Throw Rug

Screen shot 2014-08-14 at 7.47.58 AMIt was late in the afternoon of December 31, 1950, and the Sweetgum tree outside the red brick house stood a silent vigil, its grey branches robbed by the wind of their orange and yellow star-like leaves.

Inside the house, there was music playing and preparations were well underway for the arrival of my parents’ friends and various family relations who had been invited to the red brick house  to ring in the new year. It being a Saturday, both of my parents would have left work early that day, as Saturday was only a half -workday. Although I can’t swear to it, because I was probably in the back of the house sitting on my Grandma’s bed, looking at some picture books, or on the floor playing with yellow and blue wooden blocks, I can easily imagine my mother and one of my mother’s friends, Hendree, shuttling back and forth between the kitchen, and the dining room with good things to eat, fresh from the oven. My father was, no doubt, standing in the dining room picking things off the various plates with his fingers, or seated in the living room, a drink of some kind in his hand, chatting amiably with one or two of the guests, or meeting them at the door, taking their coats and piling them on top of one another in the back bedroom.

There would have been a large table in the dining room with a white tablecloth, a small plate with Sweet Gherkins, and some type of cheese, cut into little cubes, either cheddar or Swiss, possibly both, and Ritz crackers or Triscuits to put them on. There was also a large china plate with boiled shrimp arranged upon it in a circle, a small clear glass bowl of cocktail sauce at its center. Each shrimp was impaled by a red, yellow or blue wooden toothpick. There would certainly have been a plate of Spanish olives, their little red pimento tongues sticking out impishly. A pinkish bowl of pimento cheese for the crackers and something hot, too—perhaps chicken wings, which had been broken in half with only the larger part served, so as to resemble little golden-brown drumsticks. And little hot dogs—“pigs in blankets,” I found out later they were called. On the marble sideboard in the dining room was a makeshift bar, containing bottles of blended Canadian Whiskey, Scotch, Gin, Vermouth, Rum, Cointreau, and a Sterling silver container of ice, with silver tongs, where men with real jobs made their own drinks and one for their women. An old school bell waited patiently on the mantle over the fireplace, ready to be rung by my father at the stroke of midnight. There was no radio or television set turned on for the seated guests to gather around to watch the ball drop, the assembled crowd relied solely on the men’s wristwatches or my father’s gold railroad pocket watch, which he had set precisely before leaving his job in the telegraph office at The Union Station. Wearing silly little pointed cardboard hats with elastic bands under their chins, men and women alike were left to their own devices and drank, smoked cigarettes, and spoke of mundane things in cheery voices and laughed loudly and often.

It was the laughter, I think, that drew me down the hall and into the crowded living room. Or perhaps I went looking for Teddy, our collie dog, and, to my way of thinking, my nearest relative. But up in the living room, I was, enjoying the attention of some of my parents’ friends—and for quite some time– before my grandmother eventually arrived to take me back to her room and put me to bed.

At least that’s the way I remember it. I found out decades later that my mother had a different version of the terrible thing that happened that night, but in my mind, the images and sequence of events are as clear as if they had just happened yesterday and not 65 years ago.

The way my mother remembered it, my grandmother had reluctantly left the peace and quiet of her bedroom in the back of the house and walked up the hall to the living room, not to fetch me off to bed, but to visit with her youngest son, Uncle Bill, who along with his wife Martha, were seated in the living room smoking and drinking. Although Uncle Bill and Martha lived nearby, they were infrequent visitors to our house. By all accounts, Bill was his mother’s favorite of her four children, but by my mother’s account, Uncle Bill was a scalawag, who cussed and drank too much and didn’t keep his promises to people. My grandmother would no doubt have preferred it had Uncle Bill visited her in her room as she was soft-spoken and not one given to enjoying loud parties. Noisemakers were on hand, and silly hats.

And this was to have been a loud party.

The way I remember it, my grandmother, a tall, thin woman, born on a farm at Indian Springs,   who had been a good “horsewoman” in her youth, and I were headed back down the hall to her room when suddenly she slipped on a little blue throw rug with white fringe on it, that lay on the floor outside the middle bedroom.

As she grimaced with pain and clutched at the doorway in a vain attempt to stand back up again, my father put his hands under her arms, and my uncle Bill lifted her by her feet, and the two of them carried her down the hall, back to her room and gently placed her on the bed.

By the expressions on everyone’s faces and the dire tones of their verbal exchanges, I knew something was terribly wrong. Something that even my father with his white shirt and tie and shiny gold watch which kept perfect time, was never going to be able to make right again.

I stayed by her side, the party broke up, guests excused themselves and my Uncle Bill and Martha went on to another party while my father called his old friend, Dr. Beddinfield, who arrived shortly carrying his black bag and pronounced to those who remained, with drinks in hand, that she had “broken her hip”.

An ambulance arrived and two men I didn’t know took her away on a stretcher.

