The men were getting up to leave as I walked out the screen door. Their bellies, filled with some of the best home cooking this side of the Mason Dixon line, were bulging under their dirty t-shirts and overalls while dessert littered the ground, smoldering from their failed attempts to completely stomp them out. Working for Dewey was a bitter sweet affair, on the one hand you’d surely work like never before but on the other you may never eat so well again in your life. For most, it was a price gladly paid.
His wife (my grandmother) bore total responsibility for feeding this workforce each day; turning her home into a makeshift diner for the week or so it took to get the tobacco crop harvested.
As they climbed back on the tractors and wagons I spotted my window of opportunity. A boy of not much more than seven, I constantly tried to act older than I really was whether that meant trying to drive the lawnmower or eaves dropping on an adult conversation; and on this afternoon the men’s leftover nicotine fixes provided me a perfect opportunity to once again act bigger than my britches.
Noticing the smoke still rumbling from a random butt I casually walked over, reached down, and purposefully slid it between my childish lips. For the next few moments I was part of the inner circle, the big men, and one of the boys. In the midst of my internal adult dialogue, Nanny (as I called her) walked out of the house picking up any remaining plates or glasses and glared purposefully my way as if she’d seen a ghost.
Immediately realizing what caught her attention I quickly tossed the smoke and looked nonchalantly skyward. But any attempt to throw her off my scent was futile while she kept her eyes squarely on me and headed my way. Assessing my situation I knew running was completely out of the question so I began preparing myself for a spanking, or worse. She briskly grabbed the neck of my shirt and marched me back into the house without saying a word. But instead of grabbing a ruler or hickory switch and going to town on my rear she sat me on the kitchen counter and disappeared around the corner. My mind began wondering which of my grandfather’s belts she would he carrying.
Within minutes she returned with a fate far worse than any corporal punishment. In her grandmotherly hand was an intact, unused, and unfiltered cigarette. Suddenly I understood the destiny that awaited me. What only moments earlier seemed like the coolest thing ever now had the appeal of boiled cabbage.
“If you are going to smoke a cigarette then smoke a cigarette”, she said with a sneer.
“NO, NO, Nanny I don’t want to, I’m sorry! ” I desperately pleaded.
Negotiations had become useless; she was intent of making sure that I got the full effect as she lit the cigarette and placed it into my mouth. Tears began streaming down my face while she encouraged me to start puffing. For the next few minutes she lovingly stood in front of me as I drew in air and smoke while each cough drove home the folly of my prior actions.
Of the memories I have of Ruby Allene Seals this one is by far my most cherished. To this very day it stands as a shining example of the parent that I hope to become; one who is willing to do what needs to be done to teach a lesson even if it hurts me as much as it does my children.
Earlier this week in a small town in Tennessee the world lost my Nanny after 93 wonderful years on its surface. She was ready emotionally and spiritually for the hereafter though her departure leaves a void that can never be filled.
Nanny was born May 8th, 1918. She was the daughter of a sturdy farming father and an opinionated farming mother and was one of five siblings who had all passed years before. Nanny was the grandmother most children wish they had. An expert sandwich, stuffing, and chocolate pie maker, where she given the opportunity she would have out-cooked Paula Dean with ease and been far less annoying while doing so. Her skills in the kitchen bordered on legendary in our community and I’m convinced she could take a hand full of peanuts, a pat of butter, and some saltine crackers and whip up enough food to feed a small third world country and make it remarkable.
Nanny was a consistent church attender with a spotless reputation and an immense love for God. She read the Bible with an astonishing zeal, and I can never recall the woman using a curse word. She was married to her first love on Christmas Eve 1937 and they slept in the same bed every night until he left his earthly shackles June 27th – eleven years earlier to the day of her own passing.
Nanny was my second mother. From the moment I can remember we lived within a mile of her home and I occupied her house as much as my own. Of the many attractions at Nanny’s house I enjoyed the routine as much as anything. Each morning she would prepare a 5-star breakfast for my grandfather while hanging laundry, sweeping floors, and shelling beans and no sooner had the last breakfast dish been put away than she began preparing lunch (or as we referred to it ‘dinner’, supper was for eating at night).
The consummate home body I can count on two hands the number of times she ate a meal outside of her home and her only real vacation, a several week trek through the Western US, was still talked about 20 years after they returned.
Where you to ask the family they might tell you I was the favorite and whether true or not I do believe we shared a special bond. I was the first grand child, the one who bestowed her nickname, and one she always made a to-go plate for. After my grandfather had moved on, I enjoyed driving, just the two of us, back down to the old homestead to have a look around.
I became intentional about my time with Nanny as she moved into her 90’s. I swore that I would spend as much quality time with her as I could and several years ago while she was still mentally able my sister and I videotaped, in her own words, the story of her life. While it lacked the splendor of a Tom Brokaw interview it will be cherished far more highly.
Falling and breaking her hip several months ago she was admitted into a nursing home from which she would never leave, though she swore she would. My last visit during the holidays found my Nanny weak and frail but mentally with us, but as the spring progressed her condition worsened and she often remarked where I was. Two weeks ago I was finally able to return but found a much different woman than I had saw just a few months earlier.
This time she was barely coherent and believed me to be the twelve-year-old grandson she remembered. We spent a few moments in forced conversation as I awkwardly tried to discuss the weather while she mumbled a request for me to rearrange a plant in the hallway. Not knowing whether she knew who I was, during a moment of reflection she took my hand and lovingly kissed the back of it which seemed her way of acknowledging that she did. As I left her that day I knew I’d never see her alive again, and in her current condition I didn’t want to.
Nurses say she ate no more than a cup of food and drank no liquids after I left, and nine days later she left this world for good. Her passing is far from sad but is a the celebration on a successful life. Though she never accumulated great wealth, published a book, or graced the cover of a magazine she influenced three generations of people who will carry on her legacy for years to come.
And I want to believe that she is up above reuniting with loved ones and will be looking over me as I walk this journey called life – using lessons taught from a kitchen counter.