The best audience? Grandchildren.
My children had little patience for listening to the “back when I was your age” tales of my life. Chores like plucking stinky chicken feathers from our home-raised and slaughtered chickens or washing clothes in a wringer washer that wrung my arm just as mercilessly as the clothes seemed to have little relevance to their own lives.
Besides, my stories were exaggerated, they implied with their raised eyebrows and rolling eyeballs.
Still, I persisted, and told them about the times I spent daily walking a mile alone to the corner store to buy a loaf of bread or a stick of oleo or anything else we needed in Florida’s baking sun, then walking home again when I was barely six years old.
They were unimpressed by my chores, since their own included collectively carrying a half cord of split wood into the house each day to be consumed entirely within 24 hours in an almost-futile attempt to keep the West Virginia winter at bay.
Then overnight, it seemed, they were parents themselves, admonishing their own children to do their chores, telling them how tough it had been to carry that much wood into the house, which was as effective an approach as my lessons had been a generation earlier.
Then, unexpectedly, a curious grandson whispered to me one day that he wanted to know more about my chickens. My chickens? His mother must have told him about that nasty job of mine when I was his age–of having to plunge headless, bloody chickens into wash tubs of hot water, pulling out feathers that clung to my hands, the pungent smell stealing my breath.
Yes, but he clamored for details. How did they lose their heads? When I told him, he was hooked on the “adventures” of my young life in south Florida.
He listened raptly during my tales of frogging at night in the Everglades from airboats, using long poles with a piece of an old tire nailed to the end to knock those frogs senseless. Only their legs came home with us, and my poor stepmother screamed the first time she fried them up and the heat caused them suddenly to hop around the pan.
His eyes grew wider as I told him about the snakes that came into our house regularly; how we had to check the limbs of the guava trees before we clamored up to pick their musky fruit, just in case diamondbacks had gotten there first; how we had to shake loose from our shoes the scorpions that had crawled inside during the night, and how once my brother had thrown his jeans on the floor before he went to bed, and a scorpion crawled inside a pants leg. When he sat down at breakfast, his yells could be heard all the way to Key Largo, I’m sure.
No wonder grandparents love their grandchildren so. They listen eagerly to our tales, unclouded by judgment.
My grandson asked if we had lived in a log cabin. Not exactly, I told him, understanding how wildly rustic our lives must have seemed to him.
My father had built a one-room shanty on five acres of land next to the then-Seaboard Railroad tracks, with roofing paper as siding and tin for a roof. That’s where we lived as he finished building our “real” house. The shanty remained intact for more than 30 years, even through hurricanes, because its bones were of Dade County pine.
He had asked his mother for a rifle, after he found out that I’d had one at age 12 to shoot marsh rabbits, so I knew I was in hot water with her for telling him also about my other solo adventures: sailing at age nine, driving a car at 11, taking out a boat at 12.
We ceased to discuss those, and in a nonsequitur typical of 10-year-old boys, he asked what had been my favorite cereal for breakfast.
My answer: Kellogg’s Corn Soya. Tiny shreds of corn meal and, I guess, soy meal that looked like miniature strips of bacon created a taste unlike anything I’d ever eaten. Half a century later, that still remains true.
First appearing in the early ‘50s as a protein breakfast for men to build muscle, the Kellogg marketers must have realized they had eliminated entire segments of the population, so the man’s face dominating the front of the box was replaced by a bowl of Corn Soya and a spoon. The bowl was bright red, but I preferred that handsome face.
Kellogg’s broke my heart when they discontinued the cereal. Its taste still lingers in my mind, but my grandson’s attention had waned.
What he has yet to learn, though, is that retelling the tale is more fun than living it in the first place–except when it comes to eating a bowl of Corn Soya.