Thursday, May 22, 2008

I Love You, Too, by Don Woodward

An excerpt from "I Love You Too"
By Don Woodward
"There is a dark cloud passing over me."
Three centuries and three decades after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, my grandmother, known by everyone in the family as "Mama Gibbs," could be found sitting in her old oak rocking chair late every afternoon. She would sit there twiddling her thumbs, chewing that "mild" Wildcat brand tobacco and spitting the tobacco juice in an old tin cup she called a "spit cup." Mama Gibbs always had a pleasant half smile fixed on her warm face as she slowly rocked back and forth in that old chair. It made rhythmic little, "wood rubbing against wood," squeaking noises as she rocked. The steady sound reminded me of rainwater dripping off the roof and splattering off a tin bucket. That's when she would tell her old family stories. The look on her face made you feel she was actually seeing what she was talking about. Her memory must have been very vivid. She told many of her stories over and over so I wouldn't forget, but I am afraid I have. I remember some of the names, like Aunt Annie Lindsey, Aunt Sissy Green and Uncle Mose, but the stories seemed to have slipped away. I guess my memory is just not as good as she thought it would be. Maybe deep down that is why, after being asked by some family members, I agreed to write about my grandparents, as I hope this work stimulates some of those memories of family, friends and home.
Before I wrote the first word of this text, I gave a lot of thought to the actual story that I am telling here. At first I couldn't even imagine where to begin. I knew I didn't want to tell you a boring story, but I sure didn't want to make it sound like I am tooting my horn or anyone else's. After all, the older we get the better we were, which leads us to embellish our deeds and downplay our mistakes. I hope to avoid that; so, you will read about a few of the embarrassing things that happened to me, as well as others, during the course of my growing up in Leoma, Tennessee. If you are easily offended by some of the comical things that happen to one during the course of a lifetime, you might want to lay this story down right now. I intend to be candid.
This history then, about my grandparents and family, is told from the perspective of a grandson who happened to be raised next door. Keep in mind, if you will, I was born in 1947. My grandparents were already "getting up there in years." The life expectancy in 1947 was 62.9 years. 1947 was the year my grandfather turned 66 and my grandmother 64. Harry Truman was the president in 1947, a loaf of bread or gallon of gas cost around fifteen cents. An ounce of gold was worth a whopping thirty-five dollars. The average income was less than twenty-nine hundred dollars per year and you could buy a nice new car for less than half a year's pay, around thirteen hundred dollars. The era has now been labeled the "Post War Baby Boom." I have lived my life getting a new name pinned on my generation every decade or so (boomers, hippies, yuppies, etc.). Be that as it may, I was raised in a lower middle-income family in a little town in Tennessee that bordered on nowhere. But, now that I think back on it, that made me about average.
Edna "Mama" GibbsSitting on her front porch step with grandson, David Brent Woodward in 1947
Mama Gibbs house was located on the north side of Leoma, Tennessee on Highway 43 (The Old Military Road or Jackson Highway)
I have nothing but the fondest of memories of Mama Gibbs. Of all the people I have known in my life, she stands out as the kindest person I ever knew. I still think of her often and have no regrets about things left undone. She very well knew that I loved her and I know that she loved me, as well as a bunch of other folks, I might add. She was a kind and loving person who always seemed to be able to find something for young idle hands to do. Her stories lit up a bored mind, on more than one rainy afternoon, and added wonderment and mystery to the otherwise trivial activities of day-to-day life. Mama Gibbs's sympathetic and patient nature was inspirational, as well as enviable. Her character flowed like a slow river, constant and sure. It was also expressed in everything she did.
Mama Gibbs was overtaken by age and hard work by the time my brother, sister and I had become teenagers, but we hadn't really noticed. She was becoming a stoop-shouldered and withered old woman by then. Yet, she carried on her systematic day-to-day activities as always without complaint. In the eyes of her grandchildren, she also maintained her physical appearance and cleanliness. As one of my relatives pointed out, "Mama Gibbs so believed in cleanliness, right to the end, that she kept the rows in her garden weeded and clean, long after it was necessary to do so. When finished working in the garden, she always washed her feet. Mama Gibbs certainly believed in cleanliness of body, soul and mind." She didn't seem to have changed, so how were any of us to know she was ill? She had given no indication that anything was different. Age slips up slowly and if you are around someone every day, it is hard to see the gradual changes that become pronounced after a few years.
