Introduction: The Heirloom Vines
The snow was so thick, that winter day in 1899, that two horses pulled a sled, to relocate my great-grandparents and their belongings from Davidson County, NC, to Winston-Salem, NC. Traveling with my great-grandparents, David Israel Long and Lillie Victoria Charles Long, was their first-born, an infant daughter, Susan Hope Long, my grandmother. My great-grandparents brought heirloom seeds, slips, cuttings, and vines, to nurture and protect, until spring, when they would transplant the tender heirlooms into the rich garden soil of their new home site. Among these was the Scuppernong vine.
David Israel Long purchased farmland at the south-eastern end of Winston-Salem, in the village of Waughtown, overlooking the rolling hills of the Piedmont. There, he built a sturdy two-story farmhouse for his family, which would grow to include eight children who survived infancy. He also built a barn, a Summer House [an outdoor kitchen], and other essential out-buildings.
In 1918, my grandmother married and designed her first and only home, an Arts & Crafts Bungalow, in Waughtown. Their home-site contained gardens and meadows. From her parents’ gardens, only one or two miles away, my grandmother brought heirloom seeds, slips, cuttings, and vines, and, eventually, the new gardens flourished under her skillful care. My father, Alton Bernard “Nobby” Blair, was born in that home, in 1919, in a sturdy four-poster bed that remains in my family. He married my mother, Margaret Elizabeth “Peg” Van Hoy, in 1946, and his military career took him and his growing family far away from Waughtown.
The farthest he ever traveled from Waughtown was to Japan, during the years 1957-1958, when he was an Air Force commander on a radar base on top of a mountain in Hokkaido. My mother, sister, brother, and I stayed behind, in Yadkinville, NC, which was a short drive from Winston-Salem. During this time, my brother, Michael, was an infant; I was four and five years old; and my sister, Susan, was eight and nine. We two sisters enjoyed extended visits at my grandmother’s home, during the summers:
The Summers of 1957 & 1958:
I remember what large hands my grandmother had: skillful, hard-working hands; wide, with thick fingers. [In contrast, my mother’s hands were “aristocratic” and delicate, with long, thin fingers.] With those hands, “Mommo” [MAW-maw] taught us [her granddaughters] how to knit and crochet. She also sewed clothing for us and for our dolls. With her sister, my Aunt Elizabeth “Bill” Long, she created beautiful, colorful, and warm quilts. Mommo planted her gardens, carefully tended them, canned the produce, and stored the glass jars in the cool, dark cellar.
Mommo washed our hair in the kitchen sink. Corky was Mommo’s pet parakeet; we watched him bathe and play in a trickle of water from the sink faucet, after Mommo rinsed our hair.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember my grandfather, “Daddah” [Raymond Earl] Blair, very well, but I do remember that Corky perched on his shoulder while he – [Daddah, not Corky!] — read the newspaper, after returning home from his office at the Southern-Pacific Railway.
During the summer, the Waughtown uncles, aunts, and cousins came over to Mommo’s house, to prepare for special occasions, like birthdays and holidays. The uncles set up long folding tables in the spacious side garden, the aunts helped in the kitchen, and we cousins played: we hiked to a nearby pond to catch tadpoles; visited the mule in the meadow; played with Walkie-Talkies, made out of tin cans and string; and explored the detached Summer House,which I remember as a detached old-fashioned kitchen.
If it was The Fourth of July, we always made homemade ice cream: one of my uncles was in charge of the hand-crank machine. Toward the end of the freezing, my uncle placed a thick towel on top of the machine, grabbed a young boy cousin, and sat him on top of the thick towel. How this assisted the freezing, I cannot remember.
At dusk, we cousins picked juicy figs from the garden and ate them. Then, we played Tagor Hide and Seek, often hiding in the detached garage, which had an earthen floor and housed the 1954 green Chevy. In the evenings, we caught fireflies in clear glass jars, after the adults helped us to punch holes in the metal lids. And finally, after dark, we ate the homemade ice cream and the adults helped us to set off firecrackers: a perfect ending to a perfect day.
One summer morning, Mommo was dressed, as usual, in a house dress, apron, and low pumps. [She never wore trousers or shorts, unless she was mowing the lawn, vacationing at the beach, or on a camping trip.] This particular morning, a man with a flatbed truck arrived to deliver live chickens in wire cages. Mommo carefully chose her chickens and paid the delivery man. She carried the wire cages and a broom out to the back garden. Then, she opened up the wire cage and grabbed one of the chickens by the neck. Imagine her, in her house dress, apron, and pumps, as she took the broom handle and placed it over the chicken’s neck. She then straddled the broom handle, placing one of her pumps on either side of the chicken’s neck. We watched, fascinated, as she reached over, lifted that poor creature’s feet and – YANK! — the head disengaged. For years, my mother admonished us: “Stop running around like a chicken with its head cut off!” However, I had never seen that simile in action, until the day I watched that headless chicken run zigzags around the backyard.
After the chicken finally keeled over, Mommo drained the blood, and carried it into the kitchen, to begin the mind-numbing and tedious work of plucking the feathers. I offered to help and began the joint task with considerable zeal, as we sat in the kitchen and worked tete a tete and “knee to knee.” However, after only a few minutes, I sighed heavily and asked Mommo if I could go outside and play. To my relief, she smiled and said “Yes.” She seemed to understand that I was a young child and needed to play with my siblings and cousins in the daylight hours.
Mommo stewed the chicken in a large stockpot, on top of the range-top on the electric stove. Next to the kitchen was a shaded screened porch, which had a large table. I returned from my outdoor play, in time to help her roll out the dough for the dumplings, cut long strips, and shake salt and pepper over the strips. When the stew was finally ready, Mommo opened the screen door and called all the family in for supper. I can still hear the satisfying “thump” and “slap” of the wooden-framed screen door, as we, the cousins, opened the screen door, one by one, and allowed it to slam shut behind us.
There was only one time that I disappointed Mommo and, to this day, I regret my childish irresponsibility: I was, perhaps, five years of age and one morning, at breakfast, Mommo told me to stay near the house and be ready to try on some clothes, which she was sewing for me. However, an hour or two later, my cousins and siblings suggested, “Let’s go to the pond and catch some tadpoles!” I was off like a shot. I simply forgot that Mommo needed me. When I returned, Mommo was angry with me and I was filled with shame. I had not meant to be naughty; I merely forgot, because I was so young.
All too soon, the summer was over and it was time for me to return to preschool or kindergarten and ballet and tap lessons. We packed up and said goodbye to Mommo. We returned the weekend closest to Mommo’s birthday [September 16]. By then, the Scuppernongs were ripe and the fragrance pervaded the gardens, where we celebrated her birthday and picked the ripe wild grapes.
During those summers, I was a young “slip” of a girl. I was like one of the “cuttings” from my grandmother’s heirloom Scuppernong vine, which she kept in a pristine glass jar on her sunny kitchen windowsill, where she nurtured and protected each tender sprout.
Like the patchwork pieces of fabric in my grandmother’s quilts, I had been “cut from the same cloth” as she, and I was connected to her: Whether or not we shared the same geography, her presence was with me, all the same. I flourished, strong and healthy, safe and happy, under her capable hands and attentive eyes.
~~~Margot Blair Payne
Written in the year 2010, on September 16: the birthday of Susan Hope Long Blair, my grandmother.