I think it's pretty well established to everyone that I am not a fan of especially hot weather but one thing I do like about it is sleeping with a fan running in the background. It's not just the cool breeze slipping over my skin that I love so much as the sound of it. A running fan has the ability to put me to sleep within minutes. Perhaps it's because many Southerners grow up with the sound of fans running all summer and over the generations our ability to be comforted by it is nearly genetic.
Fans really remind me of visiting my grandparents - my mother's parents. By the time I was six years old we only lived in houses that had central air conditioning so using fans was generally limited to those times when it wasn't quite hot enough to justify turning on the A/C. But my grandparents had A/C only as a window unit in the living room so electric fans were used throughout the rest of the house. It's seldom I turn on a fan that the sound doesn't instantly transport me back to the home of my grandparents.
Visits to my grandparents, generally lasting about two weeks, were something I'd look forward to and my enthusiasm for being there would last for maybe a day or two. Mostly because there simply wasn't much to do there. They lived in Woodruff County, Arkansas, otherwise known as The Middle of Nowhere. They didn't even live in town but instead lived in a 100+ year old house about 4 miles from town in a little community called Grays which was essentially a gravel road with some houses. Even as a child it used to amuse me no end to see the sign before their road that said "Grays - Pop. 25". I think the 25 the sign claimed was perhaps a little overly ambitious. At any rate they lived in a one story house with a modest front yard and a rather large piece of land out back that contained my grandmother's large vegetable garden and, until I was seven-years-old, an outhouse.
Knowing how I am with such things it's a wonder that I didn't simply cross my legs for two weeks instead of braving the outhouse but in reality I imagine I mostly availed myself of a chamber pot and have blocked out the actual memory.
While the floor plan of the house changed since the time my mother had lived there, I remember my grandparents' house like this: It was a brown clapboard affair with long, unshuttered windows. A porch ran the length of the house and the front door was at the far left end of the house. It opened directly into the living room - a somewhat cheerless room with a sofa, my grandfather's recliner and another two upholstered chairs. A table by the front door held the telephone and I remember that for many years it was an ancient black rotary dial affair with a receiver so heavy it could give one a concussion should one be clanged in the head with it.
A door separated the living room from my grandparents' bedroom which was in the dead center of the house. This was the largest room, dominated by their beds - two double beds with ancient felt mattresses and chenille bedspreads. I remember those mattresses being like rocks. I remember as a teenager turning those mattresses and nearly suffering a hernia on the strength of it. A long double window separated their beds and at one time this room had been the living room and those double windows were the front door. Two of the walls were decorated by large professional portraits of two of my mother's sisters, sporting the finest in early 1960s beehive hairdos. I thought they were beautiful. While my grandfather's chest-of-drawers was bare on top save a dresser scarf, my grandmother's dresser was topped with an ancient jewelry box, a silver backed brush and hand mirror and various school photos of her nineteen grandchildren, often tucked haphazardly into the edges of other framed photographs. Regardless of the time of day, that room always seemed terribly dark - the result of having the only windows in the room being those that were sheltered by the porch.
Two other doors lead from their bedroom. One led to the back of the house where the kitchen was at one end joined with a dining room and from that was a door to my great-grandfather's bedroom...at least until he died and then it was turned into a sort of storage room. A back door in the kitchen led to steep, rickety steps that led to the back yard under which my grandmother's collection of half wild cats slept. These cats were never allowed indoors, were never fed anything but table scraps and all the mice they could catch and were never played with by us children. They weren't fond of humans and picking them up insured one of a scratched face or arms. In 1969 an addition was built on the back of the house adding two rooms - a laundry room with an automatic washer and dryer replacing the wash house housing the ancient wringer washer and a bathroom which replaced the outhouse and having to bathe in the kitchen in a galvanized tub. It always seemed to me those two rooms leaned somewhat and I took my baths with slight concern that the bathroom would simply fall off the house one day.
The other door in my grandparents' bedroom led to the other bedroom of the house. Two double beds were in there, also with ancient mattresses that sagged in the middle. Two people in those beds would have to cling to the sides of the mattress for dear life to keep from rolling into one another. When I was very little I would often have to sleep in one bed with my mother and my sister and invariably I'd be in the middle which insured that I would not only be kicked by my sister but would be rolled upon by both.
The best part of the house, to me, was the front porch. At one end was a porch swing covered with at least twenty layers of white paint. Lawn chairs lined the porch from the swing to the front door for the use of anyone not lucky enough to land a spot on the swing and no rural Arkansas porch could really be complete without a tin Coca-Cola thermometer nailed to the wall. A couple wire handled fly swatters were also hung on a nail. Survival on that porch depended on one's ability to kills flies, mosquitoes and wasps with one blow and I became a crack shot at an early age.
The front yard was dominated by an enormous elm tree that in my younger days had a well-loved swing hanging from its branches. The ground underneath was sandy which was perfect for digging your toes in to get the swing to stop but playing in that ground was discouraged as occasionally cat crap could be found there.
Days on these visits went pretty much like this: We'd get up early but not nearly as early as my grandfather, who was already up, bathed and dressed, breakfasted and already had driven into town by the time we were awake. We'd play or read or do something to stay out of the kitchen while my grandmother and mother were cooking the noontime meal and my grandfather would arrive back home in time to nap for a half-hour, eat dinner, relax in his recliner and watch As the World Turns
before driving back into town for the afternoon. These trips into town generally consisted of running errands and hanging out at the hardware store to bullshit with his cronies. Afternoons for us kids were not as much fun as the mornings as it was much hotter and we were growing bored with one another. Staying outdoors was encouraged and repeatedly coming inside to cool ourselves in front of the air conditioner was greeted with shouts from our mother to "stop fannin' that door...you're lettin' the air out!". There were no other kids around for us to play with - the average age in that community hovered between old and ancient - and we kids would grow bored with each other's company within a few days. My brothers often spent their time finding something disgusting or scary to throw on me in order to watch me scream and dance in fright.
If we were lucky then perhaps we could go into town with my mother in the afternoons while she grocery shopped at the Mad Butcher - a grocery store that had a rather weird logo of an insane looking meat cutter that laughed crazily in the TV commercials. Under normal circumstances it would be a trip we'd beg to get out of but grocery stores in another town always seemed more interesting. Plus vacation time was always a good time to try to con my mother into buying stuff she would normally avoid.
Evenings were the worst time on these visits. My grandfather went to bed not long after sunset and we were sharply reminded to be quiet lest we awaken him. Trips to the bathroom became like missions because one had to go past my sleeping grandfather to reach the back of the house where the toilet was located. We'd wait until all of us had to go or until peeing in one's pants became a distinct and very real danger. TV reception in the evenings could be iffy and one was never sure if one could clearly tune in a station coming from Little Rock or Memphis. Finally we'd give up and go to bed, always careful to wash our filthy feet before climbing into bed. It seems that no matter how clean we might be otherwise, our always bare feet looked as if we'd been wading through mud.
Tussling and grabbing for mattress real estate ensued and continued until finally the electric fan was turned on. It's soothing whoosh of air would caress our clammy skin and its sound, much like the ocean in a seashell, would fill our ears and lull us to sleep. I have always sworn that once asleep, I slept better at my grandparents' house than almost anywhere else I've laid my head.
The secret is the fan.
Labels: family, memories