Summer in the South comes with many perks, the ability to cease exercising from May through October among them ('cause it's too darn hot out being a very legitimate excuse, in my book). Having one's air conditioning go out during the summer months is a major emergency down here, the arrival of the A/C service truck drawing sympathy from the neighbors the way an ambulance would anywhere else.
Before the advent of air conditioning, however, folks had to make do with things like shade, which was in limited supply in the cotton-growing region of south Texas where my Grandma Bess grew up in the 1920's. Not even live oaks, tough and drought tolerant in the extreme, grew in any great number there.
Grandma's people were farmers from North Carolina, and over several generations they made first Missouri, then Arkansas, and finally Texas their home as they sought land and prosperity. (According to the 1930 Bee County, TX census, my great-grandpa's occupation was listed as "Farmer," while my great-grandmother's was listed as "None"--that hard-working woman didn't even get graced with the title of "Homemaker"!) Wealth unfortunately never really came to Grandma's family--poor as church mice, but to hear her tell stories from her childhood, they were the luckiest people on earth.
Grandma, along with being a darn good cook, was also darn good storyteller. And she loved to tell the story of Uncle Maurice and the Washtub. Here is my version of the story, with possible errors and omissions since it's been a good 15 years or more since Grandma told me the story in her sunny midwest kitchen:
- UNCLE MAURICE AND THE WASHTUB-
One simmering summer's day, Grandma and her six siblings were out picking cotton in the rattlesnake fields of Texas (with nary an air conditioner in sight...people must have been tougher 100 years ago). These were the days before mechanical cotton harvesting came around, and the work was arduous. After working half the day in the hot sun, racing each other to see who could fill their enormous canvas sacks full of prickly cotton "bolls" first, the children returned home with their parents for the lunchtime meal. The food was very simple: from the sound of it, Grandma was pretty much raised on cornbread, beans simmered with a little pork, and maybe the occasional chicken, along with whatever seasonal produce and nuts the family could grow or harvest. This being Texas ranching country, I'd also imagine there was some steak to be had during a neighborhood butchering.
Before sitting down to lunch, everyone washed the silty limestone dirt off their feet and legs in a big tin washtub. (Wait, did I mention there was no running water, either? And the children often didn't even have shoes. I wouldn't have survived a week.) Grandma's sister, Katherine, was the last to wash up that day. Too tired to haul the heavy washtub out the back door to empty it as usual, Katherine decided to take a bit of a shortcut. She hoisted the tub up to the sill of the nearest window, balanced it precariously, and then tipped the muddy brown water out onto the dusty earth below.
Her brother, Maurice, woke up with a sputtering yell as the cascade of dirty water hit him full in the face! He'd been napping in the shade of the house before dinner, and, as luck would have it, picked a comfy spot directly below that same window. (Here the family accounts differ: some say Katherine dumped the dirty water on her brother on purpose, while others staunchly declare that she did no such thing.) A drenched Maurice leapt up mad as a hornet and charged inside, hell-bent on revenge. He chased a shrieking Katherine around the house (but apparently couldn't catch her--smart girl) until their mother put the mayhem to a stop, most likely with a switch.
I am not at all sure if Great-Aunt Katherine and Great-Uncle Maurice would be terribly pleased with being celebrated in our family's folklore for their hijinks, but I always remember them with a smile, even though I never had a chance to meet either of them. And every time I bake Grandma's Texas Cornbread, I can imagine Grandma and her family holding hands around the big table in their non-air-conditioned home, thankful for cornbread and beans and the gift of each other, and laughing, with Maurice still sopping wet (and quite possibly plotting brotherly revenge).