Tag Archives: grandmother

My Old Stuff

My coworker, Clarice, frantically motioned me into her office as I walked towards the copier. She barely looked up from her computer as her hand rapidly waved me towards her desk.

“Isn’t this Italian antique walnut burl carved armoire beautiful?” she asked.

What?” I asked in response. I wasn’t even sure she was speaking English.

She turned the computer towards me, pointed to the photo, and waited for me to be awed.

“Oh.” I said. “Where I’m from that’s just a wardrobe.”

You have one of these?” she asked with a slight smirk.

“No, but I have a cedar wardrobe that was my maternal great-grandmother’s.” I answered.

“Oh, of course. My uncle owns an antique shop in Baltimore.” she said as she turned the computer back towards herself.

“I like old stuff.” I said as I left her office to continue to the copier.

I do like old stuff and I have plenty. The stuff isn’t just old, each piece once belonged to someone in my family. Various things from both sides, passed down, and down again, until fortunately they landed with me. The old stuff I have isn’t that valuable in terms of dollars, but whether furniture, rug, picture, or simple trinket, each has a story that was told to me when I received the item. When I look at each of these things I imagine the person who first owned them, touched them, where in their own house they might have kept them, and if they could have ever thought that so many years later a relative would look at them daily and be grateful to have them.

The armoire that Clarice showed me in the photo was a pretty piece of furniture but it meant nothing to me. I would rather have my great-grandmother’s cedar wardrobe than all the armoires in Italy, but I don’t know antiques. I only know my old stuff.

When I invited coworkers to come over one evening after work Clarice was the first to say yes. She was quick to tell me she couldn’t wait to see my antique armoire.

“It’s a cedar wardrobe.” I reminded her.

“Of course.” she said.

Everyone arrived that day after work and we chatted about families, the weekend, and office gossip. Clarice walked instantly to the cedar wardrobe to inspect it. As she stood beside the huge piece of furniture she looked down beneath her feet.

“This is an American antique hooked rug from the 1930’s I would guess.” she said as she stepped aside to give it a closer look. “Is it from a specialty shop?”

“No, it’s from Mama’s hallway.” I said as I laughed. “One day I commented that I liked it so she picked it up and gave it to me.”

“Of course.” Clarice said as she noticed a small piece of furniture in the corner. “What an absolutely beautiful vintage telephone table!” she said. “Did you find that at an auction?”

“No, my paternal grandmother gave it to me. It was in the upstairs hall of her farmhouse for decades.” I said. “She really did keep her phone and phone book on it.”

“Of course.” Clarice said as she stepped across the room to ask about a bowl and pitcher she noticed on a washstand. “This bowl and pitcher might be ironstone, I think. Did it come from a dealer?”

“No, it came from my maternal grandmother.” I answered. “It was on her dining room table every time I ever visited her. She gave it to Mama, who gave it to me.”

This process repeated for the next few minutes, then several times throughout the evening as one thing or another caught Clarice’s eye. She flitted from room to room asking about everything from the cedar wardrobe to my grandmother’s old handheld pruners that I keep on a shelf simply because I like to look at them and remember. Her every comment ended by asking if a particular item came from a shop, auction, estate sale, or dealer. My every response ended by answering that it came from a grandparent, great-grandparent, uncle, or aunt. I followed with the story I knew for each item that she pointed out.

As this process wore on, it became clear that Clarice realized the difference I meant between antiques and my old stuff. She began to be more interested in the story behind each piece than she was in the piece itself.

Clarice’s husband came with her that evening. He told her he liked the cedar wardrobe and had also noticed a large enamel pitcher I had in the kitchen. He asked, “I don’t suppose you bought this either?” as he pointed towards the pitcher.

“No, that hung under the steps of the two-story porch on my grandmother’s farmhouse. She gave it to me one day for helping her pull corn.” I said.

“Does everything have a story?” he asked with a grin.

“Of course.” I answered.

The evening came to an end and coworkers and I had a great time laughing and talking about many other things besides the old stuff I had sitting around everywhere. As they left, Clarice’s husband stopped her at the door. “Maybe we should check out a few antique stores tomorrow. I’d like to look for a cedar wardrobe and maybe a ceramic pitcher or two like the one in Stuart’s kitchen.” he said. “One can never have too many antiques.” Clarice looked at her husband, then glanced around my living room one more time.

