Opinion Columns & Blogs

Robert Simpson: Hardscrabble lives, generous spirits

It’s very easy to think that we deserve the credit when things go well and we succeed in any effort. Most of us, though, know clearly that others are involved. I never got a promotion or advancement of any kind that I wasn’t very much aware that others owned some of the credit, and that often my own part of the endeavor may well have been less difficult than theirs.

In a broader sense, I’ve always known that I owe a debt to my ancestors, but I never gave it a lot of thought. An understanding of the hardships they faced, though, suddenly came clearly into focus when I read four typed pages recently. After my sister died on Christmas Day last year, her daughters, sorting through her papers, came upon a narrative she had written many years ago, by hand, later typed and sent to me by my niece. It was a loving biographical sketch of our maternal grandparents. My sister adored them, and she spent as much time with them as she could manage, from childhood up through her teen years. Ten years her junior, I was aware of the things she described, but to me they had been individual memories, without much connection to each other. Now I had an integrated picture of two people who had, despite poverty, nurtured and supported me and all those with whom I was most closely connected.

My grandparents lived in a weathered, unpainted house on rented land. They owned a mule and farming implements, a cow, hogs and chickens, unpretentious household furnishings, and not much more. Growing most of their own food and producing a few bales of cotton per year for income, they managed to raise nine children, my mother being the youngest. Then they took in an infant granddaughter and raised her as their own. Later they rescued another grandchild from unpleasant home conditions. When a daughter was mistreated by her husband, she and her children came back home. When a son-in-law was hospitalized for a lengthy period, his wife and children came back as well. A grandson always stopped by Grandmama’s for breakfast on the way to school, and again for a snack on the way home. Various relatives came for long visits. They were always welcome, though it must have been a chore to pack them into the not spacious house. But it was always ready and spotless, kept clean by my grandmother’s constant work. No electricity, no indoor plumbing, nothing but a homemade broom, a mop, and scalding water with lye soap.

The house was like a magnet to relatives. They also helped with work in the fields when they could. I can remember tending my baby brother on a quilt in the shade at the end of the cotton rows while my mother and a few others chopped cotton, and later in the year picked it, in Granddaddy’s fields. I can still hear the screech of the rusty iron pump when someone went back to the house to bring fresh water. At mealtime, Grandmama prepared plentiful and good food.

My grandfather was, to me, a remote and silent figure, but he read and shared reading material with my sister, and joked with her. An Irishman, he would happily, when given a couple of drinks, entertain friends by dancing an Irish jig. But not in my presence, to my regret today. My grandmother, more English and a teetotaler, took a dim view of such nonsense. She had no time for it, of course, what with caring for the house and an extensive garden, not to mention cooking some of the most delicious meals I’ve ever tasted. Her biscuits were wonderful, as were the links of stuffed sausage from their own hogs. She baked cakes, made pies, dished up home grown vegetables so good that even a child liked them. And all cooked with a small stove heated by a wood fire. Strangely, her baked sweet potatoes seemed better than any others, enhanced by generous amounts of homemade butter. On December 7, 1941, we ate Sunday dinner at my grandparents’ house, and the one thing I remember clearly from that day, other than the fact that Japan had just attacked Pearl Harbor and catapulted us into World War II, was the delicious baked sweet potato I ate.

I just re-read my sister’s account of my grandparents’ lives. Then I remembered that I need to take some clothes out of a washer that does everything but sew on buttons, and put them in a dryer that decides exactly how to dry them. And I also need to put the vacuum cleaner away, and decide which big-screen TV to watch. I suddenly felt very small. And very grateful.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”