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September 22, 2021

Mike Wilson column: That red clay Christmas

By Mike Wilson

What I remember most about the Christmas of 1961 is seeing natural ice for the first time (at least, the first time I can remember) in the form of a frozen puddle on a muddy red road, perhaps someone’s driveway, in rural Georgia.  Granddaddy was taking me up that drive and out of sight to relieve myself while my grandmother helped my little sisters with their little plastic potty closer to the car. Such stops were very common before the interstate highways were built.  They had come to get us in Florida and take us to Jackson for the holidays, but we didn’t know we would never go back.

We had moved to Ft. Lauderdale several years earlier when my dad was reassigned by Southern Bell to help tackle the infrastructure boom in South Florida. My mother was very young when I was born, and in 1961 she found herself with three children, including a baby in diapers, at the age of 22. Today, we know much more about postpartum depression; back then the prognosis was a “nervous breakdown.” My grandparents wanted to have her committed, so she took off.  We never lived with her again, but we did have some visits with her after a few years had gone by. I was glad that she later married a very kind man and had another son. She eventually made her way back to Tennessee and died in Parsons only a few years ago.

When I was 59, I sometimes thought about the situation my grandparents faced when we went to live with them. My father had to continue working in Florida until he could get a transfer back closer to Jackson, so they took care of us in every way for a year and a half. Once he relocated to northern Mississippi, my dad could visit every few weeks. My grandfather was 59 when we moved into their house, and I am certain that the sudden transformation from empty nest to full house must have been very challenging. They had a comfortable home (which, amazingly, Granddaddy had purchased and furnished with cash the year I was born), but it only had two bedrooms, so I slept with Granddaddy and my sisters slept with Grandmommy.

I still remember how she walked me to the pediatrician and then carried me back up the hill to her house after I had my ears lanced (I think they have since discontinued that practice). She also went along on school field trips. She didn’t huff and puff even a bit when our third grade class went once to the Pinson Mounds site, while most of the 30-something mommies were definitely dragging from climbing those hills. Since Granddaddy worked a shift from 12 to 8 as a clerk at the Railway Express Agency, I could sometimes ride with him in his green van in the evening when he delivered the movies that had arrived on the train to the TV station.

It broke my heart to leave them when my dad remarried and the new couple settled on Memphis as a good location roughly halfway between their families in Jackson and Grenada, but we soon adjusted to life with our new mom, who interestingly was actually younger than our birth mother and thus found herself at age 23 at the beginning of a new school year with three kids and no mothering experience at all. Think about that challenge! She brought to the mix a one-egg poacher from her bachelorette days as a long-distance operator, and that little device certainly didn’t get much use.

I have occasionally contemplated how my life might have turned out if I had grown up in Florida. I can’t help but feel that coming back to live in Tennessee was best. Church and Scouts or beach? Hmmm…There is a beautiful song on one of Don Williams’s last albums called “Healing Hands”:

“My grandma and grandpa had wonderful hands/Callouses and wedding bands/They taught me where there was love, there was always a way/A picture of the two of them/Has seen me through a lot of years/They were there when I reached up to them/And they’re in my life today”

These lyrics encapsulate perfectly the enduring love of my grandparents: They are in my life today.

Mike Wilson is chairman of Modern Foreign Languages at Catawba College.

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