Florence O. Collins
Chapter 1 from THE GLORY OF THE IMPERFECTTHE GLORY OF THE IMPERFECT
Published by The Preservation Foundation, Inc.
© 1990 by Florence O. Collins
A video of my grandmother flashes across the screen of my memory when I hear the words "composed," contented," or "unflappable." Its background and lighting can be described as joyous, exciting, or fun. I feel re-born into the world of my childhood by this vision of Granny with it's contrasting components.
Throughout my early years, when school closed for a holiday or summer vacation, my parents, brother, sister and I went to my grandmother's farm. It was ten miles from Franklin, Ky., the nearest town. Most of my youthful memories were made there. Those were special, happy times because this special happy person was there.
When I knew Granny, she wore spectacles with one black glass covering the empty socket of the eye she had lost to infection when she was six years old. To me, this was no distraction from her appearance. Her long gray hair was brought up into a coil on top of her head. Making sure no unruly strands would straggle down, she wore gray side-combs holding them smoothly upward. She had once been tall, but now was shortened by age. She disguised her rounded shoulders with small capes or ruffled collars. She dressed becomingly, and wore skirts that struck her thin legs just above the ankle.
During the 21 years I knew her, she was physically frail, yet to us she was a rock of strength. Influenced, but never controlled by her emotions, she wisely and calmly dealt with each day as it came.
My grandmother was born in l846 and lived until l937. In those 90 years, she witnessed many changes. She saw the economy of the country convert from agricultural to industrial. She experienced social alterations brought on by the invention of the telephone, automobile, airplane and radio. She lived through political turmoil that resulted in the nation being at war three times during her lifetime.
Granny told me about one of her Civil War experiences. Her father's Kentucky farm was near the Tennessee border. Officially, Kentucky was a northern state but because of their location, my grandmother's family became victims of both Yankee and Rebel guerrilla warfare. These renegades sabotaged roads and pillaged farms, stealing food, horses and money.
On the day of the frightening event she related to me, Grandpap, as Granny's father is known by his descendants, had sold some sheep and brought home the money from the sale. Guerrillas learned of this transaction. That night, they arrived in a wagon and on horseback to rob Grandpap. Shooting several charges into the air and beating on the house, they called out their demands for cash. Sleepily, Grandpap replied, "Let me get my pants on; then I'll talk to you."
Quickly, he hurled his purse through a back window to the ground where it made no sound on landing. Then he came out to face the robbers. He told them nothing about the money. They tied him to the bell post, trying to force him to tell where it was. They slashed his clothing with the tips of their swords. Still, Grandpap wouldn't talk.
Hoping to force him to give them the money, the marauders grabbed Granny's brother, my great-uncle John, who was a teenager at the time. They held him in the back of the wagon and drove away.
This brought Granny's mother into action. She ran after them. The road was muddy and the wagon traveled slowly, so she pursued them on foot for more than a mile. Then, in disgust, one of the would-be robbers grumbled, "That fool will follow us to hell. We'll never get the money anyway." So they released Uncle John and departed.
Grandpap's possessions were important to him. His instructions for burial further demonstrated this trait. Although the custom was to bury all bodies facing east when possible, he requested that he be buried facing west. His reason for defying custom was so he could keep an eye on the barn and corn-crib, ensuring that no one steal from him, even after death. His instructions were followed. This forced the other four bodies which were later buried in this small plot to face west, also.
Granny had two brothers and two sisters. After marrying, all but one settled adjacent to the home place. Grandpap gave each son enough land from the original farm to produce a living. But Granny remained single, staying at home with her parents until she was 35 years old. During those years before marriage she kept busy as a seamstress and mid-wife. She was l8 years old the first time she oversaw the delivery of an infant.
Most of Granny's relatives and friends called her "Lou", "Miss Lou" or "Aunt Lou." I learned of one person who addressed her as "My dear Louisa." This affectionate salutation appeared in letters she'd received before she married my grandfather. Signed with the name of a man unfamiliar to me, she kept these very formal love letters all her life. I never knew why.
When Granny met my grandfather, William Duane Sullivan, a handsome, quiet, kind man, she decided her single days had ended. Called "Papa" by his children and grandchildren, Granny always addressed him as "Mr. Sullivan."
Papa was a cobbler in Gallatin, Tennessee, a town fifty miles from the farm where Granny had lived all her life. He was widowed and the father of a l0-year-old daughter, Clara, and a teenaged son.
