TLP Journal features a lovely short story by Rose Culbreth. Enjoy!
When Granny was Solomon
By Rose Culbreth
Granny Wilson was a God-fearing, Christian woman. She had strong family loyalties and no patience for perceived injustices. She was the kind of woman born of the hard south at the turn of the twentieth century. Strong physically and mentally, she was the rock upon which her family stood.Though-out the ravages of influenza and malaria outbreaks, the Great Depression, World Wars I and II, and the growth of her family from two adults to six children, twenty-two grandchildren and sixteen great grand children, she stood watch and oversaw life itself.
Granny tended to view things with very little grayness. With her, it was black or white, right or wrong, just or unjust, yes or no. There was very little maybe or I don’t know. Thinking back on her lifetime, I can understand the necessity for such decisiveness, life could be dangerous during those times and survival itself sometimes rode on quick decisions with no doubts.
The point of how quickly decisions were made and justice doled out, was driven home to me one Christmas when I was a child. We lived a thousand miles from Turtle Lake. Turtle Lake was the name of the lake across the road from my grandparent’s home.
The home of my mother’s childhood, the structure huge in my mind, was built by my grandfather across the road from what was called a lake, but was more accurately described as a cypress swamp, six miles from the Mississippi River in southern Louisiana.
So often had the river flooded, that when my Papaw built the home for his growing family, he built it six feet off the ground on stilts. At the back of the house, he built one long set of steps that went all the way across the length of the house. The outside doors from the kitchen, their bedroom, and the side porch all opened out onto those steps. The steps were so massive that all thirty-six members of the family could actually sit on them at the same time, however I never saw Granny sit on them. She never had time.
Our yearly visits usually occurred in the middle of August. Why the entire family planned to meet in the delta heat of southern Louisiana in August has never been fully answered to my satisfaction. Every now and again though, we got a bonus visit at Christmas time. It was during one of the Christmas visits that the incident occurred.
I call it the incident. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone else call it that. The rest of the family simply refers to it as the time Granny was Solomon. The incident occurred the Christmas of 1964. I was ten and my brother was six. When the entire family got together in those years, there were twenty-two grandchildren, six grown children with their six spouses, and my two grandparents. My brother always received a goodly portion of attention at these gatherings because of his red hair. He was one of only two grandchildren to have inherited Papaws’ red hair. Buddy, my brother, had a special place in my grandparents’ hearts. Not that the rest of us didn’t have our own special place. We did. We were loved, each one for our own specialness and we knew it.
They called him Little Buddy because there was another, older Buddy in the family. At six Little Buddy was all grin. Red hair, blue eyes, freckles, a front tooth missing, and all grin from ear to ear, eyebrow to chin. The child was one huge smile. There was no sign of the grin during the incident though. It was momentarily absent.
Granny was ever vigilant in treating her children and grandchildren equally, sometimes to odd ends. She also had a streak of untamed mischief running through her. One year she gave all her grandchildren red silk underwear from Christmas just because it would cause her own grown children some angst. This particular Christmas was no different in that respect. For her, Christmas day started around 4:30 in the morning, when she got up to start what would be another day of cooking, cleaning up from the meal, followed by more cooking and more cleaning and on and on. She had been doing the same actions for five straight days by Christmas morning. It took a lot of work to feed thirty-six people three meals per day.
As the smells of breakfast began to drift through the house and children begin to awaken and stir, we soon discovered that each of us had received one blonde haired Barbie-knockoff doll (boys included) and one plastic replica, Chuck Conner’s Winchester Lever Action 30-30 rifle, complete with plastic bullets and a sling for carrying (girls included). Twenty-two dolls and rifles were unwrapped and acknowledged that morning. Amidst wrapping paper flying, cups of coffee being passed above heads of excited children was Granny with her blue plaid flannel shirt covering her skirt and blouse, moving back and forth between the kitchen and the fray, maintaining some semblance of order and joy.
As soon as humanly possible, breakfast was consumed and the children herded outside to play. The adults hung about in small groups on the back steps visiting Papaw at his perch on the top step, and tried to keep the children in control. Granny had already begun the preparations for lunch. I don’t know where she got her energy. For days she had been cooking one hundred and eighteen plates of food every day, rocking crying babies, advising her own, grown children on various matters, soothing hurt feelings and settling disputes. It was Granny’s house and Granny’s law. If there was a problem, children bypassed their own parents to seek her out, in hopes of getting a more equal settlement. She was tired. I could see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice. Bone weary. Deeply tired.
It was Papaw’s idea to send the kids further away from the house to cut down on the noise and tension. He sent the ones that wanted to go, along the cow pasture fence to the railroad tracks hunting with those brand new Winchester rifles and plastic bullets. Those that did not want to go were sent over by the smokehouse to play tea party with the Barbie knock off dolls.
As the hunting party headed out, I got my normal instructions from my father, who was perched up on one of the steps directly below Papaw.
“Watch out for your brother, don’t let anything happen to him.”
