Southern Legitimacy Statement: An image of a worn Meerschaum clinched tightly between my father’s tobacco-stained teeth as he loosed an iron horseshoe toward a wooden stob in the ground.
“Bobby, you better git in here fore the Rapture comes and leaves you behind.”
I had just pitched a rock at some old mangy dog trotting up Oak Street. Or, at some drunk bobbing and weaving his way up our street with no idea what street he was on nor what planet he was riding through space.
It didn’t matter the offense, Granny Green was quick to invoke the apocalypse for minor and major failings. She was such a tiny thing, barely larger than the children she minded while their parents trudged off to doff bobbins at Tolar Hart Mill.
Standing there in the doorway in her print frock, worn thin as paper, her sparse hair barely covering her cantaloupe head, doing her damnedest to head off trouble before it happened. What could she do if a genuine accident occurred? At the first signs of trouble, she would teeter forward onto the porch with halting steps, like a novice on ice skates. “Leave that animal lone fore she bites your hand off!” she would command in her reedy voice. “Awright, she’s gone bite you!” she would warn, but it was more of a plea; you could hear the whine behind her scold.
In between minor chaos in the dirt yard, fights between me and my brother, and threats of mayhem about to descend on all sides, Granny loved to repeat old rhymes and sayings from her own childhood, a realm almost a century away that had its own language and character that few remembered and none understood. She would begin one of her poetries: “There was a crooked man who walked a crooked mile…” and the remaining lines would drift away into the misty canyons of her mind, and she would hide her mouth with her hand, as if her mouth had betrayed her memory.
Granny was at her best when the kids were all dispersed and she was left alone with her clay pipe and her twig of snuff. She smoked a clay pipe all her life and took a little snuff on the side. No one knew where she got the clay bowl. She cut her own stems with a Barlow knife from the small limbs of a Chinaberry tree in the yard. She would cut the stem to an exact length, strip its bark, taper its ends, and then gouge out the center pulp with a thin wire she heated over the kitchen wood stove.
Usually it was the two of them, Lillie Elmira Green and Lawter Pigford Barrett, two spare, inconsequential people sitting on a sloping wooden porch, taking turns spitting into the yard and complaining about how things had changed.
Grandpa Lawter believed in the Rapture as well, though, like Grandma, he couldn’t exactly explain it. His face was as gaunt as a starving stray pup, his small head stitched with wisps of white hair. His eyebrows were as white as his hair and as bushy as a mustache. They ran together in a surprise meeting whenever he frowned, which was often. “Ill as a hornet!” Granny would spit, when one of the children would ask what was wrong with him. “Man will kick at his own farts,” said my dad.
They would sit for hours observing life as it meandered up and down their dusty little street, watching the same movie day in and day out. They kept a Maxwell Coffee can between them to catch their unerring streams of snuff, for Grandpa Lawter was a user as well. More often, they would forego the niceties of social convention and launch their honey-brown streams into the yard where they would etch small moon craters in the dirt.
His wrinkled neck looked like that of a rubber chicken. It seemed entirely too small to contain the prominent Adam’s apple that kept children mesmerized with its bobbing. Five-foot-five and eighty-five pounds is how I remember him, a rack of vertical bones clacking beneath a suit of slack, leathery skin.
His feet were tiny swollen appendages, his toes drawn by arthritis. He wore soft bedroom shoes to ease the pain, and hobbled about the yard in short, uncertain moves, almost teetering forward on his face with every step. A whittled oak walking stick, as gnarled as his hands, helped him keep his balance.
“Pauline works too hard down at the mill. I wisht she could find something a mite easier to do. She’s a purty girl, but hit’s telling on her,” Grandma complained in a rare long-winded speech.
Grandpa grunted, tapped down a Lucky Strike on his bony wrist, and fired it with a long kitchen match. “Least ways she ain’t chopping no cotton in no goddamn cotton field,” he offered. “She’s got it bettern some.”
And in a pique of remembrance, he thought better of his compassion. “Hell, I worked in that same goddamn cotton mill thirty-five years and it didn’t kill me,” he said bitterly, resentful that no one worried over his life time doffing bobbins from the metal jaws of the spinning machines. He was permanently stooped from leaning over the whirring machines ten hours a day, lifting the heavy bobbins with thread, replacing them with empty spools in a never-ending ritual that had no other reason than to wind the next bobbin with hundreds of yards of thread.
“Never killed me,” he insisted as he wheezed his way through another Lucky and moaned softly at the pain in his feet.
“Still and all, grandma intoned, letting go a wet, brown stream over the railing, “she could use some help.”
“Well, I’ll be dipped,” was grandpa’s favorite expression, stated without inflection when he observed something silly or frivolous, such as the time my cousin dyed his hair green. “Boy’s got the brains of a gnat!” he fumed and blew another crater in the yard with a spit of disgust, wiping the residue from his chin with the heel of his hand. “Boy!” he’d admonish me, “don’t ever let me catch you doing some fool thing like that!”
I had never once contemplated dying my hair green, but I knew Grandpa’s admonition referred to larger moral issues, covering anything that strayed from the doctrines of the Baptist Church and the dirt yard notions of “being decent.” That moral perspective did not leave a lot of running room for a lad in scuffed brogans and hand-me-down overalls.
They died a month apart in their eighty-fifth year on this earth, thirty-seven years ago. Whenever I find myself on a tranquil Sunday morning on my way to ride the Blue Ridge Trail at Piney River, I will turn to my partner and comment: “No traffic; the Rapture must have come last night.” And I will see my grandparents, who looked in their old age like twins, indistinguishable at a distance, a pair of frail silhouettes shuffling slowly toward eternity, looking for the Rapture.