When my younger brother and I were boys, we regularly visited our paternal grandparents, Eugene and Ora Cooper, in West Texas. Two or three times a year we would board a plane in Southern California, where we lived with our parents, and fly down for a ten-day stay at Grandpa’s and Granny’s farmhouse located just inside the city line on the east side of Roscoe, a little town 201 miles due west of Fort Worth. The surrounding property included a large garden, an orchard, and the remnants of the family chicken hatchery business, which operated from the 1930s through the 1950s.
If my brother and I happened to be visiting during spring vacation, one sure-fire situation that we would find ourselves in the middle of shortly after arrival would be planting the quarter-acre garden. This spring planting would ordinarily have been carried out a little earlier but, with Granny knowing that the two California grandsons would soon be on hand, she would put it off until we were on the scene. The first step was to accompany Granny to the local dry goods store where seeds were sold for about 19 cents per packet. She would load up on okra, radish, squash, tomatoes, and perhaps corn seeds. What remained of the morning would be spent preparing the garden for planting, which involved pulling up any and all weeds, removing rocks, and flushing out any moles or gophers that had dug themselves winter burrows.
In the afternoon it was time to work the plow. This plow was an old contraption that consisted of a plow head mounted on a large wheel with handle bars. You had to walk the thing by hand back and forth across the quarter acre of land that made up Granny’s garden until you had created the necessary neatly structured furrows. The following morning Granny would have mapped out in her mind just where each type of vegetable should be planted. She would carefully open the small store-bought radish seed packet, for instance, pour its contents into the palm of her hand, and then stoop over a furrow, sprinkling the seeds down a pinch at a time so that when she reached the end of a furrow her hand was empty. My brother and I always wondered just how she knew how to sprinkle the seeds in such a way that they all came out so neatly and evenly dispersed. This accomplished, Granny would take hold of her hoe and, starting at the beginning of the furrow, grade the surface of topsoil with just the right amount of pressure to bury all the seeds. (In the case of radish seeds, they are so very small that once they are sprinkled into a furrow, they are all but invisible; I never did quite understand how she knew if all of them had been covered up.) This effort would be repeated for each packet of seeds.
In the corner of the garden stood a water well drilled many years prior and fitted with an electric pump. Granny never failed to mention to us boys that it was one of the deepest water wells in the county—and that when she arranged to have it drilled, the driller had showed up saying it was useless to dig a well there because there was no water to be found on the east side of town. Granny nonetheless insisted that the drilling be gotten underway, but after three long days, water had still not been reached. The drilling continued, however, and on the fourth day the driving ram that had been pounding a long, narrow shaft down through the earth finally hit water. For Granny the point of the story was its moral: once you start a project, there should never be any consideration given to quitting or turning back. She herself firmly adhered to this philosophy all her life.
Now it was time to give the entire garden a light but thorough sprinkling of well water via a garden hose with no nozzle attached. These waterings would continue twice daily throughout our visit, but the first sprouts of green would break through the soil only after we had returned to California. Granny would always send us photos of the garden just before harvest and of the picked bounty itself—often a large tub of massive beefsteak tomatoes or a bushel of okra.
On other visits, my brother and I would arrive for a summer stay and be put to work helping to bring in the harvest. This usually entailed getting up early in the morning before the blazing West Texas summer sun was high overhead. If we boys were set to work picking okra or squash, we would be given small paring knives and instructed as to what size and color okra were to be cut and where on the stem the cut was to be made. We would then be stooped over dozens of rows for hours on end filling our cartons (often old wooden fruit boxes), dragging them along with us as we made our way down each row, hoping that the carton would soon be full so that we could quit for the day. Instead, when a carton became full it was simply emptied so that it could be filled up again. Our labors came to an end only when the sun grew just too hot or one of us got stung by a field wasp.
Insect bites were an inescapable part of visits to West Texas, and we were always being eaten alive by mosquitoes or finding out too late that we had ventured into a chigger-infested grassy area. One remedy for mosquito bites consisted of one part cinnamon oil, one part patchouli oil, four parts sandal oil, and four hundred parts rubbing alcohol. Though I remember this preparation as having a pleasant odor, it did not do much for the itching. There was also a diluted ammonia solution which smelled awful but offered better relief. Or the local pharmacist could whip up a 40 percent solution of formaldehyde that gave remarkably quick and good results. It would be given to Granny in a corked glass bottle, and she would apply it to the bite by blotting the area using the bottle’s saturated cork.
