Growing up in Louisa – Mrs. Clayton
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
Sometimes as you get older things don’t always perfectly fit the way you remember them. I’ve been struggling over some of the details, trying to separate true memories from the entanglement of a once young, fanciful mind. I’m sure there’s someone out there that would relish straightening me out for some of these memories are obscure. I’m reconciled to the fact that memories aren’t always trustworthy. That said, I’ll just tell you that I remember with quite a bit of fondness a very dear, elderly neighbor, Mrs. Clayton. I’m sure she had a first name, but I just don’t know it. She was born in another century, so between us we have lived in parts of three different centuries. Time does fly, doesn’t it?
Mrs. Clayton lived on the corner of the same block that I roamed day in and day out during my late preschool years. I was not allowed to go off the block when playing outside so staying on the block meant not to cross the street. They surely knew that the restriction would become a goal to violate. They had learned nothing from prohibition. Silly grown-ups with their rules.
Most days I was blessed with a good attitude and at least half a brain. I knew I could make that rule work for me because, after all, the block was at least a full acre and had lots of houses and yards. To a five year old a block can be a huge place. Of course there were frustrations of seeing something across the divide that would draw me to disobedience. Still, having that brain, I had figured out I couldn’t hide much from mom and I really didn’t want to feel the sting of the ‘belt.’ So staying on the block would work nicely most days, thank you.
I remember that Mrs. Clayton often sat on her little porch crocheting doilies, and rocking the time away. Her husband had long been gone, for she was well up in her years. She often spoke of a son who lived a ways away. I loved to sit and pass the time with her, soaking in the sun and enjoying story after story about another time. I found that she would tell more of them if I encouraged her. She would sometimes get excited over this piece of history, or another and I would nearly salivate in the hearing of the tales. The crochet hook would stop, her eyes would widen and I’d hold my breath in anticipation of another thriller. In midafternoon she would grow weak and tired and go inside to nap. I would search for new things to do around the block, or then again, maybe it was time for lunch.
As Mrs. Clayton grew older and I grew taller, I would sometimes take her arm and lead her into her living room. She had grown quite thin and weak. I know she appreciated it when I’d fetch a glass of water or something else she needed. I remember her skin hung loosely over her bones so her bones were obvious. She was like a Halloween skeleton. I sometimes talked with her about that, suggesting she eat a little more. She really didn’t like to bother fixing things, so a few times I’d go in her kitchen and put together whatever I could find. I was told more than once that the grocery boy would soon come to the back door and I should let him in. Of course, I did, but some days I wondered if she’d really called in an order. I wasn’t sure if it was a lack of money, or not wanting to spend what she had, or if she found it difficult or bothersome to prepare anything.
Her favorite chair was a Lincoln rocker, which was a smaller, partially upholstered little chair. Until she told me I didn’t know it was named after President Lincoln. I had little doubt she had nearly first-hand knowledge of that because she was so old. I wondered if she had known him. Of course, I was wrong. She wasn’t that old. After all, Mr. Lincoln was killed in 1865 and she wasn’t born until maybe the 1880’s, or even a little later. She had a platform chairs as well, so I used the other one when I visited. We rocked together. Ah hum!
I remember meeting her son when he came to visit a couple of times. She always looked forward to that. He met me and told me to look after his mom. I know he provided some money for her, but she was slow to spend it on food. He knew how skinny she’d grown and it worried him. He wanted her to move away and stay with him, but she insisted she wanted to live her life right there in that house. There would be no talk about her moving. She promised him she would eat, but we both doubted she would.
For a time I stopped by often to see that she ate, but as time went on those visits became more infrequent. I was growing into my teen years and was involved with school, band, playing baseball, or football, dating, or something. I remember coming home one day and seeing an ambulance down at her house. I ran, with tears already welling up with a fear that she had died. It turned out to be a close call, but they fed her weak, protruding veins at the hospital and got her back on normal food again. She had nearly starved herself. I didn’t understand why that would happen, but considered it to be my fault since I had neglected her. Once she came home again I increased my visits for a time, sometimes reading Bible verses to her, or making her a snack. She’d tell me more stories about life in the old days. I loved to hear about those things and how much life had changed in her lifetime. I wish I could remember them all. They would be worth sharing.
She told me a lot about life in her younger days and how much things had changed. She told me of riding in a buggy with her parents when she was a little girl. She sat in the middle, snuggled down with a blanket thrown over her lap. On one trip it was cold and the leaves were turning. They only had to ride an hour or so, because in those days you had to plan your trips carefully and travel in the daytime. None of the roads were very wide or paved either, and some were steep, or pitched so it was hard for the buggy to hang on to the hill. They also had to ford the streams and creeks because there weren’t any bridges except for a few close to a town.
