Today we laid Grandmother Juanita Barrett to rest. She was not my grandmother by blood but by a bond of pure love. You see Grandmother actually belonged to my sister-friend Carol Barrett who was nice enough to share her with me ever since we were in elementary school. Carol was an only child, and I longed to live her quiet, orderly life. Carol, on the other hand, eagerly anticipated ventures to my house where there was always some chaos at hand with the four of us kids. A few summers between late elementary school and junior high we visited Grandmother, Daddy Sugar, Uncle Bill and Nita in Sulphur Springs, TX for a few weeks at a time. We called Nita "Nita" because she was barely 10 years our senior and so seemed more like a peer than an aunt. Let me tell you a little more about the Grandmother whom we loved.
Visits to Sulphur Springs took place before the "scrapbook movement" was well underway, at least to my knowledge. This was the time before independent scrapbook stores dazzled us with color-coordinated racks of paper, stickers and embellishments galore. There was no Hobby Lobby with aisles devoted to scrapbooking enthusiasts. I'd never heard of Creative Memories, and "senior scrapbooks" were not a part of our high school curriculum. I'm sure I had a 110 camera at the time, but who would have thought to keep it on one's person at all times as we do our digital cameras and cell phones with cameras nowadays? So, unfortunately, I don't have these memories documented with photo-filled scrapbooks.
I remember the excitement over packing to go to Grandmother's house, a simple pre-fab structure with window AC units in the living room. Back then, Carol and I tried our hands as seamstresses. We'd cut the bottom off of one men's t-shirt and stitch it to the bottom of another men's pocket t-shirt to make a cute little drop waist "dress" which we had in all different colors. One-piece terrycloth shorts jumpers were popular, too, but we knew better than to pack anything too risque for the trip to Sulphur Springs where Nita and Grandmother didn't wear jeans, shorts or pants - ever!
I remember the smell of disgruntled skunks wafting in through the window units at night as Carol, Nita & I slept head to toe in one bed.
Grandmother's house was the first place I remember having multiple meals in one for "dinner" in the middle of the day and sandwiches for "supper" in the evenings, an obvious carryover from more agrarian times. It was nothing to be called to the kitchen to set the table somewhere in the noon hour to the smells of baked or fried chicken, pork, roast beef, macaroni and cheese, rice, "light bread," an array of vegetables--all in one meal! And to think we'd only eaten a full breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, grits & toast just a couple of hours before. It's a wonder I didn't gain 20 pounds over those few weeks. In retrospect, I understand that although Grandmother and Nita did their fair share of cooking every day, the extensive variety of the menus had more to do with cleverly re-warmed leftovers than Grandmother preparing all of that daily on a regular basis. I discovered that I loved Grandmother's sandwiches better than the ones I ate all of the time at home. The secret? The tangy zip of Miracle Whip. Unlike my mother who used Hellman's real mayonnaise in everything, Grandmother bought salad dressing and sandwich spread which made everything taste better. I also remember Grandmother's first microwave oven and Nita and Daddy Sugar "not trusting that the chicken could be done in just 20 minutes in that thing." I would not have been surprised if, like in my own Big Mama's house, the microwave wasn't used as a bread box when Carol and I, or the other cousins from Arkansas weren't there to warm quick snacks and leftovers.
Then, there was the hair! I think whoever coined the phrase, "fried, dyed, and laid to the side" must have been privy to Grandmother's skills as an in-house beautician. Grandmother could straighten some hair, do you hear me? I'm talking about the pressing comb placed directly on the blue flame of the gas stove and a pink jar of pressing oil next to it. We didn't have ceramic coated flat irons or perms on our hair, just Grandmother's hot comb and some pink foam rollers to wear at night. I remember Grandmother handstitching us pink satin "sleep caps" to wear to bed so our rollers didn't wind up scattered all over and under the bed. I also recall using those plastic rain bonnets that came in a small plastic sleeve and unfolded from their accordion pleats and tied under our chins since none of us wanted that straight, shiny hair "turning back" to it's prepressed state before absolutely necessary. Grandmother seemed to have an endless supply of them (I think they gave them away at the bank where Nita worked).
I remember energetic music, gravel-voiced preachin' and the shoutin' and fallin' out in the aisles (arms flailing and hats flying) of the church ladies at Mitchell Chapel Church of God in Christ just down the road from Grandmother's house while Carol and I tried to contain our giggles and snickers. Then, there was Aunt Vi who usually sat right in front of us rattling the cellophane wrappers off of suckers during the entire service. Thankfully, she was kind enough to share because at times thoses services seemed to last forever, and my mind was drifting to a table full of food that would appear after the service-steak in gravy over rice, green beans, hot rolls...ahhh the memories.
Sometimes the Arkansas cousins' visit would overlap with ours and then we had four more partners in crime: Sissy (Monica), Pistol (Jonathan), Nikki and Jaboli.
Nita would cruise the streets of Sulphur Springs going 15-20 mph as if she was in a never-ending school zone, first in her old metallic pink-beige Chevy Impala, then in her candy apple red Pontiac Fiero (complete with curb feelers and mini-blinds "rigged" to cover the rear window), then her deep metallic green Toyota Camry. We'd get out at the "central park" and strut around-Nita showing us off to everyone as her nieces from Arlington; us on the look out for "cute" boys. Today's trip back to Sulphur Springs reminded me that it is one "dippy" and "bumpy" little town. No wonder Nita drove 20 mph maximum!
I remember Daddy Sugar always called me "Easton" no matter how many times we tried to convince him of the proper pronunciation of my name. No worries, the spare quarters and single dollar bills he always seemed to have in his pockets made up for the misunderstanding.
Looking back, I feel sorry for how we tormented poor Uncle Bill. I distinctly remember us requesting sour cream and onion potato chips from Grandmother's weekly trip to Brookshire's grocery store so Carol and I could imitate a commercial for Arm & Hammer baking soda where a little animated onion shouted, "Onion power!" and breathed on the other food in the frig. Naturally, a box of A&H baking soda put an end to the "bad odors" within the confines of the ice box. Carol and I would snack on the chips then go find Bill and shout, "Onion power-hehhh!" and breathe our funky breath right in his face. Poor fellow. He probably longed for our 3 week visit to be over two days after we arrived! We also tried to convince him to see a dentist about the "bad" tooth in the front of his mouth without much success. Bill was afraid of dentists and that was that. Today, he has no front teeth.
Years later, after Carol and I were too grown up to visit Sulphur Springs during the summer, I remember Grandmother visiting Arlington and marveling at my bowlegged little boy with "all that hair!" That baby has straight legs and close cut hair these days. He is almost 14 years old. Grandmother always remembered to ask about him, though, as if he should only still be a toddler. I guess in a "great"-grandmother's eyes, 14 years is but a moment in time.
I'll conclude my stroll down memory lane now. Grandmother was the type of sweet spirit anyone would be proud to call their own. She was a soft-spoken (not to be mistaken for weakness), God-fearing woman who loved effortlessly and completely whether you were a blood relative or simply related by the bond established by the blood of Jesus which makes us all brothers and sisters in Christ. I loved her then and I love her now. Rest in peace now, Grandmother. I'll see you on the other side. Until next time...