By Brandon Britton
Lake City, Florida
“This here’s the best part,” his raspy, but comforting, voice proclaimed to no one in particular. The only other people in the room were me, a 7-year-old kid, and Big Mama, his wife of over 50 years, whom he had married when she was just 15.
Normally, the only voice breaking the silence of the morning was George Martin’s, drifting from the small, visibly old radio atop the dull green refrigerator, as he gave his “1420 Martin Street” report at 6 a.m. Occasionally, the news report would be interrupted by Nate Street, the other DJ who provided the “Street” in “1420 Martin Street,” reading an advertisement for the weekly sales at Johnson’s Foodtown or Davis & Eslick. At least three times per morning, the high-pitched, harmonized voices of the three tiny, blonde Bryant sisters implored the native citizens to shop at Gibson & Cardin, their father’s pharmacy.
Mostly though, it was just George Martin’s rhythmic voice reading the morning news, accompanied by a symphony of kitchen noises like clanging pans, closing cabinet doors, rattling silverware, sliding drawers, running water, and screeching oven doors.
Perhaps it was the rarity of him speaking that drew my full attention. Sitting there, I studied his hair, which was mostly gone. What little bit remained was gray and slicked back. Despite being solid gray, the cream he used in it made it look shiny and black. Picturing it now, it’s funny. Nobody wears their hair like that anymore. Like him, that hairstyle belonged to another era, and even then, so long ago and at such a young age, I realized that. Maybe it was because I was a small child and I didn’t know many people, but I didn’t know anyone else like him. I knew that he had teeth, though he kept them in his nightstand, and I rarely remember him putting them in, even to eat. The biscuits, always made from scratch, and eggs he ate most mornings didn't require much chewing anyway.
His face was a road map of deep creases that traveled back in time and told the story of thousands of days spent in the daytime heat of cotton fields and behind a plow mule. The hands holding his fork and coffee cup were scarred and bent, calloused and permanently dirty from demanding hours working at a service station, trying to feed and clothe a wife and 10 children. Modest black glasses with humble, unremarkable frames, the kind hipsters wear today to be ironic, rested on his nose.
His clothes were made of materials foreign to me, like tweed and wool and polyester, and he always wore “dress shirts” even though he never went anywhere. They were always stained with tobacco juice and had collars yellowed from sweat, the kind that gross out my wife when she sees mine, but secretly comfort me and remind me of him. It’s my own, private, unspoken homage to this unusual little man whom three and a half decades haven’t been able to erase from my mind. To my developing and erratic 7-year-old mind, he was a fascinating enigma, as if he was a time traveler from some strange era I didn't understand. His language was filled with peculiar words and phrases like "toodlie doodlie,” which he would jovially spout whenever you got ready to leave, right before he playfully bopped you on the head with his rolled up pack of Levi Garrett chewing tobacco.
Once I overheard my parents talking about planning a trip for him and Big Mama. They were going to take them to Atlanta to stay at a big hotel, attend an Atlanta Braves baseball game, and visit the zoo. What stood out to me in this conversation was the mention that he almost never left his house and had rarely even left his hometown. One-hundred miles from home was perhaps the farthest he had ever traveled, and to my parents’ knowledge, he had never stayed in a hotel. I had already been to Florida and stayed in a motel on the beach. I had visited Rock City in Chattanooga and a dozen other places much farther than 100 miles away. From that time on, I became fascinated at the idea of being with this little old man the first time he visited the big city and went to a pro baseball game. I don’t remember if the Braves won, but I remember the hat he bought at the stadium. He treasured and wore it whenever he watched the Braves on television.
He seldom left his kitchen table, and when he did, it was only to go to his easy chair in the living room to chew tobacco and watch the Braves on TBS. The living room was actually a converted garage. One end served as the living room and the other housed the washer and dryer, deep freezer, and Big Mama’s quilting rack, which her sons installed to hang down from the ceiling. The remainder of the room was devoted to seating. Every wall was lined with couches and chairs — a priority when you have 10 children and over 40 grandchildren, all of whom, along with their spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends, would fill that 1,500-square-foot home every Thanksgiving and Christmas, not to mention Mother’s Day, Easter, and most Sunday afternoons. Their home was decorated with two things: Photographs of the children and grandchildren, and trinkets that had been collected or given to them by their children. Blue shag carpet covered the floor, and dozens of pictures covered the walls. To this day, I’ve only ever seen one other house with a similar wall of photographs.
The highlight of my day would be getting off the school bus and rushing to sit beside him in that easy chair in that converted garage to watch the Braves. We seldom spoke, but sitting there in silence, Big Mama on the couch constantly sewing or quilting by hand, I learned more than I ever did in school. My education didn’t consist of presidents or state capitals, but the Atlanta Braves and their positions. Bruce Benedict, Claudell Washington, Phil Niekro, Bob Horner, and my hero, Dale Murphy. Big Mama would sew, I’d watch the Braves, and periodically he would make the spittoon ring. For a boy, that was the coolest thing in the world, hands down. To me, that spittoon might as well have been a genie’s lamp, because it was magical. Not only did he get to chew this sweet-smelling tobacco, but he got to spit, something little boys were constantly being told not to do, and he got to do it in the house no less, in a golden bowl that made a "ptting" sound when the tobacco juice hit it.
