Mama and Daddy were looking at architectural drawings spread out on the kitchen table. I'd seen Daddy make drawings like this before. He worked at the shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, forty miles from our home outside Mobile, Alabama. Drawing like this was part of his job. The lines were drawn on the paper with a ruler and compass and there were notations made in tiny, meticulously written letters. He was planning to build something. That was exciting. “We are going to build a cottage in our backyard.” Mama said.
Our home was in a rural area on seven acres of land, one acre of it cleared for our yard. In the spring of 1963, the azaleas made our house look like it was in the middle of a pink bouquet. Thick woods typical of the terrain near the Gulf coast covered the land beyond the yard. They were a place of play and adventure. A friend and I built a fort out of old lumber and fallen limbs there. We would catch tadpoles in the creek which, during the heavy summer rains, became a torrent and washed up all kinds of interesting things: toys, tools, old shoes.
There was a barn for our horse at the edge of the woods behind our house. Gypsy was a pinto, a multi-colored horse like the one Little Joe rode on Bonanza. We strung two strands of barbed wire around our perimeter of six-acres and Gypsy roamed the woods, searching for any blade of grass to eat. On weekends we tied her out in the yard to graze on the lush grass that grew over the septic tank.
“What’s the house going to be for?” I asked.
“It is going to be for Granny to live in.” Mom answered.
I couldn’t believe my ears. Granny was coming to live right in our yard! She always had so many wonderful, old things in her house. When I visited her, I played with her treadle sewing machine. She’d disengage the belt that drove the mechanism and let me pump away, making the fly wheel spin. Occasionally my toe found its way between the heavy cast-iron treadle and the floor and I called out in pain. I liked to go through her box of buttons of all shapes and sizes in one of the sewing machine drawers. In another drawer was a device that looked like a ball on a stick she used to use to darn socks in the old days.
Every Friday afternoon, after getting me and my older brother from school, my mother picked up Granny and took her to buy groceries at the A&P, an event Granny referred to as going to the Tea Store, for the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. At eight years old, I thought nothing could be more exciting than Granny moving into a cottage right in our own backyard. She had never lived in a rural area and was unaccustomed to the very dark nights and the sounds that went along with living surrounded by woods. I told her that I’d spend the first night with her in the cottage so she wouldn’t be scared.
Granny had been born in 1880, when Rutherford B. Hayes was president of the United States. Her father had fought in the Civil War. Through her stories, she connected me with a time long past, a time when automobiles had not yet been invented, when medical care was primitive, and many children (including her) were orphans because their parents died of diseases now rare or easily curable. Though no more than five feet tall, Granny was rugged in her own way. When roaches appeared—a constant battle in Alabama—she squashed them with her thumb. She told of wringing the necks of chickens and straining milk from a family cow. She wore loose fitting stockings held up with elastic garters right below the knee. Almost any ailment could be treated with an ointment called “oxide of zinc.”
Granny sang the multiplication tables the way she learned them in school and showed me old black and white photos of relatives who’d lived at the turn of the twentieth century. The men had long beards and the women wore funny looking hats. She cackled with laughter, pointing out some of the more outlandish head coverings.
“Come get your breakfast!” Granny would call as she stood at the front door of the cottage. She wasn’t calling for me, but for the animals. Cats came running from every direction. Buckshot, our ‘Ole Yeller’ looking dog trotted over on three legs. The fourth leg had been injured during one of his car-chasing adventures and he held it up off the ground.
“They love me because I feed them,” she liked to say.
Everything edible in Granny’s house, she kept in the refrigerator to protect it from bugs. Cookies were always cold and so was bread. A piece of toast had four slabs of hard margarine on the surface. The bread burned in the oven broiler before the margarine melted. Orphaned as a young child and raised in the homes of much older siblings, she was proud to have finished second class high school, as she called it. She thought learning was important. Even in her eighties, she took pride in being able to identify all fifty states, name the presidents in order, and recite the titles of the books in The Bible.
“What happened to your toes Granny?” I asked her one time. Her toes were all bunched up and overlapped each other. She told me it was due to always wearing shoes that were too small as a child. She laughed as she showed me her toenails, each looking like a little hard anthill. One of eight children, her older brothers all succumbed to tuberculosis in middle age. Only she and her two sisters lived into their 90s.
When I spent the night at the cottage and we got ready for bed, I’d watch Granny remove the pins from the bun atop her head, let her snow-white hair down and braid it into a long queue down her back. Her teeth, which she used only for special occasions, were kept in a container in the bathroom.
“Can I see your teeth Granny?” I’d ask from time to time.
She’d broken the hinge on them at some point, so when not being worn, they were held together with chewing gum. When she showed them to me we laughed hysterically. Once her sister borrowed her teeth to wear to a wedding. When she did put in her teeth, usually for a funeral, she’d proudly announce, “Aren’t I a lady now, wearing my teeth, a brassiere, and a clean pair of drawers!”
Before going to bed, I said my prayers aloud. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. God bless, Mama, Daddy, Joe and Granny.”
I also named each of our pets. Granny always complimented me for being such a good boy to say my prayers each night. When I returned from Sunday school each week (my family was Baptist), Granny (a life-long Methodist) praised me by saying, “Being a Baptist is a good thing—John was a Baptist.”
We didn’t take Granny to church because she was hard of hearing. She couldn’t hear the preacher and was like to whisper something too loudly such as, “I believe that preacher is the ugliest man I’ve ever seen.” Her hearing deficit often took an amusing form. She never said she hadn’t understood something, but instead repeated what it sounded like to her in the form of a question.
