by A. S. Friedell
"But mostly I spent my toddler days trotting behind my beloved
granddaddy like a baby duck after its mother."
Box lies in Central Texas, some 60 miles southeast of Austin.
Most farms in the county encompassed at least a hundred acres, and
houses were spread far apart. Our neighbors were at least a half a
mile or more away. But even if the houses had been closer together,
there weren't any other children to romp around with, and so I was
destined for a solitary childhood. It was an adult world.
My grandparents raised pigs, chickens, guineas with their loud ka-track,
ka-track, and the necessary milk cows and their calves. My grandmother
would send me into the chicken house or even under the farm house
to gather eggs.
There were usually snakes-coral snakes, rattlesnakes, whatever-competing
with us for the brown or white eggs, which were typically wrapped
in chicken poop. Under the house was damp earth and cobwebs but I
don't remember being afraid, and I guess I was just lucky that I was
But mostly I spent my toddler days trotting behind my beloved granddaddy
like a baby duck after its mother. My grandfather, Asa, was a consistent
and loving influence. He was in his fifties then, and I thought of
him as old. He spent nearly all of his time either alone, thinking
whatever kinds of things he thought about, or with me by his side,
his little tow-headed shadow.
My grandfather milked his cows with amazing adeptness; his hands magically
producing spurts of thin blue-white milk. It's a wonder the cows gave
any milk at all while I was underfoot. He never talked excessively,
but he was always willing to answer questions patiently and kindly.
I had lots of questions. I recall once asking him what it feels like
to a cow, to have a bag heavy with milk hanging underneath her body.
He chuckled, and I guess he was stalling until he could think of just
the appropriate response to such an unusual question. Finally he replied,
"Well, just like your arm feels to you. She's used to that bag as
a part of her body."
I have a photo of Granddaddy from around that time, dressed in his
typical shirt and pants, arms awkwardly dangling at his sides as if
he is uncomfortable standing still. He doesn't smile for the camera.
His mouth is set in a straight expressionless, but somehow steadying
line, his eyes slant upwards just as my own do, and the lines beside
his mouth are set and shadowed so that the planes of his cheeks seem
like triangles of lightness. Behind him there is the house where he
was born and a crape myrtle in full bloom, and a butane tank all bright
and sharp in the Texas sun. This is the gentle, quiet man I shadowed
all about the farm. Except for when he sat upright in the pews at
church, he always wore overalls of faded denim, chambray or khaki
shirts in summer, plaid or checked flannel shirts in winter. His pockets
were always filled with clinking magical nickels and he produced one
each Saturday so I could have ice cream when we all went to town.
My grandfather wasn't a tall man by then, probably only about 5'6"
and his slight frame was topped with a brush of thick gray hair.
It was Granddaddy's habit to wake up before dawn each day, make coffee
and build a fire in a kerosene stove that was in the living room during
the winter. He lit the stove with a tightly twisted piece of toilet
paper fueled by a large blue-tipped kitchen match.
He would often sit in a rocking chair, staring ahead, and when I woke
up, it was a game for me to creep stealthily from behind like an Indian
on an ambush, to "surprise" him. He would always turn unperturbed
and greet me just as I got there, as if he had eyes in the back of
his head and ears that could hear every creak and movement of my bare
feet on the boards of that old house. Once in awhile I could drink
coffee with him. He poured the slightest bit of coffee into a small
white mug already filled almost completely with fresh milk. After
we finished our coffee he would go outside to start the day and then
return to the house later in the morning when summoned by the smell
of breakfast on the stove. My grandmother cooked oatmeal and fried
eggs along with bacon which had been cured in the smokehouse out back.
My grandfather taught me to love animals. He was an amateur veterinarian
for other farmers, who would pay him with barter of fresh produce
or homemade sausage. In addition to delivering all types of baby animals,
he could treat sick ones.
Hungry cows would often break through a fence to get into an alfalfa
patch or patch of clover and make themselves sick from the gassy treat.
They would later be found lying on their sides, bloated and dying.
Someone would hurry to get my grandfather and he would know just how
to puncture the cow's digestive tract in just the right place with
a sterilized ice pick to release the pressure.
When he married my grandmother, it seems that he was cut off from
his own family and he rarely had contact with his brothers and sisters,
who had gone off to other parts of Texas to live. Both he and my grandmother
came from families with eleven children, but she was the more social
of the two and saw her siblings quite often. Her sisters were all
big talkers, so Granddaddy would rather go off to check on his cows
or feed his pigs or look for something else to do when they came around.
On a farm that's not difficult.
I was happy to escape with him when I could. Just as he did, I enjoyed
getting some peace and quiet away from the swirling tornado of conversation
that was her family. He liked to comment that they all talked at once,
and that was certainly true.
I was the only grandchild who ever lived with my grandparents, although
the others visited as often as they could. Granddaddy had the great
talent of making each of his 13 grandchildren believe that he or she
was his favorite.
© A. S. Friedell
Excerpt from A. S. Friedell's autobiography Bitter
See Dime Box
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