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Family Pieces

ISSUE:  Winter 1986

During the summer of my sixth birthday, my grandfather gave me his steeple clock. I think I know why he did, or at least I can guess at the reason: he died that fall, and perhaps he was beginning to think with some nervous anticipation of that certain inevitability. But if he had asked me what I wanted, I probably would have asked for the stereoptican viewer and the set of double-picture postcards. I was particularly taken with the view of Niagara Falls; when I held the small shell that was on the parlor table (not the large conch one that was a doorstop) to my ear, the sight and the sound was about as close as a young South Carolina inlander could come to those waters that, with a child’s imagination, roared down in sepia torrents. But he didn’t ask, and now I am grateful for that.

He lived about 40 miles from us in a small town that had two principal streets, neither of them very long. Where they crossed, of course, was “the Square.” A few stores, the post office in one of them that my grandfather owned, a horse fountain, and a bench or two—not much more except for the Baptist and Presbyterian churches and, of course, the railroad depot. Nearly everybody who lived in town had a farm that began nearly at the back door; in that sandy soil cotton, although plagued incessently by the ever-present boll weevil, grew moderately well. Before the cotton fields began, there was the kitchen garden—beans, tomatoes, corn, watermelons, and the like. But the most beautiful of the growing things for me were the tremendous gardenia and hydrangea bushes; when they were in bloom we called them the snowball trees. In the summer, particularly after an afternoon shower, the fragrance of the gardenias hung almost palpably in the air.

There was one in the side yard of his house that was large enough for us to play under and thick enough to protect us in a light shower. His house was a usual enough one-story, high gabled and moderately ginger-breaded, with a porch that ran along the front and one side. The center hall, seemingly always darkened and cool, divided the parlor and the bedrooms on one side from the sitting room, dining room, and kitchen on the other. The parlor was never used except for visitors; that was where the stereoptican viewer was kept, along with the Bible and assorted “worthwhile” books, such as Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible, dedicated “to the Young People of America . . .in the hope that it may interest them in the reading of The Best of All Books.” I remember still the two pictures facing each other of Daniel in the den of lions, and in one how ferociously they bared their teeth at him; in the other, when Daniel is answering the king, they are as tame as house cats. There was a horsehair sofa that was both hard and prickly as if it resented being used. But there were more comfortable chairs, even a rocker. And on the mantle was the steeple clock.

The other rooms I remember little of, except for his bedroom. The furniture was heavy golden oak, so popular around the time of his first marriage in 1875 (his first wife died the year before I was born). Under that bed, or so they told me, he would put one of the season’s last watermelons, well-insulated with straw in a tight wooden box, and bring it out at Christmas for the delight of the children who could be there; I never was.

I have a picture of him, seated along with his four brothers: they all look prosperous, satisfied, and portly—much as I remember him. He was the oldest of the children, 12 in all; his father was John Milton Cauthen whose father must have had more than a simple education—there are no John Miltons in the family before him, but there are several after him. He, in turn, named his first son, my grandfather, Arista; even if imperfect Greek, it reflects a fondness for the first child who had the hopes of his father for the best. From family stories he lived a good life. When I knew him, he was too old to drive— or at least I never saw him behind the wheel of the first automobile that came to town, a red, two-seated one that had a canvas roof that he liked to put down and drive children about the town—as far as one could go. He ate well, and if I guess correctly, drank well, too. He liked his food served properly; some cousins recall his liking for style coupled with his considerateness. After my grandmother died, he found a young woman, country-bred, who would keep house for him. As soon as she arrived, probably anticipating the work that it would cause, she took the linen tablecloth off the dining room table and put down a common oil cloth. When he saw what had happened, he asked for a linen napkin, put it under his plate, and held his tongue. The young woman, even if new to his ways, saw what she must do—and did. The oil cloth went, probably to her family.

The final mark of his fastidiousness came just before he died. He sent for one of his sisters, paying her way to his home in Florida where he was living. He told her that he wanted to be buried beside his first wife in South Carolina, and he left specific instructions about returning his body. At every station where the casket had to be taken from one train to another, a hearse must be there to transfer it. He abhorred the idea of being loaded on a baggage cart and jolted from one line to another.

