It smelled exactly like a house that would burn down soon, especially when the morning sun, still red in its rising, filtered through a forest of tall pine trees, would stream in through the windows and warm the walls and give them a reddish glow, and you could smell the wood heating up, just waiting for a match.
|Papa and sister Martha in Grandmother's house
Just before I was born, much of the house did burn down, so a bunch of men from Pinetta Baptist Church, where Grandmother was a Sunday School teacher, and where Granddaddy went every Sunday -- mainly for entertainment and to wear his new fedora and a starched white shirt and a tie -- they (the church men) came out and had a rebuilding party, so to speak, and in the process, added an indoor bathroom, still a bit of a luxury for most country folk at the time.
The house was called "Grandmother's house." We all called it that -- cousins, aunts, uncles, the whole lot of us.
I do not know why.
Morning at Grandmother's house meant a breakfast of fried eggs, sausage or bacon or ham, homemade biscuits and grits. Milk for the kids, coffee for the grownups. And you already know what Granddaddy did with his coffee.
Granddaddy was known for taking big bites, and he would shovel an entire over-easy fried egg into his mouth at once, then do whatever chewing he could with the few teeth he had left.
And those teeth weren't in very good shape. Granddaddy would never have been asked to do a toothpaste commercial.
Grandmother had plenty of teeth, but they were false. If you went into her bedroom at the wrong time, you could see her teeth resting in a glass of water. It was first fascinating, then yucky.
|Us in Grandmother's yard
The little house was surrounded by forest and nothing else. A dirt road was close by, but you could barely see it due to the pines.
So it reminded me of the witch's house in "Hansel and Gretel," a story Grandmother read to me out of a very old book of fairy tales -- an oddly rectangular book, over twice as long as it was wide.
I guess this made it easier to illustrate Rapunzel's long hair and Jack climbing up that beanstalk which he had no business doing. Any fool would know there would be a giant up there.
When I grew up to be a teacher, I realized my Grandmother's house and the witch's house showed up in lots of great stories written for grownups: a place where people lived with an untamed wilderness just a stone's throw away.
A home surrounded by beautiful pines, in Grandmother's case, so when the wind blew you could hear them whispering. There is no other sound like that and even if there were, we could no longer hear it because of traffic noise and our headsets and earplugs.
But it was a magic sound, a fairy tale sound. Grandmother would say, "Listen to those pines. They're talking to each other," and I would feel hypnotized or enchanted, both happy and a little fearful listening in to the trees' hushed conversation.
And of course they swayed in the wind, leaning with it, then straightening, back and forth, bending but not breaking. There I was, a temporary orphan, my parents having dropped me off, experiencing this beauty, the sun shining, the clouds sailing slowly across a blue sky.
What if I was actually a prince, I wondered, and my mom and dad weren't really my parents?
On the floor of the forest lay layers of pine straw, patches of poison oak and poison ivy, and bigger patches of blackberry bushes which were actually briers, and I would go out with Grandmother to pick berries which she would turn into preserves and jelly and jam and blackberry pies.
And during out walks, she taught me, and more about that later. When we found our way back to the house, we had dark blackberry juice on our hands mixed with specks of blood from brier scratches.
And then it would be night, and the little house with its white shingles sat all alone in the woods, all the stars visible, the fire flies darting around like confused snowflakes, the pines now silent, a whippoorwill occasionally making its nighttime call.