"Good Morning Earlington:
May Byrd and her Depression Lessons"
‘Though Grandparents’ Day has come and gone, I still think about it and have to smile. I sent no cards. I made no calls. But I can close my eyes and vividly remember many of those days when I could have done so. If our personalities are determined by those with whom we come in contact and the manner in which we are treated, then I am, in a manner, a product of my grandparents. Today children often do not have the opportunity to spend as much "quality" time as we did with extended families—grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins. People shaped our lives--not TVs, computers, nor MTV. And we were richer for this.
My maternal grandmother was unique even in her name, May Byrd. (Her second husband Jay Byrd was a retired Illinois Central railroader.) My Mamaw was a person who was always busy. Psychologists would probably say our family "work ethic" was learned from her. I know that she learned hers from harsh lessons. During the depression, she reared several children alone. There was little money, food , or rest. The philosophy was simple--if a person didn’t work, he didn’t eat. My grandmother took in washings, ironed for others, and picked dandelions from fields in her Grayson County to make fresh, green salads and dandelion tea. She learned the value of the expression "waste not, want not." If she had apples, she cooked the meat of the apples and the peelings separately. She boiled the peelings to make jelly and used the residue to feed the animals. Some of the apples would be dried for days in the hot sun with old screen doors over them to discourage most of the flies from the juicy, sun-warmed slices. In a week or so that original bushel of firm, juicy apples would shrivel into dark dried apples which would then fit into a wide-mouth gallon jug with a screw-on cap. The apples in that one jug would furnish enough mouth watering, fried apple pies for the entire winter—with the addition of a little flour, sugar, lard and know-how.
Even after my Mamaw Byrd’s hands and fingers were crippled from rheumatoid arthritis, she found a way to peel her precious apples. She would tear old cotton rags into one inch strips, wrap her left thumb and fingers individually, and place a paring knife just so in her right hand. Then when the often-honed knife slipped, as if invariably did, instead of slicing her fingers it would cut into the mummy-like wrappings with the tiny white knots she learned to tie with her right hand and her teeth. She never complained. Instead she smiled and rocked back and forth in an old chair she had patiently reupholstered using a worn red woolen blanket and sang songs with seemingly never-ending verses she had learned from "her people." Most were sung to uplift her spirit while others recounted tragic stories from her younger days in the Spring Lick area. She knew hundreds of songs but nothing of reading music. She didn’t need words on paper or a pitch pipe for a note. The words were in her head, the music in her soul.
She arose at dawn and began each day with a song. After breakfast dishes were done, she would begin her routine chores like making lye soap in the same large vat she used to wash her clothes. She never thought modern machinery got them clean enough so she boiled water on an open fire, added her homemade lye soap, and stirred her concoction every so often with a sawed-off broom handle.
Right after Thanksgiving each year she would begin making her mouth-watering jam cakes that she gave each of us for Christmas. She would wrap them in soaked cheesecloth and let them "set." "The longer they ‘sit and breathe,’ the better they’ll be," she would say. Cooking was one of her many talents. In her earlier days, she cooked on a barge and then in railroad campcars. Even in later years she often made her banana puddings in a large, white enameled dishpan because "they" just didn’t make pans "big" enough.
One of my sisters often crocheted the gifts she gave for Christmas, one of her specialties being "footies" or woolen houseshoes. My grandmother loved the soft feel of these and wore her shoes faithfully until she had worn the soles nearly threadbare. One day my sister visited her and noticed that she had "improvised" and repaired the holes. Mamaw had a green, woolen bathroom throw rug which had seen better days. She could not bear to "waste" it and had saved the good sections to cut out new soles for her footies. My sister asked, "Mamaw, why didn’t you just ask and I would have made you more?" "Why? No use wasting good thread when these will do just as well." And so they did for several more years. Besides they wore better outside, she added, and weren’t near as slick on her wooden floors. Now, who could argue with that?
My grandmother was probably best known for her storytelling, nowadays a disappearing art. Of course, my mom thought there was just one problem with the stories she told us as children when she babysat. Her "best" ones were what she called her ghost stories and which she always swore were true and usually involved members of her family. She once took us to McCandless Cemetery where many of her family members were buried and explained that since it was haunted no "new" people were being buried there. At the times we visited the little unkempt cemetery on the incline there was always an eerie silence, tiny ancient stones—many fallen and unreadable, and a strange damp mist which seeped up from the ground and swirled around our feet. I especially remember that we always had to watch the time because "it might not be safe to be there after the sun went down."
My dad used to hint to us that not all my Mamaw’s stories might be true. Surely not! I pondered that for several years and then decided that they were not lies; they were truth embellished. Besides she had learned her art as a child. When she was three or four years old, she had seen William Jennings Bryan give a stump speech while campaigning (or so she said). That made such an impression on her she begin to mimic him for several months. Standing on stumps in her long, oversized dark dresses and tiny black button-up shoes, she practiced several speeches making her voters as many promises as she could dream up. So she obviously spent years honing her craft. By the time her grandchildren arrived she was a true artisan. She never simply told "about" something. She recounted a story—with color. Many times when I look at a photo of my grandmother I remember one of her colorful stories and smile. She left such a wonderful legacy. How I wish I could send her a card or ring her up to wish her a "Happy Grandmother’s Day." Too often we leave our thanks too late. Love should be expressed each day and not be stored for one "special" day. Each day should be a special day to tell someone what they mean to us. Once a day is spent, it cannot be recalled. Spend your today wisely so you won’t rue your tomorrows.
Ann Gipson 12-14-2001