In three or four days, they brought her back. A metal contraption with little wheels on it called a “walker” had been obtained from a surgical supply house, and though, at my parents’ urging, she made several vain and futile attempts to use it, it was clear to her and to me and to everyone else that her heart just wasn’t in it, and she would never walk again. She would spend the rest of her life, the last twelve years of it, in her bed or in her wheelchair. A tall, thin, 63 year-old woman from the farm country, “the Belle of Butts County,” who had been a fine horsewoman in her youth and a suffragette as a young woman, was now reduced to what people referred to as a “cripple”—an object of pity. At the tender age of four, even I could tell she was terribly embarrassed by it all and never wanted anyone to see her. I don’t think she ever left the house again except under protest.

Until that final time.

When I started kindergarten the following year there was a dread epidemic of polio going around striking children and adults alike. No one seemed sure what was causing it, but it was deemed wise by those in authority that kindergarten children take a nap on the floor in the middle of the day. For this purpose, I carried to school, rolled up very nicely, and kept in the classroom for two years, a little pale blue throw rug upon which to lay my head. The very same little rug that my grandmother had slipped on.

Suffice it to say, I did not sleep very well.

Visiting Washington, 1949

Visiting Washington, 1949

I was three years old, and could walk and talk, and my grandmother was taking me to see Washington. Her oldest son, my “Uncle Bubba”, who she told me, “worked for the government”, lived with his family near Washington, in Alexandria, Virginia, and as I understood it, we would be staying with him prior to seeing Washington. This was the most exciting trip of my young life so far, and judging by all the excitement surrounding the trip, and all the care given to what I would be wearing, I knew it was an important one as well. I had never been to see Washington before.

We loaded our suitcases into the trunk of our black ’38 Studebaker and my mother drove my grandmother and me downtown, to the old Union Station, to catch the overnight train.

We got settled into our compartment in the Pullman car for the overnight trip to visit Washington and my grandmother and I were waving through the window to my mother outside on the platform. She was standing less than ten feet away and she was trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t hear her voice. I could see her lips moving, but couldn’t make out the words because of the thick glass window. She must have seen the confused look on my face because whatever she was trying to tell me, she said it over and over three or four times. I wondered what it was she was trying to tell me. Maybe it was, “Say hello to Washington for me!” I really don’t know.

Suddenly, it seemed as if the station, and the platform with my mother on it, and all the other people waving to me, in fact, the whole world all started to slowly and silently slide away to my left and though I pressed my face hard against the glass window, I couldn’t see my mother or any of them anymore.

Then it was suddenly bright light out, we were out of the station and out into the late afternoon Georgia sun. It was shining in warm through the glass where I had just seen my mother. Thousands of tiny specks of dust hung in the air that I hadn’t noticed before. I wondered if my grandmother could see them too. I thought about asking her, but then decided not to, just in case she said she couldn’t. She was very old and wore glasses and her eyesight wasn’t the best. Anyway, I didn’t want to bother her. She was sitting back on the seat now, her hands clasped in her lap. She looked a little worried, I thought. Perhaps she was nervous about seeing Washington. I turned my face away and looked back out the window.

There was no sound at first, but then, in a little while, I heard the creaking of the train car on the tracks and a couple of muted pops and snaps and felt my body weight shift slightly as we rounded a curve and began picking up speed. We passed houses with black people sitting on porches who smiled and waved at us. I smiled and waved back while “Mamaw” read her Bible.

As we passed, other people sat patiently behind the steering wheels of their cars, held back by flashing red lights and muted, clanging bells. The train went faster and faster, until looking out the window at the passing scene made me dizzy and so I shifted my attention onto something close by that didn’t move. It was a small glass window on the train that was different from any window I had ever looked through. It had what seemed to be a spider-web design in the glass. I wondered how the spider had done that.
I didn’t see any spider, so I touched it and felt the texture of the glass with my finger.

The next thing I remember, the cab was pulling away and my grandmother and I were standing in front of a row of tall houses that all looked alike. My uncle in his family lived in one of them. I don’t know how my grandmother knew which one was his, but she did, so we climbed the stairs and I pressed the doorbell, a little black button in the middle of a rectangular gold plate. I heard a bell ring on the other side of the glass door. My uncle’s wife, my Aunt Katherine, met us at the door and invited us inside. While she talked to my grandmother, and finished ironing some white shirts, my cousin Nancy and I sat at the kitchen table and drank a glass of milk and ate some oatmeal cookies from a red and white striped bag. Neither of our feet touched the floor. When we finished our cookies we were both kind of stuck there. I thought only horses ate oatmeal.

Later that day, while my grandmother waited for her son to come home from work, Nancy and I sat in a little room with a big wooden cabinet in it. Through a small glass window in the front of the cabinet, I could see a little freckle-faced boy inside. He walked funny and moved his mouth funny, but I liked him, anyway. I didn’t like his name, though. It had the word “Doody” in it. Whoever named him that wasn’t very nice. He was friends with a nice man in a cowboy outfit but there were other characters there that were mean, and there was a beautiful Indian princess and a clown that couldn’t talk with a box on his belt with a horn attached to it, and all he could do was blow the horn for “yes” or “no”. I felt sorry for the clown. The whole thing was very upsetting. But I liked the little freckle-faced boy who walked funny, even though he was a little strange.

