Rose Huffstetler came out of the bathroom, went up the one step into the kitchen and started making her way to her rocking chair in the living room. About at the bottom of her shoulder blades her back took a sharp turn toward the front; Rose was very stooped. Her gait was labored; she lurched forward and then pulled the other leg along behind. But she was remarkably agile for her condition, and never fell. She only used her “stick” or walking cane when she was outside. Her “stick” was a limb of white oak that her youngest child had whittled for her. She had a nice stained and shellacked cane for Sundays, complete with a rubber tip on the bottom.
As Rose approached her rocking chair she turned around and backed up to it, then just let herself fall into the cushion with a clunk. Fortunately her chair was soft and durable, for Rose was pretty boney. One of her favorite sayings was “Eat to live, don’t live to eat,” and her life was a testimony to this axiom. She was about to turn 93 in November, but today was October 24, a Saturday, a very sad Saturday.
“Well I guess Walt is in the ground by now,” she said to no one in particular, but since her little chubby 12 year old grandson was the only one there he responded with a somber, “Yes, Granny.” Everybody called her Granny, at least everyone in the family. To all others it was Mrs. Huffstetler, or Mrs. Rose.
She looked at the little chubster and studied him for a while. “You know, David, you shouldn’t eat so much.” This was enough to send him on his way, off to the kitchen in search of a butter and sugar biscuit. “Just as well,” thought Granny; she needed some time alone.
Walter Theodore was the oldest child; he had been a farmer and had run a swimming pond in his lifetime – it was called “Shady Rest.” He had lived down the road a piece, on the other side of another of Granny’s kids, Oscar. The same creek ran through all of these properties, including the parcel where Granny resided.
Granny had lived with her youngest son, Clyde, ever since he had married Wendell Mauney, back in 1932; Clyde was 21, and Wendell was 19. First they had moved in with her across the road, in the “old house,” and then later on the young couple had built a new white frame house up in the broom straw field. All of the wood for that house had been cut off their land, even the German siding that would never hold paint.
That’s where Granny was now, in the living room where they had come to tell her, only two months before, that her baby boy Clyde had died. He would have been 51 on September 16. He was a big stout strong man when he got sick, nearly six feet tall and weighing close to 260. He had gotten heavy over the years after he took the salesman job at City Lumber Company in Gastonia. But he was still strong, the muscles in his biceps sticking up as big as the apples on the old “Cheese Apple Tree” down in the hollow below the old house.
Granny remembered, just last March, how Clyde had got to where he would throw up every night after supper. He would be hungry and eat real good, but then about seven o’clock he would go out on the back porch and throw up in the toilet. After that he would be fine, until the next evening when the same thing would happen.
When he went to see Dr. Will in Dallas, Dr. Will sent him to UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill. There he was examined and they performed exploratory surgery. Afterwards the doctors had come to see him and told him it was pancreatic cancer, that it had spread, and that there was no hope. “They just cut him open and then sewed him back up,” Wendell had told her.
He made it to August 21; when he died he weighed less than one hundred pounds. Granny had not gone over to Carothers Funeral Home in Gastonia for the viewing, and had not gone to that funeral either. But she did hear that Clyde had “made a good looking corpse,” a nice fresh flat top haircut and not a gray hair in his head.
Granny thought back to when Clyde was a kid as she sat in her rocker, occasionally letting a stream of brown snuff spit flow into the tissue packed Luzianne coffee can at her side.
“I reckon maybe he was the smartest young’un I had,” Granny thought. She remembered he could do math in his head, and he was good with words too. When Rose and her husband, John David, decided it was time for Clyde to quit school and go to work on the farm, the teacher at Kettle Shoals, the one-room school house on the hill above where Shady Rest Swimming hole is now, came to their house and begged Rose and J.D. to let Clyde stay in school.
“He is the smartest child in the class,” he had said, “and one of the brightest I have seen in ten years of teaching. This boy needs to stay in school.”
