© Copyright 2023 by Michael Mason
Plowing with a mule. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Watching my grandfather eat his food always fascinated me as a child. At breakfast, my grandmother would set a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, and grits in front of him. I would stare as he slowly picked up his fork with a trembling hand, scroop up a fork full of eggs, and painstakingly raise his hand toward the open black hole of his mouth. Some of the egg managed to make it to his lips but most of it tumbled back to his plate. When his food would finally find its way into his mouth he would chew slowly, and his eyes would widen as if he were surprised that the food had reached its intended destination. It was hard work, and I was pulling for him every step of the way.
My grandfather’s name was Sidney Cleveland Clark. Everyone called him Sid. His grandfather was an Irish stonecutter who arrived in America after the Civil War and worked the quarries around Richmond until sickness overcame him and he died in the pauper’s ward in the city hospital. When my grandfather was born at the end of the nineteenth century outside Rocky Mount, North Carolina his father was a sharecropper that grew tobacco, and like most of them he never made enough money to own his land. He was continuously in debt. As a result, my mother said my grandfather always hated farming with a passion.
When he was in his mid-twenties, my grandfather married a sweet local seventeen-year-old girl, and they had a baby girl they named, Irene. Tragically, his wife died of tuberculosis less than two years later. My grandfather was devastated. When the U.S. entered World War I, like many men, he joined the Army. He gave Irene to his mother to raise while he went off to fight “the Huns” and make the world safe for democracy. He spent six months “sticking dummies” at a desolate Army base in Georgia until the Army sent him home after the war ended. The Huns never made it to Georgia apparently.
Once back home working on his mother’s tobacco farm, he met my grandmother one night at a local barn dance. My grandmother said he was a fast dancing, black-haired, whisky drinking scoundrel and she fell in love with him instantly. She was a strong-willed stubborn woman and was deluded enough to think she could tame him. They got married and her only condition was his daughter Irene would not live with them because, as family legend goes, she insisted that she was not going to share a house with another woman’s child. I loved my grandmother but even as a child, I thought this seemed harsh.
Not long after my grandparents were married my grandfather got a job working for the railroad in Rocky Mount. He thought this was going to be his big break from a life sentence as a farmer. But fate stepped in once again, and the nation’s railroad workers went on strike. Being a loyal union man, my grandfather refused to cross the picket line and along with thousands of other workers he was fired from his job. His only choice was to go back to farming. He struggled to make a living over the next decade as he and my grandmother had six children over ten years. One child, who he promisingly named Sidney Cleveland Clark, Jr. died an agonizing death at the age of three of spinal meningitis. My grandparents were crushed by his death but like so many parents in the bad old days of rampant childhood death they had other mouths to feed so somehow, they found the strength to go on.
When the Great Depression hit, my grandfather labored for years growing tobacco to make enough money to feed his family. Like his father before him, he never made enough money to break even. He grew corn as a side crop and made moonshine to bring in some money. Unfortunately, he was known to sample the merchandise when it suited him. My mother told us that sometimes my grandfather would disappear on drunken binges for several days. When he did come home, he would often be roaring drunk, and he and my grandmother would have vicious fights. My mother revealed to us that on several occasions her parent’s fighting got so bad that my grandfather chased my grandmother around the house with a shotgun and threatened to kill her. During one incident when my mother was about thirteen years old, she wrestled the shotgun from him before he could use it against my grandmother. My mother never forgot this, and I knew that there was a part of her that hated and feared her father all her life.
But all of that was long ago. When I knew my grandfather, he was a sick man in his sixties with advanced Parkinson disease. He had short grey hair that stood straight up on his head, he wore horn rimmed glasses with thick lenses that made his eyes appear bugged out, and his mouth was a thin sunken line of folded flesh that covered a toothless orifice. Parkinson’s disease made his face appear frozen with a mask-like expression of chronic surprise. He had a short wiry frame with stooped shoulders and walked with a slow gait. Like a lot of people in my mother’s hometown he looked much older than his age. My mother said life was hard on people where she grew up and it took a physical toll on them. She said that years of drinking, of course, contributed to my grandfather’s decrepit appearance. Despite all of this, sometimes when he would dress up and wear a snappy suit and garish tie and a brown fedora slightly cocked to one side you could tell that he must have been a dapper looking man in his younger days.