Each year Granny’s apple trees and fig bushes produced quite a harvest. Figs, unlike apples, were not too difficult to pick, and once again a small paring knife was used. Granny would often let us take a break while we were picking figs—mainly because the picking would be finished within an hour or so—and she would slice a large, ripe, oddly fragrant and almost black fig into thirds: one piece for her, one for my brother, and one for me. They were great tasting; very sweet, full of seeds, and quite juicy. We boys would be a mess upon finishing them, but Granny had the eating of them down to an art. There never seemed to be any mess on her hands or clothes. Picking apples involved more effort because my brother or I would have to climb up into each tree and shinny out onto each limb bearing fruit. Granny would shout up, “Grab hold of the limb hard and shake them apples down quick!” After a few swift shakes, apples would be falling every which way, often on Granny’s and my brother’s heads.
Once the figs and apples had been picked and gathered they required further attention. The figs would be placed in a tub of warm water, soaked, and then cleaned with a small brush. After the outer skins were peeled off, the juicy meats would be dumped into a large pot of boiling water to which Granny would add sugar and perhaps some gelatin mix and a little lemon juice. The stirring seemed to go on for hours and hours though it could not have been more than an hour or so. The same treatment would be given to the apples, except that they were cored, quartered, and peeled before being placed into the pot. While the apples or figs were stewing away, rows upon rows of Mason jars would be lined up on the kitchen counter. Into each jar the preserves would be poured using an old stainless steel dipper. Before the preserves had had a chance to cool much, lids and gaskets would be placed onto each jar and tightly screwed on by hand. As each jar’s contents cooled, the pressure differential in the jar would cause the lids to seal up even more tightly, pulling a bit of a vacuum that produced a soft yet distinct clicking sound. As the four dozen or so jars stood there clicking, Granny would be counting the number of clicks she heard while relaxing with a crochet hook or tatting shuttle in the living room. If the number of clicks failed to match the number of jars, she would examine each jar’s lid to find the ones that had not dimpled inwardly. These culprits she would stick into the icebox, as she called her refrigerator, for that week’s consumption. The remainder would be tucked away in the back of the pantry for use throughout the year—with many a jar being given away to friends and relations.
Paper shell and Burkett pecans were another undertaking altogether. The many pecan trees on the property had been planted by my grandfather in the 1930s and had grown to be quite large by the 1960s and 1970s when my brother and I were making our visits. Every other morning in August would find us venturing out after breakfast to pick up the hundreds of pecans that had fallen to the ground. Because pecans have a husk around the shell that is not easily removed, they would be placed onto picnic tables in the back yard to dry out and soften for a day or two so that the husks could then be shucked by hand. While there were always a few bushels of pecans kept around the house for family hand-cracking, the bulk of pecans—stuffed into 10 to 15 burlap sacks weighing 50 pounds or so—was sent off to San Angelo, Texas, where the nearest pecan nut cracker and desheller machine operated. Just three or four days later, the pecans would be back, and the neatly wrapped pecan halves would be sealed in plastic bags much like those encountered in the grocery store, except that our bags were far, far larger (and not exorbitantly priced like the grocery store’s). As soon as the bags of pecan halves had arrived, preparations got underway for pecan pies. This was a long-drawn-out effort, with my main memory being that the entire house smelled like pecan pies as the kitchen oven worked overtime for a couple of days. To this day nothing tastes better than a large wedge of warm pecan pie topped with a massive scoop of vanilla ice cream.