Granny and Papa and his children first lived in Gallatin -- he making boots for five dollars a pair, and she working as a seamstress. Within three years, they had a son, Tom, and a daughter, my mother, Verna.
With six mouths to feed, the family struggled with finances. Papa couldn't make enough boots and Granny couldn't make enough dresses to pay expenses. So, leaving the older son with his Tennessee aunts, Granny and Papa and their other three children moved back to the Rutherford farm in Kentucky and lived with Granny's parents. There Papa became a reluctant farmer.
Papa's daughter, Clara, became an accomplished musician and taught piano for Junior Bible Colleges in Tennessee and Missouri. My mother and my uncle attended this school in Missouri. Upon graduating, Verna, my mother, returned home and soon married my father. My Aunt Clara and Uncle Tom earned Doctor of Osteopathy degrees from a college in Missouri. Then we children started calling them "Aunt Doc" and "Uncle Doc." They continued to practice osteopathy all their lives.
Granny was 69 and Papa was 68 when I was born. He died when I was three years old. One of the few things I remember about him is that he played a fiddle. I also remember seeing him dressed in his straw hat with netting covering its wide brim. This veil was secured to his shoulders. Along with his gauntlets and pants stuffed into his boot-tops, this protected him from bee stings while robbing the hives of their honey. I remember my attempts to make him play with me and the many cats that were always at Granny's.
My grandfather had suffered two strokes and spent much of the time sitting in his rocker. Although they weren't house pets, I brought the cats into the house and put them on his lap, one at a time. On about the fourth trip, I would meet one that had gotten away, running to the door. With all the indignation of a toddler, I scolded Papa soundly. He reacted with good-natured laughter, which only encouraged me to bring him another cat.
At the time of Papa's death, the fences, barns and out-houses on the farm had become dilapidated. Fortunately, Granny inherited her father's financial acumen, and during the l8 years following his death, she repaired or replaced everything on the farm that needed it. When she died, she left very little cash, but my mother and uncle inherited a farm and buildings in good condition, all accomplished by Granny's frugal management.
When we became owners of a car, Granny would often ask, "Does the car have plenty of water?" Teasing her for never asking about its gasoline supply, we ironically called her "John D.", referring to John D. Rockefeller, who was at that time one of the wealthiest men in the world.
Each week the peddler came by Granny's in his truck laden with everything an isolated farmer might need -- tools, nails, buckets, baskets and pencils; coffee, calico and candy. At the beginning of the summer, Granny bought a stick of candy l0 inches long and more than an inch thick for us three children. This was to be our supply for the entire summer.
Our problem was to decide whether we wanted a peppermint or peanut butter candy stick. After much argument, we finally decided on a flavor. Then the stick was broken into small chunks and put in an ironstone teapot in the dining room safe. What had seemed a crisis of decision-making turned out to be unimportant after all. With good fruit pies, jams, honey and sorghum available, usually there was still candy in the teapot when we returned to Granny's for our Thanksgiving holiday.
Granny liked to be on the go. When my mother told her about planning to go somewhere, Granny asked, "Why in the world do you want to go there?" My mother would answer, "We thought you'd go, too." Quickly Granny responded, "That's fine, what shall I wear?"
Having been a seamstress, Granny was very interested in clothes. When describing some dresses, she and my mother used a word which for many years, I thought was an authentic part of our language. I've never found it in a dictionary, but it should be there. This adjective perfectly embodies the appearance, air and effect of the garment it portrays. It was used to describe a poorly fitted, drab, shapeless dress. The word is "sloomicky" -- with accent on "sloom." In our family, a unkempt woman who was tall, rawboned, and loose-jointed was also said to be sloomicky.
Granny enjoyed a humorous situation. "Locust Grove", the country church we attended, had outdoor privies. Her sight was very poor at night, so one night my mother guided her through the path to this facility. Suddenly this fragile old lady was lying on the ground across a log, and my mother was lying on top of her. Immediately Granny started laughing, relieving my mother's fears. Still lying there, chuckling, Granny commented, "I've heard of the blind leading the blind, but not that they fall on top of them."
