Mom had been promising me and my brothers all summer that we were going to Grandpa’s farm up in Alston, Georgia to stay for a couple of weeks. My sister Glenda had been visiting all summer. We just knew she was having lots of fun without us.
We pulled into the yard just in time to see Glenda running across the pigpen with our cousin Jackie right behind her. Glenda was crying, her freckled face flowing with tears when she stopped and picked up a clod of something to throw at Jackie. Manure of some kind or at least that’s what it looked like from the backseat of Mom’s car.
Come to find out, that’s just what it was. Glenda ran to the ladder leaning up against the barn and raced up to the top of the barn. Jackie stopped at the bottom of the ladder, first looking up and then turning around to squint at Granny who was standing right behind her, holding a willow switch.
Jackie and Glenda had been told to sweep the front yard, company was coming. The chickens saw to it that there wasn’t even a blade of grass, but their poop and countless mouthfuls of tobacco spit of the front porch had littered the entrance way to Grandpa’s front door. Jackie was a teenager, Glenda not quite. When Jackie didn’t think Glenda was working fast enough, she bent over and pinched her. Glenda recoiled, still smarting, responded by calling Jackie a “bitch.”
Granny always pretended to be deaf, hearing just what she wanted to hear but she heard that and grabbed a switch off of the front porch, chasing my big sister across the yard while screaming at Jackie to catch a hold of her.
Granny told Jackie that if she didn’t climb up the ladder to get Glenda, she was going to set fire to her ass with that switch. Red faces must run in the family because all three of them had bright red freckled faces that day. When Jackie climbed to the top of the ladder, Glenda pulled a wooden shingle loose from the roof and tossed at Jackie, hitting her in the cheek. Jackie began a retreat from the top of the ladder, a few ginger steps at a time, only to be met by Granny a couple of rungs from the bottom. “What did I tell you,” Granny said as she applied the switch. “You don’t come down without her.”
I could tell from my safe spot in the back seat of the car that Jackie didn’t want no part of climbing back up that ladder but she knew better than to climb down. She climbed up a couple of rungs, just out of Granny’s reach. Glenda had pulled another shingle loose and she had her arm drawn back, ready to chuck another if need be.
Grandpa Sharpe came around the corner of the barn by the edge of the pig pen carrying a washtub full of what looked like mason jars, covered with mud. He shooed Granny and her switch away, telling her to go heat up some water on top of the stove. Then he turned to face Jackie, reaching up to help her back down the rickety old ladder. He turned to look up at Glenda, talking soothingly and calmly to her as he climbed the ladder asking her what was wrong, be careful don’t fall, tell me all about it.
Glenda said “Jackie pinched me and when I called her a bitch, Granny said she was gonna whoop me.” Grandpa kinda chuckled, I think he had seen this act play out before. He reached out his hand for Glenda to grab and told her that he wasn’t going to let that happen, climb on down.
Jackie still had a red mark on her cheek. She looked like she was seething but she helped Granny by grabbing one side of the wash tub while Granny held the other and they both disappeared with the tub, into the house.
Grandpa’s house consisted of a big kitchen and table while the rest of the house was wall to wall beds. The front porch was the living room. The bath room was an outhouse in the back yard. Mom had 7 brothers and sisters. Farm life needed lots of labor, Grandpa and Granny had raised their own.
A truce was called, Mom brought us up to the front porch to reintroduce us to our Grandpa. He hadn’t seen us since we were wee tykes and I’m pretty sure he had forgotten out names. Mom had pulled up while Grandpa was in the middle of counting his moonshine money that he had buried. It seem that the money had mildewed in the jars. He and Granny were fixing to wash the money and clean the jars. It seems like the bank and local stores wouldn’t accept mildewed money.
Mom gave us a hug and a kiss goodbye, saying that she would be back in a couple of weeks to pick us up in time to start school. I was going to be in the first grade this year. I was a little apprehensive, not knowing what to expect. Then she told Jackie that if she pinched any of her children why she was gone, that she would take her ass down to the creek and wear it out.
While Granny busied herself at the stove, first stirring a pot of collards, then a soapy boiling pot of mixed bills, ones, fives, tens and twenties. Jackie strung a clothesline across the front of the fireplace to hang money from, with clothespins, just like it was laundry. While she was doing this Grandpa went to the pump to draw more water to wash the empty jars in.