The spittoon was one of dozens of artifacts that filled their home. Through the years, I came to view it as I did all of the other interesting trinkets and memorabilia — like museum items you weren't allowed to touch except in rare situations, and always under supervision. Rather than books, the bookshelf outside their bedroom was adorned with ancient, strangely shaped, soft-drink, liquor, wine, medicine, and perfume bottles. A purple glass cluster of grapes that once, long ago, was a light, hung from the ceiling in the kitchen. A ceramic cuckoo clock, with a water wheel that no longer worked, sat atop a shelf, surrounded by decorative plates, Leo Peppermint tins, and what would have seemed junk to most people.
To them, these were priceless treasures that housed innumerable memories. For me, the greatest artifact of all was the banjo that hung on the wall in his bedroom. On rare occasions, if you were lucky and caught him in the right mood, he would get his banjo down and head out to the front porch. The songs he played were never ones I'd heard on the radio — or anywhere else for that matter. I can only imagine they were songs from his youth, the music of his childhood, which he likely learned on front porches with his grandfather, father, or uncles. This peculiar instrument with the unique sound was a perfect fit for this peculiar little man who seemed so different from me and anyone else I knew.
On this morning, we weren’t in the living room or on the front porch, but at the kitchen table. It was so early in the morning that it was still dark and the only light in the entire house was in that kitchen. Periodically she would say something to him.
“Sam, do you want any sausage? Sam, do you need any more coffee?” I loved hearing her call him by his given name, Sam. To me he was just Granddaddy, but to her he was this person named Sam. It was almost as if he had a mysterious side I didn't know. I only knew the old man who sat in his easy chair every day, watching the Braves, chewing his tobacco, and using a spittoon. Had I known his full name at that time, Samuel Washington Hood, I would have really been intrigued. Even today, his name sounds majestic and stately. More like a statesman than a sharecropper.
While I sat at the kitchen table I would run my fingers across the vinyl tablecloth, first along the smooth vinyl and then underneath on the furry, cotton-like backing. It was partly because I liked the contrasting way they felt, smooth and furry, but mostly because I was bored. In silence, I ate my chocolate gravy, which Big Mama made me every morning, and he ate his eggs and biscuits and drank his coffee. He had a very unusual way of drinking his coffee. She would put his coffee cup in the center of a little bowl made of white glass with green scrolling around the top, and she would fill the coffee cup until it began to overflow into the bowl. Every so often he would lift the bowl to his mouth and drink the coffee straight from the bowl, not the cup. To this day I have no idea why he drank his coffee in such a bizarre fashion, and to this day whenever I hear the 23rd Psalm — “my cup runneth over” — I think of those mornings.
If I close my eyes and take a deep breath I can smell the warm and comforting scent of the chocolate gravy rapidly thickening in the bowl before me. It’s still dark outside, and I’m still half asleep, but the rich sweetness of the chocolate gravy will revive me a little more with each spoonful. For a few moments, I just sit and stare at the yellow swirls of liquified butter that streak through my breakfast like precious veins of gold.
Unexpectedly, he shattered the silence with his declaration.
“This here’s the best part.”
I looked up from my chocolate gravy in time to see him take that last bite of his biscuit and use it to sop up the last bit of the yolk from his fried eggs or the little bit of chocolate gravy that couldn’t be reached with the spoon. As he sopped it up, he told me not to waste any because that was the best part. When he finished, there really wasn't much need to wash the plate because it had been wiped clean. He used the biscuit to sop it all up and enjoy every last bite before getting up from the kitchen table. No doubt it was the best part because the belly was warm and full already, but there was still just a little bit more left to enjoy.
Now I get it. I realize why the sop was the best part for him. Every morning, he ate a breakfast lovingly prepared for him by the girl he’d loved since they were children. He spent his days in the home that he provided for his family through back-breaking labor. Each day, he chewed the Levi Garrett tobacco he liked and watched his favorite team play baseball. When the mood struck him, he sat on his front porch and plucked the songs of his childhood on his old banjo, and throughout the day his children and grandchildren came in and out to visit and eat with them.
Looking back, I realize he wasn't really talking about biscuits and breakfast. He was teaching me about the real value of living, the stuff that most people consider the leftovers or the scraps. The stuff he and Big Mama had pieced together and made a life from was like the patchwork quilts she had made for her grandchildren. He was talking about the goodness that’s left after the kids are grown and gone, after the job is done and the bills are paid. The final years and the quiet nights on the front porch with a banjo or the early mornings in the swing with Big Mama as she talked about how her flowers were doing.
“You’ve got to sop it up. This here’s the best part.”