Sallie Walton aka "Nanny" (left) & Sarah Ellen Walton aka "Grandma" (right)
My childhood was rich with memories of wonderful old ladies cooking dumplings, quilting, feeding chickens and dipping snuff. Grandma and Nanny lived only 3 short blocks away and their home was as much home to me as my own, especially in my early childhood. And with home their being close to “The Junction” was the place where many of their friends would stop to visit on the way to Mr. Canady’s grocery store. They were so grand, these beautiful women from dark chocolate brown, to butterscotch brown--- they were the frequent visitors and faces that I loved from my youth.
“Grandma” was Ellen Walton. Her full name was Sarah Ellen but she was just Grandma to me. The only person I ever heard call her “Sarah” when he came to visit was Uncle George, her youngest brother.
“Nanny” was Sallie Walton, who was Grandma’s mother in law--my grandpa’s mother, and she was my great grandmother. Grandma lived in the front part of the house Nanny lived in the back part of the house. But when it was quilting time they came together.
Those two ladies were a daily part of my life till I went to school. The year I went to kindergarten meant school in the morning, but afternoon at Grandma’s and Nanny’s. Those two women were as different in personality, but so similar in lifestyle. It was the quilting that always brought them together. Grandma was born in Horatio Arkansas, the daughter of former slaves, and a strong southern black culture. Nanny was a Choctaw freedwoman, born a slave and raised in the Choctaw Nation. She knew the land, and the country, and would let you know it. Both of them filled my life with the wonders of their country ways and country living.
In the back of their house, they cultivated an incredible vegetable garden together with everything in it from greens, turnips, tomatoes, radishes, beans, corn, onions, and so much more. Chickens provided fresh eggs, and I l loved to watch the chickens eagerly run for the grains of feed that Nanny would toss out to them in the back yard. I had no fear of those chickens, till one day I heard that the rooster had spurred Grandma, and afterwards I rarely ventured into the back yard, unless someone was with me to watch out for that rooster.
I remember that in the afternoons when it was time to go home that I always would awaken from my afternoon nap in Nanny’s bed and never in Grandma’s bed. As much as I spent time with Grandma in the front of the house, it was Nanny to whom I turned for comfort if scared, for food if hungry for a bed, if sleepy. Plus Nanny would always make me “play pretties”. These were lovely pieces of stitched cloth in pretty designs that she would give to me, and I would use them as anything from doilies, to skirts for my dolls, covers for my head, hankies or anything else my 4 year old imagination could come up with. I would always marvel at the colors. (Of course I would later realize that to simply get me out of the way, when she worked on her quilts, she was simply giving me a quilting square of my own to play with.) And I would be content at least for an afternoon to take my “play pretties” and enjoy myself. How I wish I still had at least one of them, now.
In the mornings, I would have my grown up moments with Nanny, when she would let me taste some of her coffee. She would lace the coffee with lots of “Pet Milk” and lots of sugar, and then pour it into the saucer allowing me blow on it “to let it cool” and I would enjoy sipping Nanny’s coffee from that small saucer. But I would only get to have 1 saucer , and could not have any more because if I had too much, well as she put it, “sugar you won’t grow.” Not sure why the coffee might not let me grow or what that meant, but, it was enough to keep me satisfied. In the afternoon, I would get to sip something else---a taste to this day I still have an appetite for and that was sassafras tea. Nanny would get the sassafras bark from someplace in the area, and she would boil the bark which gave the house the sweetest scent, and that the tea had a flavor that takes me back to my childhood every time I taste it.
Those childhood years were special. And how appropriate to have a theme of Grandma’s hands---for the hands of both of those old ladies bring back so many memories.
With Grandma I would always watch her hands while she quilted, making those tiny stitches and the rocking motion of her right hand through 3 layers of cloth.
With Nanny, from her hands, I would taste the wonderful things that she cooked, and when I awakened from my afternoon nap, hers were the hands that comforted me, as I tried to steal another moment’s sleep.
I recall always touching the veins on the back of her hands, and would watch them roll as I touched the back of her hands so softly. Years after Nanny died and Grandma came to live within our house I would watch her as her hands would turn the pages of her Bible that she read in the afternoons. When we would talk, it was Grandma’s smile that I enjoyed, and when we would have our chats I would watch as her hand would play with the curve at the top her “walking stick”, and old cane that she used in the last 10 years or so of her life.
These are the hands that comforted me during my early years. From their guidance and care, I learned to appreciate quilt making and gardening, and so much more. When I quilt I can almost hear Grandma & Nanny talking, and I can also hear the voices of their friends who came over as well, Mrs. Isabel Dodson, Mrs. Callie King, and Mrs. Zonie (Arizona Folks) who came to help with the quilting. All of them were part of life at Grandma’s house and they would sit in the back of house in Nanny’s room, to work on the quilting frame together.
I miss them both, and I know that from the hands of both of those ladies, I was put on a steady course in life, and I like to think that perhaps their hands are still guiding me in so many ways.