Parkinson’s disease or years of drinking or dementia also seemed to have impacted my grandfather’s mind. He rarely talked. According to my mother, this was a contrast from how he had been for most of his life. Like everyone in my mother’s family, he was a great talker. And he loved to argue. Sometimes it was about politics and other times he would argue because he just felt contrary. My mother said people used to say that “Sid Clark would argue with a signpost if he didn’t like what it said.” But those days were mostly gone. He would usually just stare at the TV or look at people as they talked and sometimes laugh when he liked a joke.
His vision was so impaired by cataracts that sometimes he would hallucinate while sitting in his chair in the living room. One afternoon while he and my grandmother were watching TV, he turned to her and said,
“Go feed that baby, Stel. He’s hungry.”
She asked him what he was talking about, and he told her impatiently that there was a baby crying on the couch, and he needed to be fed and he wasn’t going to tell her again. She told him to hush up and went back to watching her soaps on the TV.
On another occasion my mother came into the living room and saw a bowl of water on the floor next to the fireplace. She asked her father why it was there, and he told her it was for the buffalo.
“What buffalo?” she asked.
He gave her a harsh look. “The buffalo sitting next to the wood pile over yonder.”
He thought it looked thirsty. We all knew my grandfather had spent his entire life in North Carolina, so we doubted that he had ever seen a buffalo. But in his mind, it was there, and someone needed to deal with it.
My grandfather chewed tobacco and always kept an empty Del Monte can as a spit cup next to his chair in the living room. I often watched him spit tobacco juice into the can when he was either chewing or dipping. Whenever he chewed tobacco one side of his mouth would jut out about two or three inches and his eyes would have a wide, wild look like he had eaten a handful of chili peppers, or someone had stuck a hot poker up his ass. The substance in the Del Monte can smelled nasty and had a thick tar-like appearance. As a rambunctious kid that liked to play on the furniture, I was always knocking over the Del Monte can and spilling its sticky contents. My grandfather would shout at me and say,
“Get away from there, boy.” But he was too old, and I was too fast, and he was never able to catch me.
One morning while I was engaged in a wrestling match with my grandmother’s footstool, my grandfather got up from his chair and walked up to me and looked me in the face with such intensity that I stopped what I was doing.
“Come here, boy,” he said. “I want to show you something.”
He walked up to the TV, stopped, and gestured with a shaky hand for me to follow him. With some trepidation, I walked to the TV and stood next to my grandfather as he pointed with a crooked finger behind the TV set.
“You see down there, boy?
I looked behind the TV but all I saw were wires and a pair of electrical outlets.
“That’s the path to the still.”
I looked back at him, and he nodded his head to emphasize the importance of the information he had given me and turned around and slowly walked back to his chair. I took another look behind the TV and thought, “Wow, this old man is crazy.”
Despite his handicap from disease and old age and my mother’s stories about him being a mean drunk when she was young, my grandfather was generally good to me and all his grandchildren. When we came to visit, he liked to sit on the front porch and watch us play in the front yard. When he was still able to drive, he would go down to the store and buy candy for us. He always bought fire balls for me and my brother.
Once my brother bought a fake nose and pair of glasses and used to wear them and look out the window when we passed cars. We used to howl at the reaction of people as they nearly ran off the road. One morning my brother gave them to my grandfather, and he put them on and walked around the front porch with a broom and swept the floor. All the grandkids thought it was hilarious. Even though he was sick and old, we could see that he had a sense of humor and wondered what he must have been like in his younger days.
One winter day my grandfather fell and broke his hip. His condition deteriorated and the family shipped him off to a nursing home. I visited him and saw a shrunken old man weighing about seventy pounds tied to a bed. He cried like a lost lamb for his mother. This was not the man that my mother said she feared as a child and to some extent still hated. When he died my mother attended the funeral. She said the day he was buried it was bitter cold and the region had the worst snowstorm it had ever seen. She told us that if my grandfather was in hell that was the only time she had any desire to be in his company.
Michael Mason is a retiree living in Northern Virginia and spends his time writing, researching his family history, traveling, and volunteering for local community groups. Michael spent over 30 years working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC. He and his wife have been married for thirty nine years and he has two children and a beloved Sheltie. Although Michael has written many stories since retirement, he has made no attempt to publish and has been content to share them with his family and friends.