Memories of My Childhood
My father's mother was a tiny bird-like woman who was, appropriately, known as Snowbird. Snowbird was not her given name but a nickname she acquired at a very young age. She had been out playing in the snow, and one of her siblings commented that she looked as a snowbird would look in the snow. After that, she was no longer Fanny Victoria Johnson but Snowbird. She was never called Granny, Grandma, or Grams by her grandchildren. Snowbird or Snowdy was our grandmother. This petite, sturdy woman was the loving, supportive mother to eight children - six daughters and two sons. Those eight children gave Snowbird fifteen grandchildren who adored her.
To me, Snowbird was a Norman Rockwell grandmother, and someone who exuded feelings of love, peace, and contentment. She was always quiet, kind, and loving, and I always felt secure whenever I was with her. Perhaps my feelings toward her were out of proportion because of my other grandmother, Mamaw, my mother's mother. Whereas Snowbird might have been a creation of Norman Rockwell, my other grandmother might have been a creation of Charles Addams. It was my misfortune as a young child to live near Mamaw who was rearing my discarded cousin Pugsley - I mean Eddie. I was, therefore, foist upon them throughout the year to be terrorized and tortured by Eddie and ignored or disbelieved by Mamaw. Summers were the best because I got to stay with Snowbird.
lived on "The Hill" which was the family home in
The food served on The Hill was usually directly from the farm because four of my six aunts had stayed in the area and married men who farmed - two as their vocation and two as an active sideline. And, of course, The Hill had a garden in which grew the reddest, sweetest tomatoes and scores of other vegetables.
During my youth, The Hill was a women's domain because my grandfather had died leaving Snowbird to live there with my widowed Aunt Elsie, and my Aunt Ellen. I think that by that time, Ellen and her husband, Bill, had actually purchased The Hill, but it remained Snowbird's home until her death. During the times that I visited, Bill was usually away at his military duties. Ellen, as I perceived, never really liked or approved of me so she became, to me, my scary, dark aunt. Because I was always afraid of Ellen, she was given a wide berth which must have pleased her as much as it comforted me.
I never knew a time when Elsie was not living with and taking care of Snowbird. In my immediate family, they were usually thought of and referred to as a couple. It was never Snowbird this or Elsie that, but Snowbird and Elsie. So, when I visited The Hill, the visit was to Snowbird and Elsie. The Hill was the home of my Grandmother Snowbird and my Aunt Elsie. From them, especially Snowbird, come all of my warm, cozy feelings whenever my thoughts turn to summers at The Hill.
Hill was the center of the family, and clustered in hamlets short distances
from The Hill were the homes of my aunts and uncles. In all of these homes, I
was welcomed with the warmth of family and treated to unique experiences
provided by the diverse couplings of my aunts to the various men of the
community. There was my Aunt Rosa who married the factory worker and part-time
farmer, my Aunts Frankie and Hazel who married working farmers,
and my Aunt Dora who married an educator. Most of my childhood memories of
Hazel married Fred Davis who was a witty, strong tree of a man - a farmer throughout most of his life. When I think of the movie Grapes of Wrath, it reminds me of Fred in that he had that thin, sinewy look of a man who had labored outdoors for the better part of his life. The difference in Fred was that, rather than having that gaunt, vacant look of the actors in the film, Fred had a chiseled, strong, sunburned face with a sly twinkle in his lively eyes. He always spoke with an intelligent wit born of keen observations of the people and events he encountered. Fred worked his farm until his aged body forsook his lively mind. The last time I saw him his body was that of an old, feeble man, but his mind - oh, that glorious mind - was as sharp as ever. How cruel was the treatment of nature to that strong, rock of a man!
Hazel was Fred's companion and support through all the many years of their marriage. She, too, was gifted with a wry sense of humor and an infectious laugh which, rather than being any form of a guffaw, was more of a gentle exclamation of bemusement. Everyday of Hazel's married life as a farmer's wife she baked an iron skillet of cornbread for each meal. Imagine how many skillets of cornbread she must have baked at three a day for the fifty-plus years of their marriage. Do not form the impression that Hazel was subjugated or meek. She was, and remains, a strong-minded, stylish woman who yields to no one. She was Fred's partner in marriage and in life.
first memories of visiting Hazel and Fred are associated with their little
house at the foot of
and Fred's little house was always filled with the grand smells that came from
Hazel's kitchen where she prepared all of her meals on an iron, wood-burning
stove. No matter how intriguing the aroma of gourmet food prepared in a modern
kitchen of today might be, it can in no way compare with the aromatic pleasures
of good, basic, fresh food directly from the fields being cooked by a loving mother
in her kitchen at that iron stove which mixes the smells of the food with the
smoky smell of burning wood. And, always at every meal, was that iron skillet
of cornbread so sweet, so delicious. After the death of Fred's parents, they
moved to the family home a short distance away. This is a grand old
My cousins, Kay and Clark, who are years older than I, always took care of me whenever we visited Hazel and Fred. Unlike Cousin Eddie, they always treated me royally and kept my little city-boy self from falling prey to the wilds of farm life. I remember them showing me the animals and machinery and, one time, carrying me a long distance back to the house in a chair made with crossed arms after I had gotten my legs all scratched up by briars. I was a sissy little city boy, but Kay and Clark never showed disdain, only kindness and love. They both grew up to be brilliant scientists who have added to the betterment of the world - wonderful, kind adults grown from wonderful, kind children derived from the union of two extraordinary people.