It was spooky sometimes when you passed someone on the road. You didn’t know who they were so it could be dangerous. There were plenty of rough characters out there ready to cause trouble. Sometimes though, it would be a friendly person and you’d hear about how much further it was to a landmark, or whether a steam ahead was flooding. You felt safer when you got to a town before it got dark.
Once you got to town, if you were lucky, they would have a barn or a livery stable to take care of the horse. They would feed and water it and put it up in a stall. Towns often had ‘tourist homes’ where you could rent a room. Sometimes meals went with it if you were on time. Few towns had a place to eat like they do now. If it was before five in the evening, you might get a sandwich somewhere, but only in the larger towns such as county seats. The reason they had them was because court was held there and the town would swell with visitors. Mrs. Clayton’s mom usually packed a basket of fried chicken or something, but food was either offered by a host, or you just didn’t eat. I know families in my day would always offer a meal to visitors, even if they had only stopped in. Some were insulted if you didn’t eat something. It would make them look like a bad hostess.
If you did have to travel at night you would still have to rest the horses now and then, so you were prime to get attacked by a pack of wolves. There were mountain lions and bears around, too. The buggy would sometimes have little lantern boxes on the front that held a carbide lamp, or a candle, but those didn’t do much to light the way. All you could see were the backs of the horses. If the moon wasn’t out, sometimes the man would have to get out and lead the horse around curves and mud-holes. It would be easy to turn the buggy, or wagon, over and crush someone. It happened from time to time. There was a constant fear that they could down one of those steep hills and never be seen again. Even in the daytime if it had rained, it would have been easy to slide into a gully. That’s why a lot of travel in the day was done on the river in flat-bottom boats, or barges. Sometimes a ferry would take buggy and all. Even that had its risks, too, but if the pilot knew the river well, it would be fast and pretty safe. River pilots made good money in those days because the sand bars that constantly moved could cause the boat to run aground, or damage the hull. Louisa had its needle dam and locks, but much of the river was dangerous, especially in low water seasons or flood-stage.
Mrs. Clayton remembered when they extended the railroad. That made all the difference in the world. Travel to other places was suddenly fast and easy. That led to communities building better roads to connect with the railroad. The towns grew when people could get there and goods were available on the merchant’s shelves. Stores sprang up and all kinds of wonderful things started showing up in the mountains. Fabrics and tools, and all kinds of goods including medicines, and even fruit were now available. People could send off for bathtubs, new fashioned buggies, and even a treadle sewing machine, or a ringer washer.
She told me about daddy when he would go off hunting and bring back various kinds of dead critters. Even as a young lady she learned how to skin them for the pelts and mom would cook the meat up while it was yet fresh. She told me that by today’s standard some were strong in taste, but her momma was a good cook and could make anything taste good. She never went hunting herself, but her momma taught her how to crochet and quilt. She made all her dresses and dozens of samplers. I knew my granny liked to sew, and quilt, but I never saw the two neighbor ladies together. I guess they were both old, at least in their seventies, so neither got out much, even around the block.
Mrs. Clayton was hospitalized a few times again only to get fed again through those blue veins. She would be given instructions to eat, and then sent home. Being a nervy kid, I asked her once why this cycle? I figured she may not have had the money always to buy food, but she said she had some food, even if it wasn’t a lot. If she ordered too much it would just go bad. If I ate what she did back then, I’m sure I’d be skinny, too. In the end, I think she admitted that the truth was that she was ready to go. She knew the Lord, missed her husband, and would soon enough have to go anyway. Life just didn’t matter to her at that point. I understood and asked her tell me more about when she was a little girl. She smiled, talked about a favorite doll, and I leaned back, shut my eyes and lived in another time.
I asked about her when I called home from the Air Force. I was both saddened and happy to hear about her death. That’s what she wanted and may have even looked forward to. She wasn’t in pain anymore, besides, I doubt there was anyone dropping in to hear the stories. I know I’m glad now when a younger person shows me any attention. As an older person I’m invisible in a crowd, so I have come to understand Mrs. Clayton, for it is nearing my turn. It’s kind of like my wife says, “Our parents were much older than we are when they were this age.”
Maybe this is part of why I love to tell stories. Maybe, for a moment through this writing, Mrs. Clayton lives on, and maybe I still have purpose. There was a time when I could finally leave the block, but there was also a time when the staying there was enough, and a rule I could gladly follow.