When I was a little girl, my sister, Carla, and I spent one year with my grandparents in Atoka County, Oklahoma. My grandparents still lived in the house they had built with their own hands when they got married. It was a two-room cabin with a lean to on the back for a kitchen. There was no running water, no indoor toilet, and the electricity hook ups would never have passed any inspection if they had bothered to come have a look. In the front room, where my grandparents also slept, was wood burning stove, a double bed with an old cast iron headboard, a dresser, and a small table on which the bulbous brown radio with the huge dial sat. My favourite piece of furniture in the whole house was the wooden rocking chair with the rope seat. All of the grandchildren would fight over sitting in that chair, until Granddad would look up from what ever he was working and say, in his quiet but firm voice, “Here now, y’all stop that fussin’.”
I remember it was cold that winter, but we went off to school at Harmony School every morning on the big yellow school bus. Every day Grannie would get us up and we would dash from the cold North Bedroom into the front room to stand by the stove as we raced to get our clothes on before we froze to death. I was in first grade, and scared to death of making a mistake. Mrs. Graham was the teacher for grades one through three – all in the same room. She was at the school her entire career as a teacher, and still remembered us up until she died a few years ago. I think she remembered every student who ever walked into her classroom. She was the kind of teacher that I would desire to be if I taught children. I can still remember her looking over her glasses at me, smiling and saying, “Of course you can learn this word, it isn’t too hard to read.” And learn it I did because Mrs. Graham never accepted less than one’s best efforts.
When school got out for the summer, Carla and I had to go to work with our grandparents. Grannie worked at a laundry that did washing for hotels and restaurants as well as regular folks. I remember the huge whiter than white sheets hanging on the seemingly endless clotheslines, the heat of the clothes press and the steam billowing up as the sheets and tablecloths were ironed every day. The laundry stood in an old building that seemed to be half tin and half falling down bricks. It smelled of starch, steam, water, and freshly aired cloth. The women chattered, laughed, shouted, and aimed an occasional swat at one of the multitude of little kids running around during the summer.
Granddad worked at a garage as a mechanic. I love the smell of the place. I still get nostalgic when I step into an old fashioned garage that smells of grease and oil. Every morning the new tire smell battled with the odour of fresh brewed coffee strong enough to melt a spoon. I used to play in the office in an old wooden chair. If I did things just right I could get it to spin in great circles while rolling across the floor. In the afternoon, when it got hot and sticky, I could climb up into the cab of Granddad’s pickup and have a nap. He would always wake me up around three with a cold Nehi Grape Soda to refresh me.
At lunch every day, without fail, Granddad and I would go pick up Grannie and Carla, and the four of us would stop at the little gas station near the Railroad Bridge to buy lunchmeat, bread, and drinks from their deli. Then we would drive out of town and find a place to stop on a dirt road to have our lunch. Granddad would park under a shade tree, near a creek if he could find one, and we would all climb into the back of the truck to have lunch. Nothing tastes better than a pickle loaf sandwich and a cold soda pop on a hot summer day. The memory of those afternoons seems to be imprinted on my heart. All of my senses were involved in those hours. The smell of dry dusty roads, the feel of the soft breeze, the whirr of grasshoppers in the tall weeds, birds squabbling in the trees, and the taste of ice cold soda pop on a parched tongue. All were brought together in a kolidascope of colours to satisfy even the most discerning artistic eyes. If Granddad was in a good mood, Carla and I would be allowed to sit in the back of the truck until we got to the highway. I know, now, that we didn’t go very fast, but it seemed to us we were flying down the road throwing up huge clouds of dust behind us.
I rarely go back to Atoka County, it just isn’t the way I remember it. My grandfather passed away and Grannie moved to town. It is where my parent’s “people” are from, and I suppose it is really the only home I’ve ever really known as I’ve lived all over the world since then. But, always in my heart stands the memory of those cold winter days, boiling summer nights, and simple times.