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The last words out of Grandmom's
mouth as I left her at the end of the path on my way to the store was,
"Now son, you go straight to the store and hurry back just as quick as
you can. I can't start dinner until you get
back." She placed a special emphasis on "hurry" and "quick."
Grandmom did not buy perishable groceries for more than one meal at a
time. I suppose it was because she did not have a refrigerator for the
first half of her life. After refrigeration was available in
her kitchen, the old habit was hard to break.
Breakfast at her house usually
consisted of buttered toast and coffee for everyone except Pop
Pop. His morning meal also included bacon, eggs,
and cheese. He arose every morning at 2:30 a.m. except on Sundays to go
fish his nets. Grandmom prepared the same breakfast menu for him for 65
of their 70 years of marriage.
Pop Pop began fishing as a
profession when he was 12 years old. It was the only life he
knew ---a life of hard work and little pay. Driving stakes by
hand, setting nets, and hauling fish into his boat required a lot of
strength and energy. After fishing the nets, culling the fish, and
selling them, he would return home for dinner, which Grandmom always
served at 11 a.m. sharp unless she was faced with circumstances beyond
When it was time for Grandmom to
prepare dinner, I knew that I might as well stop whatever I was doing.
She always called me to come in the house where I was directed to take
a seat beside her at the kitchen table. It was there that she
prepared a grocery list of items she needed for dinner.
Her handwriting was a work of
art, and I watched with envy, her steady hand and preciseness of script
as she compiled the list. When finished, she carefully tore away from
the tablet only the amount of paper on which she had written.
The rest of the sheet was stored, along with its tablet, in an upper
drawer of her sideboard. It was used again later in the
afternoon before suppertime.
My job was to carry the list
expeditiously to the store and to bring back the items. For a
7-year-old kid who was spending the summer with his grandparents on
Hatteras Island in the 1940s and who was easily distracted from what
expeditious meant, this presented an opportunity for adventure.
The store was less than a fifth
of a mile from our house. To walk there, to give the list to
a clerk who gathered the items and charged them to Pop Pop's account,
and to return home should have taken no longer than 15
minutes. Sometimes it took me an hour.
Today was one of those days.
When I left on my journey to the
store, it was high tide and the path that led from the front yard to
the sandy road was covered with mud fiddlers that had migrated from the
surrounding saltmarsh. The large claw of the male fiddlers
looked to me to be as large as hedge clippers. The only way
anyone could get me to walk down the path when it was alive with what I
imagined as aggressive bloodthirsty crabs was to hold my hand and walk
with me. Grandmom saw me safely to the road. I had confidence
that by the time I returned, the tide would have fallen enough for the
fiddlers to return to the marsh where they would be out of
sight. And for me, out of sight was out of mind.
Walking in the tire ruts of the
unpaved road was fun. It was when I was forced from these
furrows by an occasional slow moving car that the trek became
tiresome. The sand on the road was loose, coarse, and deep,
which caused me with each step to sink almost to my knees slowing me to
a snail's pace. There were places where the sun's intense
rays heated the sand to an unbearable temperature, forcing me to hop
from one patch of vegetation to another to cool my bare tender
feet. There was a low spot in the road just before I got to
Miss Ursa's house where last night's rain left an inviting puddle of
water. I could not resist, and it did not occur to me that
wading might add minutes to a trip that was supposed to be accomplished
Mr. Nelson and Miss Ursa were
neighbors of my grandparents. Their homeplace was a picturesque scene
of tranquility -- a whitewashed story-and-a-half home built at the turn
of the 20th century, with a large manicured front lawn, nestled in a
thicket of live oaks, whose branches were draped with Spanish
moss. As I approached their home, I was distracted
from my hike to the store. Mr. Nelson and some of his friends
were playing croquet on the front lawn. I loitered on the edge of the
road in a gentle summer breeze beside a storm-gnarled red
cedar. For 10 minutes or more I witnessed an exciting and
competitive sporting event. Even with no activity, the scenic
beauty of the spot slowed me down every time I passed as my eyes drank
just one of the many flavors from the goblet of the island's simplistic
charm. This is still true today.
On towards the store was the
village barbershop. As I approached, I noticed that Mr. Damon was not
cutting hair but was sitting on the front porch of his shop
whittling a piece of wood into the image of a shorebird. The
clean crisp aroma from the cypress shavings filled my nostrils. I stood
mesmerized by his talent. While the piece of wood slowly took the shape
of a goose, the minutes ticked away. Finally, he asked me
where I was going. He encouraged me on towards the store when
he learned that I was not just wiling away the time but was on one of
Grandmom's grocery missions. He knew she would be upset if I
didn't return in a reasonable amount of time.
