When I was too young to know what interstates were, my mother, two siblings and I would drive the seemingly epic four hours to visit my grandparents every year. They lived on 130 acres of swamps and farmland in Climax, Ga at that time, a wholly ironic name for a place that went largely unnoticed. In the decade or so they lived there, the only thing that seemed to change in that town was the movie titles in the local Blockbuster.
I remember the rituals we would indulge in every summer there. Pouring dry black-eyed peas into measuring cups and big pots with my sister. I can still feel the vibrations of those peas rustling against tired metal. The tin watering trough, big enough to form a small oasis. My brother, sister and I (and grandparents if we were lucky) would crowd in and swing ourselves around the edge as fast as possible until the tub became its own whirlpool. Then we’d sit back and float on our backs with our noses exposed, breathing in the toasty grass-like smells of the cornfield.
We would take long walks around the property in the early morning, the dew would stick to my dirty tennis shoes. Sometimes we’d veer off into the swamp and stop for a few moments, staring at the creek that wound through the secluded swamplands.
“Watch for snakes,” my grandmother (we call her Gigi) would remind us, over and over. Her caution still echoes in the back of my mind anytime I track through ominous piles of undergrowth.
Always by our side, an eager and obedient mocha-colored dog would be in tow. Amber (short for Amber Eyes) was my grandfather’s trained hunting dog. She loved nothing more than to take direction from him. She would sit by his side and stare up at his bristly smirking face, waiting for his word to go and gather fallen foul. And he loved nothing more than his dogs. At the late hours of the day, he’d prop up his feet in his cracked LazyBoy. He’d spread his toes and Amber would lick in between them. He’d laugh so hard that he’d wheeze--he couldn’t be happier and neither could she.
At night, we’d plop down on homemade foam mats and watch 60 Minutes. Gigi would systematically work the knots out of my hair. Grandaddy would lean far back in his recliner, silently falling asleep.
At their farm in Climax, my grandparents operated a sporting clays range. The downstairs portion of their house served as the range headquarters. Parties of camo-clad Georgians would drink Crystal Light during the heat of the day there. Then they’d drive out to the shooting stands on the golf cart and.... BANG! BANG! BANG! They’d shoot the clay disks that moved like rabbits and doves.
Sometimes he’d instruct us. He’d pull out a .22 shotgun to practice with. I still have a photo of myself in a multi-colored sundress, with a flower in my hair, aiming a shotgun right toward the camera, Amber sitting by my side, seemingly watching Grandaddy outside the frame. I tried shooting the gun once. The butt end kicked the bone of my right shoulder backward. I missed the rabbit. Back to the measuring cups and dried peas.
When Gigi and Grandaddy moved to Lake Park, Ga, the commute time to their home was cut in half. At the same time, my siblings and I had become adults so visiting my grandparents became a new experience entirely. Every holiday we could expect homemade sausage, double shots of tequila and zesty sauces, drowning in fresh seafood, accompanied later by wheezing laughter and a little soft shoe.
I feel the traditions of my grandfather’s heritage very strongly in my blood. The people of his family are people of the land, nurturers and guardians of it. They are a people of intensity, fabulously full of life and emotion. They seem to recognize the visceral nature of existence as well as its delicate intricacies. My grandfather was a unique and complex man and I am grateful to have cooked and laughed with him. The enduring memories of him will be of vibrant occasions and decadent dinners--traditions I intend to proudly represent in my own home.