Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

November 14, 2010


The kids love to hear grandma spin yarns about her grandmother


      Mama and I have six great grandchildren. We love for them to come to see us, and we are usually glad to see them leave. The older ones are fascinated with stories that mama can tell about her childhood. Grandma Dean can reel off story after story about her mother’s mother and the hard times folks endured back kin the good old days.    

          I enjoy her stories too, especially the ones about her Grandmother Emma. Emma raised nine children in the backwoods of Tallapoosa County, Alabama. All of them lived into their nineties until all that lard Emma fed them finally put them in the ground. Too much fat will kill you eventually.

          Cool water in a creek near the house served as their refrigerator. After all, the only running water they had was the water that ran by in that creek. Indoor plumbing was only a dream.  Like most families they had a well worn path to the outhouse.  Pouring in a sack of lime occasionally helped only a little with the nauseating stench.

          When the cows were milked, the milk was poured into earthenware jugs and carefully placed in a shaded, shallow place in the creek where it stayed until mealtime. Other items, like bottles of “soda water” and other perishables were also cooled in the creek. The water was clean and safe enough to drink.  At least they believed it was safe. 

          Butter and buttermilk were obtained not with money but with muscles – churning the milk in those old churns that are now on sale in every flea market. Churning was one of the chores assigned to Emma’s girls. The older boys were spared from churning; it was their job to care for and feed the livestock. Younger lads would sometimes take their turn at the churn but they always grumbled that it was “women’s work.” 

          Grampa finally grubbed enough off the land to buy Emma an icebox. No longer were they forced to walk back and forth to the creek. The only trouble was, the ice soon melted. Now, instead of trips to the creek, they had to make frequent visits to the Ice House in town to purchase blocks of ice. Naturally Grampa complained about how expensive it was to own that icebox.

          Years later, not long before she died, Emma swapped her icebox for a fancy refrigerator. Her wood-burning stove was another matter. She continued cooking on it until they put her in a nursing home. She simply did not trust those electric stoves.

          Emma had her doubts too about the refrigerator. She and Grampa had used a smokehouse for years. They were sure it tasted better than that “store-bought” meat. When the men killed a hog, they took the meat to the smokehouse while it was still warm. There it was salted and stored away for the curing. My wife remembers hearing Emma’s children say that they used black pepper, red pepper, and molasses, along with plenty of salt, to cure the meat. Of course the smoke also helped.

          Emma never bought three pair of socks for five dollars at Wal-Mart. Instead she knitted socks for the whole family with her own knitting needle. When a hole was worn in the socks, Emma patched the hole with her busy needle.

          Flour was sold in large sacks in the old days. The sacks sometimes had a colorful design on them, pretty enough for the sacks to be made into cute dresses for the girls. That custom lingered on for many years; my wife can remember that she and her sister also wore flour-sack dresses sometimes.

          Grandma Dean feels a strange kinship with Grandma Emma. She can imagine her sitting by a winter fire, cooking and sewing for her large family, and telling stories since there was no television to watch.  Dean enjoys her fireplace in our home. She has refused to let me change to gas logs. She likes to sit like Emma once sat, pondering life before burning logs. A fire mesmerizes her soul, inspiring her to imagine life as it was so long ago for her kin.  

          Most of us would like to make the world a better place. We can, but only if we recognize that our legacy reaches back many centuries, all the way to the folks who made the first wheel.

          Countless generations have come and gone, each leaving a precious deposit of memories and achievements. The progress of civilization depends upon each of us doing what we can to make life better for our heirs. We are stewards of the past with the opportunity to add to our rich heritage.

          One day I hope to meet Grandma Emma and sit on a cloud for a hundred years listening to her stories about churns, ice boxes and hard times. I am indebted to Emma because my wife inherited some of her genes. Dean’s strengths suggest that she and Emma would have been good friends, and goodness knows the stories they might have shared around a roaring fire on a winter evening.  +