Couldn’t Believe It

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.

I retched.

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 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.

“Mercy!”

“Goodness!”

“Boy, oh boy!”

“Phew!”

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

254 Comments

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254 responses to “Couldn’t Believe It

  1. What a pleasure it was to read your story. I look forward to working my way backwards through your posts; like a variable treasure trove of goodies!

  2. Happy there’s an easier way to ‘fetch’ potatoes these days! My cellar is called Harris Teeter and Whole Foods.

  3. I loved it and thank you for sharing your memory. I had a “Nannie” of my own. She was small is stature but BIG in life. Sounds like your “Nannie” was also large in the character department, what a wonderful gift that is.

  4. I do so love reading your stories. Both comforting and heartwarming old fashioned story telling through a thoroughly modern medium.

  5. Your Nannie surely must have been a queen among women. Great story. I laughed out loud at the accurate description “hideous nastiness”of rotten potatoes. I never heard of camel crickets but when you said the ceiling looked like it was moving the goosebumps made an appearance on my arms and I just knew it was going to be some sort of insect. But I gotta give it to you for soldiering onward even if you couldn’t finish you gave it a go.

  6. VictoriaJoDean

    Good job of taking us back into your childhood and into that cellar – a place most of us don’t want to go! I like your use of the repeated phrase for emphasis. Enjoyable writing!

  7. What a wonderful and repulsive memory! So well written, I was right there with you. It will be a while before I eat another potato as this made quite a visual impression, don’t think I will ever look at a potato without remembering this piece. Well done!

  8. I enjoyed reading your blog–you know how to tell a story! Thanks for following WordSisters.

  9. Your a beautiful storyteller! Any stories about Grandmothers…always touching.

  10. A beautiful story- so wonderfully written! I really enjoyed this 🙂

  11. I loved the story, and the way you told it. I really enjoyed reliving your memories. My grandparents were like yours, they did what needed to be done and saw things to laugh about while they accomplished all kind of tasks from scary to stinky or very difficult My blog has some of the stories I remember from my childhood.

  12. skditta

    The dank smell of ancient-ness…
    …a sudden flash of volunteerism.
    Camel crickets don’t hop when disturbed, they pop.
    “It ain’t that bad.” she called up to us.

    Well, Mr. Perkins, I believe you have given us an education. And I believe the kind and strong woman, your Nannie. Thank you!

  13. Great story-well written! Reminded me of the time when, at age 15, I had a job at a local diner. They would peel and cut their own potatoes for french fries and, like your nannie, had a “potato house”. The potatoes were stacked about waist high on the floor. My job was to pick out the bad potatoes and get rid of the…what did you call it? “Sticky foul potato goo”. I could almost smell the stench while reading your story. Whew!!!!

  14. Beth

    Do you have an option to reblog any of your posts? This was a great one for sure.

  15. Leo

    It`s a pity, but now i am a grand father and kids nowadays dont want to listen like i did to my Grand parents. Is it maybe to do with the breakdown in extended family life that i was brought up with. The Grandkids now just seem to want to play games on phones and computers and just give you a quick greeting if your lucky 🙂

  16. Lovely. Thank you for sharing.

    My ex-husband’s family grew up in Idaho and farmed potatoes. He has many disgusting memories of rotten potatoes. I’m forwarding this to him, he’ll get a laugh and enjoy your talented story-telling.

  17. And I thought I had a bad job.

  18. Great captivating story! Thanks for sharing! PKF

  19. And I though MY sister was cruel…you had it rough with Vicki! Your sensory details were incredible. It was just like being there, in that cricket riddled, stinky cellar.

  20. Great story! Thank you for sharing it! I love the way you write! Simply yet elegantly. You paint with words!
    Also I love the message – You gotta do what you gotta do 🙂

  21. Good story! Do you write fiction or is this memoir? My blog (how on earth did you find it???) is about memoir, memory and memoir writing.

  22. Love this – great to have found your site.

  23. You’ve touched a cord here as I can so relate to fetching potatoes in what we called the “cave” pronounced in French. Thanks for sharing and following my blog.

