By Brian M. Howle
One bad case of an earache has given me cause to reflect on the life of my maternal grandmother, Ruth Reeves Martin of Branchville, S.C.
From my earliest childhood memories, I recall hearing every single living soul in Branchville addressing her as “Mrs. Martin” or “Mrs. Ruth.” But to every living soul in her family – outside of her five children – she was “Mama Ruth.”
There are stereotypes that Hollywood and writers in general just can’t help emulating when it comes to casting not just the consummate, patriarchal grandmother – but the consummate, patriarchal Southern grandmother.
Lemme tell ya, Mama Ruth was that woman.
In the mid-to-late 1950s, when I was just knee-high to a grasshopper or so, I had a somewhat narrow understanding of my mother’s mother and her pre-my-existence personal history.
There were three things that I did know, however.
One – There was always incredibly good ol’ artery-cloggin’, hypertension-inducing dinnertime orgies of what I came to know as “Religious Rhetoric Chants” from the adults around me, consisting mostly of cornbread-and-fried-chicken-stuffed-muffled murmurs of “Oh, My Lord” and “Jesus, this is dang good food;”
Two – We seemed to eat there an awful lot.
Three – Did I mention that it was like traveling to the Dark Side of the Moon when we loaded up the family sedan and hit the dusty trail for Branchville, to eat every Sunday?
Four – (Okay, so there turns out to be four – it was 45-some-odd years ago, after all) You do understand how long it takes to get to the Dark Side of the Moon, right? From anywhere, right?
Five – (Yeah, yeah, now it turns out to be five – so bite me. Before I could read or write, I sincerely believed I had earned the right to vote in Branchville, based solely on the time I spent there – which was dang near every weekend.
Well, maybe it wasn’t actually every weekend. But you know, when you’re in hell, time has a whole different set of physics going on. You can laugh if you want to, but I’m telling you all right here and now – the devil is one doggone good mathematician. He’s got the digits goin’ on in Purgatory, that’s for sure.
So there was my granny, Mama Ruth, the dutiful wife of one of Branchville’s greatest citizens, W. Claude Martin. My grandfather was a banker (a position he inherited as son of my great-granddad, who started the bank) and lawyer – and was zooming up the political ladder in South Carolina politics as a State Senator from Orangeburg. And rumor had it he was the leading front-runner for Governor in the next election.
They had five children in all, with uncle Claude Martin, Jr. being the oldest; then aunts Margie and Minnie Claire; my mother and the baby, my uncle G.W..
Living in Branchville as the town role models from the turn of the century, the family was rolling along just fine, until the late 1920s devastated all their lives.
The Great Stock Market Crash took down the bank and most of the wealth they had accumulated.
And then my grandfather was killed, along with another Senator, by a drunk driver as they were on their way to a legislative session in Columbia.
So Mama Ruth was left with five children, with no job, and with very little money.
I didn’t fully understand the true worth of places like Branchville at that time. Then again, most 3-to-9 year-olds don’t, either.
Straddling the line between a South that hung its head in shame from prior transgressions to the New South of inclusion and progress, mom’s family was one of the last generations to greatly benefit from the non-regulated wages and lack of fair and equitable compensation for domestic help.
Life was much easier for them, due in part to the hard work and equal love afforded each and every one them by Mama Ruth’s dedicated maid – and, ultimately, best friend – Daisy.
Without a doubt, some of the most vivid memories I possess are of those two women. Daisy was short, bulldog-tough and black as coal, with a wide, bright smile and bun-tied gray hair, who doted over all of us. Her laugh was so incredibly genuine, made all the more incredible by the reality of her surroundings.
And, men and women alike were known to readily kill for her fried chicken.
My grandmother was a relatively short woman, not really skinny but not really fat; “stocky” is the word that comes to my mind, but a recurring imprinted vision of being slapped for disrespecting an elder urges me to change that to describing her appearance as “minimally-width challenged.”
She had this great face that possessed a virtual living set of those “Comedy/Tragedy” masks. Her smile – which cranked up all those great crowsfeets and the sparkle in her eye that always made my father smile – was a sanctuary for every child, grandchild and great-grandchild, that mere words will never give due justice.
On the other hand, she also possessed an upside-down scowl that emoted a palpable sense of “let’s not go there.”
Her hair always seemed to have those perfect rows of perm waves, short and tight as they furrowed across her head. Her glasses had those gray-and-pearl plastic frames and were large, but didn’t have “Coke bottle” thick lenses.
And her official Mama Ruth uniform was, without fail, a plaid or patterned plain dress, accompanied by a white apron that had this eerie, and I mean really freaky particular ability to remain crisp, clean and white.
However, stashed into the pockets of her apron were the ultimate Mama Ruth accutrements – her handkerchief and her hearing aid.
Actually, the handkerchief was in her hand about 50% of the time. But that only meant that now, you could not avoid noticing her hearing aid.
And, the hearing aid was usually clinging to the upper part of her apron, or eventually found itself perched between … um … well, you get the picture, this is my granny I’m talking about here.
For those of you not aware of the early history of hearing aids, allow me to clue you in.
Back in the caveman days, the first hearing aid really wasn’t a hearing aid at all. You had to stand right beside the deaf person and scream into their good ear, and hope for the best.
