If You Want the Best Fruit, You Gotta Climb Some Trees

I have written in previous posts about the fond memories I have of my maternal grandmother, who lived with us and was instrumental in raising my sister and me while both of our parents worked outside the home. She was a faithful Southern Baptist with hardcore Biblical beliefs that could tame the hounds of hell, not to mention her only grandson out of five grandchildren. At the same time, she had an almost raunchy sense of humor. Flatulence could easily be summoned at just the right moment to break the wind of monotony.

My grandmother had a sister who lived in our town in middle Georgia. They adored each other and shared many lovable and peculiar characteristics. My grandmother didn’t drive, but her sister did. They were ever mobile, always ready for trips to the grocery store, the mall, church events, the farmer’s market, or the countryside to see relatives who had remained outside the city limits where the family’s roots were firmly planted. They both carried oversized, patent leather purses (think an inexpensive version of the Queen Mother’s favorite accessory) that could carry a week’s provisions while also functioning as a weapon that would give even a Central Park mugger pause. Middle Georgia can be miserably hot and humid in the summer, almost necessitating short pants; however, these were two ladies who clearly had not abandoned the practice of wearing hosiery to cover bare legs. They compromised by pairing their shorts with low-heal pumps and knee-high hose – ever fashion-conscious.

The matriarchal sisters were proud masters of the kitchen and faced the challenge of every major meal with the skill and determination of a battlefield commander. It started with the shopping. They didn’t have to give too much thought about what to put in the grocery cart – that would be referred to as a “buggy” in the native tongue of Georgia – because there wasn’t a lot of money to spend, and we generally rotated through a menu of about 5-6 major courses. They procured the staples from the only grocery store in town worthy of their discriminating patronage: Piggly Wiggly. They supplemented the store’s imported produce with indigenous fruits and vegetables from the town’s sizeable farmer’s market, where shoppers could find all the home-grown favorites such as corn, peas, beans, tomatoes, collards, turnips, and of course, sweet onions that are still the pride and economic bedrock of a south Georgia village called Vidalia.

Like all good commanding officers, the sisters would gather the troops, or in this case family members, to assist in the initial steps of the culinary campaign: shucking corn, snapping beans, hulling peas and butter beans, etc. At our house, my mother and sister were quite adept at these essential tasks. I am several years younger than my sister, and although I occasionally attempted to work on the peas and beans, if for no other reason than to be included, I was extremely slow and lost interest quickly. My grandmother took care of the most complicated and dangerous preparatory chores, such as wielding a sharp butcher knife to split the ears of corn on the cob, shear off the kernels, and magically mix them with ingredients to create the best creamed corn I have ever tasted. By the time she finished, her glasses and a good portion of her face and gray hair were speckled with little pasty globs of mutilated corn. She took no prisoners.

Many young boys approaching adolescence from my generation spent considerable time outdoors riding their bikes, playing in the yard, and finding ways to burn off energy. I was a skinny, short kid with long fingers and toes, shaded by the “shadow of forgotten ancestors” with all due credit to the late Carl Sagan. Summoning my recessive hominid genes, I was comfortable climbing small trees. It was fun. In our back yard, we had a small grove of plum and pear trees, and the ripened fruits of summer provided another incentive to defy gravity among the limbs and leaves.

With their keen awareness of all available resources and opportunities, my grandmother and great aunt wasted no time putting my arboreal dexterity to practical use. They both loved peaches. My great aunt had the telltale yellow-orange peach stain permanently emblazoned on the front of practically every blouse she owned. My father was unsuccessful in cultivating this fruit tree in our yard. The grocery store, roadside stands, and the farmer’s market had plenty of peaches available, but the freshest and sweetest ones were still attached to trees and ripened to perfection in several large orchards just a few miles away in the surrounding counties. When I was coming along, Georgia truly lived up to its nickname as the Peach State. Visitors to the peach farms could get the greatest value and the best fruit by picking their own.

Always on the lookout for a bargain, the savvy sisters drafted me to “help” them pick a bushel of peaches at one of the farms. We lit out for the territory in my great aunt’s Chrysler sedan. All the windows were rolled down to welcome in the thick, steamy air typical of a summer in Georgia. Wearing stringy cutoff jeans, my legs stuck to the vinyl back seat like chewing gum on hot pavement. We arrived at the farm wasting no time, marching toward the orchard with the singular mission of finding the most delectable peaches in the southeast. When the ladies identified just the right tree, its branches encumbered with fruit almost to the breaking point, they dropped their peck baskets to the ground and turned their sweet, smiling faces toward me.