The next morning we got up early. We were going to Mount Vernon. That was where George Washington lived. We had to take a boat to get there and the boat was loaded with lots of people who all seemed very happy and excited to be going.

My grandmother and I followed the crowd of people to the door of Washington’s house and were ushered inside. While some of the people went into different rooms, my grandmother and I stayed in this big main room with lots of pretty furniture, but no one was allowed to sit on any of it.

While we waited for George Washington to finish talking to the other guests, or whatever he was doing, my grandmother passed the time looking at his plates and dishes and silver trays. Meanwhile, I kept wondering where George Washington was, and why he hadn’t come out to greet us. I was getting a little annoyed. After all, we had come a long way to see him, and although he was an important person and the Father of His Country, according to my Grandmother, it still seemed just a little rude. I wasn’t used to seeing my grandmother treated like that.

Finally, after we had waited for what seemed like a very long time, my Grandmother and I left and went outside to get some fresh air. We walked around back of the house to see if he was out there. On the way we passed some cherry trees. I wondered if those were some of the cherry trees George Washington had cut down when he was a kid. As I was thinking about that we came to his tomb, a little house built into a hill with an iron gate on the front. I thought of looking for him in there, but it was locked. We walked around the grounds some more to pass the time. Finally, my grandmother got tired of waiting and we walked back down to the dock and took the ferry back to Alexandria.

I never did get to meet George Washington.

I guess we should have called.

Screen shot 2014-08-13 at 2.13.27 PM

The Early Years

If I had to guess, I’d say things went pretty well for me in life, at least for the first year or so.  Mostly, I got to spend all my time with my mother, who, based on my perception of what other people seemed to think of her, must have been a pretty special person. I liked her fine, but it’s always nice when one’s own perceptions of someone– or something– are echoed and confirmed by others.

I’m not ashamed to admit it, but the truth is, I couldn’t walk until I was 11 months old,  so I guess my mother was pretty much stuck with me until then. We spent most of our days together for those first eighteen months, at least when I wasn’t sleeping, which, to be honest, was probably about half the time.

Come to think of it, a lot happened in those first couple of years, not all of it good.

I was born in Florida, lived in Georgia and learned to walk in Mississippi. My father had driven me out there in the back seat of our 1938 Studebaker. My mother rode shotgun. My aunt, whose in-laws we were visiting, sat in the back seat with me. She was wearing a funny hat.  She played “This Little Piggy Went To Market” on my toes the whole way across Lake Ponchatrain, which, if you must know, was more than a little annoying, but I liked my Aunt, so I put up with it. I even laughed repeatedly each time she pulled on my little toe when she got to the part where the little piggie went, “Wee Wee Wee all the way home.” Even then, I remember thinking that my Aunt should not have been discussing such things with me and that, at any rate, the little piggie should have been more in control of his bladder.

It was a long drive. We left home before the sun came up. My grandmother waved goodbye in her navy blue polka dot dress as our car backed down the driveway and slowly pulled away from the house. From the look on her face, I could tell we might be gone a right long time.

We were driving out to Mississippi to visit my father’s sister’s in-laws. Excuse me if I told you that already. They lived in a big mansion with four white columns in the front. And if you don’t believe me, that’s all right. I’ve got the pictures to prove it.

There was a big lawn out in front of the house.  At least it seemed big to me.  Everything seems big when you’re new in the world.

And that’s where I learned to walk. On that lawn. My mother gently lowered me from her arms down onto the grass. Then my father took about ten steps and turned around. Then he kneeled down with his arms outstretched to me.  I liked getting that kind of attention from my father. Usually, he was busy working or busy doing something else.

He gave me a few words of encouragement. Okay, I don’t remember exactly what they were.  It doesn’t matter.  Use your imagination. The thing is, I already spoke English at the time. I’d been speaking the language for about half my life. It was no big deal, really. I’d been listening to people speaking English my whole life.

In fact, when I was about six months old, my parents took me to the Lucas Theatre in Savannah to see a movie. I don’t remember which movie it was, or even whether or not it starred Gregory Peck, but I do recall that when my father stepped away momentarily to buy tickets, and left my mother standing by the curb, out in front of the theatre, holding me in her arms, a policeman in a dark blue uniform rode up on a big chestnut-colored horse.

I had seen many things up until that point in my life that really impressed me, but this time,  that policeman on that horse–well, that really made an impression on me.

No, I know what you’re thinking, it wasn’t the first time I noticed something and wanted to comment on it, but it was the first time I actually uttered an intelligible word.

I said “HORSE!”. Nothing more, nothing less. “HORSE! ”

I guess it could have been worse, I could’ve said, “PIG!!!”.