6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
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20050806

1964, I’ve Got Your Memory (Walkin’ After Dinner With My Grandmother)

Tonight I’m listening to Patsy Cline’s The Definitive Collection. As always when I listen to her songs, I find myself reminiscent of the time I lived in Seffner, Florida when I was ten years old. When she sings “Walkin’ After Midnight,” it’s 1964. My mother, who had separated from my stepfather, moved me and my three younger brothers from our house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts to Tampa, Florida. We first lived with our uncle before my mother found a place to rent in a trailer park in Seffner just outside of Tampa. We didn’t stay in that park very long. The trailer she had rented was still occupied, not by the previous tenants, but by the biggest reddish black, armor plated bugs I had ever seen, crawling out of a box of Cocoa Krispies.

Conceding to the palmetto bugs, my mother found another trailer park that was owned by an elderly couple. We lived there for most of that summer before my mother started to look for another place to rent that she felt was more suitable to our needs. And so it was just around August when we moved to our third trailer park that sat up on a hill bordered by orange groves and pine trees. The trailer we rented was adjacent to the playground of the old wood framed Seffner Elementary School that had closed the previous year and had moved to a brand new facility where I attended fifth grade.

It was during this time that my grandmother came to live with us to help my mother take care of us boys while she worked. When September came it was time for school. Having to get up early wasn't easy, but there was always a bowl of hot oatmeal waiting for me at the table. The walk to school was a little less than a mile, and most days I made it to school on time, but some mornings I’d be quite late. My imagination full of mysteries to be solved sometimes would get lost amidst the Spanish moss that draped the oaks that lined both sides of the street.

What I liked most about that time when I lived there was the after dinner walks my grandmother and I would go on. Seffner was just a small town that featured a general store, a gas station that closed at 5 p.m., and a café that made the best cheeseburgers and fries around. The gas station was just about a half mile away, but we took our time getting there, and seldom did we ever take the same way. We had about five or six routes, depending on which streets we chose to go down or crisscross that would eventually lead to our final destination.

Most evenings, though, we would take the “pig route.” It was the long way around to the gas station, but the last street we walked down to get to the highway lead by this house that had a back yard with a chain link fence. It was a small house weathered gray with a front porch that had a curious bow in the middle. As we started to walk past the back yard we sometimes would get a King Kong size whiff of “pig poo.” And there in the far corner of the back yard was the white Pig, the enormous white pig with black splotches. On one of our walk-by’s we stopped to gawk at the pig. The old man who lived in the house came outside to greet us. “How you like my 320 pound porker?” he asked.

“Just fine,” I replied.

He then made this shrill noise that sounded like a car horn that shorted out. No sooner than that, the pig came running, snorting and squealing at the same time. “Say hello to Elmer,” the old man said. “He’s kinda like a big dog. You can reach over and pet him if you’d like.”

I looked at my grandmother for reassurance. “Go ahead,” she said, “It’s okay.” Petting Elmer, I marveled at how bristled its hair was. My grandmother thanked the old man and we continued on with our walk.

When we finally got to the gas station, she would open her pocket purse and take out two dimes and give them to me. I would then go up to the soda machine, slip a dime into the coin chute, open the door, and pull out a ten-once, ice-cold Coca-Cola and hand it to her. After getting mine, we sat down on the chairs that were in front of the gas station office and talked a spell. It was she that always initiated the conversation by asking, “So, how are you feeling today?”

Up until my mother had separated, I thought I was a “Dunham,” but after moving to Florida, my mother broke the news to me that I was actually a “Cunningham.” The man I knew as my father was my stepfather, and my three younger brothers were not my brothers, but my stepbrothers. At that age I could not find the words to express how confused and suddenly lonely I felt, but my grandmother sensed what I was feeling and helped me talk about it. Even though I had a new identity, it didn’t change the fact that my mother still loved me and that my stepbrothers were still my brothers. “Nothing in life is always perfect or fair,” she would say. “All we should accept of ourselves is to do the best we can.” Six months later my mother and stepfather reconciled, and we moved back to our house in Pittsfield, Mass. All had become almost right with the world again, just as my grandmother said it would.

I drift back into Patsy Cline singing “She’s Got You,” and I’m struck by the line: “I've got your memory, or, has it got me? I really don't know but I know it won't let me be.” 2005, 41 years gone by. I get up from my chair to get a can of Coke from the refrigerator. Opening it, I thank my grandmother for the time she spent with me as a young boy then, and for helping me later in life with my son after I became divorced.

It was February 28, 1998 when she went on what would be her last walk. After returning home, she sat down to watch T.V. with a bowl of soup that a neighbor had brought over for her. At 84 years old, she fell asleep and never woke up.

It’s after midnight. I decide to go out walkin’ just like we use to do.

S. L. Cunningham