“We have enough antiques.” Clarice said. “I wish we had old stuff.”

Stuart M. Perkins

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You’re an Abelia

“I believe you’re an abelia.” Nannie said to me as she slipped her well-used hand pruners into the large, practical front pocket of her hand-made cotton dress.

Had she called me an abelia a few hours earlier the label would have seemed meaningless, even nonsensical. Nothing my grandmother said to me had ever been meaningless or nonsensical and neither was her labeling me an abelia. In fact, after the conversation we’d just had, it made me feel hopeful.

Nannie had asked me one evening if I could come over the next day to help her trim some bushes that grew along the side of her old farmhouse. I always agreed to help her do anything she asked and not just because she was the perfect grandmother. She was also fun, funny, cheerful, and the most encouraging person I’ve ever known. Being around her was uplifting and helping her do anything meant a good time in the process. We especially enjoyed our times working in the yard together.

We carried on lively conversations as we trimmed the dead wood from a few of her ancient azaleas. I soon mentioned that I had applied for a different job but had recently learned it was given to another candidate. I often felt that whenever I had a chance to get ahead something always knocked me back. It seemed to happen every time. Earlier that summer I had earned an extra hundred dollars one Saturday. On Monday I found out my car needed a small part replaced. The part cost ninety-nine dollars. When I grumbled about my uncanny bad luck, Nannie disagreed.

“To me it seems like He provided for your need.” she said casually as she lopped a dead azalea branch. “Plus, you got an extra dollar.”

I knew the attitude of hers I was up against – an unwaveringly positive one – but I continued complaining about my station in life and how it seemed my setbacks happened far too often. As I tossed some dead azalea branches to the side, Nannie reminded me not to cut off any of the live ones.

“Azaleas bloom on the old wood, so if you cut them too far back it means no blooms next year.” she explained. However, as she spoke she chopped large amounts of live branches from the next shrub she had begun pruning. She noticed my puzzled expression as she hacked the massive bush back another foot or two.

“It’s an abelia and they bloom on the new growth. This won’t hurt next year’s flowers.” she clarified.

I started raking the clippings and branches we’d cut so far. As Nannie kept cutting huge amounts from the shrub in front of her I said, “Well, I must be an azalea!”

“How do you reckon?” she asked, grinning as she fought to remove a tiny twig lodged in her hair net.

“Because I feel like every time I get ready to bloom something comes along and chops me back too far.” I answered. “I keep trying to bloom on my old growth and things keep hacking me back!”

Nannie plucked the little twig from her hair net and looked at me for a minute.

“Look over yonder.” she said, pointing to a little shrub no more than a foot tall but completely covered in tiny blooms and fresh green growth.

“Yeah?” I said. I didn’t get it.

“That’s an abelia, same as this big one I’ve been cutting back.” Nannie explained as we walked over to stare down at the short but bloom covered shrub. “Last year a branch from the tree fell on it and broke most of it back, then I came and cut the rest of it almost to the ground.”

“Yeah?” I repeated. I was going to need a little more to go on here.

She continued. “That abelia tried to bloom and a tree fell on it. It tried to bloom again and I cut it to the ground. When it was finally able, it bloomed better than any of these others that were never cut back.”

All of those setbacks had actually made it bloom more. I finally got what she meant.

“Don’t worry about any old setbacks. Your time will come.” Nannie said.

I understood. Although I felt setbacks were stopping me, they really weren’t. Setbacks can make us tougher, more determined, and better prepared for the time when we really are ready to bloom. I just needed to be patient, work through my setbacks when they came, and my time to bloom would certainly come.

“I’m not an azalea.” I said out loud, almost relieved.

“Not at all.” Nannie said as she smiled and slipped her hand pruners into her pocket. “I believe you’re an abelia.”

Stuart M. Perkins

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What Man?

“Y’all heard about that man, didn’t you?” Daddy asked when my sisters and I were kids.

“What man?” we responded.

Daddy grinned slightly as he gazed into the distance. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, slowly lit one as suspense built, then pretended he’d forgotten he asked a question.

What man?” my sisters and I repeated. We grinned and stomped a foot at him.

We were familiar with his exasperating style but we knew a joke was coming. Or was it a joke? With Daddy we were never sure. He told a joke in such a way that after we had a good laugh we still had to ask him whether it was true.

“Is that real, Daddy?” one of us asked after he delivered the punch line.

