Saturday, March 31, 2007

Remembering Great-grandparents

Four generations! That's me, the cute little guy sucking his thumb and held in his great-granddaddy's hands. My father and great-grandmother are to the left. My grandmother is on the right and my Uncle L (who is a closer to my age than to my dad's) is in front.

My great-granddaddy had given up raising tobacco by the time we moved into the house down the road from his farm. He leased out his tobacco allotment, allowing someone else to raise it. But he kept busy. With my great-grandma, they raised a large garden, had some chickens that ran around the yard and roosted in an old out-building, and kept a dozen or so whitewashed bee hives. The hives were in the woods separating our two houses, and even though I was never stung, I was always afraid to walk the trail running through the woods. If I was by myself, I’d run the whole way.

One day my dad and granddad came over and helped my great-grandfather harvest the honey. In addition to wearing lots of layers of clothes on a warm late summer day, they pulled on gloves and put netting over their heads. Granddaddy had a tin pot, which looked kind of like a tea pot or oil can. Inside the pot he placed oil soaked rags and set them on fire. By squeezing the handle, smoke would billow out of the spout, allowing him to chase the bees away while he robbed them of their honey. Back in the kitchen my mom and grandma helped my great-grandma separate the honey from the cones, storing the sweet nectar in jars. We kids stayed on the back porch, placated with pieces of the wax cone to chew and to suck out honey.

Whenever I had dinner with my great-granddaddy, if there was no desert, he would end his meals by placing a pat of butter on his plate and slathering it with either honey or molasses. Taking his fork, he’d mix the butter and syrup together and then sup it up with pieces of homemade biscuits. The honey he used for this treat came from his own bees. Although the molasses was “Grandma’s” (a store brought variety), I’m sure that earlier in his life he was using homemade molasses from the sugar cane he grew, pressed and boiled down into syrup.

Great-grandma, as I’d later recalled, looked a lot like Ma Joad in John Ford’s silver screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Plumb, she always seemed to have an apron over her dress except for Sunday mornings. She worked in a kitchen in which two stoves had been crammed along the outside wall. One was a modern gas range, which she didn’t like. Her preferred choice was a cast iron wood-burning range. Out back, there was a wood pile. I remember being there with my great-granddaddy as he split up “lighter wood” for cooking, I'd help gather up the split wood. Lighter wood came from the heart of pine and was so filled with pitch that it burned like wood soaked in kerosene. It was either used to quickly start a fire or to provide a quick hot flame. On this wood burning stove, great-grandma would bake biscuits and pies, fry chickens and apples, boil potatoes and beans, fix gravy and steam rice. At a family gathering on a Sunday afternoon, she’d have a feast prepared with three or four pies cooling out on the back porch.

The summer after we left Moore County, my great-grandma suffered a stroke. She and great-granddaddy had been out in their strawberry patch beside D’s pond, between the canebrake and the dam. Great-granddaddy had to run all the way home to call for help and by the time someone got there, it was too late. We were in Virginia and came home for the funeral, the first that I remember. The night before the services, we gathered at the large old funeral home in Carthage, where I’ve been many times since. My mother led my brother, sister and I up the casket and pointed out great-grandma’s hands and talked about her peeling apples out on the back porch. I’d never noticed her swiveled her hands, but today that’s what I remember best about her. Her hands were finally at rest.

Great-granddaddy lived another seven years. For a while, my grandma and her sister alternated staying with him during the day, helping him out with chores around the house. On one of these visits, grandma took great-granddaddy and me back through the woods on a trip down memory lane. We drove on a two-track across the sandy high ground, passing the two tobacco barns still in use by the man leasing great-granddaddy’s allotment. For a few moments the sweet smell of curing tobacco filled the air. Then we passed the sugar cane press which hadn’t been used in decades. The press was rusty, the frame was rotting away and the arm onto which a mule was attached to turn the press had broken off. We didn’t even get out of the car, but drove on a hundred yards or so to the house where my great-granddaddy spent his boyhood years. There was no furniture left inside, except for an old organ. Tobacco sticks (sticks onto which tobacco leaves were tied for curing) were stored in the living room. Several years later, the next time I visited that abandoned house, the organ was gone as was the mantel over the fireplace. Someone had even ripped the copper wiring out from the walls, wires that had carried electricity for less than a decade as rural electrification didn’t come about in these parts until after the Second World War. This house had been abandoned in the early fifties. The last time I saw the house, in the summer of 2001, the roof was falling in.