During these eventful, 10-day trips to Texas, visits would always be paid to Granny’s sister, Lanora, who lived in nearby Champion. Lanora had been called Nora as a girl, but I always knew her as Aunt Nig. She had no children of her own, but her many nephews, nieces, great-nephews, and great-nieces all called her by this funny name, Aunt Nig, that as a child never struck me as sounding the least bit odd. Aunt Nig had a garden similar to Granny’s on her property, but she also had a pond. This pond was fed, I believe, by a natural spring, or perhaps by excess well water during rainy spells, around which lived two dozen ducks, a dozen quail, and half a dozen geese. There were also three or four peahens and always a beautiful peacock. None of the fowl was very tame. In fact, the drake and the peacock were worse than any pit bull terrier. When I would walk up to the edge of the oak-shaded pond, these two males, the drake and the peacock, would stretch out their necks and charge at my shins, bloodying them when I failed to make a quick escape. I remember that Aunt Nig’s husband, Morris Bosworth, would separate the vicious male fowl from the rest of the lot so that my brother and I could feed the ducks and geese crackers or pieces of dried bread in relative peace. It was always fun to have them quacking loudly as they competed with one another to peck up each piece of food tossed out. Aunt Nig also had several commercial bee hives on her property. My brother and I never got too close to these white wooden boxes for fear of being stung, but we did enjoy the unrefined honey served with biscuits if lunch was served during our visit.
Aunt Nig’s house was made of rock. The world inside it seemed to belong to an earlier age. Affixed to the kitchen wall, for instance, was a manual coffee grinder. The house had electricity that was supplied via a homemade system of interconnected car batteries that were always needing to be recharged from a small generator rigged up to the family windmill. The house also lacked connections to public supplies of gas and water. Instead, the house had its own homemade plumbing system whose feeble water pressure was at the mercy of the amount of rainwater in the storage tank outside. This storage tank stood perhaps 15 feet high and rested upon sturdy supports. The toilet, sinks, and bath were all dependent on the gravity-fed water supply from this tank. (Life in the house would always grow more tense whenever a long dry spell caused the water in the tank to drop to lower-than-normal.) But the house had no gas at all, and thus no water heater. Preparations for cooking a meal, or for making coffee for that matter, always required some wood and kindling to be placed in the stove. Although I never asked Aunt Nig about hot water for bathing, I remember some sort of water coil that ran back and forth along the back side of the portion of the stove into which the wood was placed. This coil served as a means of heating water when drawing a bath. (People always spoke of drawing a bath. Perhaps the expression stems from the windmills drawing the water out of the well. In any event, the expression is still common in West Texas today, as in: I’m fixing to draw me a bath.)
Aunt Nig’s house stood just yards away from the site of the farmhouse where she and Granny had grown up as two of the five children born to William Edmund Woodard, Jr., and his wife, Josephine McDonald. Their family farmhouse, which was no longer standing, had been built at the turn of the century after Granny’s father had gone to great pains to clear the land of the thickly growing mesquite trees. Granny had grown up here a self-reliant country girl who acquired an impressively wide range of skills—skills that she gradually passed on to me during my visits. From Granny, for instance, I learned how to crochet, to tat, to knit, and to can fresh fruit. She taught me to drive, and she taught me how to make fudge from scratch using an old Woodard recipe that is so difficult I still have not quite mastered it. It is Granny I have to thank for learning how to shoot a .22 rifle. Granny and Aunt Nig were both expert shots, and I recall how patiently Granny schooled me in the proper holding and aiming of the rifle: when I had lined up the sight correctly, the bullets I fired would go tearing through the tin cans she had set up on a fence post. Granny herself sometimes shot rattlers, possums, or skunks that had found their way into her garden or onto the back porch.
Granny also taught me to be thrifty and not let things go to waste. “For goodness sake, when you empty a jar, save it, she liked to say. When you leave a room, turn out the light.” Although generous to all her grandchildren, Granny never did lose her sense of electricity being a luxury. (As someone who had grown up with kerosene lamps, she continued all her born days to see the electric light bulb as a fancy invention.) Her outlook on things had been shaped everlastingly by the hard years of the Depression when she and her husband, Eugene Morris Cooper, had eked out a living running a chicken hatchery in addition to their cotton and maize farming. This chicken business was run by Granny, for the most part. Both her husband and her son—my father, Merril M. Cooper—pitched in when they could, but Grandpa already had his hands full doing the heavy manual labor that running the farm entailed (labor that Granny, who weighed, at most, 103 pounds, was not able to give him much help with). So for 20 years or so, Granny presided at the chicken hatchery cash register, a machine she usually declined to use, since she was naturally good at figures and could easily add long columns of sale items in her head and then compute the sales tax as necessary.