“I don’t know, that’s what they tell me.” he answered, then walked off to busy himself with Daddy things, leaving us still wondering.

Daddy’s joke and story telling styles were the same – set us up, draw us in, hit us with a good one, then walk away like he’d had nothing to do with the laughter he left behind. Clearly it was genetic because I saw similar styles exhibited by his siblings. All excellent joke and story tellers.

Just like many families gather around the television at night, our families walked across the field to gather on my grandmother’s back porch. Nannie enjoyed the fact that her children had homes next to her farmhouse, and we all enjoyed her back porch filling with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Story telling would soon begin.

My parents, aunts, and uncles would shift chairs around the huge screened porch as they asked Nannie about the garden, wondered out loud as to when we’d dig potatoes, or decided we ought to fix home made ice cream the next weekend. Eventually, they would settle into the random collection of old metal chairs that lined the porch. Amid the sounds of ice tinkling in the tea glasses, metal chairs being scooted into final position, or a cousin’s dog barking to be let onto the porch, one of them would finally say, “Y’all heard about that man, didn’t you?”

The games had begun.

Daddy or an uncle would stretch a story out for a while and the porch would laugh. The first story would trigger a second. The second story would give rise to a third. Then someone would remember a joke. More laughing from the porch.

At times, Mama or an aunt would feign disgust over a story or joke they considered remotely off color. “Thank goodness that’s all you told.” they might say. “I was afraid you were going to tell the one about the horse!”

A clear signal that the one about the horse should now be told.

Once the horse joke began, Mama and the aunts would sigh in disgust, then grin at each other between sips of iced tea.

The stories my family told were always funny, but I remember how much I loved their story telling styles. If Daddy told one, you may as well have a seat. He could stretch a knock-knock joke into a filibuster. One uncle might deliver lightning fast one liners, another might rival Daddy for air time. One aunt could hardly finish a funny story for all the laughing she did as she told it. I loved hearing what was told and couldn’t get enough of how it was told. There were many years of good story telling on that porch.

Earlier this year, both of my kids and I sat on the screened porch at my parents’ house. Daddy, eighty years old now, sat down to join us. As the four of us discussed what my kids had planned for the summer, I remembered my own summer evenings on Nannie’s porch listening to relatives do their story telling.

During a rare pause in Daddy’s conversation with the kids, I asked, “Y’all heard about that man, didn’t you?”

“What man?” they both asked.

“He’ll tell you.” I said, as I nodded towards their grandfather.

Daddy said nothing, but he grinned slightly as he gazed into the distance. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, slowly lit one as suspense built, then pretended he’d forgotten I’d asked the question.

What man, Big Daddy?” the kids asked him.

Like the pro he was, Daddy slowly launched into one of his best. He stretched it out, paused when necessary, sped up when required, and hit the punch line hard at the end. Both of the kids doubled over with laughter and told him he was “awesome”. I could tell something was on their minds.

“That was funny, but was it true Big Daddy?” they asked him.

He looked at me and grinned from ear to ear. He remembered the old days on Nannie’s porch, just as I had.

Getting no response from him, the kids turned to me.

“Well?” they asked me. “Was that true?”

I grinned at the inquiring looks on their faces. I remembered that feeling when what I’d just heard had been hilarious, but had been told to me in such a way that I really wasn’t sure it was a joke. Daddy’s grin became even wider when I responded to my kids.

“I don’t know, that’s what they tell me.” I said to them. In unison, Daddy and I left the porch, leaving the kids still wondering.

Stuart M. Perkins

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That’s Noody

I was in ninth grade when my English teacher asked us to write a three page paper on someone we respected. We were to choose someone who had influenced our thinking and whose character we admired. After groans from the class that the paper must go on for three long pages, we each set about choosing our person. Once we had decided, we were each to walk to the front of the class and write our choice on the blackboard. Since the person could be someone from any point in time, many chose religious, historical, or political figures. After we each wrote our person’s name on the blackboard, the teacher read them aloud.

I remember she went slowly down the list as she read names like George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, and Neil Armstrong. Soon, she reached my chalk written choice.

“Margaret P. Lankey?” she asked, as she frowned and turned to the class, puzzled.

I raised my hand. “That’s Noody” I said. “She’s my aunt.”