We split into small groups and headed out down the one half mile hike to the railroad tracks. One group took the short route through the pasture that contained Bully, the old stud bull and the other group headed down the long route along the side pasture fence. Bully loved to chase kids and I had Little Buddy to look out for, so we headed out on the long route. We made our way to the tracks, shooting imaginary bears, rabbits, deer, Indians, Germans, Japanese, or whatever else our minds could come up with.
After a couple of hours of fun, we started back towards the house for lunch, guns slung over our shoulders, boots marching through weeds and jumping over fallen trees, occasionally getting off several more rounds along the way at the bad guys lurking behind the trees.
Not far into our long march back, I spotted a dead tree laying where it had fallen, with a limb sticking straight up into the air. Assuming the limb was rotten, as most of the fallen trees in the pasture were, I swung the rifle around in a make believe sword fight and as my brand new Chuck Conner’s, Winchester Lever Action 30-30, with plastic bullets, and a sling, made contact with the very, not rotten limb, the last two inches of the barrel snapped completely off. I could not return to the house with a broken rifle. I had to do something. As the oldest, I did have power, and I used it when necessary. This was necessary. I quickly switched my now broken rifle with Buddy’s perfectly good one and began to try and convince him that it was his rifle that I had accidentally broken. I told him I was very sorry, but that was his rifle and I needed mine back.
Rather than accept what I had told him as the truth, Buddy did what all little kids do when taken advantage of by the older ones. He began to scream and run back towards the house. I had no other choice but to try and catch him and shut him up before he raised the suspicions of the adults. Off we ran with the others running behind us, unaware of the reason, but running none the same.
I was not fast enough to get to him and stop the screaming before Papaw heard and saw the approaching mob of children. He began to holler for Granny to come out and do something about the screaming kids. I remember she came out of the kitchen door, dishtowel in hand, pushing her hair back out of her face and began her descent down those steps. She got about halfway down before Buddy and I made it to the bottom step. He stopped screaming when she asked what in the world was the matter. I quickly offered my version of the story about how Buddy’s rifle was accidentally broken and I was sorry. That grin now gone, my brother, with heaving sobs, told her I took his rifle and broke it. Half my story had worked! He believed that it was his rifle. I was almost home free!
“Let me see those rifles,” Granny said. We handed them up to her. She put both rifles, side by side in one hand, lined them up perfectly beside one another. Then she put her free hand on top of the barrels. That hand, which had cradled the tiny head of a newborn and stirred potatoes this morning. That hand that had made intricate stitches in the embroidered quilts we all received as newborns. That hand that had wiped away the tears of disappointment from her own children’s eyes, and the eyes of her grandchildren now circled around the top of the barrel of the good rifle and in one swift snap, that hand broke it off even with the other one.
“There,” she said. “Now they are the same, go play.” She handed one to me, the other to Buddy. She turned to go back into the house, back to her cooking. The other children scattered, afraid she would make all the rifles the same. My father was in shock and my mother stifled a giggle.
Papaw, with a twinkle in his eye, put his finger to his lips in contemplation and before Granny was able to get past him into the house remarked, “Now, Miss Rosa, I know you know your Bible much better than me, but I don’t believe that that was the lesson I learned in Bible School about King Solomon. I don’t think he was really going to cut the baby in half.”
That was all it took, all the adults cracked up, until they saw her face. She just looked right at him and said, “Hush up old man, you don’t know anything about children.” Then she disappeared into the kitchen.
That was thirty-some years ago, and now grandchildren gather at my mother’s house. She is their Granny. They have their memories of her, and they also have memories of a Granny that most of them never knew. They want to hear the stories. At Christmastime they gather together around my mother’s table and it starts.
“Tell us about the time when Granny was Solomon.”
I always sneak a look at my brother. The red hair is thinning now and streaked with gray, the blues eyes are hidden behind glasses. But that grin, that grin never changes. It still reaches from ear to ear, eyebrow to chin and he always, no matter who tells the story, he always ends it with one sentence.
“And your Granny is just like her mother, so you better watch out, you never know when she might go Solomon on you.” (For my brother, Buddy.)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Always the storyteller, Rose Culbreth writes in the short story and poetry genres. Well, there is the unfinished novel, but we won’t go there. (She won’t mind, she doesn’t go there too often herself.) She is a career computer nerd to pay the bills but the arts have always fascinated her. An avid music and visual arts fan, Rose plays the supportive role in those areas. Career aspirations as a six-year-old were to be Dale Evans, but she gave that up once she figured out the one that already existed was plenty for the world. Significant claims to fame: Read all the books in the elementary school library, except the copy of Peyton Place the librarian hid on the top shelf of the closet. Was the elementary school marble champ in the fifth grade. Has not done much of note since then other than get a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees from the University of North Caroline at Greensboro, had a thirty-year career as an IT Specialist, developed lifelong friendships and maintained closeness with family and childhood friends. Her life is good and she is quite thankful for that.