from Songs of Gentle Sadness
By Buie Seawell
When I was a little boy and it was cold and shivery on winter days and a sudden twitching would hit me, my grandmother would say, “rabbits.” She said rabbits because somebody sometime told her when she was a little girl and shivered at the cold, or just shivered for no reason at all, that rabbits were crossing her grave.
“Yiiiikes!” I would say, “But Gran, you don’t have a grave. And I don’t have a grave. What kind of rabbits?”
“Future Rabbits,” she would say. “We’ll all have a grave someday, and those rabbits are out there hopping around and giving us the shivers.”
“I don’t like Future Rabbits.”
“Nobody does, but that’s the point, you can’t do anything about them. ‘Cept shiver.”
When I was older and read books on astronomy and quantum physics I’d remember my talk with Gran about Future Rabbits. I’d laugh and think to myself how those rabbits must live down Black Holes. How else could they get to the future and hop over my grave? But then I’ve always wanted to be buried at sea, and I don’t know what the Future Rabbits will do about that. I do recall that once President Carter got chased by a rabbit when he was out in a boat on a pond in Georgia. So probably there’s no getting away from rabbits and shivers, even if you are buried at sea.
A simple joy that I can still feel, as well as remember, was that of being a small boy with my grandmother in her big kitchen on winter days. The kitchen was on the back of the big house on Elm Street. 1107 North Elm Street, Lumberton, North Carolina. We didn’t have Zips back then. But there were telephones. Gran and Poppa’s number was 135. That simple. I like simple. And I like prime numbers. You can’t divide them with anything, well except one or by themselves, and that never really seemed like dividing to me.
But I was talking about Gran’s kitchen . . . There was a small round wood burning stove on one side of the kitchen, and a big coal burning stove on the other side, near the window. Gran cooked on the big stove, which always had a bed of hot coals in it, and a tea pot with water boiling on top. The windows – big single panes of glass – would steam up, and I’d just sit there on a small chair near the little stove feeling so warm and nice and listen to her.
“Your Papa use to be Superintendent of Robeson County schools,” Gran said. “It was during the Great Depression and nobody around here had much money, so we were lucky that your Papa had a job that paid cash. We didn’t own our farms back then. And it was a good thing we didn’t. So many people, good hard working farmers, lost their land to the bank. Nobody had money to buy the cotton and tobacco farmers use to grow around Lumberton. It was really hard times. People called your Papa, ‘Professor Poole,’ because he had a degree from Trinity College in Durham and because he was in charge of the schools.”
“You still call Papa Professor Poole too,” I said. Gran just smiled.
My Papa’s name was James Robert Poole, Sr. He called me, “Jake.” He also called his favorite bird dog Jake. I think he called us both that because it was easier to remember. Papa was a very formal man. Stood straight. Walked sorta like on stilts. Wore ties and suits all the time. Was a vestry man at the Methodist Church on Chestnut Street, although he didn’t go to church that often. The church was the only organization he belonged to. “I’m not a joiner,” he would say.
Gran told me once about how Papa used to drive in his big Packard automobile around to the schools of the county when he was Superintendant. He would drop in on classrooms and teachers just to see how thing were going. On one such trip he visited with an elementary teacher while the children were playing outside at recess. Papa, who was really not good at small talk, inquired of the teacher what the students did for recess when it rained. “I let the boys play with their yoyos,” she said. Now Papa had never heard of a yoyo before, and didn’t know what to say, so he abruptly turned, left and drove off in his big car.
Telling me the story, Gran laughed and said, “Well, when Professor Poole got home it took him forever and a day to get around to asking me about yoyos. And when I explained what a yoyo was to him, he blushed and went into the front room and lit his cigar and just rocked in his big chair in front of the fire. I think that’s the only time I ever saw your Papa blush.” And Gran would laugh again, smiling to herself. I never did know what was so darn funny. I played with my yoyo a lot when I was a boy.
Also, I never thought anything about my Gran calling her husband “Professor Poole” until I was much older. It’s not a very cuddly thing to call the person you are married to, of course. I barely have the nerve even today to wonder what she called Papa when they were alone together. I mean they had four children. Can you make four children snuggling with someone you only call “Professor Poole?” But then they were of another time, born in the Victorian 19th Century in the rural South. Whatever. But I never doubted this — they were devoted to each other and to their family and to me. Today, when I feel the warm and remember the smells of that old kitchen, that’s really what I’m feeling — Gran and Papa’s love still palatable across more than sixty years like the steam on her kitchen window in winter in Lumberton.