I was never sure why we called her Noody. I probably asked but don’t recall an answer. It didn’t matter really. I come from a large family and almost everyone had a nickname. That’s just how it was done at home. Extended family lived all around me but I was lucky that Noody lived right next door. She and my uncle were as much a part of my everyday life as my parents and sisters.

Noody had an old redwood picnic table in her yard under the trees where she did everything from shelling butter beans to cleaning fish to cutting a watermelon for whoever happened to be in the yard that evening. When I saw her at the picnic table I’d walk over to visit. She was a great conversationalist and always seemed interested to hear what I had been up to. If she said “Let’s go sit in the swing.” I knew I was in for a treat. I loved to hear old family stories and she loved to tell them. She taught me the importance of remembering where you came from while not forgetting where you wanted to go. That’s Noody.

She could do things like drive a pickup truck, haul firewood, feed hogs and chickens, work hard in her garden, and slap on a baseball cap to cut grass, all while holding a handful of cookies to snack on now and then. She and Nannie, her mother and my grandmother, once cornered a snake near the barn. Noody, thinking she was lined up just right for a good decapitation, raised a hoe over her head and came down with all due force towards the snake. She missed, leaving a hole in the ground so deep that Nannie asked me to bring a shovel full of dirt to fill it. Noody belly laughed. Do your best to get the job done and if it doesn’t work as you’d hoped, so what, have a good laugh. That’s Noody.

Many winters if there was enough snow, we cousins took our sleds to a nearby hill. Noody would come along to be part of the fun. On other occasions we all went roller skating. Noody came along for that too, strapping on her skates to head into the rink like a pro. She even joined in the Hokey Pokey dance in the center of the rink a few times. At the family place on the Chesapeake Bay, while other adults sat on the beach or in the shade, Noody put on her bathing suit and plunged into the water with us kids. She taught me how to float on my back, and also taught me that hard work may be necessary, but playing hard is just as beneficial.

One time I stayed with out of town relatives for a few days. When I returned home I met Noody at the picnic table to tell her about it. When I finished relating my adventures she asked if I had yet sent them a “bread and butter note”. I told her not yet, but didn’t tell her that I had no idea what one was. She went inside and brought back some of her own stationery. There at the picnic table she helped me write a proper thank you note to the relatives I had visited. She taught me many lessons over the years. That’s Noody.

She was not just a mentor, but also an ally. Just before my thirteenth birthday I saw an ad in the back of Southern Living magazine for a tiny incubator and six quail eggs. Mama, not thrilled by my idea to add more animals to the ones I already had, gave me an instant “No”. I took the next logical step and met Noody at the picnic table. I showed her the ad and told her I really wanted to try hatching some eggs but Mama said “No”. Noody read the ad, put her hand on her hip and said, “Run bring me my checkbook.” With help from her, my uncle built a huge enclosure and the quail I hatched were part of my life for the next few years. If you want something that badly, why not go ahead and try. That’s Noody.

Many of my relatives are buried at the church near home that most of my extended family attended, and many still do. A couple years ago I took my kids for a walk around the cemetery there. As they read names from each of the family tombstones I would say, “That’s your great grandfather.” or “That’s your great great grandmother.” or “That’s your great uncle.” From a spot just a little further down than some of the older tombstones I heard one of the kids read a name. “Margaret P. Lankey” they called out.

“That’s Noody.” I said.

As soon as I heard her name I thought of the many good times with my fine aunt.

I also thought about the note my ninth grade teacher wrote in the upper right hand corner of my paper once she read it. “Please show this writing to Noody.” it said.

I still wish I had.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Come in Anyway

This evening I searched for my old photo albums in cardboard boxes under the bed. I found them along with other things I’d saved like pictures my children had drawn for me, random tiny toys I played with as a kid, and in one box I found an old spiral notebook I used to write things in, years and years ago.

It’s not a diary, not even a journal, just notes. For example, on one page I’d recorded how long it took quail eggs to hatch the time I’d gotten them and a tiny incubator from an ad in Southern Living. On another page was a training schedule from when I thought I’d try running a marathon. I laughed when I saw that on my ninth (and final) day of training I had simply written “too hot to run”. On yet another page I had jotted down “Come in anyway – Nannie said” and sketched a little church.