“Son, if we point to the ones we want, can you get up in there alright and pick them?” My great aunt almost always called me “son.” Peach trees in a mature orchard are typically 8-12 feet tall, but they are trimmed and trained to have four or five major branches off the trunk a few feet from the ground. These branches project outward and upward from the trunk and support the many smaller branches that bear the fruit each season. So, you can climb into the cradle of the large feeder branches without too much difficulty, but then you must reach from that position to pick the fruit, which can get a bit precarious. Even a scrawny kid weighing 90 pounds soaked in summer sweat could easily snap a tree branch laboring under several pounds of peaches. Doing so would not only cause damage to the tree and ruin a peck of peaches, but it would likely send the tree climber crashing to the ground with scratches and bruises or a punctured eye.

“Sure,” I said with foolish enthusiasm induced by my pre-teen confidence. I vaguely remember taking my shoes off to improve my footing. Again, I embraced my primate taxonomy. I weaseled my way between the feeder branches, and carefully stepped up into the tree’s cradle. The analogy of “low hanging fruit” was not in my lexicon in the early 1970s, but even if it had been, the sisters would have promptly dismissed any suggestion of the kind. They had already set their sights on loftier specimens. After surveying the entire canopy, they began pointing at succulent globes just beyond my reach. Through unnatural contortions and absurd acrobatics that had been unnecessary for any of my previous adventures, I was reasonably successful in satisfying their quest for a bountiful bushel of goodness while managing to escape serious injury or banishment from the property.

My grandmother must have been pleased enough with my aerial harvesting abilities. More than once she sent me scampering up our trees at home to procure what she judged to be the best pears for making preserves that our family and relatives savored throughout the year. If the nuclear holocaust we all feared during those years had materialized, I would be forever grateful to my grandmother and her sister for preparing me to survive in the new stone age as a hunter-gatherer. They loved me more than I could have imagined. They were the sweetest Georgia peaches of all.

Bliss

“You need to clean your room, honey,” my grandmother says in her soft but commanding voice, and I know that doesn’t mean just shoving everything scattered on the floor into the closet. Why put everything away only to be bothered with pulling it all out tomorrow when I’m ready to play with it again? My mom’s mother lives with us, maintaining the household and making it possible for both of my parents to work. She knows how to hug and spank with equal skill.

I’d rather be walking out the back door, across the brick patio to the exterior two-bay garage to find my red bicycle waiting for me like a faithful companion. That bike takes me to the convenience store five blocks away to buy bubble gum. It takes me to my cousin’s house less than a mile away to play outside or curl up inside reading comic books. My bike has had many reincarnations: firetruck, racecar, motorcycle, roller coaster, spaceship.

I ride down the street, past houses of people my parents know casually but whom I only recognize as neighbors in cars and front yards. I would be shocked to learn, years later, that some of them drink alcohol, a substance of sin never permitted to cross the threshold of our baptized home. I cannot fathom that the housewife I never see next door beats her husband, and his shouts we hear from time to time are most likely cries of anguish, pain, despair.

My bike and I are unaware of nearby marriages crumbling, family financial crises, chronic illness, depression, or the fear of impending death. It’s inconceivable that some people on our street never go to church. Perhaps there are even parents who don’t pay attention to their children’s cluttered rooms. We are saved from the unimagined horrors that are carefully concealed behind neatly trimmed shrubs and front doors always closed.

Our Mountain Getaway

In the early 1970s, my parents purchased a small, three-bedroom house a few blocks from the downtown section of a sleepy little hamlet in the north Georgia mountains.  They intended to use the house as a vacation spot for their family, relatives, and close friends.  The house was about seventy years old and had been abandoned and neglected for quite a long time. As a skilled electrician and carpenter, my father was able to take what was an almost uninhabitable shack and, with the help of family and friends, turn it into a comfortable summer cabin. With all her characteristic love and gentle kindness, my mother turned the cabin into a second home.  When my parents first bought the house, there were two large oak trees growing in the front yard, so they decided to call the place “Twin Oaks.”  Even though one of the trees had to come down several years later, the name had already become so associated with the house that they decided to keep using it. 