We walked around the house. In the yard were a few overgrown shrubs. Out back were fruit trees in need of a good pruning. My great-granddaddy told me about a pet chicken he had as a boy and how one Sunday, with the preacher over for dinner, his pet chicken was made into chicken and dumplings. My great-granddaddy had been a boy no older than I was at the time and he told the visiting preacher all about his chicken that they were eating. “After the preacher had left,” he said, “I got the whippin’ of my life.” He also told me about the time when he was a kid, a little older than me. He had slipped into a neighbor’s watermelon patch and was cutting only the heart out watermelons and feasting on the tasty fruit. With watermelon juice running down his shirt, he noticed that the birds were beginning to sing. The temperature was dropping, which was strange for the middle of a summer afternoon, especially with no clouds in the sky. He looked up and saw the sun disappear. He dropped his watermelon and ran for his life, as fast as his bare feet and skinny legs could take him, not wanting to be caught in another man’s watermelon’s patch on judgment day. He had just witnessed an eclipse. Both of these events occured back in the 19th century.

On this particular summer day in the late 60s, we continued on the two-track running between two branches of the Lower Little River, back way to my great-grandfather’s grandfather’s home. It was a large two story structure that still stands, although it has been remodeled many times. All three of these houses, belonging to my great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather and great-great-great-grandfather, are probably within a two mile radius by the way the crows fly. They all sit on land first settled by our common ancestor who migrated over from the wind-swept islands off Scotland and settled in the Carolina Sandhills back in the mid-18th Century.

Like his father and grandfather, going back at least a half dozen generations, my great-granddaddy was a farmer. Six days a week, he’d be hard at work. On Sunday, he’d be a suit and at the Presbyterian Church where he served as an Elder and the Sunday School superintendent for over forty years. My last memory is of him sitting in a chair in the room in my grandma’s house, where he lived the last year or two. On the table next to this chair were his Bible, which he read faithfully and a folded up copy of The Pilot, a local newspaper that he read almost as faithfully as the Good Book. In this edition of the newspaper was a picture of soldiers getting ready to take off for France in the Great War. Great-granddaddy was trying to identify everyone. One of the men was his brother, who would be gassed in the trenches in Europe and live out his days disabled. The next time I would see my great-granddaddy, he’d be in a casket in that Carthage Funeral Home. The next day, in November 1969, he was buried beside his wife; just west of the church which he helped build and where he had served a lifetime.

This story is a follow up to my Uncle D story (which has a picture of him and his son, my Uncle D, in a tobacco field)


  1. Another fantastic story, sage. Thanks for sharing.

  2. This is a great story and very well told. This could easily be an excerpt from a book.

    I'm going to scroll through for some more of these accounts!

    And hello, Michele sent me today!


  3. Very interesting :) I'm doing my family history at the moment and I love to read everyone elses stories. Thank you :)

  4. Your family stories keep getting better. You have to categorize, and anthologize them :)

    I don't think I have ever had molasses but I like the idea of whatever it tastes like with butter and buscuits.

  5. Great family photo and great memories. It was a pleasure reading them. Thank you!

  6. I absolutely love the photo and the story is mesmerizing. There is nothing better than relating the tales of how you came to be and the people that made it all happen over time. What great memories, although some sad...still great all the time.
    Here from Micheles.

  7. what a great story, it made me think of my grandparents and how those type of memories seem like the best and luckiest years

  8. Sage, What a heart warming read on a rainy Sunday morning. Keep 'em coming!!

  9. Next time Ed busts my chops about never leaving home, I'm going to have to share the tidbit about all your great, great-great and great-great-great grandparents. I must've been born in the wrong era...but I would have chosen the modern stove over the wood burning one. I don't think many people do the big Sunday dinners anymore which is kind of a shame. It was probably hard work for her but I bet she loved doing it.

