by Ron Van Sweringen
Enjoy this fun story perfect for summer reading.
She was tired of being robbed every morning. I could tell by the way she looked at me with those blinking eyes when I entered the chicken coop. She was the only white hen in my grandmother’s flock of twelve hens and one large, very mean, red rooster.
I was eight years old and from the city. I didn’t care much for school or anything else that summer. My latest escapade had gotten me into trouble again. Feeding spit balls to the Science teacher’s gold fish, who were found floating belly up in their tank on Monday morning.
Marsha Snow, a chubby little brunette who sat at the desk next to mine, squealed on me. I always told myself it was because she had a crush on me, after I pulled my pants down in front of her in the coat room one day. In any case my mother had reached the point of zero tolerance. Between a low paying job and my father’s non-existent child support payments, she had developed a close relationship with Jack Daniel’s.
“How would you like to go visit your grandmother?” she asked me one morning at the kitchen table. I looked up with milk and Wheaties dribbling down my chin. “What grandmother?” I replied, astounded.
I must have looked stupefied. “Well, don’t look like that,” she said, blowing the match out. “Everyone has a mother you know, even me.”
It never occurred to me that my mother had a mother! I had never met any of my mother’s relatives. My father’s sister came to visit us once, staying two days. I remember it because I got to sleep on the floor while she took my bed. When she left, we took her to the Greyhound bus station and she waved goodbye to me through the bus window. On the way home, my mother kept saying to herself, “Never again.”
The trip by Greyhound to meet my newly discovered grandmother took about four hours. It was l944 and the big war was still going strong. Lots of soldiers and sailors were on the bus, mostly looking for girls to talk to. My mother told the bus driver that I was going to visit my grandmother. She gave me a five dollar bill and asked him to keep an eye on me. Then she and Jack Daniel’s kissed me goodbye.
I got to sit in the first row with the big window right in front of me. A nice lady sat next to me and part of her came over on my seat. She wore a straw hat with blue flowers on it and white gloves. She smelled like my mother’s bubble bath when she sat down and it made me sneeze so hard that I farted.
Before we left, the bus driver stood up and faced the passengers. “I want to remind you fellas to watch your language; there are women and children on this bus.” Then he turned the motor on and my first great adventure began.
I watched the city streets roll by. Streets I had never seen before, like downtown with stores selling shoes, mattresses and even a five and dime. Pretty soon we were on a highway with rolling hills and fields filling the windows. Now and then a farm house appeared in the distance.
I kept wondering what my grandmother would look like. My mother told me she was fifty eight, so I guessed she was ready to die. I hoped she wouldn’t do it while I was there. I had never seen a dead person, only sparrows, mice and a dog that got hit by lightning.
We stopped in Richmond Va. for half an hour, long enough for me to find the bathroom. When I got back on the bus, the lady sitting next to me was gone. I had the whole seat to myself for forty five minutes, until the bus driver called out “Irving ton Virginia “and motioned to me. “This is it son.”
I felt like I needed to pee again. I had never met a grandmother before!
There was a big wishhhhhh when the door of the bus opened. The driver got off ahead of me, opened a panel in the side of the bus and pulled my suitcase out. I took my time, searching through the windows for anyone I thought looked like a dying grandmother and then climbed down the steep steps.
An old black Ford pick-up truck was parked in the filling station on the corner and a woman wearing a large straw hat was standing in front of it with her hands on her hips. She watched me until the bus pulled away and then she came toward me.
She took big steps and she wore funny looking black shoes with laces all the way up the front. I felt like running, but held on to the handle of my suitcase. “I suppose you’re Ronnie?” she asked, bending down to visually examine me. “Yep, must be,” she continued, “You look like Rene.” My mother’s name was Irene and I had never heard her called ‘Rene’ before.”
“My name’s Mabel Turner and I’m your grandmother,” she said slowly, as if trying to convince herself it was really true. Then she broke into a wide smile and for a moment I saw my mother’s face.
Suddenly I felt much better. She didn’t look like she was dying. Maybe if I was lucky, she would last through my whole vacation.
The old pick-up truck had maroon leather seats and my feet barely reached the rubber floor mats. Maw-Maw, which for some reason, I had decided fit her better than Mabel Turner, hoisted my suitcase into the bed of the truck with hardly any effort. Her muscles didn’t show, but she was strong and she didn’t smell like bubble bath either. I liked her a lot.
The ride was bumpy and I kept sliding around on the leather seat.
“We need to put some meat on your bones,” Maw Maw said, looking down at me. “What does Rene feed you up there, anyway?”
“I like ‘Chef-Boy-RD’ spaghetti and meat balls’,” I chimed in, “and the hot chili that comes in the big can.”
“I might have guessed,” she replied, shaking her straw hat at me. “Eating out of cans, no wonder there’s nothing to ya.”
It had never occurred to me that eating out of cans was bad for you. I was beginning to find out that a lot of things had never occurred to me. Like the miracle of the slight woman sitting beside me, hunched over the wheel, burning up the dusty dirt road in that old black pick-up truck.
