Grandma and Grandpa Stephen
August 12, 2014
By Michael A. Calvert
A flame flickered from his pipe. Grandpa breathed in three times, collapsing his cheeks into his face. The shredded tobacco leaves in his pipe glowed and his face became serene. He sat back in his chair as smoke curled up from his pipe and the familiar aroma of Prince Albert tobacco wafted through our living room.
Grandpa was an old man in my earliest memories. Born in 1887, he was already sixty when our family celebrated my first birthdays. He had a dour face the color of cookie dough. His long, straight nose presided over faded purple lips and a prominent chin. His lips were permanently pursed from a lifetime of embracing the stem of his pipe. He had a thick head of hair that often grew over his ears and down to his collar in back; it was always gray in my memory. I saw that Grandpa had lost half of two fingers, but later Mom told me not to ask about them so I didn’t.
When I saw his last car, a gray 1950 Chevrolet fastback, parked at the curb in front of our house in Columbus, I knew Grandpa and Grandma were visiting. He was content to smoke his pipe and listen to Mom and Grandma catch up on relatives, recipes and appliances. I sat near Grandpa and asked about the livestock and the crops on the farm. I had spent a week or two there in recent summers, but that year my paper route kept me in Columbus. He responded briefly about when the new heifers had been weaned and how high the corn had grown, and returned to puffing on his pipe. I prompted him with questions about how much hay had been put up and how they used the horses at all since he had a new Ferguson tractor. His answers were always shorter than my questions.
I wish I had asked many more questions. He had seen cars and tractors replace horse-drawn buggies and plows. Edison’s light bulbs had illuminated homes and the streets of towns like Charleston, West Virginia near his birthplace on the Ohio River. Early aviators had walked on the wings of bi-planes at county fairs, and DC-3 airliners replaced ocean liners to transport people to Europe in hours instead of days.
Grover Cleveland was President of the United States when he was born and more than a dozen more men had served as president by the time I was a boy. Grandpa was 30 years old when President Woodrow Wilson sent the doughboys to the Great War. Grandpa did not participate in what Wilson called “the war to end all wars.” We call it World War I because an even worse war followed. I don’t know if Grandpa was considered too old or maybe he chose to avoid the military service. I never asked. Now I cannot ask him or anyone else who might know because they are all gone.
Grandpa grew up on the Ohio river near the town of Gallipolis. Although the town was founded and named by French settlers in 1790, a large number of Welsh immigrants arrived in the 19th century. Grandpa described himself as a Welshman. He once told me that he took girlfriends for drives in his buggy on the levee by river when he was a young man in the early years of the 20th century.
I know that he once worked for Creasy’s Grocery in Columbus as a clerk. In those days before cash registers, he told me that he wrote the price of each item on the grocery bag and added a long list of double digit numbers and wrote the total on the bag which served as the customer’s receipt. As an elementary school student who did one column of digits at a time, I was impressed.
Grandpa’s son, my Uncle Bill Stephen, bought the farm in the hills of southeastern Ohio when he returned from duty as a navy seabee in the Pacific Theater. Grandpa and Grandma moved there to run the farm. For the first couple of years Uncle Bill worked in the Pennsylvania Railroad yard in Columbus and drove sixty miles each way to the farm to help as often as possible. Grandpa milked the cows, fed the hogs, mended fences, and tended to all the other chores on what he called “the place.”
Grandma learned how to cook on the iron stove in the large farm house kitchen. She stoked the coal fire before each meal and kept the coals burning between meals and overnight. Grandma also planted a large kitchen garden that produced vegetables for the table and preservation in Ball jars for the winter.
After the war, Mom and I had been staying in Columbus with Grandma and Grandpa temporarily while Dad was recovering from combat fatigue at an army hospital in Mississippi. When they moved to the farm, we went with them. After several months, maybe more than a year, Dad was discharged and we moved to Columbus. There were frequent visits to the farm during my childhood. When I was eight or nine years old, I began to spend a week or two at the farm. Grandpa and Uncle Bill said I was to work as a farm hand to help get in the hay, and as I got older, this was the case.
The two-story farmhouse was constructed of hewn logs at least a foot wide and covered by white clapboard siding. There was a swing on the front porch. A small yard surrounded by a picket fence had a grape arbor. There was no indoor plumbing. The weathered, two-hole outhouse at the end of the back yard was smelly in warm weather and not a place to linger on cold days. Sears and Roebuck catalogues doubled as reading material and toilet paper. Chamber pots in the bedrooms served our needs in the middle of the night and emptying them was an unpleasant but necessary daily chore.
