My grandmother worked with diligence. My brother and I had been at my grandparents’ house for a least that whole day and maybe the night and day before. Granny never stopped, except to read her Bible and to go to the bathroom–or both at the same time. She was up before anyone else, and she kept busy at unpaid work at all times. This night, after the cooking and cleaning and laundry and keeping grandkids from any damaging troubles, she stayed in the kitchen to finish waxing and polishing the floor. I knew I wasn’t to bother her.
My grandfather sat at the end of the green couch, the end by the pedestal ashtray and the side table covered with Granny’s papers and Bible notes. He smoked a cigarette and watched something on the television. I stood with my hands on either side of the doorway between the family room and the kitchen, and I watched Granny work. From time to time, I put my foot over the line, not touching the shined floor but pushing the boundary, swinging my leg back and forth. I couldn’t go in there, but I could watch and wait for her to be finished, and I could ask her how much longer and if she could hurry and when it would be that she could get me a snack or a piece of juicy fruit gum.
My grandfather kept an eye and listened. After a time, he said to me, “Shannon, leave Granny alone. Come in here and sit down.” I ignored him. My brother, taking in everything from the oversize armchair opposite Daddy Hob, offered a low-voiced warning.
Keeping my post, hands holding up the door frame and body facing Granny, I disregarded my brother’s quiet plea. I turned my head in Daddy Hob’s general direction. “You’re not the boss of me,” I said over my shoulder.
In one swift movement, Daddy Hob’s belt was off and my backside was barely tanned. My pride, however, knew a solid mark, an indelible impression. My grandfather wasn’t prone to physical discipline with any of us grandkids. He wasn’t to be trifled with, but we weren’t scared of him. I wasn’t scare of him after that, but my stubbornness wouldn’t let me make up with him for some time.
Last night, I mopped my own kitchen hardwood. I watched it glisten for just the few moments after I rubbed the cleaner on it. The glow disappeared, and I sighed. If not shiny, at least it was clean. I remembered my small-girl self, four or five years old at the most, pressing my grandmother while she worked and sassing my grandfather like I had the right.
The commotion between me and my grandfather didn’t interrupt my grandmother. She pressed on until it she completed the task in front of her. One of a million occupations of her hands in her lifetime, one of a half million things for which she never heard a thank-you. I never thanked my grandfather for sitting me down when I was too big for my britches. I don’t think I really thanked either of them for any of the things that really mattered. The lack of gratitude didn’t stop either of them from doing what came natural to do, what came as necessity–tend the fires, mop and shine the floors, work the soil, milk the cows, direct the young’uns and correct them when they strayed.
I finished the floor in my kitchen, hundreds of miles and 40 years away from Granny and Daddy Hob’s house. I turned off the lights to hide the scratches and marks that can’t be wiped away with my spray cleaner and old cloth diaper rag. I thought about how early pride settles in on a human, how we learn to feed it. I thought about the grit to set one’s hands to hard and often undervalued work. I thought about Granny and Daddy Hob, about how their own kind of softness looked more like rough edges and shelled hearts to a small girl. I said thank you. I hope they heard me say thank you.