The pump was old and rusty, the handle had been broken halfway up, many years before. Grandpa had slid a piece of pipe over the broken handle to make it usable. Now the handle was so long that it was unwieldy, he was the only one that could use it. To make life easier for Granny, he had put an old pickle barrel next to the drain spout from the roof, so that it would fill up with rain water for Granny’s kitchen use. He had rolled a log over to stand up against it, so us shorties could fetch Granny a pot of water when needed.
Granny’s kitchen was always hot. The fire in the wood burning stove was always lit. It kept the whole house hot. That’s why the front porch was considered the living room. When she wasn’t washing Grandpa’s money or boiling mason jars she was cooking greens, peas, corn or cornbread and such. My favorite was the pan style cornbread that she cooked on top of the stove like pancakes.
Most of the evenings were spent on the front porch, taking turns either rocking or swinging. When Granny or Grandpa were rocking they would sit close to the edge of the porch so that they could lean over and spit when the need occurred, chewing either tobacco or dipping snuff. Grandpa favored Beechnut while Granny seemed to like Navy’s peach brand. Grandpa would try to teach us our numbers with an old domino set. He told us that we needed to learn our numbers just in case he needed help counting his money.
Grandpa had a few field hands that lived with him. In the summer, they slept under the porch, in the winter, on top. When he needed extra help, neighbors would mysteriously appear like magic. Grandpa needed help picking his cotton or cutting his sugarcane, bringing in the hay, plowing up his peanuts then cutting his tobacco and hanging it in his barn.
After he put is hay up, Grandpa parked his wooden wagon under the loft so us kids could jump from the loft onto a pile of hay. That would keep us busy for hours while Grandpa was working on his moonshine still down by the creek. Jackie had put an old croaker sack under the big pile of hay when Glenda was climbing up the ladder. When Glenda jumped and was still in the air, Jackie jerked that croaker sack out from the back of the wagon, bringing with it most of the hay. Glenda said that when she landed she it so hard that it made her teeth hurt. She went crying to Grandpa down by the creek to see if he would give her a nickel to tell him what Jackie had done to her.
Grandpa whittled us some guns out of dead tree limbs and then made us a bow and arrow set one night while we were swinging on the porch so we could play cowboys and Indians while we enjoyed the breeze as he told us his stories every night.
“I remember one time, I won’t ever forget.” Is how they usually started out, telling us about the stories he heard when he was a boy, just about our size. He would show us his arrow head collection, most of which he said he found behind the barn, down by the creek. He talked about the depression, he said that ’bout the time he heard there was one, it was over.
When it came time to cut the sugarcane and make he syrup, Grandpa started a big bonfire and let it burn for a couple of days to get the coals red hot, just the way he wanted them. Then he set up a tripod to hold a big deep dish metal pan about five feet wide, hanging from three, five foot long chains over the coals. My brothers, Gary, Duane and I would take turns leading one of Grandpa’s two mules in a circle to power the cane press. He would then collect the juice and put into the heated pan, letting it simmer, when it came to a boil, he would add more juice to cool it down. After hours and hours the simmering juice would start to thicken. That’s when the neighbors started to appear out of the woods to “help.” It seems to me that everyone brought their own cup to sample the sweet juice with. Grandpa would cook it ’til it thickened and pour it into mason jars and empty liquor bottles.
On Friday night Grandpa must have been expecting more company. Us kids swept the yard. We kept a wary eye to make sure that Jackie kept her distance. He put the chickens in the coop and a butchered hog on the spit. After he did that, he put his RCA radio in the kitchen window facing the barn and turned the volume all the way up. It wasn’t too long after that, cars started to pull into the yard and parked facing the barn.
Grandpa got his fiddle out and played along with the music on the radio. It wasn’t long before some one else joined in with a harmonica and another started keeping time with an old washboard. After the dancing started, I watched him bring out jars of moonshine, trading them for cash to his friends. The headlights from the cars lit up the yard for dancing, in front of the barn.
It wasn’t full dark yet but us kids were told to stay on the porch. In the twilight we played mumbly peg and checkers to pass the time. We listened to our uncles tell ghost stories and watched Granny fuming, running in and out of the house to check on Grandpa.
The dancing, hooting and hollering went on ’til the late hours of the night, way past our bedtime. Grandpa would come in every once in a while and place a mason jar stuffed full of cash, rice and soda crackers on the dresser. Our bed was under Granny and Grandpa’s, slid out at night and pushed back during the light of day. I can remember looking up, I won’t never forget, that in the glow of a kerosene lamp I could see more than a dozen jars on top of the old mahogany dresser. Sitting in front of an old round mirror, instead of dozens, they looked to be more than a hundred in the reflection. When Grandpa stumbled and tried to crawl in bed, Granny made a fuss and shooed Grandpa out of the bed, telling him to go sleep on the porch with the rest of the “dogs.”