It was a matter of principle with Granny that no one see her bed unmade. As soon as she got up she started straightening her bed. This chore was no snap. Instead of box springs and mattress, Granny's bed was equipped with two bed-size ticks -- the bottom one containing straw; the top, goose feathers. The first action of the bed-making process was to remove the imprint of her body from these ticks by shaking, lifting and patting them. Then came the spreading of sheets, blankets and quilts. A heavy white counterpane was spread over all and the bed was as smooth as a table top. Then two large pillows with embroidered, starched, ruffled-edged cases, never used for sleeping, were balanced against the high, solid headboard.
Granny had a strict rule against anyone sitting on or even leaning against her bed. The one exception was during a thunderstorm. It was believed that lightning wouldn't strike a feather bed, so during a storm the whole family piled on the bed. We children had fun frolicking and teasing each other, our slight apprehension only adding to the excitement.
Although Granny was a midwife and knew that colds and childhood diseases were contagious, she couldn't accept the existence of germs. She did have a strong belief in cleanliness. She kept on hand bundles of bandages made from old sheets that had been torn in strips, boiled and pressed with a very hot iron. When we had a cut or puncture wound from a nail, thorn or dog bite, my mother would thoroughly douse the wound with tincture of iodine before wrapping it with these bandages. Granny derided the ignorance of some of her neighbors who applied a piece of fat salt pork to an open sore "to draw out the poison."
Granny readily accepted the telephone. As soon as one was available, she had a wall model installed on the hall stairway far from the part of the house in which we lived. Most people put telephones in some such unhandy location, guarding against lightning which sometimes traveled into the house through telephone wires.
Granny was pleased to have the acommodation, but never once did she speak on it. If it rang when someone else was near, but out of earshot, she would go to that person and ask him to answer it. If no one but she was near, she let it ring. Queen Elizabeth is more likely to take unannounced telephone calls than Granny was to take any call. Even after knowing who was on the line, she never spoke nor listened to the caller, but received and delivered messages through a go-between. I never heard an explanation of this behavior, but it was known of by everyone. As a child, I accepted it without question.
In summer, Granny went to the garden very early in the morning to gather a "long tin" (two and a half gallon) bucketful of beans while they were still wet with dew. If she went without me, her whereabouts was disclosed by her continuous resonant hum, which could be heard as far as l50 feet. After she brought the beans to the house, she and I sat on the screened porch, removed the strings and broke them into lengths for cooking.
Granny's household chores were few, but she could do some things better than anyone else. One of these chores was churning, using the tall cedar churn with a dasher that resembled a broom handle with crossed boards on its bottom end. I was allowed to work the dasher up and down during the beginning of churning, but when the butter began to form, it took Granny's distinctive motion to make it happen just right.
In her 70's and 80's Granny wasn't as active as she'd been; however, she did walk the mile across the fields to visit her brothers. Feeding chickens and gathering eggs were her responsibility until age 86 when she lost the sight in her other eye.
When my family visited at Granny's, she was the perfect grandmother, never interfering with my parents' methods of guiding us. But she and I had a "secret" agreement at the breakfast table. She kept the coffeepot beside her plate. Often she would pour a little coffee in a cup for me, then fill the cup with milk. We both pretended that my mother didn't know about this conspiracy, so it was very special to me.
One of my happiest memories of being with Granny as a child was laying my head on her lap, while she lightly beat time on my back saying:
Mackney bone (whatever that is) in a hominy pot,
How many horns (fingers) do I hold up?"
I would answer with any number between zero and five. When I said "Two", she responded: "Two you said and one there was. Hurley-burley, trippity-trot." And on until the question was repeated. I rarely guessed the correct number of fingers, but never wanted this silly game to end. Granny played until I thought of something else to do. Granny had lots of time.
Granny's companion, the black woman she reared, died when Granny was 88. This made it necessary for her to leave the Rutherford home place where she had lived all her life except for three years. Cloaked with the same contentment she had always worn, she moved to my parents' home. By then I was married and lived two blocks away.
At that time I was braiding a rug for my living room. Granny liked to hold the braid while I plaited it. Even without being able to see it, she could tell when it was plaited too loose or too tight. Granny always pushed me to do just a little bit more each day than I thought necessary. Never before or since have I completed a project so quickly.
I'm glad we finished the rug. One evening I was visiting her at my mother's home. She said she felt a little tired and undressed for bed before I left. After getting into bed she complained of her feet being cold. I filled the hot water bottle and put it on her feet. She said, "Thank you. That feels good." Those were her last words. Granny died as quietly, calmly and controlled as she had lived.