Just past the barbershop was the
famous Hatteras Weather Bureau. I always stopped and observed
whether one of the flags, which alerted the islanders to impending
weather, was being hoisted up the flagpole. Today my preoccupation was
watching the weatherman collect data from the instruments located in a
white louvered box on the front lawn. Then he launched a
weather balloon. What a spectacle! It took at least
10 minutes before the balloon was out of sight and I was able to resume
Mr. Dolph's general store had a large
porch that covered the entire front of the building. Rarely
was there a time when someone was not sitting on one of several benches
on the front porch, visiting with the customers as they entered and
left the store. Often folks just sat there to escape from the
heat of the summer's sun.
I spotted Mr. Victor sitting on
the porch. This meant trouble. It seemed to me that every
time I came alone to the store, he was there. Mr. Victor
loved to chew tobacco, as did so many of the men who lived at
Hatteras. Pop Pop started chewing when he was 9 years old,
and I 'm sure Mr. Victor was no different. Watching the
enjoyment and pleasure he derived from moving the plug of tobacco from
one cheek to another and spitting the juice made me want to try
Occasionally, I would sneak a
small leaf from Pop Pop's tobacco plug that he kept on the table behind
his rocking chair in the sitting room of his house. I usually
hid in an upper branch of an oak tree in the front yard, and when I was
sure no one was looking, I slipped it in my mouth and began to
chew. I tried to like it but all I ever experienced was a
gagging reflex. I figured I must be doing something wrong,
but I never did discover what it was.
At any rate, Mr. Victor's
favorite pastime was spitting on the bare toes of the children when
they passed near the corner of the porch where he was
sitting. His was a perfect shot wherever he aimed.
I avoided him like the plague. As I approached him, I jumped and danced
around trying to avoid his deadly aim, but no matter how hard I tried
he hit his target. The feel of slimy tobacco spittle between my toes
made my skin crawl. His pleasure of accomplishment was directly
proportional to my displeasure. The bigger the fuss I made,
the harder he laughed. I knew from experience that if I tried
to run past him to avoid his spittle attack, he would calmly remove the
moist plug from his cheek and throw it at me. It was better
by far to pass close by him and take the chance of his artillery
missing my feet than have a plug with its unerring aim come barreling
at my head.
I always liked Mr.
Victor. He was a rather cute, toothless old man whose long
nose almost touched his protruding chin when his mouth was
closed. His tan face, whose skin was almost leather-like from
years of exposure to the sun, and his belly laugh which rolled up from
deep within him when he made me dance, reminded me of a character from
one of my childhood stories. Even today when I visit the site
of Mr. Dolph's general store, I miss Mr. Victor's strange way of
Once in the store, I gave the
grocery list to my aunt who worked there as a clerk. I always
called her Sister. She was the kindest, gentlest, sweetest
person I have ever known, and she was also the slowest.
Sister did not rush for anyone. She worked at a steady pace,
always got the job done and did it right, but she did not hurry through
it. Before she gathered the few items on Grandmom's list, I
talked her into buying me an ice cream bar, which she made me consume
before returning home. We both knew that Grandmom did not
want me to eat anything that might spoil my dinner. This
created a further delay in my quest to bring home the groceries.
Returning home, I had all the
same distractions again but in reverse order. I knew I was in
trouble when I heard my name being shouted across the nearby
saltmarsh. Turning into the path that led to the house, I saw
Grandmom, dressed in her faded ankle-length frock protected by a bibbed
apron, with a concerned look on her face. She was pacing back
and forth on the piazza, wringing her hands and hollering my name to
the top of her lungs.
My well being was not Grandmom's
concern, for she knew a child anywhere in Hatteras village during the
'40s was as safe as he would be in his mother's arms. Adults throughout
the village watched everyone's children and made them behave.
Her concern was that she needed to have dinner on the table at 11
o'clock. No one demanded that of her, including Pop
Pop, who had not eaten since the early hours of the morning.
It was a self-imposed curse that drove her to be punctual and created
her distress if dinner was not ready at that time.
I wanted to make a desperate dash
towards the house trying to make up for wasted time, but I could
not. The mud fiddlers were still on the path, and no one
could make me walk through them alone. I could not complete
the last leg of this odyssey with them there. I knew by the tone of
Grandmom's shouting that she was aggravated with me for holding up
dinner, and I was so frustrated and scared by the sight of all the mud
fiddlers on the path that I started crying.
Grandmom stepped down from the
piazza, waded through the fiddlers, and met me at the road.
She must have felt sorry for me because she leaned over, gave me a kiss
on the forehead, put her arms around me, and escorted me safely back to
At 3 o'clock that afternoon
Grandmom's shouts for me could be heard all over the
neighborhood. I climbed down from the oak tree where I
imagined that I was an airplane pilot flying over the island.
I met her in the kitchen at the table. She prepared her
grocery list and passed it to me. "Son, it's almost time for
supper," she said, "and I need some things from the store. I want you
to take this list and go straight to the store and hurry back just as
quick as you can. I can't start supper until you get back.
There was the familiar
emphasis on "hurry" and "quick."
It was low tide. The
fiddler crabs were back in the marsh. She served supper at 4
p.m. sharp unless she was faced with circumstances beyond her control.