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What’s inside that Prince Albert Can?

When Granny tucked things into a Prince Albert tobacco can, I’m sure she didn’t think I’d look in that tin can 76 years later and find gifts.  But I did.

The four-inch tall, flat can is wrapped in thick grocery bag brown paper and penciled on the paper is Property Ett Rich Sept 25 -1941. I chuckle when I read Ett. Named Juda Etta Rich, her friends called her Ett, but she signed Etta Rich on checks. I never knew she referred to herself as Ett.

The red on the front and back of the can is worn off, imprinted on the backside of the brown paper wrapper. The can’s top and bottom are rusty. As I carefully force the lid open, I see fabric. A woman’s silk handkerchief, wadded into a ball, with black embroidered edges. The fabric so delicate, I fear I’ll tear it. It’s like others that Granny carried – stuffed in her bosom or sometimes she knotted a few coins tightly in the handkerchief corner and then stuck it in her apron pocket.

And a small, crocheted bag. Only about three inches across the bottom, a semi-circle shape with a one-inch handle. Surely it was white or cream colored at one time; not the dingy beige it is now. Was this someone’s change purse? Who made these treasures? Not Granny. She quilted, but never held a crochet hook. Maybe her mother, Elizabeth Huddleston Rich who died in 1921? Or one of Granny’s two sisters?

Tucked in the bottom of the can is a folded paper. Using tweezers I ease it out. A 5” x 8” blue-lined tan school paper. It’s a letter penciled in cursive in the traditional friendly letter format: heading, greeting, body, closing, and signature. Granny’s sister, Mary, signed it.

This family document is headed with Caddo, Oklahoma, dated June 28, 1922, and addressed Dear Sir. With no corrections, the one sentence body of the letter reads as follows: Please permit Ett Rich to take my part of Father Bank account To Pay expencies. Signed: Yours Truly, Mrs. Mary Pierce.

As I hold this crinkled old paper, I can see Granny at Pickett County Bank in Byrdstown, Tennessee, as she signed forms to transfer her father’s money from her sister’s name to hers. David Rich died March 1922, just months after his wife’s death. Granny and her sister Dona lived in Byrdstown; Mary and her husband had moved west.

So Granny was the executor of her father’s estate. I knew she continued to live on the family farm, the home place, for a many years. Where did Granny keep this document for almost twenty years before she stored it in the Prince Albert can? Why were that handkerchief and small bag inside?

I have to think Granny valued these items as family keepsakes. And reading the letter and handling the crocheted bag and handkerchief connects me with great-grandparents and a great aunt I never knew. Thank you for this gift, Granny.

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Sharing Granny stories

Elizabeth Rose, a storyteller at Storyfest last Saturday, reminded me that people never really die when we tell stories about them. Although Granny, my paternal grandmother, left this earth in 1982, she lives on when I share her with my Grands.

            Granny dipped snuff, quilted, and raised a garden. She watched Saturday night wrestling, and sometimes when it was too rough she’d cover her eyes with her hands and peek through her fingers. She knew all the characters, their flaws, strengths, and transgressions, on The Edge of Night, a weekday soap opera that aired from 1952-1986.

And Granny raised chickens. Every spring she bought baby chicks from the Farmer’s Co-op and they lived in cardboard boxes on the closed-in back porch until they were strong enough to thrive in the henhouse.

Some chicks grew to be laying hens and some went in the freezer on chicken killing day. I have no idea how Granny determined which three month old chickens lived or died, but she chose the fryers. She’d grab a chicken, hold it tightly, and with a quick twist of her wrist, she’d wring its neck. Dad then tied a string around the chicken’s feet and hung it on our metal clothesline until Granny was ready to dip it into a black kettle of boiling water to loosen the feathers so they could be picked off.

The best Granny story was one my brother, Roger, told. Granny was a cook at a Byrdstown restaurant and walked home after work. She wore a white nylon uniform and a bib apron, tied around her neck and waist. She walked home after work and she’d stop at the hen house to gather eggs.

Roger often ran out the back door of our house to greet Granny. One day, when he was about 9 years old, he noticed prickly dried sweet gum balls on the ground, and Roger thought it’d be funny to surprise Granny and stick her with a sweet gum ball. He hid behind the hen house when she went inside.

Granny held up the bottom of her apron to form a pouch, reached under the sitting chickens to get the eggs, and placed them in her apron. She usually gathered 6 or more eggs. As she walked out of the hen house, Roger crept behind her.  He stuck a gumball right through her thin uniform on her behind.

Granny screamed. She threw her hands high above her head. She jumped and stumbled, but she didn’t fall. Eggs flew into the air, then hit the ground. When Roger told the story, he’d imitate Granny’s screaming and jumping and tears of laughter ran down his cheeks.

Granny and Daddy didn’t think much of my brother’s antics. Roger said Dad made sure he never did surprised Granny again.

Telling stories also leads to questions. How did she get the chicken feathers off? Did you ever gather eggs? What’s a gum ball?

Everyone can tell family stories. Try it and keep those you’ve loved and lost alive.

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Granny’s Christmas Gifts

searchMy Grands would never ask me “Will tobacco sell high this year?” but that’s a question I asked my granny when I was a young girl and sat beside her on her couch. In her lap, Granny held a cardboard gift box lid filled with cracked black walnuts, and she held a metal nut picker in her hand.

After Thanksgiving, Granny spent most days fretting about the price of tobacco and picking black walnuts out of their shells. She’d say, “I don’t know how much I can give you for Christmas. It depends on what my tabaccy sells for. At least the walnuts are good this year.” The tobacco had been grown on the family farm and although Granny never came close to it – not to plant or sucker or hoe or cut or stalk or strip or haul it – it was her tobacco because it grew on her parents’ farmland where she grew up.

While Granny, my paternal grandmother, fretted about tobacco prices, her hands stayed busy. She kept a list of people to give a pound of black walnuts and she touched every nut – several times. Two walnut trees stood close to the tobacco field. In October when the nuts, enclosed in green and yellow thick hard hulls, began to fall, Granny picked them up –filling many five-gallon buckets. Not a single nut was left on the ground. She and I searched for nuts that rolled far from the trees or hid under leaves.

Granny was impatient waiting for those green hard hulls to soften and turn black. She laid some nuts on her wooden back porch and used a hammer and chisel to remove the hulls, but most nuts were taken to our house. When the hulls began to turn black, we spread the nuts on our gravel driveway. The mushy hulls fell off under the pressure of the cars’ tires. Then Granny and I wore brown cotton gloves, designated the walnut gloves, and rubbed the remaining scraps of the hull from the thick shell. It was a nasty job.

After that, Granny spread the nuts on flattened brown cardboard boxes to dry and cure inside her house for at least two weeks. Again, she was impatient and because she and I liked the flavor of green walnuts, she’d crack and pick out nutmeats for us to eat. (More than once I had a green walnut stomachache.) Granny used a hand operated lever nutcracker, mounted on a two-foot tall log, to crack the thick, hard shells. She held each nut securely, in perfect position so that the shell practically fell away from the nutmeat.

Granny’s sharp nut picker was a precise tool in her hands, and she didn’t let me or anyone else, use it. She removed half and quarter pieces, and then she’d spread those nutmeats on newspaper to dry out for a few days. Figuring that a quart jar measured a pound, she measured and then filled empty Christmas card boxes with walnuts.

Granny’s Christmas gifts depended on the growing season. Family and friends were always glad when the walnuts were good. And if tobacco sold really high, I got a crisp five-dollar bill stuck inside a Christmas card, but some years I got a one-dollar bill. No wonder I asked about the price of tobacco.

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