Buck and I were talking about the “olden days” tonight and how his childhood home in Pensacola was heated by a big coal-oil heater that folks would gather around. We began to reminisce, and soon were laughing about the idea of Santa Clause — a fat man coming down our non-existent Florida childhood chimneys. We figured if adults were going to tell kids a fairy tale about Christmas, they must have decided to make it a whopper. Oh, we have a fireplace now, but it’s primarily for romance rather than warmth.
Talk of home heating reminded me of my father’s parents: Grandma Hattie and Grandfather Stephen Marvin Jones. My dad was born near Jay, Florida. He had moved from one end of the state almost to the other to find work before I was born. That put us in Miami, more than 700 miles from the tiny panhandle town of Jay. Once a year Mother and Daddy would pack up the car with a cooler of fried chicken, potato salad, cold biscuits and sweet tea, along with my two brothers and me, and start that long drive northwest up the Tamiami Trail.
Daddy would always find a place to stop early on to cut a stalk of sugar cane and would give us kids a piece to chew on. I was never too crazy about gnawing on that sweet wood, but it’s wildness seemed to please him. I probably would have enjoyed it more like this.
Even tired children would rejuvenate when our big city highways dwindled to narrow country roads, Daddy’s foot slightly heavy on the gas as we drew closer to his home place, like a horse who senses the barn is near. We always made this annual trip during the school holiday at Christmas time. Cool air and the turpentine smell of burning light wood rushed in when we opened the heavy doors of the big blue and white Ford Fairlane, expelling the hot south Florida air.
My brothers and I were always restless after the long drive, so we would run through the dried corn stalks. The loud rustling nose of the dry stalks warned our grandparents’ wandering cattle of our approach.
Supper time came early in the little shotgun- style house. It was really more like a double-barreled shotgun, though, because two identical sides had a long open hallway down the middle, closed only by an ear-splitting, heavy wooden screen door. Supper was mostly vegetables and corn bread with ham or chicken and dumplings.
It got cold quickly once darkness fell. There were few lights, no tv, and one party-line telephone. As to bathrooms. . . in one concession to modernity, my grandmother did have a tiny closet toilet off the kitchen. But that was grandmother’s. Everyone else had to go through the corn field to the fabled outhouse.
When it came time for bed, and that was early, my brothers and I were tucked all together in an iron frame goose feather bed, sandwiched between what I swear were sheets of ice. My mother and grandmother would layer hand-sewn quilts on top of us until I couldn’t shiver, mostly because I couldn’t move!
Then, with a swift and generous motion, they would reach through the covers near the bottom of the bed and slide in hot, cloth-wrapped bricks near our frigid feet, one for each child. Sleep came quickly and with a depth my adult self envies.
As I write this tonight on my laptop, wirelessly connecting to the planet via high-speed internet, it seems to me as though I must have dropped in on someone else’s ancient childhood memory.