As my boyhood visits to Texas continued, I discovered that Granny was capable of storing all sorts of information in her head. She was one of those natural family historians, for instance, who never writes anything down but still manages to keep quite detailed knowledge at her fingertips. Her powers of recall could be startling. Once when I was with her, Granny ran into an elderly woman at the Roscoe Dairy Queen whom she had not spoken to for several decades. Granny was soon telling this amazed woman about an event from the distant past: the day this woman’s parents had stopped by the Woodard homestead in 1907 in a mule-drawn carriage in the dead of winter, destitute and starving. The Woodards had quickly provided the desperate family with the necessary supplies: milk for the children, flour and sugar for cooking, and fire wood for heating. I remember that by the time Granny had finished the story, the woman’s eyes were beaming at the clarity of this unexpected evocation of the past.
Granny was also fond of discussing her grandparents’ own migration to West Texas. In the winter of 1881, they had set out in two mule-drawn wagons from their home in Bienville Parish, Louisiana. On the very first day they had encountered a lake about two miles wide, which they had to cross via a small, flat ferry boat just large enough to accommodate one wagon and team. After much shying and delay, the teams were loaded; and when the last wagon landed on the western shore, the sun was sinking behind the big cypress trees. Their first campfire began to glow in the wilderness, and in the distance they could hear the call of the whippoorwill and the splash of the alligators in the nearby lake.
Granny had acquired her stock of knowledge through a lifetime of visiting with the many family relations who lived in the area. For her, an interest in family was not an abstract hobby but a natural part of life because family and family history were all around her. Each Sunday at the local Baptist church, for instance, she would spend an hour socializing with relatives before or after Sunday service. When I started tagging along, these older ladies would pat my head and exclaim, “Why you look just like your father.” Afterwards, I would ask Granny just who those ladies were. Granny also began taking me along on afternoon visits to relations all around town. Sometimes, despite my having listened to Granny shoot the breeze with these people about old times for hours, it would remain mysterious to me just how we were related to them. Back at home I would ask Granny what our connection to them was and how many brothers and sisters each one had. “Well, let me think about it,” she would say. “Oh, he is my grandfather’s oldest sister’s third grandchild, so this would make him your cousin, Austin.” Granny’s grasp of determining exact blood ties was never too solid; that is, whether the person was a third cousin, twice removed, or a second cousin, thrice removed. But what she did possess was a wonderful knack for bringing it all alive for me by speaking in the present tense about everyone, including people who had been dead for decades. I truly believe that in her mind she was visualizing them as still just living down the road a bit.
Before long, Granny’s interest in our extended family, both dead and alive, had so kindled my imagination that as a seven-year-old boy I began compiling my first, small rough draft of the ever-growing family tree. In a loose-leaf notebook I began writing down Granny’s store of oral knowledge about everything from her grandparents’ move to West Texas to her accounts of our first, second, and third cousins. Doing this, I very quickly acquired a sense of how painstaking and time-consuming the putting together of an accurate family tree can be. My talks with Granny about the family tree always took place either in her living room while she was teaching me needlework or during regular visits to the Roscoe Cemetery, which lies just north of town and is full of generations of Coopers and Woodards. Granny and I would often take along a hoe and dirt rake so that we could care for her parents’ and grandparents’ graves, along with those of her many aunts, uncles, and cousins. At the cemetery Granny would invariably point out that the year of Laura Woodard White’s death was incorrectly engraved on the stone, “It was actually 1918, not 1919—just cannot figure out how that mistake happened . . . .” If Granny and I were spending the day at home doing needlework it would be easier for me to write down her comments; but if the day’s activities had taken us to the cemetery, all the busy work involved in taking care of the graves meant that few notes could be taken. I would then try my best that same evening to capture on paper all the Granny had said.
Today I can see that the most important thing I absorbed from Granny was her deep and abiding interest in family history. By the time I was 18, I had begun to compile the Cooper and Woodard family trees in earnest—a project that would consume thousands of hours over the next two decades. The author Marcel Proust wrote, "It is perhaps in the same way that a sort of cutting taken from one person and grafted onto the heart of another continues to carry on its existence even when the person from whom it had been detached has perished. Now that Granny is herself buried in the Roscoe cemetery, it strikes me that her interest in the Cooper and Woodard families lives on in me and in the family tree you now see before you.
1. "The Fugitive," in the Vintage edition of Remembrance of Things Past, Volume III, page 534.
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