“We’re going to the store,” I might tell her.
“Oh, you dropped it on the floor, did you?” she’d ask.
“Buckshot went to bed,” I’d mention.
“He dropped dead!?” she’d exclaim.
She had a hearing-aid like a small radio that clipped onto her dress, a wire going up to one ear. “I can’t wear that thing,” she’d complain, “Sounds like a train coming in my ear.”
One time, I knocked on Granny’s front door as hard as I could, making sure she heard. When I looked in the door’s window and saw her mumbling to herself as she got out of her rocker and shuffled her way to the door, I went and hid in the bushes. After opening the door, she began to look for the source of the knock. When she stepped onto the porch, I jumped up out of the bushes and startled her. She jumped at my sudden appearance and the scare caused her to pass gas audibly. We both broke into laughter, and she began to hold herself, gasping “Oh, oh, I’m going to wet myself.”
Granny feared thunder and lightning. When a storm was brewing, she’d call out, “Bri-oooooon! Get in this house right now before you get struck by lightning.” I’d pretend not to hear her for a while before I began ambling back to the house. When the lightning flashed again, I fell to the ground, as if I had been struck.
“Gawd is going to punish you for treating your poor ole grandmother like that,” she scolded, wagging her finger. She didn’t stay mad long though and we were laughing again in a few minutes.
One Christmas, my cousin got a Creepy Crawlers set. It was a popular toy in the Sixties that consisted of a tray of aluminum molds into which you’d squeeze a liquid rubber goo. Next you put the tray in the oven on a low heat and cook up rubber bugs, which we put on the floor in Granny’s little house.
“Look Granny, a roach!” I shouted.
“Oh heavens, kill it,” she yelled, “Step on, it quick.”
Then she got the broom to sweep the bug out the door. We repeated the trick several times and it worked every one of them.
“Aunt Cora is coming to stay for a while,” Granny announced one day. Now things really got interesting. Granny and Aunt (we pronounced it Ain’t) Cora were both in their eighties and neither had any teeth. Aunt Cora brought a bag full of baby food in jars, because she couldn’t swallow solid food. It was hard to believe these two sisters grew up in the same home. Granny never used anything close to a bad word. Aunt Cora, on the other hand, could use some rather saucy language, which I found to be quite educational.
“Don’t say that in front of Brian, Cora,” Granny warned, “He’ll tell his daddy.” She feared offending Daddy, reasoning he might not allow her to continue to live in our backyard.
“I don’t give a snap,” Aunt Cora retorted. She was a bigger woman than Granny. Having had nine children, her once ample, ever bra-less breasts now hung to her waist. One day, trying to make me laugh, Aunt Cora grabbed two handfuls of her loose-fitting dress and held them up, squeezing them as if milking a cow’s teats. “DO NOT DO THAT CORA!” Granny erupted, trembling with anger.
Once I entered my teen years, I didn’t have as much time to visit Granny, but when my friends came over, I took them over to the cottage to meet her. She was a favorite among my friends, making a fist and holding it up as if she might hit them. As high school graduation approached and I contemplated attending college away from home, I realized this meant leaving Granny, by then ninety-three years old. I feared she might not live for four more years, and agonized over the decision. I told her of my reluctance to leave her.
“You have to go.” was all she said, her voice seeming to catch in her throat.
During my first year at college, Granny wrote to me every week, the return address ‘Sadie W. Rush,’ written in the script of someone educated in the nineteenth century. I noticed that Mama had rewritten the address. Granny’s handwriting was now barely legible due to her failing eyesight. She always opened her letters with, “My Dear Grandson, I love you and miss you…. I am so old now.”
When I returned for the holiday break during my second year of college, Granny was failing and living in a nursing home. I wanted to bring her home for a few hours on Christmas day and Mama agreed. An aide helped her into her best dress and put her hair up with pins. It wasn’t exactly like she usually wore it, but she looked nice. Aged ninety-five now, Granny could no longer walk. I carried her in my arms like a baby. She had always been a small woman and I suspected she weighed no more than fifty pounds. She didn’t speak during the ride home so I sang hymns, “Rock of Ages”, “The Old Rugged Cross”, while she joined in feebly.
“Oh, what a beautiful bow,” she said as she unwrapped each of her gifts. She carefully folded the wrapping paper, putting it aside for future use and eyeing her growing stack of presents with satisfaction.
I had only been back at college for a few weeks after the holidays when I found a note pinned to my dorm room door that read, “Brian, call your mother.” I suspected the reason for it and, full of trepidation, walked to the phone booth at the end of the hall to make the collect call.
“Granny is gone,” I heard Mom’s voice say.
I don’t recall the rest of the conversation. To say that Granny’s passing left a huge hole in my life isn’t entirely accurate. More than forty-five years later, I still see her in my mind’s eye, as clearly as if she were right in front of me, her snow-white hair, her toothless laugh, her wrinkled hands marked with age spots. I know it sounds trite but I really do still feel her with me and can still hear her tell me, “Oh, you’re such a good boy.”
Granny in my Backyard is an excerpt from an upcoming memoir titled, More Often Not as Deep. Author Brian Rush McDonald tells the story of his growing up in rural Alabama dreaming of becoming a musician. But, during high school he embarked on another path that became an odyssey lasting thirty years, which took him to another country and resulted in misgivings about his youthful decision. At almost fifty years of age, he made the decision to forge a new and different path. The memoir is part of his search to understand his youthful choice and subsequent journey. Today, he is a psychotherapist in Alexandria, Virginia and helps others as they seek to make sense of their own life choices.