He had a printing press in a shed in the backyard, not far from the barn. I don’t know what he printed except perhaps a few letterheads for his business. His youngest son was a genius at fixing anything broken, particularly the press. He was the spoiled son who once was sent off to a private school, one of the usual Carolina ways of trying to straighten out the rebellious. When my grandfather found out how many of the students there were incorrigible, he sent for him and kept him home. My uncle’s greatest fiasco came that summer when I was given the clock. Not far from the Square, there was a spring; near it he built a swimming pool, and a most unusual one it was. It was built out of rough pine boards on top of the ground, caulked but not well enough, for the water spurted from all sorts of places. Of course, one had to climb up a ladder to get in the pool; admission was five cents for the day. As hard as the pumps worked, the wooden pool never really filled; and after climbing up the ladder to get in the pool, the swimmers had to climb another ladder to get out. But with the incurable optimism of my uncle and the forebearance of my grandfather, the pool operated for a summer. Then, because of its impracticality and because it stood on public land, it was dismantled.

But that was the summer of the clock. I may have once admired it in some childlike way, and my grandfather remembered that. I know that I was intrigued by the circular painting on the glass below the face (I have learned since that it is called eglomisé where the painter must work in reverse) of two cranes in what is an improbable stand of bullrushes and cattails. And I know that I delighted in the strike which has become even more strident over the years. We were there in midsummer (it was hot that day, for we were in the parlor, not on the porch); he walked to the mantle, took off the pendulum, and gave it to me. “I want you to have this,” Papa said, “and I’m going to give you the clock to go with it.”

I imagine that my step-grandmother (for he had married again, this time to a schoolteacher) was surprised, but I don’t think she said anything. After all, it wasn’t the only clock in the house, but it was the best one. She found us a suit-box, not one of the flimsy kinds that adept salesman now can construct in a few seconds, but a heavy corrugated one. He wrapped the pendulum carefully, not putting it in the clock, being careful of the glass, the cranes, and the bullrushes. Then we stuffed paper around the clock to make it secure for the journey home.

When we walked to the station in that early summer evening to catch our train home, my father carried the box. But after we settled in, I wanted to hold the box, and my parents let me. That was about 60 years ago, in the mid-‘twenties, but I can still remember the rattan-covered seats (my father rode backwards, and my mother and I faced him), the feeble electric lights that swung at the end of long cords, and the smell of the coal smoke that came in through the open windows. And with my mother’s help I held my clock all the way home.

I have two other things that belonged to my grandparents, neither of them with the memories that cluster around the clock—a pressed glass candy dish with extraordinary handles and a child’s chair. The chair was once tall enough to be pulled up to the table, but now it is a stubby low thing. Once my father was sitting in it before an open fire; he had been tied in to keep him from falling out, and in his playing or kicking, the chair turned over, and he fell on the hearth. It was hot enough to burn his cheek badly. So that it would not happen again, my grandfather had the legs cut off so that the seat now is about six inches from the floor.

What happened to the other things in Papa’s house I don’t know. There probably wasn’t much left there, for a good deal had been taken to Florida, all of it lost in a hurricane. Before the move, my father’s only sister may have taken the rest. But I was given the clock. And it brings back the summer smells of gardenia, of train smoke, other memories of childhood not connected just with Papa’s house but with my childish and continuing delight over those stoic cranes who stand so imperturbably within that thicket of cattails and bullrushes.


“Well,” as my father later said, “I knew that we ought to go to that Thanksgiving Service.” But we didn’t. The year before the Baptist minister, who was infatuated with the Mind of the Universe and delighted in talking about the Infinite Cosmic Distance between Us and Him and His Creation (in his holy tones it was all in Capital Letters) had attacked all of those who had not come to his (or His) Thanksgiving Service. Many of those who were absent could not have heard his attack; it was long before access to the great Radio Land came to that church. The choir, led dictatorially by the traditional lady-director, who sported red hair and even more scarlet lips, had gotten through “The Valleys Laugh and Sing”; she had had a few lessons, one could tell. Indeed, if the valleys had resisted her imperatives, she would have made them even more level; maybe she, too, had something to do with what happened the next year. For many things were made nearly level. But the Service that year, with all those Capital Letters, made even my father, deacon-treasurer of the First Presbyterian Church, declare that it was the last time; it might be better to stay home and worship God, not in those Baptist ways, but perhaps in His. Even if, as he later wondered, it did bring down His fury.

