Much of my time growing up in the 60s South was spent with my paternal grandparents. These were some of the best times and are some of my fondest memories.
My pawpaw was a mountain of a man standing nearly 6 foot 3 and weighing close to 230 pounds. He had a grip like an iron vise and with his handshake, could put most men on their knees… if he wanted to. Yet, he was a most gentle man with a compassionate heart, who wasn’t afraid to shed a tear.
Growing up, my family wasn’t blessed with a lot of material wealth, but we were blessed in other ways. To supplement our income, we raised tobacco. It was a family business…my dad, mom, grandmother, my aunt and uncle, and many of our cousins shared in the work which was done mostly on weekends, as they all had jobs they worked during the week. Many a Saturday morning, as a four year old boy, I would wait for my pawpaw to come up the road on that old ’48 Ford Red Belly tractor. I would jump up on the rear fender and we would head to the fields and get the tobacco sleds ready so the primers could get to work as soon as they got to the field. Priming tobacco was hot, dirty work and best done in the cool of the morning. At age four, I wasn’t much use in priming, so they would put me in the seat of that old tractor and get it started down the rows, pulling the tobacco sleds. I wasn’t big enough to reach the tractor pedals, but I could steer it. At the end of the row, one of the adults would hop on, turn the rig around, hop off, and I would steer it to the end of another long row of green, sticky tobacco. Our work breaks were an “RC Cola and a Moonpie” and at the end of the day, we were rewarded with a good, home cooked meal and nice, hard, cold cash.
As the sleds filled up, the womenfolk would take the leaves, string them on to stalks so that they could be hung in the curing barn. When the primings were finished, the menfolk would help out with stringing the tobacco. Then the men would climb up in the curing barn and hang the stalks so that those green leaves could be cured to the golden brown color that hopefully would bring top dollar at the auctions. Our curing barn was wood fired (later oil fired) and many a night I stayed with my pawpaw, tending the fire in the barn, sleeping on some plywood laid on saw bucks. After curing, the tobacco was taken to the pack house for aging and prepping, and put in large tobacco baskets, to be taken to the auctions in a nearby town.
Later on in life, cancer took my pawpaw, and our family kind of got away from raising tobacco. But my mawmaw would rent out the tobacco allotment to various neighbors. One particular neighbor pulled his sleds with an old mule named Pat. I primed for this man and I’m one of the few people I know who can say they primed tobacco behind a mule.
My mawmaw, was the matriarch of the family. She was a short, feisty woman. I’m sure that came from her Scotch/Irish roots and she ruled the roost, there’s no doubt about that. She was a fantastic cook, whipping up fried chicken, gravy, biscuits and green beans, and mashed potatoes, enough to feed everyone. She made sure no one left the table hungry.
I spent a lot of my early youth at her house, eating her food, listening to her stories of walking to the one room schoolhouse. I got more than one ranging for slipping off to her house without telling my parents (we only lived a quarter of a mile away). I would spend the night but before we went to bed she would “grease” my chest with Vicks Vaporub so that I could breathe easier through the night. I don’t know if it helped, but I never had trouble sleeping at her house.
My mawmaw was also a fantastic seamstress. Nehru jackets were a big thing in my youth. She bought the material, a pattern and made me my first Nehru jacket. I wore it til it shredded. She also bought me my first suede leather winter coat.
My grandmother was a “granny witch” of sorts. We were all of Methodists and Baptist faith, but she believed in the “old ways” as well. She could “talk the fire” out of a severe burn, and she did such a thing on me. I had gotten a bad burn from touching the muffler of an old push mower. She took me in the house, to a quiet room, took my hand and held it. In my mind’s eye I can see her now, gently rocking back and forth, mumbling some unintelligible words over my burned hand. Almost immediately the pain disappeared and I don’t have a scar even to this day, some 60 plus years later.
My grandmother was an avid snuff user, her favorite brand being Tuberose. She always had a dip in her mouth even in church. More than once,during those late night revival meetings, I would fall asleep in her lap, only to wake up sneezing from breathing in some of the snuff that she had dropped in her lap. Fun times.
My grandmother, in her later years, began to suffer from a form of dementia, and eventually, she would pass away from it. But her last six months, her mind was as clear as a bell. The morning after she died, I went to her house and grabbed that tin of Tuberose Snuff from her nightstand because I knew it was the last thing she touched in this life.
These are just a few of the fond memories I have of growing up in rural, southern North Carolina, with some of the best grandparents that ever existed. There were no cell phones, iPads, computers or social media accounts back then… just family time. I’m so fortunate to not have had those electronic devices, and to have had the Southern raising that I did.
Sadly, kids today don’t know what good times are. Our old ways are under constant attack today. It is up to us to teach our children and grandchildren about the “good old days” or our heritage will slowly disappear.