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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Ethel the Red

Every summer I spent a week with my grandparents, the Griffins, in their small shotgun house in South Georgia. I so looked forward to this week and always hoped it would turn into two! My grandparents' house had a front porch with a swing  and one small TV that got about 3 channels and it always seemed to be tuned in to Lawrence Welk or an evangelist at the highest volume setting. The kitchen was in the back of the house. These are the places I frequented when in Georgia. Dozens upon dozens of treasures were hidden away in this house. If I was lucky, I would find a contraption my dad built, or an old school paper or letter that he had written when he was my age. I vividly remember taking baths in their old white claw footed tub and drying off with their paper thin towels that were always frayed at the edges. There was no corner of that home that was off limits to me. Now there were a few places I chose not to visit...like the laundry room on the back porch. No laundry for me while I was on vacation. That does not mean that I didn't have chores to do while I was there. I "cleaned" the kitchen after my grandmother made her famous messes after each meal. I'm pretty sure she used flour in every dish she ever cooked. I did not like to clean up after dinner. Mostly, I think, because the kitchen (and house) was so old that nothing ever really LOOKED clean. But here's what I did like to do:
I liked to explore all over the neighborhood. Sometimes with my cousins or my brother, and sometimes by myself. My grandparents lived in a low socio-economic part of town...near an alley. Across the alley were older homes than even that of my grandparents.You know that young Barbara Griffin hitched up her jeans and ventured to that part of the street already, don't you? The main and only reason was because a woman who had a pomegranate tree in her yard lived across that alley and she would let us go back there and pick a few from time to time. I had never seen or heard of a pomegranate until my first trip across that alley. They are a little trouble getting into, but lo and behold, when you put that tiny sweet kernal into your mouth and bite down, it's akin to a liquid starburst!
Needless to say, my cute little tee shirts were always stained red when my parents came to pick me up and my mother was not happy about this. She wouldn't have been happy about me roaming all over the town with my cousins either...often barefooted. And if she ever found out that I had a crush on a silly boy that worked at the gas station up the road who was 17 years old when I was 13, she would have had a fit. He was such a dork, but he had longish hair and I liked that. We also loved to spy on people.We thought we were secret agents and lived as much like one as we could. ALWAYS spying on anyone who didn't know we were there. Hiding in a tree, under a house, behind the big brick fire pit - nothing stopped us while we were on a mission.

But some things I did to pass the time would not have caused my mom to age more quickly than usual.
My grandmother, Ethel Lucille, would take me to the farmer's market to pick out vegetables. I grew up with an appreciation for the farmer who made it possible for me to go to a market and eat free boiled peanuts while my grandmother poked and prodded tomatoes and peaches. Next door to the farmer's market was a hunting shop called Staffords. It was fancy for a hunting store and is still there today. I would take my savings money into this store and buy gifts for my parents and my grandparents each time I visited. Whatever I brought my grandmother, she acted like it was a prized possession. And it was usually something that she never would have had on any sort of wish list, trust me.
She would also take me to church with her. A lot. An awful lot. I did not want to go into a Sunday School class with kids I didn't know, so I went in my Grandmother's class. Those old ladies acted like I was supposed to be there so I didn't feel uncomfortable at all. I sat on the front row with my grandmother's Bible in my lap and pretended to follow along. Ethel worked in the kitchen on Wednesday nights. So after I helped set the tables for dinner and wandered around the church during Prayer meeting, Grandaddy would pick us up (Lucille did not drive) and we would go home with extra rolls. "Church biscuits" we called them. To this day, I love a good yeast roll.

Even when I got a little older and wore too much makeup and not enough fabric I would revert to her little adventurous granddaughter who went barefooted everywhere as soon as I arrived. When I was around 16, my grandmother asked me to go to the store and pick out a hair color for her. She had graying strawberry blond hair and liked to add a little red to wash the gray away. So...being the artist and fashionista that I was, I chose her hair color according to what I thought it should be. And I bought her a black house dress with large exotic flowers all over it. Ethel never wore black or anything with large flowers so my plan was to give her a make-over. You have to understand that my grandmother was not a young, hip, trendy older woman who cared about what people thought. She was always old, kind of crippled, lived simply, and was funny in a quiet way. I was about to change all that. She let me dye her hair which made her my very first customer. It turned out red alright. It was nearly glowing. Imagine a light orange, almost peach color next to a brassy copper. that's what her roots looked like when they grew out. And do you know what she told me? She said, "This color brings out the orange and red flowers in my new black house-dress. I'll have to wear it a lot!"
Is that the kind of things that grandmothers have to say?

She taught me what it feels like to be worthy of love. She taught me other things too. How to warm your buns in front of a kerosene heater, how to make cornbread, how to raise an amazing son to love his mother, how successful one can be and not have central air and heat or cable tv, and hopefully how to love your grandchildren so that they can always feel home in your house.
I always wanted to please my grandmother. I liked to make her laugh. and would try very hard to be responsible for a giggle. She died a long time ago and sometimes I would forget that she was gone.

In August, I get the opportunity to be a grandmother to a little girl myself. I already have the immeasurable pleasure of having a grandson and that has worked out pretty darn well for me. (and for him, I believe) But a granddaughter! That's a new thing altogether. I hope that what I learned from Ethel I can impart to my own little grand-girl. I want to take her to church with me, feed her and teach her to make cornbread, teach her that even though she's at my house she will have chores, that no matter what she feels about something, she can say it and not be judged, show her that she can dye my hair whatever color she feels it needs to be, and model what lasting love looks like between an old man and old woman. I want to teach her to draw and to read classic books and love the Bible. I want to take her to a market or a museum or a monster truck rally. I want her little shirt to be stained with fun when she leaves me. I want her to find things her dad made and kept in the little drawers and cubbies around our house. And most of all I want to tell her stories about her dad and mom. About her aunts and uncles. And she will tell her kids about me one day. I hope it's not the one about how she dyed my hair purple and bought me a jumpsuit to match.