Nannie really was a praying grandmother who wanted us to go to church and who wanted us to know why she wanted us to go to church. She was happy with her relationship with God and she hoped the same for everyone else, especially family. She never preached. Instead she showed by pure example what it meant to be a great Christian. I never pretended to be a great Christian, or even a very good one for that matter, and I thought back to the many impromptu conversations Nannie and I had about God while sitting on her back porch. No one could imagine such deep conversations would pop up after picking a row of tomatoes or pulling a few ears of corn, but they did, and often.

One such conversation began as we shelled butter beans and I started questioning God. Nannie always said we should open our hearts to Him. I said to her that God allows diseases, but I should ask Him to come into my heart anyway? God allows people to drown, burn, and starve, but I should tell Him come in anyway? God allows one person to kill another, but still I should tell Him come in anyway? My examples went on for quite a while but she said nothing, just listened as she continued to shell butter beans. Surely now she realized how I couldn’t ignore all the bad God allows and still say my heart is open, “Come in anyway.” I said nothing else, but I had made my point.

When I was done, Nannie shifted in her chair a little but never looked up as she continued shelling the butter beans in her lap. She said we all do wrong things in life and do them even though we know they’re wrong. We sometimes doubt God or lack faith and we lie and sin in many ways. She said all of us have fallen short and none of us are perfect. Then she said when the time comes for those who believe to enter Heaven, God will stop us and look us in the face, aware of every single one of our past mistakes, errors, and sins, but you know what He will say?

“Come in anyway.”

Nannie threw the last of her butter bean hulls in the old bucket at her feet and stood to go to the kitchen. She said nothing else, but she had made her point.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Pew for You

I had dinner over in D.C. tonight and the agreeable weather made it a great night to sit outside. The restaurant’s patio area was delineated from the hectic sidewalk by a rustic cast iron fence topped with weathered planters full of store-fresh geraniums. Behind this barricade, my table and five others were neatly arranged. Six full tables enjoyed dinner and got in some good people-watching. It seemed we all finished our meals around the same time and reluctant to leave such a cozy place on such a pleasant evening, we six full tables of strangers began to talk amongst ourselves as if we were old friends at a reunion.

At one point, the woman at the table beside me told her husband that she wanted to get some things done around the house Saturday, but on Sunday they were going to church. The look on his face proved church had not factored into his plans. His wife knew that look better than I and she cut him off before he could say anything with  “Ohhh yes. We’re going to church. There’s a pew for you this Sunday!” Then she turned to me to say she asks him every Saturday night if he’s going to church with her on Sunday.

I told her that rang a bell. Growing up “across the field” from Nannie, my grandmother, meant I spent many hours as a teenager at her farmhouse working in the garden, helping in the yard, or sitting on her huge two-story screened porch out back. Nannie was more than a Sunday church-goer. She was involved in everything at church regardless of the day of the week. The fact that the church was less that a quarter mile away and visible from the very porch she sat on every evening underscored its relevance in her life. She didn’t miss a Sunday and she gave her best effort to ensure others followed suit. Unfortunately, as a teenager who preferred to do almost anything else on Sunday mornings, I probably often made the same face that the man at the next table tonight gave his wife. Nannie, just like this man’s wife, would ask every Saturday evening that she saw me whether I would be at church the next day.

One of those Saturday evenings I had been helping Nannie with yardwork. We rested on the porch and as I stood up to leave I winced when she asked, with her always sweet and calm tone, “See you at church tomorrow?” I could never lie and say “yes”, but to say “no” made me feel such guilt that I was always trying to come up with unique responses to divert her attention until I could disappear behind the boxwoods by the porch and head home. Somehow, if I could just make it to the boxwoods I felt I’d dodged the bullet. I froze. “See you in church tomorrow?” she sweetly asked again. I remembered a line I’d heard so I looked her squarely in the face, not even using boxwoods as cover, and said “Sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car.” She simply said “Maybe not, but cars don’t need to be saved.” When I responded with “All of them I ever drove did.” She started a good Nannie chuckle and before she finished I was behind the boxwoods heading home. I hadn’t gotten far when I heard her say again “See you in church tomorrow.” This time not presented as a question…

The woman at the table beside me seemed to enjoyed my recollection of Nannie’s weekly attempts to get me to church. She turned to her husband and said again, sternly, “We’re going to church.” He leaned up to look around her at me and said “I guess I’ll have to. Know any way I can get out of church Sunday?”

“Plant boxwoods on Saturday.” I suggested.

Stuart M. Perkins

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