So on the Friday after the Thanksgiving when we, the children grateful, did not have to go to the Service, it came. And it really came. In mid-afternoon after the skies darkened, the winds began, and we knew we were in for something, for my maternal grandmother said so. She was our weather commentator: she could tell you about what kind of weather to expect, even contradicting the Old Farmer’s Almanac. She knew when it was too cold to snow, what signs were right for planting, including both the dark and the light of the moon, and all one needed to know of the dog days. Her favorite weather story, although there were other good ones about snakes, was the one of the summer snow that came in the 1880’s. She may have known about the eruption of Krakatoa, but I doubt it. She probably thought of the snow as the work of God’s hand, not the result of volcanic ash. But the cotton was blooming, she declared, when the snow came.

On that November day she said we were in for something, and she was right. It did not start out as a something but as a kind of everything. And by the time it started, it was nearly over. We stood at the back of the house, a usual Southern bungalow, and as the clouds cleared in the west, Grandmother happily—and wrongly—declared that it was all over. So it seemed: there was a grandly golden sunset, the storm clouds darkling overhead. Then we heard the water, running down in the front rooms of the house. The porch and half the roof had been ripped away, and the collected dust of the attic, now saturated with the water of the storm, was streaking the walls, the furniture, the floors, and the rugs. The piano, where so often I had heard my mother accompany herself singing about coming to the garden alone to some sort of ill-concealed embarrassment in my father, was evidently ruined. Even the furniture was soggy to the sight. The living room, the front bedroom, and the dining room were darkened with that blackened water.

Across the street another house had nearly the same damage; and from our porch that now had no roof, the swing that so many had sat in, so often gossiped in, and all the rocking chairs were gone. We found the swing the next day, safely placed on a neighbor’s lawn. Uptown a car—one of the town’s first electric cars, owned by two of the town’s well-to-do sisters whose elegance matched the car’s—had been picked up and then deposited, almost as if on display for the shoppers of the evening, if there had been any, in a show window. The artificial rosebuds were still in the vases.

It took my father some time to get home; he had to come from a few miles out of town. Like many others, he was delayed by fallen trees and the debris from the storm; he had to leave the model-T Ford on the other side of Main Street and walk warily the rest of the way, for by now it was getting dark. I wonder what he thought when he turned the bend at the top of our street and saw the neighborhood and his house, the one we had been in only for a few years. Could he have thought for the first time about missing Thanksgiving Service? Probably not; he was surely too worried about us. We had not been hurt, and few people had been. But in that first sight, he could not have known.

By the time he walked through the door, which was standing uselessly open, my mother had pulled the piano into the dining room, not improving its chances of survival very much. But she had gotten a chair wedged in another doorway. They kissed over that chair; he said that everything was going to be all right, and she said that she knew it would be.

Later we found a mirror that was part of a dressing table that had been stored, along with other furniture, in a backyard shed at my grandmother’s house across the street. The walls and the roof of the shed had been picked up, almost like opening a box, and the furniture was undamaged. Even the mirror on a dressing table was unharmed; its stout frame had protected it. Just as it was with the electric car, it was a kind of tornado humor. As it was, too, with the porch swing, it had survived.


As we motored (as we said then) up to the county seat, it was for me as a child a romantic journey; now the trip is only a nostalgic longing for things as they used to be in the old Piedmont. I particularly miss the trees on Main Street that were almost sadistically cut. Some homes, still standing, were by Robert Mills or reminiscent of his style. Some were of brick in a delightful bond that exemplifies both solidity and a nonchalance about money; others were of white clapboard with a flight of steps leading from the lawn to the floor that was called the first, although for the rest of us it was the second—but on that floor was the parlor over the dining room below, along with a sitting (or sometimes a music) room, and the bedrooms with their tester beds covered with mosquito netting. Or at least I imagined so. But that makes no matter. I was only 12 or so, I guess, and then accuracy (as it sometimes does later) falls prey to dream. Around those houses, set low or high, brick or wood, were the hydrangeas, earlier the azaleas, later the heavily fragrant magnolias, and of course, the boxwoods. All part of a dream, a fiction of what we wish we could remember better in that recollection of color and drifting smells with the hope it had not passed.