Dora, Snowbird's youngest child, married Jim White. Dora and Jim's home was as different as night is from day from that of Hazel's and Fred's. Dora and Jim were teachers and, I suppose, were able to afford a little nicer place with more modern conveniences - at least, that is the way it seemed to me as a child.
My Aunt Dora had been born with an incomplete arm which ended right below the elbow joint. Of course, as it is with many born with a birth defect, her incomplete arm never appeared to be a disability. It was as if, every once and a while, you would realize that Dora's arm was different, and then you would forget about it. It is strange because I have been able to visit with Dora several times in the past few years after many years absence, and she now, at times, wears a prosthesis which I had never seen before, and it is that "arm" which appears unnatural to me. Dora possesses that amazing Turner wit and a smooth southern accent which make all of her spoken words a unique pleasure.
White was a charming, intelligent man with the looks of a gentleman farmer.
Because his profession was an educator, farming was a well-loved sideline. As a
child, I remember him doing chores wearing a shirt and tie. How times have
changed. I only knew Jim as a child for he died not long after he had retired
as an administrator of one of the local schools. A death that
came way too soon for this man who was ready to begin an active second life
with his beloved wife. It is to my great regret that I never knew Jim as
an adult for there were many years during my twenties and thirties that I did
not visit in
The very best summer of my entire childhood was spent at Dora and Jim's. My parents had gone off somewhere and had dumped me upon them. The times I spent with my cousin Jimmy that summer were examples of the very best that can be had by two boys free to be themselves in the country. We explored, we collect various items that only boys would collect, we swan in the creek, and we ended the summer with a birthday party for we share the same birth date with Jimmy two years my junior. Two of the things I collected were a cow skull and an old rusted flintlock shotgun. I don't know what happened to the skull, but the shotgun hangs in my house today.
The only bad memory I have of that glorious summer was at the birthday party. Jim had a John Deere tractor on which he would take Jimmy and me for rides. Being a farm boy, Jimmy could even drive the tractor. John Deere, at that time and probably today, sold models of their tractors at the dealership. I wanted a model of a tractor which was the same as my uncle's real tractor for my birthday . I believe they were fairly costly for those times. Never-the-less, I got the tractor as my present and was playing with it at the party. I remember one of my aunts making the comment that I was such a baby compared to Jimmy even though he was two years younger. I cannot remember what major gift Jimmy received, but it was deemed far more mature than mine. I truly cannot remember which aunt made the comment, but I will attribute it to my dark Aunt Ellen. It has been almost forty-five years since that party, and that comment still hurts today. Our grapes have tender vines!
The times with my aunts, uncles, and cousins give me memories that warm my heart, but there is a special glow to my whole being when I think of Snowbird. What was it about that woman who caused such feelings in her grandson? Of course, it is that undefined bond that love and acceptance gives to humans. It is that bond that comes whenever the child is being taught by a parent or grandparent - not through lecture but through sharing experiences in which the older nurtures and guides the younger.
Of all of the times I experienced with Snowbird, the one that glows in my memory is making peach cobbler. I don't know why it is not the times Snowbird showed me about quilts, told me about family, or walked with me outdoors for they were all extraordinary. It's that peach cobbler that stands out. Perhaps it is that I love food - especially food of the southern style. Perhaps it is that the experience of eating Snowbird's cobbler was a grand treat. No, it was that it was a special time where just Snowbird and I were together with no one else around - a rare time in which I had Snowbird to myself. It was very special to me then and remains special almost fifty years later. I remember how to make peach cobbler, but I can't make it taste as good as Snowbird's. It's really very simple. She made it in a porcelain pot with a layer of dough, a layer of peaches, and a layer of sugar added layer after layer until it reached the top with a final layer of dough. Maybe it's that the dough isn't the same. Maybe it's that the peaches aren't as fresh or as tart. Maybe it's that the sugar isn't as sweet. Maybe it's that I don't own a porcelain pot. No, it's that Snowbird didn't make it, and it therefore, doesn't have that intrinsic quality of love transferred from Snowbird's touch.
Oh how wonderful it is that we Turners, Davises, Whites, Beardens, Holts, and all have the memories of Snowbird and her peach cobbler.