Over the years, Twin Oaks provided four generations with a great place to escape and relax, to enjoy the beauty of the Georgia mountains, and to have SO much fun.  My sister and I continued to maintain the house and property as best we could after our parents could no longer make the trips to the mountain getaway.  Unfortunately, a house like this one was never intended to last for a very long time, and as a new century approached, Twin Oaks began to suffer from wear and tear and too many cold winters. In the fall of 2015 my wife and I, as the current owners, decided to demolish our little mountain vacation house and build something new in its place. I wrote a post in December of that year about our decision titled Letting It Go. We had some apprehension at the time, and it was not an easy decision to make. But, there was no doubt that we loved the location and wanted to continue having a place of our own for family and friends.

We contracted with a builder who is also a family member to construct a three-bedroom, two bath house, which was completed in December, 2016.  The wood frame house with a rock foundation is built basically on the same footprint as the original house.  It is still conveniently located within walking distance of the ever-expanding and vibrant downtown area.  However, this house came with a few significant upgrades: central heat and air, modern kitchen appliances, wireless Internet, and DISH TV.  It can be enjoyed year-round and doesn’t have to be “put to bed” for the winter. For over four decades, Twin Oaks was a place to create wonderful memories.  That tradition continues with a new house — Twin Oaks 2! 

Twin Oaks 2
Twin Oaks 2

We Liked Grandma So Much Better Without Teeth

I introduced my maternal grandmother in an earlier post.  From my description of her then, it should be apparent that my grandmother had an incredible sense of humor, a trait I would like to think I inherited.  She had five grandchildren.  I was the last and the only male.  She absolutely adored me.  For most of my childhood, she lived in the house with my family (my parents and my older sister and me).  Both of my parents worked, so she served as a live-in nanny.  She also did a good portion of the cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc.

She received a great deal of pleasure from making my sister and my cousins laugh to the point of losing our breath.  If we wet our pants, she probably secretly considered herself victorious — mission accomplished!  She would stop at nothing to entertain us, including removing her teeth, putting a nylon stocking over her head, and then pulling it up while dragging the skin of her face up with it to distort her features to almost frightening proportions.  Some years after her death, my memory of these times became almost nostalgic, and I decided to write a funny song about her.  It must be fairly entertaining, as I have been asked to perform it many times for groups of people who never knew my grandmother or any other members of my extended family.  I include it here as a way of recording it and as a tribute to someone whose impact on my life was far greater than I realized when she was still with me.

WE LIKED GRANDMA SO MUCH BETTER WITHOUT TEETH

I recall the trips to Grandma’s house when we were little boys
Lots of food, candy, cakes, and pies, and she always gave us toys
And she told funny stories that would nearly split your side
But when she pulled her dentures out, we laugh until we cried

Gums on the bottom and gums on the top
If she talked real fast her lips would flop
Her nose hooked over and touched her chin
And we’d start laughing all over again
And when she sang her mouth was just as round as a wreath
We liked Grandma so much better without teeth

Now there’s something about a toothless grin that I just can’t explain
But when Grandma turned and gave a smile, we nearly went insane
And if she used her Polygrip her speech was never slurred
But Lord when she forgot it we couldn’t understand a word

Gums on the bottom and gums on the top
If she talked real fast her lips would flop
Her nose hooked over and touched her chin
And we’d start laughing all over again
A handmade set of ivory chops just simply can’t be beat
But we liked Grandma so much better without teeth

Now I know you love your grandkids and I’m sure they love you too
So if you want to see them giggle, then here’s what you must do
It sure can be depressing when your hair gets gray and thin
But when your molars start to go that’s when the fun begins

Gums on the bottom and gums on the top
If she talked real fast her lips would flop
Her nose hooked over and touched her chin
And we’d start laughing all over again
I’m sure it was a challenge when she tried to chew her meat
But we liked Grandma so much better without teeth

Gums on the bottom and gums on the top
If she talked real fast her lips would flop
Her nose hooked over and touched her chin
And we’d start laughing all over again
Couldn’t have loved her better had she been cursed with stinkin’ feet
We liked Grandma so much better
Oh I wish you could have met her
We liked Grandma so much better without teeth

It Was a Good Day

Having both sons now over the age of 21 makes getting together a bit more entertaining.  They so enjoy recalling foolish things I’ve said and done over the years. They laugh hilariously as they imitate my standard stock phrases and not-so-sage advice.  And it’s certainly fun being able to have a drink or two with them. This Good Friday had a little bit of all those elements in a place that holds such good family memories for them — glad we could be together on such a beautiful day.