The skin that wrapped up Edna Gibbs's wiry old hands and arms was sun-baked and dotted with liver spots. She had continually fought such blemishes for as long as I could remember by applying a liberal coat of rubbing alcohol every time she came in from the garden, but it was a losing cause. Mama Gibbs's face was also wrinkled, but it was easy to see that she had once been a beautiful woman. I recall my grandfather saying once in a jovial way, "When I married Edner, she was the prettiest girl in the county, but now she's old and ugly." He laughed and Mama Gibbs just gave him one of her little disgusted smirks. She did that often enough to be noticeable and I always figured it was because he lost the old Caperton place in a bad business deal. My mother told me that Mama Gibbs never really forgave him for that one.
Mama Gibbs did have a way of looking almost like she was posing for Life Magazine. She didn't mean too; she just did. Her movements were controlled and meticulous. As an example, when she sat down on the front porch after working in her flower garden all morning, she wore a fixed look on her face. It was the kind of intent look people have when they come in from work. The saw millers that came in to Ed Morris' Grocery Store at lunch time to buy bologna and cheese wore the same look. At such times Mama Gibbs's face was usually dotted with a little perspiration. When she pulled off her old homemade sunbonnet, little beads of sweat sparkled on the ends of her matted blue-gray hair. As kids, my brother and I would run to the "Frigidaire," pull out an ice tray and fix Mama Gibbs a big glass of ice water. It gave us a lot of pleasure to see her drink ice water and smile in thankful gratitude. One time, when we got a little older, we put salt in her ice water as a joke and she spit it out on the porch. We all laughed and then fixed her another glass. She told everybody what a prank we had pulled.
Sometimes she would ask us to pour her a glass of buttermilk. She liked buttermilk and would drink almost a whole mug full in one long slow swig. When she pulled the mug down there would be a line of buttermilk on her upper lip, which she would wipe off on the back of her arm. She relied on us to tell her when it was all wiped off. Mama Gibbs liked Sealtest brand buttermilk and always wanted us to pour it in an old ceramic mug that was made to look like an ear of corn. She had bowls and platters to match and they were often seen at Sunday dinner, but her favorite was her buttermilk mug. Since she prized it, we were extra careful when carrying it. I wouldn't have dropped that mug for anything in the world.
Mama Gibbs wore glasses and would have looked strange without them. As a matter of fact, the only time she was without her glasses was when she went to bed. Once in a while my brother or I would spend the night with Mama Gibbs. She wouldn't let us sleep alone as she was afraid the house would catch on fire or something, so we had to sleep in the bed with her. She and Millard Gibbs slept in separate bedrooms. She couldn't put up with is late reading and loud snoring. Anyhow, Mama Gibbs hated wiggling, which was okay with my brother as he didn't wiggle, but as for me I just couldn't be still. The more she told me to not move, the more itches I seemed to develop. I would lie there in agony for as long as I could take it then go to scratching all over, which of course would always be about the time Mama Gibbs was falling off to sleep. That's when I got scolded. Mama Gibbs was so mild mannered that for her to say "be still now" was tantamount to a severe scolding. It was no wonder that my grandfather slept in another room. I figured him, aside from being a late reader and snorer, for a "wiggler" like myself.
Mama Gibbs wore dresses made of patterned cloth and "old lady" shoes bought from Moore's Department Store in Lawrenceburg. My sister told me she paid the ungodly sum of $29.95 a pair for them. She believed in taking care of her feet. Every pair was black lace-up and looked exactly the same. On Sunday morning I would help her choose which Sunday dress she would wear that day and get her Sunday shoes, which was the newest pair, out for her. Even in the summer she would usually wrap a shawl around her shoulders and she always wore a hat to church. Preparation for Sunday actually began on Saturday, when my sister, Martha Rose, washed Mama Gibbs's hair and pinned it up in little tight curls. A liberal amount of blue die, applied during permanents by my Aunt Mae, was intended to keep Mama Gibbs's hair shiny white, but somehow failed. Her hair always ended up looking sort of grayish-blue. Martha Rose would strap down the tightly pinned curls under a tight hairnet to dry. That way when it was all dried out it would be nice and curly. During cold weather, Mama Gibbs wore a long, black winter coat. She wasn't considered a snappy dresser and really didn't appreciate such things very much. She just liked the few clothes she had to be neat and clean. When a Sunday dress got a little frazzled, she would move it over to the side of her closet where she hung her everyday clothes. Mama Gibbs got the good out of things and then had no remorse when she put them on the trash pile to be burned with the household garbage. This was something that drove my mother crazy, as she thought Mama Gibbs was being wasteful.
