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.

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

My Grandmother’s Raunchy Side

I was raised in a morally-conservative Southern Baptist home.  Most of the cousins that I knew best were all Southern Baptists, as well as many of my friends, mainly because my circle of friends largely came from our church.  Drinking alcohol was a sin, plain and simple.  Dancing was frowned upon but tolerated by the time I was a teenager in the 1970s.  My mother was not fond of playing cards, unless they were game-specific like Old Maids, and much later, Uno.  She was suspicious of regular playing cards because she associated them with gambling, another sin of the infidels.  Most of all, sex was something extremely private and reserved ONLY for the sanctity of marriage — end of discussion.  There was no wiggle room on this point at all.  And it was not a topic of conversation in our home, instructional or otherwise.

My maternal grandmother was also a strong Southern Baptist and beloved by many in our church.  She lived with us through all of my childhood and most of my adolescence.  My mother worked outside the home, so my sister and I were largely raised by our grandmother.  She held many of the same convictions that my mother did; however, there were times that her rural upbringing emerged, sometimes in irreverent ways.  She had some wonderful little “sayings” that verged on being nasty, which made her giggle to the point of losing her breath.  I always thought they were rather inconsistent with our family’s moral code, and I loved them.  Here are a few examples.

If someone in the room exclaimed that somebody “tooted,” she would rattle off this zinger: “The fox is the finder, the stink lays behind her!” Of course, this is an old variation of the later line: “The one who smelt it is the one who dealt it.”  Coming from my sweet grandmother, it was hilarious.  Speaking of farting, she did it quite often in our home and found it to be quite entertaining.

Another even more priceless example to me was what I heard my grandmother say one time when she saw a very tall woman with a very short man.  I will never forget it.  “Well, when they’re nose to nose his toes is in it, and when they’re toes to toes his nose is in it.”  Now that’s mighty raunchy humor coming from a Southern Baptist grandmother in the 1970s.  I have so many more wonderful memories about my grandmother that I intend to document in this blog at some point.  She inspired a song that I wrote and have performed many times, mostly because it has been requested so often, especially by seniors at gatherings where I have entertained.  It never fails to bring laughter, just like my grandmother did for us so many times.