Now I realize that I never knew enough about the small towns (actually they were just clusters of farm houses) we passed through. They were all kept well with close-cut grass that would brown by mid-July, trimmed shrubbery, well-tended gardens. Some had white-washed automobile tires filled with petunias; others had trees with white-washed trunks to repel borers; and a precious few had a reflecting globe mounted on a pedestal. Only two do I remember now: Ebenezer and Tirzah, grand Hebrew names in that vale of Presbyterians and Baptists. Ebenezer was a neighborhood that had refused, as other communities had, a proposed railroad on the probably realistic grounds that it would scare the cows (or why else should they be called cow-catchers?). How often had I in church heard my father in his dominant monotone demand that the fount of every blessing come to teach him to sing his heart into some melodious sonnet. But when we passed through this village, I remembered another verse:

Here I’ll raise my Ebenezer
Hither by Thy help I’ll come . . . .

With the hymn ringing in my ears, I knew that safely, so far at least, we had come to Ebenezer, “the stone of help.” But then next was Tirzah, “delightfulness, pleasantness,” something like Eden.

Tirzah, a miniscule diversion with its one crossroad. But there was a part of my life that was more important than either name or translation.

Some years before when the tornado destroyed part of our house, we looked for an apartment where we could live until the house was repaired; in our small town, partly because few people had apartments (rented rooms, yes) and partly because other people had been made homeless, too, there were none for us—or one that suited my mother. She decided that we could move all our furniture into the back rooms that had been undamaged and that we could live with all that clutter until the front of the house could be rebuilt. It must have been an ordeal beyond compare for that meticulous housekeeper. But if she decided, we obeyed.

In the kitchen and a bedroom all that furniture came. There was a kind of path, almost like a jungle trail, that led to my parents’ bed and to mine. Between us there was a formidible wall of chairs and chests and tables with room only for the beds and, of course, a stove that was given some respectable distance from the furniture. The kitchen was little better. My grandmother went to stay with a son, and we three lived that way from the Thanksgiving storm until nearly Easter. And into all that confusion came the fourth of us.

Well before the tornado I had asked for a dog for Christmas. After it I think I realized that this would not be the Christmas for a dog, but I imagine I didn’t give up some hope. When Christmas morning came, I heard the whines of a puppy, and I thought I was dreaming. But at the foot of my bed in a small box was an even smaller puppy. How my parents thought they could housebreak a dog amid all our confusion I cannot guess. But they must have known how disappointed I would be without a dog. And there he was, and with discipline he gave us no trouble.

A few years later we had to give him away, and the man who brought us butter and eggs took him, for we knew he would give the dog a good home. The dog left us to go with Mr. Martin to Tirzah. When we went that way, we always stopped to see the dog, now aging like Mr., Martin and the rest of us. Tirzah, land of pleasantness and of my dog.

It was on one of those visits that my mother asked the Martins if they knew where she might find a chest of drawers for our living room. He did, and we went to the furniture repairman (not antique dealer or restorer) he sent us to. The shop had that curious odor of turpentine, linseed oil, and oddly enough, tobacco juice. Perhaps that last was part of the staining process. She found just the chest she seems to have wanted: two small drawers at the top, three large ones beneath; there was a light and delicate inlay around the drawers, even though it is fairly evident it is an early Piedmont Carolina piece. Whatever its provenance, I know its true lineage—a tornado, a dog, and Tirzah.


Now, so many years and all those miles separating us, I can still hear those voices on the darkened front porch, the speakers sitting in the rockers or the swing brought home, softly resolving themselves into sleep, talking of the things of the day and of the past. Then they are nearly drowned—but not quite—by the lonely car that passes down the newly paved street, going slowly, almost apologetically, as if not to disturb those who might be asleep. Accepting the end of the day, with them I am ready, too. Inside, awaiting them, are the clock, the mirror, and the chest; they are with me still.


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