The next morning Grandpa was still sawing logs on the front porch cuddled up to his old hound “Sambo.” Glenda witnessed Granny bend over, reach into Grandpa’s top overall pocket and take a roll of bills that he had forgot to put in a jar. The she started hitting him with her broom, telling him to get up, calling him all kinds of names. The she said she was going to get a bucket of water out of the rain barrel.
Glenda rushed over to Grandpa to tell him he’d better get up quick or else he was fixing to get doused. Grandpa still in a stupor sat up, scratching his head trying to gather his thoughts. Glenda held her hand out, palm up asked him if he would give her a nickel. When he asked her what for, she told him that she saw Granny take a wad of money out of his pocket. He laughed at this, started scratching, like maybe old Sambo had fleas or something, then he laughed. He started reaching for his pockets, pulling out rolls of wadded up cash. He told Glenda that she ain’t hurt me, I got money in every pocket. If I had more pockets, I’d have more money. Glenda told me later that for all the nickels Grandpa ever gave her, she never got to spend the first one. She said she didn’t know if Jackie waited for her to fall asleep and took ’em or she just forgot where she hid them, because whenever she woke up, they were gone. Jacky was always full of meanness. Glenda told us that Jackie would pee the bed on purpose and tell Granny that she did it, Just “sos” she’d get a whooping.
Grandpa had an old truck, but to get away from Granny, he hitched up his mules to his old wagon and took us for a ride into town, six miles away. He bought some supplies, got Granny a couple of tins of snuff. The he got himself some chewing tobacco and two blocks of ice wrapped in sawdust, for a quarter apiece. On the way home he joked about his mules being like his sons, one being lazier than the other. Once we got close enough to the house, one of the mules started pulling at the traces, anxious to get home, ready to start eating some grain. The other lag behind, letting the lead mule do most of the work. I asked Grandpa if the one mule was faster than the other. He leaned over the wagon and spit a mouthful of tobacco juice at a Georgia Cracker grasshopper sitting on a barbed wire fence and said, “Oh, I don’t know about that, here we’ve come about 10 miles and he ain’t no more’n six inches ahead of t’other.”
When we got home, Grandpa surprised Granny with a couple of lemons he bought in town and a jar of dandelion wine. Then told her he bought the extra block of ice to make ice cream with, then he shooed us boys off to the creek to look for arrowheads while he took a snooze on the swing.
My brothers and I soon tired of hunting arrowheads in the muddy creek bank. Gary and I started playing cowboys and Indians with the make believe weapons Grandpa had made us. Duane, the youngest said he was hungry and he left us and headed back toward the house. It wasn’t too long after that, we heard Granny calling us, like she was hollering “sooey” for the pigs.
When we got to the house we found Grandpa busy churning the handle on the ice cream bucket. He had cut up a watermelon and had the slices stacked along the edge of the porch, like a smorgasbord. He brought out some more jars and filled them with rolls of cash, rice and soda crackers. They were sitting on the other side of the porch. Granny got a bucket of water out of the rain barrel and made some ice cold lemonade. Grandpa drunk his down in two big gulps while Granny sipped hers as she rocked.
My brothers and I took our turns spinning the crank on the ice cream churn, Grandpa took his jars and disappeared around the back of the barn only to return quickly, his face red as I don’t know what. Someone had overturned the pig trough exposing his hiding spot for the mason jars. The money was still in the jars but the soda crackers were missing. Duane started brushing the crumbs from his mouth, to escape Grandpa’s wrath, but somehow Grandpa knew who the culprit was. He asked Duane why he opened them jars. Duane said, “I couldn’t help it, I was hungry.” When Grandpa asked him how he knew where they were, Duane said, “It’s all your fault, when you tried to climb in the bed with Granny, the pig shit sprinkled all in our face from your dirty feet.”
This brought a smile to his face and he leaned back for a minute. When my brothers and I went back to spitting watermelon seeds at the chickens he noticed that Duane’s feet were clean, while Gary’s and mine were still covered with mud. He asked Duane, “I know you can’t work that pump boy, how’d you clean them feet?”
Duane looked back at him and said, “In the rain barrel.”