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  • Writer's pictureSteven Cornelius

Ritz Crackers on the Cumberland River

My wife was making a casserole for dinner last night and Ritz crackers was one of the ingredients. This gave me all the excuse I needed to snag a handful of said crackers on my way through the kitchen, as I headed back into the living room to finish watching an episode of Perry Mason. Popping that first Ritz cracker into my mouth caused an unexpected rush of memories taking me back six decades to a time when I was nine years old and spent a couple of summers east of Nashville on the Cumberland River. I never figured out why I was farmed out so often as help for distant relatives scattered across Tennessee and Kentucky, but I do remember being an eager participant. Life was hard everywhere in the rural south back then, but especially so on our small farmstead in Alcorn County Mississippi. We had no mechanized farming tools, so every chore undertaken to wring sustenance from the twenty acres of dirt and scrub pine that my family owned was a daylight to dark stretch of back breaking, hand blistering, manual labor. I loved my momma and didn’t necessarily mean to shirk my duties, but I had seven siblings who could take up the slack, so if one of my aunts or uncles was headed north to Bowling Green, KY or to the small community of Granville located between Carthage and Cookeville, TN, then I was always first in line; ready to go and spend time with near or distant kin.

Way back then I was too young to figure out all the vagaries of who was related to whom on either side of my family, but twice before my eleventh birthday, my cousin Peggy and Aunt Beulah drove me deep into the Tennessee hills and dropped me off at a small, west facing log cabin perched high on the southeast bank of the Cumberland River. A small, wiry old woman lived alone in that tiny cabin. I was told that she was my Aunt Gladys, but Auntie G insisted I call her granny. I spent a couple of weeks with her in June and July of my ninth and tenth years. As my daddy would say, granny lived close to the earth. She had electric lights and a very old refrigerator, that wouldn’t fit into the small kitchen that occupied one corner of her cozy one room cabin. Being a pragmatic sort, she had it put on the back porch, just outside the back door. The cabin had no running water but did have a dug well with a wooden casing built around it and bucket shelf on one corner of the back porch. We used well water for cooking and drinking and river water for everything else. Her only light source was two paper and black tar insulated electrical wires dangled from the rough sawn plank ceiling, each with a naked 40 watt light bulb attached. Pull cords that had once been white dangled from the bulb sockets turning them on and off.

After the chores of the day were done, to stay cool, granny and I would sit on the back porch steps until the hot summer sun dipped low, casting long, eerie blades of golden light through the trees, shimmering and dancing across the dark ribbon of water before disappearing beneath the western horizon. As light faded, we could feel cool darkness creeping up behind us like a chicken thief. When we could no longer see any trace of the sun and the sky had turned an inky blue, granny would nudge me with her elbow and then use the step rail to pull herself up and disappear inside the dark cabin. I waited outside the screen door until I heard two sharp clicks as granny pulled on those cords, causing the bulbs to glow and cast forty-watt puddles of yellow light into the corners of her dark dove tailed log structure; one that always smelled like curing bacon. I didn’t know my way around in the dark like she did and wasn’t eager to fall over a rough piece of furniture and bark my shins. Granny didn’t mind me waiting. She didn’t want me tripping and breaking anything inside either.

During the cold months, her only source of heat came from a massive river rock fireplace that took up almost the entire eastern wall of the cabin. She did a bit of cool weather cooking there too, using a couple of Dutch ovens. Granny had a chamber pot near her single bed in the corner of the one room cabin. Each morning when we got up and once night fell, before we latched the screen doors and got ready for bed, it was my job to empty the chamber pot, preferably somewhere far away from the cabin. I soon developed a system. I would carry a full, smelly pot down the goat trail toward the river. About halfway down the bank, I’d hold my breath and dump its contents into the bushes, walk the last bit of distance down to the riverbank, kneel and dip the pot and lid into that beautiful green water, swishing them around, giving both a good rinse. There was also a couple of three gallon galvanized steel pails hanging from nails on the post nearest to the back porch steps. Before she grew too old and unstable, granny would walk down a narrow rocky cut that for all the world, looked like a goat path leading to the river.

