Raspberries and Rummy

Papa was not a rolling stone

10/3/20234 min read

One of my fondest childhood memories was spending time at my maternal grandparent’s home. My parents were divorced when I was five years old, so I don’t remember much about my paternal grandparents since they lived in Kentucky and we lived in Tennessee; I did not see them much.

My maternal grandparents, on the other hand, I remember fondly. Granny and Papa seemed old to me way back then, though, in truth, they were most likely in their late fifties or early sixties. To a five-year-old, that was old, though now that I am in my early sixties, it is not so old anymore.

Papa had had a heart attack not long after we moved there, so he was officially retired, but he still tended the garden and worked on their small menagerie of chickens and their garden. I am guessing here, but I’d say Papa was around 5’9”. He walked with a stoop, so it is hard to estimate. He was obese by today’s standards, with a large middle; he was bald with a crown of white hair on three sides. I remember his large arms and hands as big as a sledgehammer. Before the heart attack, he smoked Raleigh cigarettes. After the heart attack, he switched to Red Man chewing tobacco and Britton Snuff.

Granny was always a frail-looking woman no taller than 5’4”, and her skin was wrinkled and crepey even in her fifties. Her hair was salt and pepper grey. I don’t recall her ever smoking, though both Papa and her first husband did. She was an insulin-dependent diabetic who battled it all the time I knew her. But being diabetic did not stop her from baking all kinds of pies and cakes, though I never saw her eat them. Granny worked at a sewing mill and volunteered as a pink lady at the local hospital. I remember her taking flowers every Sunday in the spring and summer to her church for the altar.

Granny and Papa were raised during the Depression, so they knew about survival and how to scrimp and save. They had threadbare sheets on their beds and a closet with brand-new sheets still in the wrapper. They ate leftovers until they were gone. And every part of the pig or chicken was used. Nothing was thrown away. I remember eating greens or beans with chicken feet, pigtails, and ears as seasoning. They were hard-working people, and they taught me a lot about life.

Since my Mother was a single mom of three for the first four years, we were in Tennessee, and there were no such things as daycare centers back then; we often stayed with family or neighbor babysitters after school. I spent a lot of time in the summers with Papa while Mother and Granny both worked. My sister was four years older, and after she was a teenager, she babysat me and my two brothers.

Papa would often let me “help” him with the tiller and lawn mower when he got too hot and needed to sit under a tree to cool off. In the summer, we would often take a sack lunch of a peanut butter sandwich and an apple to the creek, sit on the bank, and fish for hours. Other times, we would go into the pasture next door to their house and hunt rabbits or squirrels for dinner.

Many times after lunch, Papa would lie on the couch and take a nap. At first, he had me lay down for a nap, but I was an energetic child and couldn’t sleep. After a few such times, he would allow me to play outside as long as I stayed away from the road. I used this time to explore the grounds of their home. I stayed away from their outhouse because I feared what might be hiding there, such as a snake. I covered just about every square inch of their yard otherwise.

I loved exploring the garage, which was so full of things that there was no room for their car. There were all sorts of old farm tools. And machinery. Granny had a shed where she kept all her gardening, flower pots, and seeds. I stayed clear of that after being stung by a hornet once. The chicken coop stunk to high heaven. It was full of about twenty hens and a rooster.

My favorite thing was visiting the area closest to their neighbor’s house. They had a muscadine vine strung across two post arches about twenty feet apart. Underneath the vines was a carpet of raspberry plants, and I would lay on the grass and pluck the raspberries off the plants, pop them into my mouth, and look at the clouds in the sky as I ate. Anytime I eat raspberries, they remind me of those endless summer days and the freedom from worry a child that age has. It reminds me of how Papa and I would sit in their living room and play Rummy.

The funny thing about playing rummy with Papa was that the rules changed every time we played. Looking back now, I realize he changed the rules to match whatever hand he held. I was too young to catch on back then, and now, it just doesn’t seem important. What was important was the time I spent with my grandparents and knowing that I was loved and cared for. I didn’t realize how poor we were then. I lacked for nothing because I didn’t know what we didn’t have. I didn’t realize that until I was older and began having friends much better off than us.

When I think back now, I was much richer than some of my friends because of my family. I had something their money couldn’t buy. I had family.