  10. thank you all for your kind comments.

    Pia, maybe I'll have to do another story with directions to making biscuits. I am the only one in my family now that still makes biscuits from scratch (which includes NOT using self-rising flour) My grandma taught me and even she has gone over to store-brought biscuits.

    Murf, it's sad to think that the land there in the "little river area" was farmed by my ancestors from the Scotish Highlands from the late 1740s to just the last few years. Although some of the land is still in the family, only a little of it is being farmed today.

  11. Oh. My. God.

    When I saw the photo, I thought "Wow... that looks like the Joad family." I started reading and saw reference to tobacco, and I, see it IS the Joads." And then, I got to the part where you say that your great-grandmother looked like Ma Joad!!!

    I was laughing out loud...seriously.

    Wonderful story... I love old family photos and the tales that go along with them!

    Here via michele!

  12. You know I love old photos and yours are great.

    Cheer up...April showers bring May flowers! :+)

  13. Panthergirl--Don't know what I think about others calling my family the Joads--but I really like the strength of Ma Joad

    Karen, this isn't really an "old photo." Old photos are those taken before I was born--this one was snapped in 1957

  14. As usual, a simply great post and photo. You sure were quite the cute lil' fella.

    As others have mentioned, thanks for sharing these wonderful memories and stories with the rest of us. It's from a time, setting, and life that I'm not familiar with but I am the wiser from having read your engaging account.

    I understand writing about these memories must be bittersweet, but I'd simply like to add that I can only hope and wish some day, far from now, a relative of mine will enchant others with similar tales.

    PS - I like your great-granddaddy's biscuit treat! Sounds delicious!

  15. What a great picture! I love the eclipse story. I guess if you don't know what is happening it has to be a shock for sun to disappear. I remember a time when my cousin was out one night and there was a freak aurora "show". He offered up quick repent for everything he had ever done in his life.

  16. My mom and aunt were recalling childhood stories of what would be my great grandparents and how one grandmother kept this can of syrup on the table all the time and a bowl full of biscuits.

    I love looking at old family pictures and seeing what resemblences I can find to my generation of cousins and siblings. My paternal grandparents farmed tobacco until I was grown and they sold their pounds or whatever it was called when the government got involved with how much you could sell.

    I too remember biscuits with pats of butter smooshed in molasses...good stuff!

  17. V--as a small kid, I was often called "Ike" The President (at the time) and I both had a bald head

    Kontan, those rapid repent stories are always funny. It was a stretch to see my great-grandaddy stealing someone's watermelons--he always seemed so upright

    Deana, I occassionally will have to make a batch of biscuits just to slop up some butter and honey or molasses

  18. Excellent story Sage. This is what genealogy is all about.

    By the way, I make bisquits from scratch using none raising flour myself. I refuse to eat any other.

    One quick correction though from someone with a lot of experience in the honey industry. It is comb and not cone.

    Looking back through my 350+ ancestors, probably all but about 50 were farmers and those 50 who weren't were all born more recently. Someday I want to create some sore of map showing their migration and how they ended up in Iowa.

  19. I prefer my biscuits to come from a tube that pops when I open it and makes me jump every time. Keeps the old heart in shape that way. :-)

  20. Ed, you're right about the comb, if I'd seen the two words together, I'd known the right one, but I'm not good at proofing my own stuff and didn't even think about the differences.

    Murf, I've told you this before, you can take those biscuits and roll the with Vienna Sausage and make pigs in the blankets and serve them at your movie night!

  21. That would be great for the next time I show a midget movie of a certain genre too. Thanks, Sage!

  22. you have such an amazing memory for detail, and the way you tell these stories is just beautiful.

    poor great grandaddy running scared from the eclipse! awww.

    i've been trying to read this for a few days.. but never seemed to get quiet time alone to read properly. so glad i finally could.

    thank you. :)

  23. What a great story--and it brought back memories for me as well. My grandpa taught me about the deliciousness of Karo syrup and butter on homemade rolls. YUM.