It 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.