“Were y’all poor?” the little girl asked as she studied the curly old photographs she found in a cigar box while plundering through her grandmother’s what-not cabinet. It wasn’t the first time the little girl in pig tails had peaked into the cabinet, which her grandmother didn’t mind. That was as long as she put everything back just like she found it.
No longer interested in the old costume jewelry and funny shaped bottles that still smelled of the perfumes her grandmother had worn over the years, she had turned her attention to the cigar box full of pictures.
“I reckon we were in some ways,” her grandpa answered giving some thought to the question the little girl asked who had now crawled up into his arms, box of pictures in hand, and wearing the grape mustache from the Kool-aid he had mixed up for her that morning.
Most of her questions until then had been who is that and when was this as she studied the smiling faces, most of which she would never know but through stories told around Christmas trees and Thanksgiving dinners.
“Is that my daddy?” she asked holding up a school picture. It was.
“When he was about your age,” her grandpa answered.
“He had hair?” She said in a way that sounded like a question which her grand pa answered with a smile, as she reached up and patted the top of his head.
“So did I,” he said pointing himself out in the next picture she held up.
“Now you can comb your hair with a wash cloth,” she grinned. It was his joke but she liked using it on him. He didn’t mind.
“Y’all didn’t have a car,” she asked looking around the yard in the picture past for her grandpa’s truck, the one he let her steer when they drove down to the pond to feed the ducks.
“No, we didn’t have a car,” he answered already knowing what she was going to ask next.
“How did you go places?”
“Our walking sticks,” he told her giving her something to think about as he readied himself for her next question.
“Walking sticks,” she mused, eyes curious, before catching on as a smile spread across her face.
“Are you writing a book?” he teased her.
“I might one day,” she sighed, “when I learn my letters.” Then she turned back to the car question and wanted to know how they got places like to the mall and to McDonalds and to school.
“We walked,” he told her.
“Walked?” she asked thinking out loud, that that must have taken a long time since the mall and McDonalds was pretty far away.
“There wasn’t no mall back then, and all we knew of McDonald’s was that he was old and had a farm,”
“And on this farm he had a cow, and the cow went,” she said pausing for him to make the cow sound. He was good at that, her grandpa, and the duck sound too, which she followed with the e i e o.”
“Where did you get your groceries and snacks,?” she asked not convinced that it was possible to not have a car. He could tell.
“The Country Store where I take you to get Popsicles,” he told her. They walked there some days when it wasn’t too hot. That wasn’t too far she said plucking another picture from the box and observing that the little wooden building must have been bigger back then.
He listened and thought about this as he waited for another question. In many ways, he supposed it was bigger back then. It was where they got their news, their mail, their sugar and flour; it was where their daddy ordered their shoes and overalls after they had out grown all their hand me downs, the hems were all let out and there wasn’t room for their mama to stitch another patch.
“Once a year?” she echoed when he told her how often they got new clothes.
“And that was on good years,” he added thinking about the lean times.
“What about school?” she got around to asking when she found a picture of him plowing behind a mule and trying to smile. In the picture, her grandpa wasn’t much older than her brother which made her curious.
“I went long enough to learn to read and write and figure some,” he told her and when she pinned him down, he said he made it to the eighth grade. That was the same grade her brother was in which made what she was hearing hard to understand. She told him her brother would have liked to live back then. He hated school. This was something her grandfather already knew.
“Boringgggg,” she said when he asked why she supposed her brother didn’t like school. He had already figured this out in a grandpa sort of way, watching the restless way his grandson moped around when he came to visit, fiddling around with some electronic gadget and complaining that his grandparent’s television set only got three channels, none of them were good, and the refrigerator didn’t have an ice maker. He was always asking when it was going to be time to leave.
“Worked in the fields,” he told her when she asked him what he did since he didn’t have to go to school.
“And milked old Bessie,” she asked remembering an earlier picture of a milk cow and asking him if they really did shake her, would she really make a milkshake.
“Yes she would,”
“No she wouldn’t. They get milkshakes out of machines, I’ve watched ‘em.”
“Back then, there weren’t no milkshake machines, we had to take turns shaking old Bessie. Then after a while of being shook around, she would let out a “Moooooo” and we would have us a milk shake.”
She shook her head. She was a smart one.
“And you didn’t have no lights?”
“Just those,” he said pointing to the mantle over the fireplace and a left over kerosene lamp from those by gone days. His wife had filled it with food colored water, green since it was getting close to spring.
“Weren’t you scared?” the little girl asked, passing by pictures taken at night when the darkness outside the window in the background was even blacker than the nights of pitch, he remembered.
“Sometimes,” he said thinking back to being scared as a child when he was sent out into the night to fetch wood, or water, or check on the hen house when foxes and wolves were about.
Bobcats scared him the worst. He hadn’t heard one in a very long time and their long mournful whines that sounded like a fiddle bow being drawn over the devil’s backbone.
“What were you scared of,” she asked holding up another picture for a closer look.
“Bears, and snakes, and sharp lightning,” he told her keeping to himself that he lost one cousin to a snake bite and another to lightning. Back then, there were real things to be scared of to make you afraid to cross the yard after sundown, not make believe things that now made kids sleep with the lights on. Back then, there weren’t children who played with ghosts or owl eyed witches flying about on brooms sticks and having fun. Back then ghost were holy and witches were something the preachers preached against along with a lot of other things.
“Did you ever see a bear,” she asked.
“One Sunday on our way to church we walked up on a mama bears and two cubs,” he told her. She stopped looking at the picture in her hand and turned to hear more. It had been in the spring he explained, and that was when bears were about.
“After hibernation?” she sneaked in as he told her about that Sunday morning and how his father turned white as a sheet and hurried them on while he lingered behind in case the mama bear came after them.
“And we hurried too, straight to church and when we got there, we said a prayer of thanks.”
“Like you do before we eat?”
“Yes, the good Lord was looking out for us that day.”
“Mama says we might start going to church when she finds a good one,” the little girl said. He grandfather listened, lips thinning into a make believe smile.
“That will be a good thing.”
“And you can come too,” she said studying the picture of her grandmother and grandfather standing on the church house steps, just married. It was the same church they took her to when she stayed with them like she had this weekend. She recognized the stain glass shepherd in the window behind them.
“What good eyes, you have,” he said reminding her of one of the favorite stories she liked him to tell her.
“Better to hear you with,” she said getting things confused like he did sometimes. They both laughed.
“So what time is it,?” he asked pointing to the clock over door way. With a circle of numbers and hands pointing to them, the old gadget seemed foreign to her but she was doing pretty good with learning to tell time. He told her so.
“Ten-firty,” she chirped, still struggling with her “th” sounds.
“And time for us to fire up the truck to take your grandma to get her hair done for church on Sunday.”
“And mine too,” reminding him that Miss Louise at the Cut and Curl made her look pretty for church too.
“Like an angel,” he said giving her a squeeze that made her feel loved and safe and all the things a child really needs; all the things he remembered from when he was child.
Then, she doubled back to her first question the one about them being poor when he was growing up.
“Country poor,” he answered holding her close and telling her that in some ways and in the important ways, that was close to being as rich as a body can be in this old world.
She hugged him back, patted his head and kissed him on the cheek before reminding him that it was ten firty-five and her grandma’s hair appointment was at eleven and she was waiting on the front porch.
This is a work of fiction dedicated to folks like my grandparents who took time out to teach me what being rich really is.
Edward Reed 2019