Fall in Butler officially began when Granddaddy announced that it was time to take the window unit out of the living room. This yearly ritual signaled a changing of the seasons – a change that I met each year with mixed feelings. Cooler temperatures meant I’d have to wear shoes whenever I wanted to go outside, less time playing in Little Soakie, having to ride in the cab of the pickup instead of the bed when we went to haul off the trash, and fewer hours of daylight I could spend hunting for broken glass in the fields behind the house with Granddaddy. I watched with ambivalence as Dad and Granddaddy would haul the air conditioner back towards the grain bin where it would rest until we’d need it again next summer.
But there were also things about fall that I anticipated with excitement: getting to wear my dad’s childhood bathrobe and the puppy house slippers Nin had bought for me at Bill’s Dollar Store when I woke up in the morning. The ‘scupnins’ (“Scuppernongs” for those of you who don’t speak country-bumpkin fluently) were ripe this time of year and it would take Granddaddy and me an hour to fill a small bucket full because those we picked rarely made it past our mouths. The leaves of the two sycamore trees in the front yard were beginning to break free from their branches, meaning soon Nini, Mom and I would get to rake them into piles and shove them into large, plastic bags that were made to look like pumpkins and call it ‘yard art.’ No heirloom pumpkins cascaded down the stairs of our front porch.
Fall’s arrival meant windows would soon be shut tight and electric blankets would be distributed and placed on each bed. Instead of listening for the call of a bob-white when I’d startle awake occasionally at 5:00 or 6:00 a.m., the ticking of the propane heater in the hall would lull me back to sleep. I’d wake a few hours later and traipse lazily into the kitchen where Nini would be sitting, just finishing her cereal and instant coffee. I’d need yet another hour or so to fully come alive, and during the cooler months, that hour was spent curled up on the floor in front of the heater in the living room, my head resting on our German Shepherd, Ricky, as we watched cartoons. Some mornings, I’d crawl in bed with Nini and we’d drift in and out of sleep – we had a deal; if I helped her make her bed, she’d help me with mine. Sunday mornings were signaled by the dancing top of the pressure cooker; during the week, we ate sandwiches for lunch, but never on Sunday. Sundays were the days we ate well.
Soon, the house would be filled with ladybugs seeking shelter from the weather. Several times a day, Granddaddy would sweep them from the ceiling with the broom and vacuum them up, while I rushed to gather as many survivors as I could rescue. Granddaddy preferred hot weather, but being inside made him restless. He stayed inside only long enough to read the paper, announcing, as he would pass the ‘funnies’ over to me, that there was nothing to the paper. Somehow it still seemed worth the effort to read each page, though. When he finished, he’d fold it neatly and drop it onto the table between his rocker and Nini’s chair, put on his cap, and head out the back door. Nin would read it later that night and use it to gather food scraps and coffee grounds the next day, throw it in the flower garden to make the flowers grow, or tie it to the fence of the scupnin vine to scare off deer. Nothing went to waste.
One year we grew pumpkins; pumpkins so large that the only use we could find for them was to display them proudly on the picnic table. Granddaddy would claim that I grew them, even though I had little to do with the miracle of growing pumpkins so large in the Taylor County sand. We posed by our crop, me sitting on top of the biggest pumpkin, and Nini took our picture on her Vivitar film camera.
Nini loved the reprieve from the sweltering summer temperatures and she’d celebrate by coming outside for something more than running to get meat from the freezer in the block house or watering her plants on the picnic table out back. After dinner, she’d slip on her blue jacket, secure her burgundy headrag over her head, and she’d walk the length of the field on the North side of the house. She’d carry her weapon of choice – a golf club with the head sawed off – and together we’d walk to the woods and back while Granddaddy stayed back to watch the news.
Baths didn’t last as long when the weather got cooler. No matter how hot the water, nothing could take the chill off the porcelain bathtub. Nini would wash my hair for me, careful not to get shampoo in my eyes as she poured water from a plastic Wendy’s cup that sat in the corner. I’d wrap up in a towel and bolt the few feet into the hallway to get dressed in front of the heater. Sleeping with your hair wet wasn’t allowed under any circumstances, so we’d let it air dry in the living room while we watched whatever show the TV would pick up that night.
Nini had the honor of tucking me in bed each night, a ritual neither one of us took lightly. Granddaddy’s hugs were rare, but he’d stand in the doorway of my pink bedroom and wave his finger in the air, “You holler if you need anything, Miss Ash.” Sleep came easier there, and I’d drift off almost immediately. Many times, I’d pat the bed and whisper for Ricky to jump up beside me. He wasn’t allowed on the bed, but if Nini ever found out he joined me up there many nights, she never said anything about it. I was young, but I was still smart enough to brush away the dog hair from the bed each morning.
No matter the season, I never stopped wanting to be under the same roof with them.
Most of these memories are fifteen to twenty years old, and it takes time to remember. But if I quiet myself long enough, they begin drifting down from my mind like the leaves on the trees. Memories as sweet as those ripe scupnins’ straight from the vine, warm as the propane heater that warmed our bedrooms at night, and as crisp as the leaves we piled into those pumpkin bags so many seasons ago.