The house we finally arrived at was set back off of the road quite a bit, in a grove of oaks and pines. The lawn was shady with patches of sunlight scattered through the flower beds along the front porch. The house, faded to a thirsty gray, could have used a fresh coat of paint. Inside, the wide hallway was cool, with a breeze flowing over the red and tan linoleum floor.
Maw-Maw sat my suitcase down and putting her hands on her hips, looked at me. “How about a cold glass of iced tea?” She smiled. “Maybe I can find a cookie or two. Bet your boots they won’t be out of a can either.”
Once we were settled at the kitchen table and I was on my second chocolate chip cookie, Maw-Maw sat her iced tea glass down and looked me straight in the eye.
“We have to talk,” she said, in a serious tone. “We need to lay down some rules while you are here.”
“Rules?” I said, with a mouthful of chocolate chip cookie.
“Things you can and can’t do,” she replied, “You know this is a farm that needs work to be kept running. There are
chores to be done, animals to be tended to and crops to be seen after.”
The part I liked best were the animals to be tended to. My life had been spent in apartments and pets were out of the question, although I used to put peanut butter behind the stove for a little grey mouse that my mother tried to kill with the broom.
“The most important rule is no wandering off alone,” Maw-Maw stressed, pointing a finger at me. “There’s deep woods around here and you can get lost. There’s bears and rattle snakes in those woods, just looking for a free meal.”
If she was trying to scare me, the bears alone would have done it. The rattlesnakes securely sealed the bargain. I was no Daniel Boone.
The next morning at five thirty, I met ‘Big Red’. He woke me out of a sound sleep with his morning ritual of crowing. I had never heard a rooster crow before and I lay in bed counting all five of them. Maw-Maw pushed the partially closed bedroom door open and stuck her head in, “Time to rise and shine,” she said.
I hardly recognized her with a red bandanna on her head and a long blue bathrobe down to her feet. “Wash up in that basin over there and you know where the out-house is,” she added.
I had been introduced to the outhouse soon after I got there, when I started opening doors looking for the bathroom.
“It’s outside,” she smiled, watching me stick my head into the hall closet.
“The bathroom’s outside?” I repeated, flabbergasted. “Who ever heard of going outside to poop”, I thought to myself.
“Bang on the door before you go in, it frightens the snakes away,” she laughed.
I could hear sausage frying and smell its strong aroma as I came down the back stairs into the kitchen. There were two kerosene lamps still burning although the sun was up, their peculiar but pleasant odor mingled with the smell of the sausages. Breakfast consisted of fried eggs and sausage, sliced tomatoes and biscuits as big as your hand, brown on the bottom and still hot. There was a covered dish full of homemade butter and a jar of cherry preserves. I drank a glass of cold butter-milk and Maw-Maw had black coffee.
After tasting the cherry preserves, I raked two spoonfuls onto my plate from the jar and was starting on my third.
“Two spoons are enough young man,” she shot out, giving me a stern look, “that is, if you want to have any teeth in your mouth when you finish growing.”
I had the feeling, the rules were beginning.
After Maw-Maw had washed the breakfast dishes, we went out to the hen house. She handed me a brown woven basket with straw in it. “This is where you put the eggs and be careful how you handle them, I can’t sell cracked eggs.”
She unlatched the wire gate of the pen and the chickens began coming out one by one. The big red rooster came last, slowly, one step at a time. He was almost up to my shoulders and he gave me a long hard look, passing by.
“Watch out for him,” Maw-Maw said, shooing him along with her apron. “He’s ornery sometimes and might try to jump you.”
It was dim inside the chicken house and several hens were still sitting on their nests.
“This is how you collect the eggs,” Maw-Maw said, gently sticking her hand under one of the hens. “Do it carefully, so as not to frighten her. Now and then one might peck you, but it won’t hurt.”
Then as she turned to leave, “Check the straw in all the nests as some of them have already laid and gone. This is your chore every morning, as soon as breakfast is over.”
I had collected nine eggs and the big white hen was the last one to go. I didn’t like the way she kept blinking her eyes at me and jerking her head back and forth. Finally I got my nerve up and slowly stuck my hand under her. It was warm in the straw and right away I felt a large egg. I had no more than gotten my hand around it, when she took off, springing forward and flapping her wings with a shrill cry, landing with both feet on my head.
The shock was overwhelming and I fell back wards, the basket and its contents going up in the air.
The eggs rained down on me like dive bombs, splattering on my head and shoulders, then sliding down into my eyes and mouth. The white hen, satisfied for whatever reason, flew off of my head and found her way into the yard making a terrible racket.
When I looked up Maw-Maw was standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips as usual. “I kinda figured that white one might give you some trouble,” she frowned, looking down at me sitting there.
“Well there’s only one place for you. In the creek!” She smiled. “Too hot for working today anyway. Bet those eggs will be fried before we can get ‘em washed off.”
The rest of the summer flew by for me. It was the happiest time I have ever known, even with Maw-Maw’s rules, which included church every Sunday morning. It just goes to show you what can happen, when you’re eight years old and find out you’ve got a real live grandmother.
You can find more of Ron’s short stories here in KRL’s Terrific Tales section.