Rural electrification had not come to southeastern Ohio. Oil lamps and lanterns provided the only illumination after sundown. There was no radio or TV so all news about the state, country and the world came from the Ohio State Journal. Every morning the newspaper was left at the end of the lane a mile from the house. Local news and gossip were available from Mrs. Terrill at the general store in Gore and from the men at the feed store in Logan.
The cook stove kept the kitchen warm and a coal-burning pot belly stove warmed the living room. The beds were piled high with blankets and quilts. Bedtime came early and everyone gathered in the warmth of the kitchen soon after the roosters crowed at first light.
Each morning, Grandpa came into the large farmhouse kitchen for some coffee when he had finished milking the cows and mucking out their stalls. His boots would be outside the side door, still smelling of manure even after he wiped them in the grass. We were usually finishing breakfast. Grandma poured a fresh coffee into everyone’s mug.
After his coffee, Grandpa allowed me to follow him to the corncrib when I was very little. Bags of feed were stored there along next to bins of corn for feeding the hogs and other livestock. Loose corn was set aside as seed for next year’s crop. Grandpa stirred feed into three-gallon buckets of well water. I followed as he carried a bucket in each hand to the hog pen at the edge of the barnyard. As he poured the feed into V-shaped troughs fashioned from two boards, the massive boars and sows muscled aside the struggling piglets to slurp it up. The grunts and squeals that rose to a cacophony during feeding subsided to a murmur as soon as the trough was licked clean and the pigs returned to digest their meal reclining regally in the stench of black mud and their manure.
Later Grandma, with her large egg basket on her arm, took me by the hand. Grandma guided me through the barnyard, stepping around small yellow gobs of chicken manure circled by flies, to the hen house. As we stepped into the low-roofed hen house, we were met with the pungent smell of hay and feathers, and greeted by a chorus of clucking that sounded critical to my young ears. More likely, they were excited that Grandma would soon pour chicken feed into a long galvanized steel tray near the ground. Most of the hens fluttered to the feed tray, but Grandma had to shoo some from their roosts. She allowed me to pick up the brown speckled eggs from the hay and put them in her basket. Grandma would fry some for breakfasts, but most would be put in gray molded containers for sale at the general store in Gore.
Grandma also allowed me to follow her in the kitchen garden as she harvested ripe tomatoes, pole beans, rhubarb, cabbage, peas, and other summer vegetables. A few were set aside for lunch and dinner, but most were stored in baskets for drying or canning. She later told me that some of my first words echoed her complaints about bird and varmints that got to tomatoes before she did. Fortunately she never swore.
Scarecrows made from tree limbs with branches for legs and arms were clothed with red shirts, raggedy pants and floppy hats. The slightest breeze would set them aflutter. They had limited success frightening crows and other birds away, but I stared at these creatures for minutes at a time while Grandma inspected unripened fruit for future harvesting.
One memory that has stayed with me is Grandma stoking the embers in the stove before preparing the midday meal. She would swing open the door on the front of the cast iron stove and stir the neon-bright, orange coals with a poker to produce a magnificent flurry of sparks. A few modest flames began to dance above the coals. Then Grandma grabbed the coal bucket that was kept next to the stove and tossed coal over the embers. Quite a show for a young boy!
Grandpa had a couple of stories that he was always happy to relate for me and whoever else was in the room. Both featured me in the late 1940s when Mom and I lived there. One involved a newborn jersey calf. Grandpa asked me to give it a name. I immediately suggested Gene because my hero at the time was Gene Autry, the singing cowboy. Grandpa was amused because the calf was not a bull, but the red cow was called Gene nevertheless.
Whenever I visited the farm, Gene was always pointed out to me.
“All I could see was Mike’s red hat,” was the opening line of the second story. Then Grandpa stopped to chuckle for a moment. “He was just a little fellow, but he wanted to walk behind me as I plowed the field behind the hen house. I was holding the moldboard plow that our old mare, Dollie, was pulling. I thought Mike was right behind me. When I reached the tree line and turned around, he was halfway across the field. I waved at him and started toward him. Mike waved back. He wasn’t crying or upset.” Grandpa chuckled again, and continued, “As little Mike walked the furrow, a piece of turned earth tipped onto his legs, so he just sat down.” He nodded and smiled as he puffed on his pipe.
Over the years, Uncle Bill took over most of Grandpa’s chores. Into his eighties, Grandpa continued to walk the mile to the mailbox for the paper and the mail. He and Grandma moved into the one-story summer kitchen next to the house. Cooking and preparing fruit and vegetables for canning had taken place here to spare the farmhouse from the heat. Grandma’s mind began to slip, and she eventually accused Grandpa of poisoning her. He endured this until her death. Eventually he suffered the same fate and Mom cared for him at her home in Columbus.
My dad often affirmed that “Grandpa was a good man.” I know he was a good man, but I wish I knew more about his life. I should have asked.