J.D. and Rose had thanked Mr. Thornburg for his concern, but told him they reckoned Clyde was needed on the farm. Mr. Thornburg went away shaking his head; Clyde had completed six grades.
Clyde was a hard worker, and that red-headed Mauney girl was no slouch either; in fact, they had worked and saved for years, including peddling butter and eggs on the mill hill at Hardin, in order to build the new house, and do it debt free.
A few years after Clyde and Wendell had gotten married and set up housekeeping in the old house with her, Granny got to thinking about how Clyde ought to get the homestead and the acreage. Of course, as was the custom at the time, it was understood that she would live with them and they would take care of her until her death. Rose brought it up to all of her kids and everybody was agreeable, so a “quit claim” deed was drawn up and the other children signed the document, relinquishing any claim to the family property.
It had worked out well; Rose Huffstetler was accepted in the home by Wendell, and as they came along, all six of their children. That’s how Rose came to be sitting in her rocking chair this October day, sitting and dipping snuff, and thinking about her dead baby boy while they were lowering her oldest son into the ground up at Puett’s Chapel.
Rose reflected on Walt’s path to death. It had started with periods of “shortness of breath.” Walter had always been a smoker; he used to smoke cigars, and he would always carry a little pair of sharp scissors with him to cut the end off before he lit it.
Rose Huffstetler grinned as she remembered some of the Sunday mornings, “early” Sunday mornings, when Walt would come to see her there at Clyde and Wendell’s. Walt had a sort of different view of religion than a lot of people did. Granny and Clyde and his bunch, and most of the other children of hers, pretty much went by the Methodist route. Granny had always attended Lander’s Chapel until it got so cumbersome to go, but Clyde and Wendell and their kids went every Sunday. Granny stayed home and listened to preaching on the radio; most of it was a bit more “hell fire and brimstone Baptist” than she cared for, but she found it tolerable.
But what got her grinning was the recollection of Walt’s Sunday morning visits and the chain of events it set in motion, every time. In addition to the cigars, Walter Theodore liked to smoke Lucky Strike cigarettes. They were strong little short things, and he would always “chain smoke” them when he came on Sunday mornings.
The scenario was pretty predictable. Walter would pull up in his blue Chevy pickup truck and stride toward the side porch, where everybody came ‘cause it was the door that opened into the living room, the front door being the entry to the parlor, which had shellacked oak floors.
By the time Walt’s truck had entered the driveway the alert would have been sounded, usually by Linda, and the “ashes on the floor prevention force” would be thoroughly engaged. This “prevention force” consisted of Linda and her younger sister, Dottie, standing around over behind Uncle Walt, nearby, but not too close to make him uncomfortable. And then the waiting game began, for although Uncle Walt was handed an ashtray when he arrived, he would puff heartily on the Luckies and have the ash half the length of the cigarette in no time. At the precise moment that they gray matter was about to disengage, one of the girls would appear and hold their ashtray under the Lucky Strike, catching the ash. Uncle Walt would always say, “Why thank you young lady,” and immediately go back to talking about religion, or most of the time talking “against” religion.
Uncle Walt was sort of a contrarian and loved to argue. He would go on about organized religion, and the different faiths, and how they were all hypocrites for as long as anyone was within earshot. However, for all his ramblings his attempts to engage anyone in debate failed miserably, for Granny would just sit and listen and Clyde would once in a while interject something benign like, “Well, I certainly see how you could look at it that way, Walt,” and smile at his older brother.
Then about nine o’clock Clyde would say something to the effect of, “Well, ‘bout time for us to get ready for church,” and Walt would wind it down and say goodbye to everyone and kiss his momma on the top of her head and go out and head home. He never stayed less than an hour, and always came on a Sunday morning.
Granny rocked and ruminated about her two dead boys. After thinking a while she realized that tears were streaming down her face; then she raised her head and saw the little boy standing next to her, his face smeared with butter and tears rolling down his cheeks. She put her arm around his little fat shoulders and said, “You’ll be all right, David.” He looked at his granny and managed a weak smile. The twelve year old’s year had been a big one too.