After thinking about Mama Gibbs and jotting down a few notes, it came to me to include in this first chapter "the end" of my story. I call "the end" the day my Mama Gibbs died, May 13, 1963, because it was on that day that my family changed, or perhaps better said, disbanded. When Mama Gibbs succumbed to old age and ailments, we learned the common thread that had always held us together was none other than Edna Lee (Belew) Gibbs. That terrible day came in May, which is the prettiest month in Tennessee. That is the month you hear birds singing and see the leaves break out to form a blanket of lush green over the beautiful rolling hills of the state of Tennessee. Gone then are the gray and chilly doldrums of winter. It was at such a time that my mother told me that Mama Gibbs wasn't feeling well. Harvelle Schultz, the boy that lived next door to Millard and Edna Gibbs on the south side, and I had dug up some wild onions in her yard a day or two before she died. Wild onions grow fast in the springtime and always beat the grass at establishing territory. Harvelle and I needed the money Mama Gibbs was willing to pay us for the job, a quarter each, and she watched over us, but not like usual because she criticized how we went about digging up those onions. Mama Gibbs never criticized, although she did have an ongoing battle with wild onions, and would prod us along to dig deep. I told her that I had heard the French ate them, but she said that she didn't care what the French ate, she just wanted those onions removed from her yard. She added that wild onions would ruin milk, but since she didn't have a cow that didn't make any difference.
That next Sunday I walked out to Mama Gibbs's house and ate the leftover banana pudding, which I did every Sunday. She was smiling as always, but never left the straight-back chair in which she was seated. The living room was full of womenfolk and, as usual, there was a Rook game under progress on the dining room table. Somebody mentioned that I would get fat eating pudding and I said my belly was getting pretty big. Mama Gibbs told me, with a little laugh, that boys didn't have bellies; they had stomachs. Girls, she said, had bellies. With that said, I went back out in the yard to catch up with my cousins. I never saw my Mama Gibbs alive again.
My mother, Helen Jean (Gibbs) Woodward, walked out to Mama Gibbs's just about every day to say hello and check on her and Millard Gibbs. It was not a very long walk. Helen knew Mama Gibbs was sick, so she made a special point to look in on her that day. When Helen arrived that Monday morning, Mama Gibbs was lying on her davanette in the den looking faint. They talked a little while and Mama Gibbs told Helen that she was glad she was there because she was going to die. My mother said Mama Gibbs then held her hand up over her head and said, "A dark cloud is passing over me." When she dropped her hand she never breathed again. My mother ran out into the yard and got my grandfather who was working in the garden. He came in and held his fingers over Mama Gibbs's eyes to make them close.
A short time later my dad, James Roy "Slug" Woodward, arrived at the Loretto High School to pick up my brother, sister and me. He was driving his old worn out 1956 green Plymouth sedan. All I can now remember about that ride home was the dumbfounded feeling of sadness that overwhelmed me. The darkest moment of my life had arrived and I had no idea at the time just how much my life was changed as a result.
