It’s difficult to recall when I first began collecting pieces of history from individuals within my family. I think I knew one day I’d want to revisit some things, and remember some of the characters who made my early years so memorable.
My collection runs from the convenient items, like my Granny’s omelet pan, to the purely sentimental, like my Grandpa’s pipe and shaving kit. Yet they all come with a story, and in spite of pleas from friends and suitors early on, I never relented because an item “didn’t go with the décor” or it somehow didn’t fit. Today, I manage a small archive of items in my home office that matter only to me, and when I meet someone who has done the same, it touches my heart.
On a Friday or Saturday night, I would stay over at Ma Permenter’s house and listen to her tune her guitar before she started an evening of singing. My daddy would tease her, saying she “couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket” or ask if she knew how to play “Behind the Bridge.”
When she answered no, he’d respond, “Well, I wish you’d go behind the bridge to play it!”
This would set them all off cackling, and eventually, my Pa Permenter could even be convinced to sing a round of “Casey Jones” before the evening was out. My cousin Hugh who we picked up annually at the Greyhound station with his cardboard suitcase would often be visiting each spring, and he’d play backup for both my grandparents on his harmonica.
In her later years, Ma was told by her doctor she should have a glass of wine before bed, as it would be good for her insomnia. Before that, she’d never taken a drink, but on that very day she’d gone out and bought herself a set of new wineglasses, a quadruplet of Anchor Hocking stemware. In her words, she’d gotten permission “to sin a little” from her doctor. She’d then stopped at a liquor store and bought herself some Mogen David wine. She’d never have more than two glasses, but in her 70’s and having been a teetotaler, she was quite a character.
Strumming her guitar, Laura Elisabeth would sip wine from her new glass as it sat on a stool my Pa had made when he was just a teenager. I loved the stool, because I could see the cuts in the wood Pa had made as a young man, sawing and nailing it into a perfectly solid footstool. Resting her foot upon it, Ma would start in with the standards, then work her way up to something current. And by current in 1968, that meant “Harper Valley PTA.”
My grandmother would stroke the neck of her guitar, sliding her bejeweled hands up and down, until she found a chord that would work for her. She’d have at least three false starts, crooning and humming, trying to get her key down, which tickled us all. Each week, she might also have tried a new “rinse” on her hair, and we never knew the outcome or the color, but she didn’t care. On Friday nights, Ma held mini concerts in her tiny living room off Highway 21.
“I wanna tell you all a story ’bout a Harper Valley widowed wife,
Who had a teenage daughter who attended Harper Valley Junior High,
Well her daughter came home one afternoon and didn’t even stop to play,
And she said.”Mom I got a note here from the Harper Valley PTA.”
Well the note said, “Mrs. Johnson, you’re wearing your dresses way too high
It’s reported you’ve been drinkin’ and runnin’ round with men and goin’ wild
And we don’t believe you oughta be a bringin’ up your little girl this way.”
And it was signed by the secretary, “Harper Valley PTA.”
My grandmother reveled in the song, because it spoke to her of small town gossips and hypocrisy, and something deeper. She was a working woman from the 1950’s on and had always said the farm life wasn’t meant for her. And I’m sure she’d experienced her share of judgement around the fact she worked in sales outside her home. My grandfather was legally blind from a case of German measles he contracted as a boy and was only able to work their plot of land. So somehow, this song spoke to her and by the time she reached the “good parts,” as she dubbed the lyrics, her voice would be in full throttle, just maybe a bit off key.
“Well Mr. Harper couldn’t be here ’cause he stayed too long at Kelly’s Bar again
And if you smell Shirley Thompson’s breath you’ll find she’s had a little nip of gin
And then you have the nerve to tell me, you think that as a mother I’m not fit
Well this is just a little Peyton Place, and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites.”
Now, my maternal grandmother never had a drink in her entire life. Granny Gibbs would save flour sacks and cloth patterns she liked from my uncle’s old shirts, or a piece of fabric a neighbor would give her from something they’d made. I still recall her cutting buttons off shirts, placing them in her button jar, saving a sailboat pattern for a piece of her newest quilt. She’d never driven a car, and walked everywhere unless she was driven by a relative, as my Grandpa didn’t drive either. But she loved to hear the adventures of my Ma Permenter, and she’d giggle when I told her Ma had taken up a glass of wine or two each night “for her nerves” on doctor’s orders.
“Woo, baby, I’d have to have something stronger than wine for my nerves.” She’d laugh and nod in my Grandpa’s direction. Then she’d commence to sewing another piece of cloth into her latest quilt design, before going to get my bellowing Grandpa some “cornbread and milk” before his bedtime. She’d sit in her tiny living room after he went to bed, still rocking, her reading glasses perched on the end of her nose, making the most intricate stitches into extravagant, beautiful patterns.
Today, I’m grateful I’ve held onto the treasures of my family, as those things that mattered to them now mean the world to me. They speak to our history, our culture and those times that shaped so many good people before us. I hold onto these remnants because not everything is disposable or replaceable, and one day I hope to find another young historian in my family who understands that new doesn’t mean better, and old doesn’t mean outdated.
Some things are sacred, and always will be, as remnants to recall the history of those who created us, who cared for us and sacrificed so much to move us forward, farther than their wildest dreams.