Monday, August 25, 2008
Wealth Is In the Spirit
It has occurred to me on several occassions that Belle Dodson Grimes McCloud Cole may never have realized how impoverished her family truly was. If ever there was a spirit filled with love, grace and joy, it was Belle.
You can see the little ramshackeled shack where she lived. Notice the windows had no glass! This was in Cumberland County, Tennessee; Winters do not pass over Crossville.
However, there was a wood stove in the middle of her living room and in the winter time, it provided just enough warmth. The stove in the kitchen was archaic, and used wood in its belly to heat the top. The wood stove in the living room was used for baking pies or cakes. Cornbread was usually fried in a cast iron skillet on top of the stove. If you got baked cornbread, you were very special company.
The bed linens were heavy cotton; the quilts were all handmade by Belle or her mother, Emily. The blankets were made from the wool of a neighbor's sheep. The shaving stand in the bedroom was where a person bathed for every day. On Saturday nights, the boys would carry enough water from the well so everyone could take a bath in a tub that was hidden away for the rest of the week.
The well water was ladened with iron and turned everything yellow. It tasted of sulfur and smelled like rotten eggs. It tainted nearly everything that came in contact with it, everything except her food. For some reason, her pinto beans were always mountain perfect, no doubt from all the salt and pure lard. The iced tea was loaded with sugar to camoflage the sulfur. Bottled cokes were usually on hand.
She did have electricity, because she had a Zenith console television in the corner of her living room. One had to look around the stove to see it, but it didn't matter because it was never turned on. There was a huge picture of her youngest daughter, Rilda Dean, hanging over it. Rilda was beautiful, and Belle was immensely proud of her.
The inside of Belle's house was always spotless clean. She swept her house daily and dusted habitually. Dishes were always washed and put away immediately following a meal. Clothes were always clean. The smell of clothes drying on the clothesline in the noonday sun could make one forget the outhouse which was at least 50 yards away from the house, but in the summer time, when the wind blew just right, sittin' on the front porch, one could get a wiff of it. It stunk to high Heaven! It was made of pine with three ports, two tall and one small.
Belle loved children, and there were always plenty around. From three marriages, Belle had five children, twelve grandchildren and twenty great-grandchildren. She loved being around the children, and she would coddle and feed them. She'd laugh out loud, and when there was music, she would dance a jig. Literally, it was a jig, something never seen on Dancing With the Stars.
When Belle was 90, she moved into Crossville's City Limits, into a house that her son, Hubert, owned, not far from the hospital. It was the first time in her life that she had hot and cold running water, which meant an indoor bathroom. She left the farm and her little ramshackeled shack with her cornfields, chicken coop and outhouse; and she traded it for the modern conveniences of an electric stove and windows with glass.
If Belle knew how poor she was, it never showed. If she knew there was no money, her grandchildren who stayed with her in the summer time never knew it. We ate more than our share. We went to church on Sundays. We played in the cornfields and ran through the house with abandon. We used the outhouse and complained, but we still used it.
Grandma Virgie was Belle's first born, and she rarely spoke of her early life in Tennesee. She never wanted to go back and cried her eyes out when I moved to Nashville. Her memories of abject poverty stuck in her mind like peanut butter on a horse's tongue. When those memories surfaced, it took genuine fortitude for her to swallow them. She knew poverty. Virgie understood how hard she had worked to escape it, and Virgie always feared having to back.
Yet, she did go back every summer, often with me in tow. When I visited Great-Grandma Belle, I always slept with Grandma Virgie. When we were going off to sleep, Grandma would ask, "Did you have fun today?" For me, going to Belle's was an adventure. I loved riding the pony, chasing the chickens and running back and forth to the outhouse. I loved pumping water from the well and carrying it into the house. I loved sleeping in a bedroom where the windows were completely opened.
I didn't know Grandma Belle was so poor. It wasn't until she died that I really understood that. She didn't represent povery for me. She represented an adventure. Now, in my memories, she represents a very wealthy spirit. When she met the Lord, she knew that she had lived a very full life, measured by the love she had in her heart. She had children who had children, and all the children loved her. What's so poor about that?