join us on the tiny porch, wagging his enormous tail in great whooshing arches, hitting a flowerpot or tender plant with each swipe. She would jump up and fetch her broom, threatening the exuberant dog, but never actually hitting him. Shamed, he sat on the step and looked at us with those sad eyes, till I relented and joined him for a smelly hug and gave his head a scratch.

As fickle as a sprite, the lure of a run with the dog would overwhelm me, and I would leave mamaw lonely on the porch, with hardly a backward glance. There was just too much to do to sit for long. In early spring the persimmon trees that covered the acre lot across the street were in bloom and tiny perfect yellow flowers fell like fairy teardrops from on high. My sister and I sat for hours making chains of them to wear like gypsy jewels, piercing the tiny hole nature supplied with the darning needle and crochet thread mamaw had loaned us. When the miniature yellow flowers were gone, there were clover blossoms all summer long, requiring only the manual dexterity to tie the stems together for fairy crowns, necklaces or bracelets. When these innocent pleasures lost their charm and I tired of my sand box, I checked to see if there was any excitement in my daddy’s garage. It smelled of grease, gasoline, acids and solvents, and always, the burning odor and flying sparks of the welder’s torch, which I learned early to avoid. When Dad’s work crew had enough of me, I was off again, perhaps to the barn behind the business where a sealed room was set up for painting, free from dust. I was forbidden to be in the paint room, but the blotches of colored enamel were too intriguing to leave untouched, so I headed back to mamaw’s porch. She used the kerosene from her stove and a piece of worn cloth to scrub the tell tale paint from my fingers and clothing. Then I would linger on the porch till the fumes of the coal oil evaporated, fearing Mother’s reprisal if the smell betrayed where I had been. Mamaw and I were great conspirators.

Summer evenings after supper were the best of all. As light faded, the catalpa tree on the far end of mamaw’s lot was full of lightening bugs, heavy with their little blinkers attached, they were easy prey even for tiny hands. Shut up in a jar for the balance of the night, thwarted in their mating rituals, they entertained us by the hour. We were supposed to release them unhurt, but my brother delighted in smearing one across his white tee shirt, where their illuminated intestines would glow for hours. As a bonus, he got to hear the grossed out squeals of his two younger sisters, who were not brave or cruel enough to do the same. Not far after sundown, we were in bed. Our first TV was not purchased until 1956, so the only entertainment, after the lightening bugs were released, was ghost story told by my sister, or the radio my brother was allowed to listen to via headphones, long after we were required to be asleep. Closing my eyes today, I can still see the glow from the tubes across the room and smell the honeysuckle perfume that wafted in through the open window. We had no fear of intruders with our faithful Joe on guard on the back doorstep. Occasionally he would mistake the incautious raccoon or possum for an actual threat and let out an enormous series of musical whoops, but he was soon hushed. Whatever fears and dangers that lay outside our small town were unimaginable to us.

When my grandmother was in her declining years she fell outside her back door and broke her hip. In the pain and confusion afterwards, she traveled in her mind back to the world of her childhood, making trips to the spring to fetch water and climbing apple trees in the summer. All her visitors in the nursing home she was sent to became, not her living children and grandchildren, but her brothers, sisters and parents, long dead. I think the small and comfortable world of our childhood is always the safest and most treasured place of our heart. If my mind should ever fail me, I pray that it takes me to that primal refuge of my childhood in Kentucky. Thought I have traveled far from home, there is a thread that ever ties me to the feel of sweet clover under my bare feet, the whoop of the hounds in the still night, and most of all, the enduring bond of kinship to its land and people.

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