I Can Dog-Paddle, But I'd Rather Float: Prologue

I can dog-paddle. I'm really not a swimmer as such, but I can dog-paddle. I have a hard time walking in the ocean these days. I get dizzy—you know, with it going out and coming in on your feet and all. I have a tendency to get dizzy and lose my balance. It makes me sad, because I have always loved the beach, watching the waves build up and then crash. Or just listening to the sound of the waves.

My Aunt Virginia had a swimming pool. It had a deep end where I learned to float. If I just relaxed and surrendered, I'd come to the top. But if I struggled and tried to control everything, I'd sink to the bottom. Giving up control—that's really all it takes, but it's not easy. I've always thrived on control.

When my daughter, Maria, was about three years old, she started taking swimming lessons at Maxcy Gregg's swimming pool. I stood in the parents' circle in the shallow end of the pool, waiting for the next fish to float into my hands. Each time I received a new child, I had to put my hand behind her head and push her to the next parent. I was so busy that I couldn't watch what was happening with Maria as she made her way around the circle. A lot of the kids would fight the process and get so much water in them that they'd be scared and cry until they threw up. But we didn't give them much time to cry. They weren't out of the water long enough.

Throughout my life, I didn't have much time to cry, either. Some days, I cried oceans of tears, but then I'd pick myself up and get busy. You could say I wasn't out of the water long enough to cry. I went from my mama and daddy's house to a new life with my first husband. Then right back to taking care of Mama and Daddy and my brother, Kenny, before I had my own family. I always felt responsible for someone else. I waited for the next problem to come my way. I dealt with it, then I moved on to the next issue.

My life—I guess everyone's life—was like those waves coming in on my feet. I would go from a high to a low, something good would happen, then something bad. My default was to stay busy. I couldn't give up too much control or I'd get dizzy and lose my balance to those waves.

Most of the time it was hard for me to relax and surrender, so I could enjoy my life. There was always so much at stake. But over time, I did learn to let go. I liked to float, and when floating didn't work, I kept busy with the dog paddle.


Chinaberries. You can't do anything with them. They are bitter as all get-out, but a little girl and her imagination can keep herself amused for an afternoon with a crop of chinaberries. Our backyard on Fairfield Road in North Columbia had a big chinaberry tree. I would use its fruits to pretend that I was cooking like my mama or Grandmama. Now that I'm older and wiser, I'm surprised Mama let me play with the chinaberry marbles. They stink and are full of poison, but I never got sick from them. Daddy took pieces of wood and made shelves between the trees for my "kitchen." Mama gave me some jars and dishes, so I could cook chinaberry and mud pies. I had so much fun pretending to work. That's how I played.

When we eventually moved back to West Columbia in 1951, we lived about half a block from Grandmama and Granddaddy, my daddy's parents. We were real close, and I could walk down there anytime I wanted. My cousins, my sister, and I liked to hang around the farm. Work or play, there was always something to do.

My grandparents both worked in a cotton mill over on Olympia Avenue before I was born. When they retired from their jobs at the mill, my Uncle Fulton, Daddy's twin brother, built them a four-room house. Uncle Fulton was fairly well off. He didn't serve in WWII like my daddy did. He was the manager of a large plant in Virginia, so he provided a lot of the things my grandparents needed. I don't think my grandparents had much income at all.

. . .

Their home was a sweet little place. Since the only real source of heat was in the living room, my grandparents used their living room as a bedroom. The room was big enough for a double bed, three or four chairs, and a fireplace. The heating stove was connected to the fireplace. I think it was a stove with an oil tank in the back. The stove radiated heat from all sides.

One time a big rattlesnake got in the house and curled up on the hearth. Of course, Grandaddy took him outside and killed him. After that, I was always scared that there would be a snake in the house.

All told, there were at least eleven grandchildren available at any time to invade the house. Some days there were kids everywhere! When we spent the night, Doris, our cousins, and I slept in the bedroom that was to the left of the front door. The bed had a feather mattress, which sounds like it would be comfortable, but it was actually hard as a rock. The covers—quilts handmade by Grandmama—were so heavy that it was impossible to turn over while sleeping. It was real cold in that room, and I can remember putting my head under the covers to warm my face at night.

The large kitchen was on the other side of the dining room. Grandmama had a makeshift island, just a table in the middle of the floor, for extra counter space. I can remember her making biscuits. She made the best biscuits! She would always cut the lard into the flour with a fork. I don't know what the silverware was made out of, but it had a unique odor to it when she was cutting the lard into the flour. Boy, those biscuits were good!

. . .

The hallway led to the dining room with a huge table for our really big family. Notice that I didn't mention a bathroom. For most of my childhood, the little home did not have indoor plumbing. When we needed to "use the facilities," we had to walk down a sixty-eight-foot-long path to a little building with a door and a window. Inside was a toilet seat over a large hole. You just sat down and did your business, using as little toilet paper as possible—you didn't want to have too much paper that needed to decompose. Sometimes we even used bare corncobs instead of toilet paper. Ouch! Grandaddy would shovel lime into the hole to hide the odor and help the contents decompose faster.

The spiders are what I remember the most, though. I was scared of spiders, and it seems like there were always spiders in the outhouse. I should have thought about the snakes, too, but they didn't concern me in the outhouse. I just didn't think a snake down in that hole would be able to reach me.

Going to the outhouse during the day, especially in the winter, was bad enough, but outdoor facilities were the worst at night. In fact, we did not use the outhouse at night. We used the slop jar. The slop jar was an enamel-finished pot with a lid on it, probably about five quarts. Everybody used the same pot at night, and ever since the rattlesnake met us on the hearth, I worried about getting a visitor while on the slop jar. Grandaddy had to empty the slop every morning. Yuck! Eventually, my grandparents, or maybe my uncle, built a real bathroom off the hallway between the kitchen and dining room.

In the backyard, Grandaddy had a barn, and Grandmama had a small building with an old-time washing machine in it. She boiled gallons of water in a big black pot outside on a fire. She added soap to the pot, boiled the clothes while poking them with a stick, and ran them through the washing machine to wring the water out of the clothes. The washing machine roller was electric, but it was still a tough job to wash clothes in those days.

. . .

My grandparents worked their land most of the day, but every afternoon they would take a break. We'd sit and listen to a popular soap opera on the radio. The huge radio was as big as a piece of furniture, sort of like the size of a small chest of drawers today.

We took time out for meals together and said grace before we ate: "God is good, God is great, let us thank him for our food, amen." My grandparents were religious, but they did not attend church. Maybe they did before they moved to their house, but they didn't have a car, and the church was too far away for a walk. They were poor, but they were thankful for all that they had. I was grateful to have them in my life for as long as I did.

. . .

Being so poor can breed bitterness and envy, but just like the chinaberries, life is what you make of it. You can choose to focus on the bitter side, or you can let go and play. When your work is your play, you can't help but enjoy yourself, especially when you're with your Grandaddy, Grandmama and, if you're lucky, a few chinaberries.

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