Saturday, April 27, 2013

the odours of kinfolk

how many of my other memories of the house on oak and life there, both while i was an occupant and after my parents moved to a 3-room rental on monroe, are photographic, I don't know. it served as a sort of family center for my grandfather's family, the johnsons, even though they lived in paragould, so the album had lots of photos of johnson uncles and aunts and cousins, held in place by gummed corner frames. but my memories of the smells are my own, suggested by but not contained in, the photographs. oddly enough there are no olfactory memories of my parents. but the preceeding generation was redolent.

my uncle ott--otto--comes first, because he smoked cigars. he was the youngest of the johnson brothers, although minnie--minerva--was younger. ott always wore pin-striped suits with a handkerchief in the breast pocket, and he drove buicks, which not surprisingly also smelled of cigars. he had a wife, orphie--orphelia--but they were estranged.  they never divorced, i think because they didn't trust each other enough, so they shared ownership of a dry cleaners, ott having an apartment upstairs and orphie having the house. ott also had a cabin on portia--pronounced porshy--bay and a mistress, cordie--cordelia--who was a 'beautician' and smelled like permanents. everything about ott was slightly shakespearean in a falstaff sort of way, although I think he drank budweiser.

by contrast fred, the oldest surviving johnson brother, uncle ed having died before my birth, was chaste-smelling in an old spice sort of way and drove dodges. his wife sally--selma, and often called that--owned a business machine company and had no children and didn't seem to like children. there are no pictures of me being held by fred. I may be imagining the old spice, it being the default odor of that generation.

minnie always smelled slightly sour. she was married to an undertaker, mr. emersin, who was very thin and highly cologned, but minnie always smelled slightly as if she had just cime from a hot kitchen, which often she had done. she was a serious cook. her son billie, also a cook, in the army, always smelled like starch. years later my mother would tell me that billie's clothes (he was a love child, as it were, born when minnie was a teenager bereaved by the death of her mother and comforted by someone whose name she took to her grave) had always been provided by the unkles, and starched at ott's cleaners.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

gimme shelter

between 1940 and 1950 jonesboro grew by 39%, from 11,729 to 16,310 inhabitants. it is probably most accurate to say that growth occured in 1946; I was one of many new folks, and there wasn't much room for us. my parents and my mother's parents were among those returning to jonesboro after the war, and they all moved into a one bedroom house whose 900 square feet of living space included a front porch on the north, which was an outdoor living room in warm weather, and a screened in back porch which was the exit to the world of the back yard, where my first birthday party saw me wearing my grandfather's hat and a diaper--it's hot in jonesboro in august--and my cake resting on a leather hassock. I'm guessing there was icecream from lundy johnson's store up the street at the culberhouse corner. my memories of that event come from phoographs my mother kept in a big ivory artificial leather photo album with soft black, addable pages and a pirate and his treasure embossed on the cover.

beyond the small backyard, which was bounded on the east by an overgrown privet and on the west by a tool shed standing mostly from habit, lay the garden. the garden was not unusual in the jonesboro of the '40's. it was my grandmother's own moveable realm which she reproduced wherever she lived. there were tomatos staked to oak poles by old stockings, great gothic cathedrals of okra, lettuce and corn and peas and cucumbers and squas and I know not what else.  i  doubt there were melons: everyone knew the only melons worth eating came from lake city.

there were also chickens, who ate bugs in the garden and provided eggs for breakfast and meat for feasts. my grandmother never cooked a chicken she didn't know personally.  in cold weather the chickens lived in the basement with the wringer washing machine and a lone, bare light bulb for heat. they and the soap gave the basement a remarkable smell.

all the windows of the house had screens with black painted frames, roll-down blinds, plastic in the bathroom, and curtains made by my grandmother on her treadle singer from lace bought by the yard at woolworth's.

where we all slept in that little beach head in the city ready for tomorrow in the land of opportunity, I don't know. the bed on which I was photographed often as a plump baby was covered with a white chenille spread. there were many quilts made by generations of woods (my grandmother's family), all with a unique smell singular to cotton boiled clean.

my mother and father soon found a little house of their own, but my grandparents lived at 723 west oak until I was four. I spent many happy days and nights there. friday nights belonged to my grandfather. he sat in his red leather wing chair and smoked lucky strikes and listened to the friday night fights, sponsored by the gillette razor company. saturday nights were my grandmother's,  when she listened to the grand ole opry and the barn dance. the philco radio soon had a companion, a crosley television, the first I ever saw. my grandfather's friday night fights were now visible, in a slightly fuzzy way, as were groucho marx and milton berle. it was a while before daytime programming let my grandmother watch ma perkins and helen trent as she sewed and ironed.