Besides being really annoying for everyone, this came to be a critical faux pas when the earliest phrases like “Run before that dinosaur eats you” became all the rage of early language skills. Probably because it was their mom or grandmom, the first hearing aid was simply the cupping of one’s hands to amplify the scream.
Then one of Al Gore’s old relatives invented the phonograph, which later became the Internet – and one of the offshoots of the phonograph was the acoustic enhancing cone, known as the megaphone speaker.
Another Gore relative foresaw the need for Air America and invented radio, which fortuitously hastened the advent of the first electronic hearing aid in the early 1900’s.
Not a pretty picture, however, those first models.
Remember that famous Edison quote, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.”?
Little-known fact: While inventing the telephone, he called Watson to save him from a life-threatening hernia, induced after having the suitcase-sized prototype of the hearing aid – with its 400-pound vacuum tubes and battery pack apparatus – strapped to his back. Edison was stabilized, turned his head and coughed, and the rest, as they say, is history.
By the mid-’50s, they had whittled that suitcase down to the size of the first Sony Walkmans. It weighed about 4 pounds, and used batteries that were specially made; shipped to Branchville’s lone drugstore in Radiation-tagged, lead-lined boxes.
They looked like little miniature Wurlizter jukeboxes, with the obligatory Avant Garde, neo-modern spaceship metal case, rounded on all corners and sporting a gaudy, intricate grill that hid the ear-splitting blaster that was known as the speaker.
It had this little clip that scrunched in against that apron pocket, or top, or strap, and no matter what Mama Ruth’s center axis position was, that bad boy was hangin’ on for dear life
And the lifeline tether that made a baby’s coo or a backporch door’s squeak perceptible to Mama Ruth was always coiled under the apron straps, snaking around the back of her collar and up her neck, where the thumb-sized earpiece had been ratcheted into her ear canal, making her a pre-Star Trek Borg long before Captain Jon-Luc Picard started out as a bald little baby. The constantly intertwined black and white wires and the earpiece acquired a funky patina after a few years that became sort of spooky in its own right.
Now, what brought this all back up in my mind in the first place was this: A month or so back, I picked up that wicked flu bug that was rippin’ everyone a new one. As part of the grand tour, I incurred an earache and a completely closed eustachian tube – which has effectively rendered me deaf in my left ear.
My sweetie had reached the end of her rope with my constant “What?” after any of her statements, and – exasperated – implored me to “please get a hearing aid!”
And I immediately thought of Mama Ruth.
Before she developed Alzheimer’s in her early 90s, Mama Ruth would stay with each of the children for about 3 months at a stretch. She was not impaired, other than her sight and hearing; the latter being the worst affected.
When she stayed with us, she would sleep in my sister’s old bedroom, at the front of our house, down the hall from me, and opposite side of the house from my parents’ bedroom.
Mama Ruth had a set routine for bedtime. She placed her pocketbook in one of the dresser drawers, after she went through the entire contents as she accounted for her jewelry and cash. She placed her slippers on the floor directly below her reach from the side of the bed; glasses inside of her left slipper, and her hearing aid in the right.
One particular night, my dreaming was interrupted by loud demons, screaming deep into the dark and scary night. I awoke to find that the ‘demons’ were actually strange and very, very loud sounds emanating from Mama Ruth’s room.
I waited for the horrible squealing to cease – or for my parents to burst thru their door at any second, raising holy hell about the noise – alas, to no avail. But the nails-on-the-blackboard screeching just had to be stopped.
I tip-toed into her room (Stupid, huh? If she couldn’t hear The Apocalypse, my little feet damn sure weren’t going to startle her.) My ears were now actually bleeding, because the decibel level was unrelenting. Dogs were dying within a mile of our house.
I begged God to see me thru my mission, as I clenched my hands over my ears and finally located the source of the hellish screams- there in her slipper, beside the bed.
Her hearing aid!
That sucker was wailing like Jimi Hendrix’s stack of Marshall amps at Monterey. Somehow, she had left the thing on, at full volume, and (like any good amplifier left wide freakin’ open) now it was feeding back louder than a hot mic at Ozzfest.
For the life of me, I could not find the “off” switch, if it indeed had one. However, I had watched her check the batteries on that rascal many a time, so I knew exactly how to open it up.
But I was terrified of handling the radioactive batteries, so I just flipped one of them in reverse position, and – Viola! – the banshee was silenced.
I stumbled down the hall to my room and fell back into my usual comatose sleep, proud of my nighttime problem-solving skills.
The next morning, I was again awakened by rude noise around 8 a.m., and as I swept away the cobwebs, my mother’s voice boomed throughout the house from the kitchen.
“IT’S THURSDAY!,” she screamed with all her might.
I couldn’t make out the other sound, but then mom bellowed out again:
“THURSDAY! IT’S THURSDAY!”
I tip-toed to the kitchen door and peered inside. Mama Ruth was huddled in her chair, vigorously tapping the side of her hearing aid, as she asked for the 34th time, “What day is it, Jewel? I’m sorry, I just can’t hear you for some reason.”
It turned out that this shouting match had been going on since dawn.
I may have only known three things (okay, five), but I also knew when to keep my mouth shut. Which is why I am still alive today.
I guess I had a sixth sense.
The previous article was originally published in the December 1, 2006 issue of Alternatives NewsMagazine.