For years, she hauled forty pounds of sloshing water back up to the cabin multiple times each day for clothes washing and other cleaning. While I was there, that chore fell to me, which meant two or three trips each day. Walking barefoot, digging my toes into the clay bank for traction, I carried those pails down to the river and dipped them full of clear, green tinted river water. Hauling them almost a hundred feet back up the steep bank to the cabin was a grueling chore. The full buckets were about two thirds my body weight, but I managed. When the summer sun was full, hotter than hades and beating down on us, which was most afternoons, granny would glance over, wink at me and say, “Why don’t you go rinse off in the river.” As I streaked down the hill, headed toward that cool, green water, she’d call after me, “Don’t get too far away from the bank or the current will take you.” After a refreshing thirty minutes of bobbing up and down in the water, it was back to work.

At least once, sometimes twice while I visited, granny would wash clothes. She had a black iron washpot in the middle of her muddy back yard, and it was my job to fill it with river water…three trips worth. When she was satisfied with the water level, we’d arrange split oak firewood under the pot and get a big fire going. Once the water was too hot to put your hand in, she’d toss a couple of good sized chunks of tan colored lye soap into the bubbling water, using a long hickory stick to stir until the soap dissolved. Bed sheets, the quilt that I used for a pallet, two or three threadbare towels and our clothes, including underwear got tossed into that milky colored, boiling water. Granny used that long stick to stir the clothes around from time to time. She had a separate number two washtub for rinsing…which meant more trips to the river. Clothes washing took up a full morning or afternoon. Weather decided which part of the day we devoted to this chore. If clouds gathered in the morning, granny put off the washing until she could tell if it might rain. Her clothesline was a thin braided rope that I tied from one back porch corner post to the trunk of a poplar tree fifty feet away. I was such a short little spud that I used an old wooden milk crate to stand on. Granny only had a couple dozen clothes pins, so the bigger items were just draped over the line. Underwear and socks needed pinning. Granny called our underwear bloomers, which tickled me to no end. I laughed every time she said “bloomers,” which turned her tickle box over, giving us both a much needed belly laugh.

As hard as we both worked getting daily chores done, granny always had a reward for us at least a couple of times each day, mid-morning and mid-afternoon. After I walked back up onto her back porch, huffing and puffing with those full pails of water, she’d pat the step and say, “Put that water down and come set next to me.” Once I’d plopped down next to her, she’d put an old enamelware plate on her lap loaded down with Ritz crackers and hoop cheese, and if the time of year was right, a couple of bright green, granny smith apples, sliced, but with the peel on. Because I didn’t know any better, I called hoop cheese “hook cheese.” Granny may have known I was wrong, but she never corrected me. We’d sit there sharing Ritz crackers with wedges of delicious, aged cheddar hoop cheese, enjoying a glass of sweet tea or cold water and just look around, listening to the noisy sounds of summertime in Tennessee and watch that beautiful, iridescent green Cumberland River slip past. For some reason, those buttery crackers and soft mellow cheese tasted much better sitting out on those back steps with a fresh breeze on my face and that old woman perched next to me.

In the evenings, granny often smoked a pipe and played a beat-up old banjo that she kept hanging over her bed. She sang a few songs but mostly just strummed on that out of tune four stringed thing.

The first time I ever heard Knoxville Gal was when she sang it for us. Granny didn’t have much of a voice, but sang loud and clear in a sorrowful, plaintive way, like a woman who’d had her heart broken, which was probably the case. After two or three songs, I’d draw up some cold well water for the glass on her bedside table, and we would turn in for the night. I lay in front of the fireplace hearth on a folded quilt pallet, covered by the thinnest of sheets, feeling a cool breeze coming through the screen doors, serenaded to sleep by crickets and night birds. I enjoyed my time up on the Cumberland and hated to see my cousin’s car roll up, signaling that it was time to leave. In the late fall of 1962, several months after my last two weeks with granny, my aunt Beulah came by our house to visit with momma. After a couple of hours had gone by and momma and aunt Boo had talked themselves out, I edged over next to my aunt and asked about granny and when could I go visit her next. Aunt Boo shook her head, patted me on the shoulder and said, “Granny passed away about three months ago. No one knew she was gone until the mailman checked and found her dead inside the cabin.” Doing some quick math in my head, I realized that she had passed only a few weeks after I’d left to come back to Mississippi. Her death was unsettling and made me very sad, mainly because I hated the thought of her dying alone. She was a sweet old woman who deserved better.

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