The High & the Low

Sheltering…at Home

A few thoughts on looking forward while remembering the past

Photo: Michael Witte

The first thing I did at the dawn of our new era of social distancing, sheltering in place, hunkering down, holing up—pick your preferred term for the new normal—was to order a ham. I know, I know. Dorothy Parker said, “Eternity is a ham and two people,” and a week into it, a lot of folks were already feeling as though an eternity had passed. But this is a beautiful, manageable ham, made of superior Berkshire pork, bone-in, uncured and smoked, from D’Artagnan, the New Jersey–based purveyor of deliciousness that has long been one of my lifelines. (I live in two places where the butcher, if such a person in fact exists, looks at you as though you have lost your mind when you request such exotica as a simple lamb shoulder or a breast of Muscovy duck.) Also, since the second “person” with whom I am isolating is my beloved beagle, Henry, the ham would not last close to an eternity, but about two and a half minutes tops, should I let him anywhere near it (though I do share part of my lunchtime sandwich).

Henry and I are extraordinarily lucky. At this point, I swear I’ve ordered enough food to feed us and the friends and family for whom I carefully drop off packages until well into the next decade. Our particular shelter is a light-filled, book-lined house with green pastures out the windows and a yard in which the bulbs, trees, and vines change almost daily and the increasingly plump birds flock to my six constantly refilled feeders. I have always been something of a scaredy-cat—even as an adult I was terrified to stay in my parents’ house alone—but I feel safe here, nourished. I cook like a demon, read the poems of Mary Oliver and Jim Harrison, and rejoice in nature and my solitude. So far.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the other, earlier places where I’ve been happiest and most secure, which means I’ve been revisiting my maternal grandparents’ house in Nashville. On the face of it, that particular dwelling is an unlikely choice. Countless cases of Beefeaters were consumed on the premises along with daily packs (or two or three) of Pall Malls (and later, Vantage), and there was a great deal of hollering back and forth (out of anger, oh yes indeed, but also out of necessity, as my grandfather was deaf as a post). The phone rang often in the early morning hours because in those days my aunt, who lived nearby, was not what we might call in the very best shape. Still, such was my love for the place and the depth of my memories there that the long-out-of-use phone number is still my most frequent password. (The ancient black phone resided on a game table in the back hall along with a bronze bear on a marble base that is now in my possession.) 

I adored my grandmother beyond all reason, but to the outside world she was anything but warm and fuzzy. Always immaculately put together, even when she wasn’t planning on leaving the house, she rarely descended the stairs in anything less than full makeup and perfect hair (styled almost exactly the same as Queen Elizabeth’s), and never once did I see her bare fingernails, which were forever sheathed in two coats of Revlon’s Windsor. People called her “the Duchess,” and when my uncle (my aunt’s second husband, whom I also adored) imitated her, he plopped an enormous Baccarat crystal ashtray atop his hand, such was the eye-popping size of the pear-shaped diamond ring she wore every day. But I always knew that stuff was armor protecting a kind and very shy soul, and to me her only title was Ga. Until I got too big to fit, I slept with her in one of the two single beds in the bedroom she and my grandfather shared. The image is enough to startle Child Protective Services, not to mention my mother, who will quake at the description: Ga and my grandfather, each flat on their backs beneath their respective sheets, wearing black satin eye masks and snoring away while I watched my grandmother’s last cigarette burn to the end in the dark.

In the daytime I explored the house, which in those hours was hushed and cool, protected from the outside world by heavy silk damask curtains and wildly unlike our sprawling, light-filled, board-and-batten one-story house in the Mississippi Delta, where I actually lived. It had a basement that smelled like laundry and country ham, an elevator (!) that I wore out, and a kitchen where Ernestine Turner, both my and my grandmother’s most constant companion, made black-eyed peas with fried hot-water cornbread pretty much every day for lunch (though Ga opted instead for jellied madrilene or chicken salad on toast). 

In the basement laundry room, I’d curl up in the big old wooden bed and listen to the endlessly entertaining chatter of Josephine, Ernestine’s sister, and Louis King, their father, while the soul channel played on the radio. They taught me how to do the Funky Chicken in that room, the only dance I’ve ever mastered. But my favorite place, my hidden, private place, was the luggage room off the bar. It smelled thrillingly of leather and old canvas, and the suitcases themselves, covered in labels from my grandparents’ travels, served as the perfect head- and backrests for reading. I’d spend hours lost in the exploits of the Bobbsey Twins or the Melendy family, breaking only to cadge olives and cocktail onions from the tiny bar fridge next door. 

Now, of course, I’m acutely aware that the safety I felt was made possible by the help that made our days so easy, the sheets crisp and tight as a drum, the surfaces dust free and gleaming. When I slept in the tiny room between the basement door and the kitchen, my wake-up call was Louis crushing ice in the hand-cranked crusher (also in my possession) and the sizzle of frying sausage. Without them there would not have been nearly as much love and laughter and camaraderie or just plain fun. Louis and Josephine took me fishing at Centennial Park, where we’d sit on overturned buckets, thread our hooks with worms, and wait patiently while eating tomato sandwiches. Fishing with my grandmother was an entirely different affair. One of my favorite photos from that era is of my cousin Frances and me in matching shorts and shirts on the edge of a stocked trout pond while my grandmother stood some distance away smoking, in a crisp shirtdress and Delman pumps, sunglasses firmly on her face, alligator pocketbook hanging from her arm.

During the summer of 1969, my days were also spent around my aunt’s pool, site of a constant house party that included endless pitchers of Bloody Marys and not just a little drama. Tupper Saussy, musician and songwriter (“Morning Girl,” “Heighdy-Ho Princess”), watercolorist, and jack-of-many-other-trades, stood in the pool for hours on end reciting lines from Cactus Flower (he had a starring role in a local production), prompted by his wife, Lola. When the astronauts landed on the moon, we all gathered around the Sony Trinitron while Tupper took to the piano and scored the event. 

I continued my prolonged annual visits to Nashville but eventually, as they always do, things changed. My aunt went off and got herself together, shut down the shindigs, and divorced my uncle (I stayed close to both until the end). My grandmother had a stroke. By then summers were more and more spent in the Delta, where the main goal was to get out of the house. First to our backyard pool, where our neighbors’ kids and all their older friends were allowed over to swim after dinner. We played Splash and Marco Polo until my 10:30 curfew—just in time to pile in my bed with towel-dried hair and watch my number-one boyfriend, Johnny Carson, who offered up a lesson in sheer brilliance every night. 

Later, of course, summers revolved around cars outfitted with eight-track tape players and loaded with twelve-packs of the Miller ponies we bought illegally at the Spur station on the corner of Broadway and Alexander. My friend McGee’s mother overheard us making whispered plans to score some once and went bananas: “Don’t think I don’t know that pony is slang for heroin!” We doubled over at that and smoked pot and Marlboro Reds instead and put so many miles on my ’66 Mustang convertible we could’ve driven to Canada and back twice. 

So now here we are, not desperate to hit the road but discovering the joys of our own versions of the luggage room. At night I make a gin martini with both olives and onions and toast to the memory of my grandparents. There are stacks of books to read and reread (I may even take up the Melendys again), so many letters to write, and five tote bags to empty out, after which I will be filled with virtue. And maybe most important, there is my beloved collection of vinyl that finally has a home and a brand-new turntable on which to play the hits of summers past as well as a few that have newfound resonance. 

This article appears in the June/July 2020 issue of  Garden & Gun. Start your subscription here or give a gift subscription here.