A Porch of My Own

A Porch of My Own

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Donuts and Army Tanks

When I was a little girl my Papa would sometimes take me to work with him on Saturday. Sometimes he took me and my brother David and sometimes he took each of us by ourselves. Papa had been a farmer most of his life, but that was before I knew him. We lived in a duplex house on Orange Street in Monroe, Louisiana with Papa and Mamow living on one side and us living on the other. When you are one of seven children, you rarely get any special treatment; you tend to get lost in the crowd! So these trips to work with Papa were a treat.

My Papa was one of the crankiest people I have ever known. He had a terrible temper and verbal fisticuffs between him and my mom, his daughter, were not a rare occurrence. But he thought I was special. Every evening after supper, I would go to my grandparent’s side of the duplex to watch television. None of my siblings ever went; I was the only one.  I had a big chair there that I would sprawl out in with my feet hanging over the arm and listen to Ed Sullivan talk to Topo Gigio, the little Italian mouse, or follow Dorothy as she made her way to Oz. I was fascinated by a house that had places not taken up by people and felt I had room to breathe there. Our big family took up all the room and sucked up all the air on our side of the little house. 

After Papa gave up on farming he worked part-time as a custodian at the National Guard building in our town. This is where he would take me on Saturdays. We would ride the bus to town. I was a little scared of the whole bus process. I knew that I would never be able to navigate my way anywhere on the bus without Papa. He knew all the mysterious workings of what bus to get on and when to get off it. Papa held my hand and I felt safe with him. Our town was not that big and when we were older we sometimes walked downtown from our house. But I was about 5 years old then and our town could have been the size of New York City for all I knew! Not that I had ever heard of New York City at that point in my life.

The National Guard building both fascinated and scared me. It hung precariously on the crumbling edge of the riverbank beside the Ouachita River. Carefully and slowly, I crept up to the huge windows with many panes that opened on the river side.  I felt that one wrong move would send me and the whole building into the river. Peeking over the window edge I could see the tangle of vines and plants that grew on the riverbank just below the windows. While Papa swept the floors with the gigantic push broom, David and I wandered the floor and watched the river flow by. Once Papa finished his work we knew we were in for a special treat; the main attraction of the building and the reason we wanted to go! There was a real live army tank on one floor and we were allowed to climb on it and look inside!

Once we had used the tank to defeat our enemies, we headed down to the first floor offices. Papa would open the door to the street and visit with people walking by. A ceiling fan turned slowly overhead as we sat in the desk chairs and explored the desk drawers. The offices had gigantic desks with soft rubber desktops, all darkened with age. There was a wonderful smell of old furniture, equipment, oil, and a general mustiness to the room. I can close my eyes and still smell it.

By midmorning, Papa locked things up for a while and we took off walking down the street to Smitty’s Café. Ms. Smitty had the best donuts and we knew Papa was going to treat us to some!  We didn’t normally get donuts at home. With Shipley’s Donuts and Krispy Kremes and local donut shops on every corner now, this doesn’t seem so special but to David and I then it was something out of the ordinary. On the way to Ms. Smitty’s there was an empty lot that had access to the river. David and I always ran to the river’s edge here to get a closer look and to see if there were any turtles there. Papa let us dawdle a while before he rounded us up and herded us on to the café. As we walked through the doorway, Ms. Smitty would call out to Papa, “Hello, Gene! Come on in! How are you doing?”  I was amazed that someone knew my Papa and called him by his first name. We didn’t really think he knew anyone but us and I was surprised to know that he had a life outside our house. Ms. Smitty was an exotic looking woman with her coal black hair and square jawed face and big open smile and manner. I always thought she was a gypsy woman. She and Papa would visit over coffee while David and I focused on the donuts.

Many years later when my Papa died we were living in Houston and had been for years. We took him back to Monroe for the funeral and he is buried in a little community called Chase in northeast Louisiana. We are a big family and most of the attendees at the funeral were either family or friends of our family members. I was a grown woman then with children of my own. As we stood around greeting and visiting with everyone, an older dark haired woman with a square jawed face came up to me. It had been a lifetime since I had seen her but I knew right away who she was. She took my hand and squeezed it and said “you’re that little girl that used to come into the café with your grandfather.” We talked for a while and then she left. My mom asked me later who she was. It was then I realized that no one knew her but me and David. I looked back on the little girl I had been, holding her Papa’s hand and going off to spend the day with him at work. And I wondered what all he and Ms. Smitty had talked about in the years they were friends. And I wished I had sat down and asked my Papa what his life was like and asked him to tell me some stories about it. Maybe he told Ms. Smitty stories about his life, about losing his only son in World War II and about his daughter dying when she was 13 years old. Maybe he told her about farming and how hard that was. Maybe he told her about his grandkids and how he loved to take me to work with him. I hope so. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Braid Found

Nature has provided us with a great supply of composted oak leaves! It is several inches deep under the trees and just ready to be scooped up with the shovel. I spent 3 days with my shovel and wheelbarrow taking it to the garden to mulch the rows. Purple asters, known as Michaelmas Daisies to you readers of English novels, and native Maximillian Sunflowers, are blooming in the garden, along with some red and orange zinnias. The sweet peas are just starting to bloom with pretty pink flowers. Leeks are coming up slowly and the Russian Kale is recovering from the grasshopper attacks!

On the second day of my compost shoveling, as I flipped the compost into the wheelbarrow, a small length of rope fell from the shovel. I said to myself, I’ll keep that. I am like a raccoon, gathering odds and ends of stuff I find to save. But when I picked the rope up and looked at it, I was surprised to see that it was what appeared to be horsehair braided into a length about 2 1/2 feet long. Each end was knotted and there was a piece of broken ceramic pottery on one end. On that end the braid was finished with loose hair. Well, curiosity had me wondering what I had found. Hair does last for years in our area because of the low humidity. The pottery piece was glazed, not a piece of Native American pottery. It had half of a finished hole in it where the braid had originally been attached to the whole piece of pottery.

I consulted with my knowledgeable neighbors. They recommended that I talk to Gary in town as he knew a lot about local artifacts. So off I was, on my hunt for information! Gary said he believed it to be human hair, not horsehair. He told me that he used to scout around in some local caves for old items and that one time a friend of his found a leather pouch containing a fish net made from human hair.  He said he had also found remains of straw mats used for sleeping. The braid has a thin copper wire braided into it. Gary speculated, as my neighbor had done, that it looked like it could have been connected on both ends to some type of pottery bowl or container with the braid forming a handle. Since one end looked like it had been worn or torn off, this could be true. The hair is black and coarse, so I am doing a little speculating of my own that it might be either Native American or Mexican or Hispanic hair. There is no gray or brown in the hair. It appears to probably be some type of decorative piece. I don’t think it is ancient, since the pottery is a glazed piece, but I don’t know how old it might be. We have had the place for 21 years, so all I know for certain is that it is older than that!

The next day as I worked in the same area I kept an eye out for more of the broken pottery but, of course, didn’t find any. I believe these things find us when they want to be found, as the braid found me, and so I didn’t jump in and start an archeological dig! But I am curious about it and who might have braided it so carefully and well that it survived relatively intact outdoors for years. Was it hair from a loved one that was gone or did someone cut part of their own hair to braid it? Was it intended to be utilitarian or was it just created to be beautiful? Did it remind the owner of someone each time she looked at it and did her heart hurt or did she smile at a memory?