As I opened my refrigerator today, I glanced at the picture I have posted on the door of my grandmother, Dixie Muncy Bates. The photo is a bad copy of another picture taken at one of her many birthday parties in the past. It's a faded image, but I love the little spark that is still evident on her face.
Grandma was a feisty, but proper lady. I only remember a few times that she even wore slacks. Once, when her kids and grand-kids got together to celebrate her birthday at the end of August as usual, a daughter had the idea that we should take Grandma bowling. But she would have to wear slacks. So out came a brightly wrapped gift box containing, what else, Grandma's first official pair of pants. (She informed us later that she had often worn coveralls as a kid down on the farm--but we decided that didn't count.) So Grandma put on her pants, which in the 1970's were actually part of a pant SUIT, and we went bowling. Isn't it funny? I don't remember the actual bowling. The "pants thing" was the remarkable event that my brain turned into a permanent memory.
When I was really little, Grandma and her husband, my step-grandfather, moved into an old farm house that had no indoor plumbing. Their plan was to fix it up and sell for a profit. Well, that was Mr. Bates' plan anyway. (We kids called him Grandpa Bates, but the adults all called him MISTER Bates. Never "dad".) Wow. That farmhouse needed up-dating, for sure, but what a marvelous adventure for this suburb kid to go visit and discover what an outhouse was!
I distinctly remember the long trek to that little building right before we climbed into the soft downy feather bed we three grand-kids slept in. My dad would gather us together and march us all down the path, waving his flashlight back and forth as we went. He'd call out "We're coming! Any snakes or wild cats better get out of here!"
I'm convinced now that he did this to add to the drama, and it worked because I often felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck on that short night journey. Then, to add to the other-worldliness of that ritual, we had to go in the back room when we came in from the outhouse and pour cool well water from a pitcher into a bowl. The whole contraption sat on a little dresser. A rail stood up at the back of the dresser and a crisp white linen towel hung there. After a few of us grand-kids got done with that towel, it wasn't crisp or white anymore.
Grandma had a huge garden at the old farmhouse. She took me out with her to collect tomatoes that were growing there. I helped her pick some of the warm fruit, and to this day, I'm transported back in time when I pick a warm tomato out of my own garden. As I hold a heavy red ripe tomato, I can see in my memory the halo of sunshine on Grandma's shoulders, and the way she tilted her head to call to the tiny kitten she'd spied hiding under the shade of one of her potato plants. She wanted it to come close enough so that I could pet it since she knew I was awfully fond of cats. But the tiny thing was half wild and wouldn't budge toward her cajoling voice. I can still see her throw up her hands in defeat and laugh.
Grandma loved to make food for us. We knew that at her house, she'd always have a slice of angel food cake and a dip or two of pineapple sherbet ready for us when we came in the door from our long journey to visit her. I buy both of those at the grocery sometimes when I'm feeling nostalgic.
Grandma was a lovely lady. She had her ornery side, but the good things about her stick with me, and some of her sayings do, too. (Like: "Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas." And: "They had a bitin' dog."--the epitome of antisocial behavior, in her eyes.)
Grandma loved to write. I used to go to her apartment (after Mr. Bates died, she moved closer to us), and type out her short columns that she sent to the Big Sandy News. It was a paper in her hometown that printed out of town reports from former natives. We had many mentions in that newspaper. She wrote things like: "My grand-kids came and stayed with me today. The girls helped me wash the windows and hunt down dust bunnies." Or "The Thompson family invited their pastor and his family over for dinner today. A good time was had by all." I felt such teen angst at her "news" and was very glad it wasn't MY hometown paper she was sending these riveting items to. I helped her type out her autobiography, and one of my cousins had it printed in a notebook form. I love to get it out and read the stories of her early days and the struggles she encountered raising her family. She was so proud of that book!
Grandma went to heaven a few years ago when she was 93. This is the time of year that our family used to celebrate her birthday. She was born in a coal camp, so she never really knew her exact birth date--she said it was either August 28th or 29th. It didn't matter. We got together every year and had cake and ice cream and a big dinner. And sometimes, we went bowling.