  24. This is the stuff of nightmares! But your Nanny is a legend. Definitely made of tough stuff. Great post.

  25. Loved this glimpse into your childhood days spent with Nannie.

  26. Great story! I can believe it…but I don’t know if I could it…

    *retch*

  27. I wonder what my children would do if they were presented with this situation. It seems their generation would rather burn the house down than clean out a mess. It’s easier to just start over, but way more expensive! Thanks for liking my post, “Another Sleepy Saturday in a Small Town.”

  28. You learned those lessons so well, didn’t you, Stuart. I can just tell. Thank you.

  29. Wonderful depiction!! Indeed it felt as if I was the one in that cellar down there amidst all those rotten potatoes!!! Good one!!!!

  30. Wonderful depiction!! Indeed I felt as if I was the one down there in that cellar amidst those rotten potatoes!! Good one !!

  31. Wow! Really well written. The imagery is fantastic. I love the way you added a little touch of sadness at the end. There is a lot of room for introspection and reflection there. I’m sure your Nannie was a beautiful soul just like my grannie and grandpa are.
    Cheers

  32. Oh my goodness!!! I’ve been the one culling those rotten potatoes myself! Awesome story and you tell it so convincingly.
    Ron

  33. I love you Stuart! I loathe rotten potatoes. Igggggg…..

  34. What a story and a valuable lesson. Though something is a horrible, gross job, somebody’s got to do it. Guilt worked well on me, trust worked on you. Lol. Love your stories!!!!

  35. Beth

    Reblogged this on MULIEBRAL VIEWPOINT and commented:
    Stories like this remind me of my own childhood. I slid down one of those cellar doors and have scars to prove it, but kids don’t care about scars. After I became an adult, my husband and I lived where there was an old cellar and had occasion to offer its musty smell to friends who came there to escape a tornado. We cared little for the cobwebs, mice and dank odor that day.

  36. Victoria

    Wow! Your story telling is so vivid I can imagine the grossness of the cellar in my head right now……yuck!

    Victoria
    http://chicvic.com
    http://awayweroam.com

  37. Man I love this story its very eye catching.Thanks to wordpress for giving me a hint to check this blog now I have just read an amazing work.Man I am your permanant subscribe I can’t afford to miss good stories like yours.Big ups to you Stuart.

  38. This is absolutely amazing I can tell I’m going to enjoy reading this blog. Your Nanna is hilarious …and the creepy
    crawly thingy .was funny. .thank you for this.

  39. I hope to be that kind of grandma to my grandchildren. Beautifully written and compelling story Thanks for visiting my blog Stuart.

  40. This is Buster and his (really) old pappy, and we wanted to thank you for beginning to follow my blog. Pap enjoyed reading some of your blogs, and realized that yours are much friendlier than mine. You enjoyed the blog on the good old Pope, but you may not like others because old pappy and I are worried about our dear old country. Politics seems to be wrecking our love of each other. Anyway, we appreciate your interest and will try to follow your posts as well.

  41. Wonderful story! I could see and smell the my grandmothers basement in LA! Yes, it was yuck! Lol

  42. What a great story… Stories from Grandparents/parents are always the most memorable… My Granddad had some of the most amazing tales I can remember… lovely thoughtful post – thanks for sharing

  43. Loved this story! Camel crickets ARE creepy!

  44. I smiled when I read this. I really thought there was no smell worse than rotting tomatoes until I had to clean out rotting potatoes for my mother. Who would have thought that such a benign-looking vegetable could reek that much.

  45. I love this story, Stuart! I laughed as I thought about my childhood. I was the oldest of five and the only girl. Wanna guess who I was from the story. Yep. A bossy bit of goods. I also had my hands in quite a mess, too. Know exactly how Nannie felt. Thanks for the memories! 🙂

  46. Reblogged this on Lulu & Twiggy and commented:
    Stuart M. Perkins is a wonderful storyteller. He makes you laugh and remember good things from childhood. I recently read the following story on his blog “Storyshucker.” I laughed, totally lost within the story. Thought I would share it with you in hopes it will make you laugh too. Enjoy.
    Thanks so much, Stuart, for making the world a happier place!

  47. Reblogged on Lulu and Twiggy! Too good not to share. Blessings.

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