Tolerant friends listen whenever I tell stories about Nannie, my grandmother. She was a fountain of valuable life lessons and something happens almost daily to remind me of a Nannie-story, so I tell it. Friends are not only tolerant but often ask unprompted questions!
Was she funny? – She could be hilarious and she loved to laugh.
She told stories too? – Oh yes.
True stories? – I believed everything she said.
You believed everything she said? – Well, there was this one time…
And so I told them about a spring years ago when she said something I didn’t believe:
“I ain’t going down there.” I squinted into the darkness. The dank smell of ancient-ness floated up through cracks in the old wooden door.
“Nannie asked you to.” Vicki said sternly.
Prodded by my older sister’s reminder, I looked down at the uneven cement steps in front of me. They were stained, covered in dead leaves, and a shiny black beetle scurried past my foot as I hesitantly took the first step.
The “basement house”, as we all called it, was Nannie’s cellar. It was more like a half-cellar with an old shed built on top. Nannie canned vegetables every summer and along with her homemade jellies they lined rough-hewn wooden shelves by the dozens in the cellar’s musty depths, just through the old door and to the right.
To the left were the potatoes.
Nannie’s potato field fed her, her children, and grandchildren. We as an extended family worked each year to plant, tend, and later dig the many long rows. Bushels of potatoes brought in from the field were spread out on large wooden racks down in the basement house. Stored there, the potatoes were used as needed by our families over the course of the winter.
By spring most of the potatoes were eaten. Some were still good. Some were shriveled and less appealing. Some were rotten – and only one hideous nastiness exists on earth greater than that of a rotten potato.
A lot of rotten potatoes.
Each spring the old and rotten potatoes had to be cleaned from the bins. This involved gingerly picking up squishy rotted blobs and scraping their runny putrid remains from the shelves. Apparently Nannie had done this by herself for decades and would have carried on the lonely tradition again but for a sudden flash of volunteerism.
Vicki volunteered me.
Nannie casually watered a geranium on the well as she verified. “You wanna clean out the potato bins?” I noticed she grinned. “It ain’t that bad.”
I didn’t believe that.
Vicki chimed in. “See? Nannie wants you to do it.”
I didn’t believe that either.
The smell of a single rotten potato can slap you in the face. The smell of dozens fairly beats you about the head and shoulders. It’s ghastly. Simply passing by the basement house while Nannie cleaned the potato bins smelled as if something down there had died a thousand deaths and she was wrestling with the aftermath. I remembered that as I stood on that first step leading into the cellar.
“Git!” Vicki said, poking me in the back. I turned to look at her one last time before taking another step towards the abyss.
“I’ll be right here the whole time.” she smiled.
I didn’t believe that.
I smelled the rot before I got to the bottom of the steps. The slight breeze created as I opened the old wooden door caused sheets of cobwebs hanging on the walls to float up quickly in the air then drift slowly back into place. It was dark in there. I reached over my head to pull the dusty string attached to the one light bulb in the center of the cellar and noticed the lovely tile mosaic on the ceiling. In the weak light from the dust-covered bulb the tiny tiles seemed to be moving.
They were moving.
Camel crickets by the hundreds coated the ceiling just inches above my head. Their legs and feelers wiggled in slow motion. I let go of the dirty light bulb string and slowly lowered my arm so as not to disturb a single cricket. Camel crickets don’t hop when disturbed, they pop. If one pops it hits another, that one pops, they hit three more, those pop and suddenly it’s cricket chaos.
“Vicki!” I yelled up the steps. “Camel crickets!”
“Don’t bother them and they won’t bother you.” she yelled back.
I didn’t believe that.
Through the fetid fog of potato stench I ducked and moved slowly under the crickets, passed the wall of cobwebs, stepped over several dead bugs, and stood before the potato bins. I was sweating. I stared at the dimly lit mound of potatoes and decomposing mush and realized I had no training in this. Where did I begin?
“Vicki!” I yelled up the stairs. “How am I supposed to do this?”
“Just start scooping them up.” she yelled back.
“With what?” I asked myself out loud. Vicki heard me.
“Nannie just uses her hands.” she yelled down the steps.
I didn’t believe that.
Leaning forward I grabbed what appeared to be a semi-solid piece of potato. It seemed fairly sturdy as I slowly picked it up. Two inches into the air and it still held solid. Three inches into the air and the heinous sack of disgusting noxious potato juice exploded onto my hand and ran down my arm.
Shaking my hand in the air in a feeble attempt to rid myself of the sticky foul potato goo, I accidentally flung some of it onto the ceiling. In doing so I disturbed several crickets, they disturbed many more, and those disturbed the rest.
Covered in rotten slime I stood in the center of a popcorn popper filled with crickets. I’d had it.
“I’m coming out!” I yelled up the steps and in two leaps I surfaced. Gasping for fresh air I waited for Vicki to run sympathetically to my aid.
“Nannie’s going to want you to finish that.” Vicki said from the swing under the apple tree.
I didn’t want to believe that.
Vicki and I loved helping Nannie. No matter what chore she asked us to help with we did our best and I had never told Nannie “no”. I thought about that as Nannie walked up, bucket in hand, and looked at me.
“Finished already?” she asked.
“No.” I said.
I explained the overwhelming stench, the beetles in my shoes, the crickets popping, and my nausea. I told her I couldn’t do it and I didn’t know how she ever did it.
“It’s ain’t that bad.” Nannie said again.
I still didn’t believe it.
“Well, it’s got to be done. Y’all wait here.” Nannie said smiling. Bucket in hand, humming a hymn, she headed towards the basement house and disappeared into the dismal pit.
I sat in the swing by Vicki.
“I just don’t know how Nannie can do that.” I wondered out loud.
“You stink and there’s a cricket stuck to your leg.” Vicki said.
As I plucked the cricket glued to my leg by potato goo, Vicki and I heard Nannie’s muffled voice coming from the basement house.
“Boy, oh boy!”
We ran to the steps and peered into the darkness.
“Are you all right down there?” we asked.
“It ain’t that bad.” she called up to us.
We went back to the swing and waited. Soon Nannie appeared with a bucket of potato grossness. She had goo on her hands, it dripped from her arms, she was sweating, and a camel cricket dangled from her hair net by one leg. Still, she smiled.
Vicki and I asked in awe. “How can you do that?”
“I’ve had my hands in many a worse mess than this.” she said. With that, she walked slowly to the field to dump her bucket of rot. She smiled, hummed, and laughed at herself as she plucked the wiggling cricket from her hair net.
I still don’t believe she could have ever had her hands in any mess worse than those vile piles of putrid potatoes but, true to form, Nannie tackled what needed to be done simply because it needed to be done. When I couldn’t finish the job she smiled, took over, and laughed through the same misery that had caused me to give up.
I couldn’t believe that.
Stuart M. Perkins