When we came by Mama Gibbs's house we saw about every car in Leoma sitting in the driveway, but her house already looked lonesome. Millard and Edna Gibbs had a long driveway and there were a lot of cars. We passed Mama Gibbs's drive up and turned right into the next one, which has always been shared by my parents and their next door neighbor, my Aunt Mary Gazelle (Gibbs) Baxter. My first cousin, Jo Ann (Sanders) Ezell, and my mother were sitting at the kitchen table talking about Mama Gibbs when my dad, brother, sister and I walked into the house. Both my mother and Jo Ann were pretty shook up, but not boohooing. I remember telling them that I was going to be okay and wasn't going to cry, as I was in high school and a fellow in high school shouldn't be crying. They told me that Mama Gibbs's body had been taken to a funeral parlor in Lawrenceburg to be laid out and embalmed. The thought of Mama Gibbs being embalmed bothered me a lot. My mother explained that it had to be done and told me that Mama Gibbs's body would be brought home that night for viewing. We passed the afternoon the way you do when someone very special has died. We talked and talked; trying to overcome those big lumps in our throats and finally ate a little supper, although nobody seemed to have much of an appetite.
I sure didn't want to go out to Mama Gibbs's, but late that evening I finally made my way out through the little locust tree thicket. I had mowed the grass in that thicket a thousand times while Mama Gibbs dug up dandelions and wild onions with her old worn out garden hoe. The yard was full of townspeople, family and friends. There were so many that I had to practically force my way through. Every time somebody recognized me they would start telling me how bad they felt and how sorry they were, which only made it worse. Finally I made my way into the house, through a packed crowd and then into Mama Gibbs's bedroom where the casket was set up. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw her. They had her dressed up in a lacy kind of nightgown and I knew she had never worn anything like that in her whole life. It was just more than I could bear. I could not control my absolute horrifying sadness. I had never felt such utter, heartbreaking grief.
Knowing I could no longer hold in my emotions, I ran out of the house pushing everybody out of the way. When I got home I stopped by the side of the garage we never used, between the hedge and the highway, and cried. I cried and cried and cried. My Mama Gibbs was gone and I couldn't do a thing to bring her back and I sure wished that I had dug harder at them dang wild onions and not have gobbled down all the leftover banana pudding. May 13, 1963 was a terrible day in my life.
The funeral was no better than the night before had been. I may have been even worse, as there was no place to hide. There were so many people that I couldn't possibly even look at them all; much less speak to them. Every seat in the Leoma Church of Christ building was filled and more people stood outside as the preachers, Aldin Hendrix and Charles Leonard, went about saying good things about Mama Gibbs, but mostly about my grandfather. They went on and on, saying how my grandparents had helped settle the county and establish the Church of Christ, since my granddaddy was a preacher. I sat there battling tears and thinking that I could have told them a thousand things about Mama Gibbs that he never knew. Brother Hendrix said that she would surely go to heaven, but I knew that already and it didn't help much. Heaven didn't live next door. I saw tears run down my daddy's cheek. He never cried and when he did it just made things more final and even more serious. I knew things would never be the same and I was right.
We sang a bunch of hymns, including my granddaddy's favorite, The Old Rugged Cross. I have disliked most gospel music since that very day. Somebody said a prayer and we marched by the casket one last time. I turned my head away as I just couldn't look at Mama Gibbs lying there dead like she was. The funeral procession made its way from the church to the graveyard beside the Leoma Baptist Church. All traffic in and out of Leoma was stopped and the state troopers stood at attention with their hats off as the possession went by. When we got to the graveyard it took a good while for the funeral director to get all the flower arrangements unloaded and standing properly. There were lots of them. The graveside service was little better than the funeral. My Granddaddy looked old and pitiful. All my aunts hovered around and made over him. They didn't know what I knew. Mama Gibbs was Millard's strength and had always taken care of him. I knew he wouldn't do well without her and he didn't. He died January 3, 1966, only three years after Mama Gibbs.
A few years after Mama Gibbs died I drove through the Leoma Cemetery one day and there on her grave someone had placed a little bouquet of flowers. Whoever placed those flowers on Mama Gibbs's grave used her old buttermilk mug as a vase. The sight of that mug sent an arrow of wonderfully delightful memories directly through my heart and caused tears to fill my eyes. I stood over Mama Gibbs's grave and cried a long time. I guess I could have filled that mug up with tears. They were tears filled with sadness for the loss of her, but joy for having had the wonderful luck to have been her grandson. The flowers were long since wilted so I picked up the mug and kept it. Today it is one of my favorite material possessions.

Mama Gibbs in her flower garden where she spent many happy hours.

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