The ending of a year is always a cause for reflection. In our family it has always been especially so, because my Grandmother Cain’s birthday was on the last day of December, and whenever possible, my father, her youngest son, always tried to make a special pilgrimage down to the country two-room log home where he was born, and where my grandmother lived most of her life.
Imagine someone born on December 31, 1859. Sarah Bernetta Fletcher was only three when the Yankee troops swept through that area, the Piney Woods north of the Gulf Coast, taking all the able-bodied men with them, putting them on Ship Island so they couldn’t fight back. Nettie was left with her older sisters (who had followed the advice of a neighbor to take the two milk cows down into the woods and into a creek, so the Yankees wouldn’t get them, and they’d have milk for the little girl, whose mother had died when she was only a few months old.)
She was spunky and smart. She only had a third-grade education, as they couldn’t get teachers to come to that remote area. But she paid attention. Daddy says that always, as long as he remembered, they subscribed to the Atlanta Constitution, which arrived by mail the next day - ambitious reading for someone with a third-grade education.
Journaling is all the rage today, as a seemingly new fad. My Grandma Cain began a journal in 1916, saying she had been thinking about doing it, but hardly knew how. And she kept it going until 1934.
Thank goodness for my father’s regard for historic documents. He saved the original manuscript, in a school notebook. I have that notebook now, carefully saved after our house fire; but the handwriting has faded to unreadable.
However, Daddy also, at some point, typed it - thank goodness. And I’ve just spent time this blustery evening going through it. If a love for gardening is something you inherit, I got it, from her, and from my mother, and her father, my Grandpa McNeil, who worked a fulltime job all his days in Natchez, but moved his family to the country so he could have cows and chickens and also a garden.
Grandma Cain says she probably started keeping the journal in 1916 because she was lonesome, as the last of her three sons, my father, was gone from home. He’d become her “preacher boy,” and the older two sons were teachers; all college graduates.
Soon after, my Uncle Melvin, who never married and lived with her all the years she was a widow, was “gone to be a soldier” in World War I. I imagine that there was plenty of commotion, with telegraphing the news, when the Armistice took place. She never mentions it. Only when he comes home safely, the next spring, does she write, “the war is over.”
The daily entries, and they were pretty daily, were short - all the farm chores, the family gatherings (my aunt, with a large family, lived two miles away, and Grandma thought nothing of walking over to help out or see about a sickly child, twice a day.)
She got ideas from these newspapers she read. Christmas trees weren’t the popular thing they are today; but Grandma organized one for the community, in her house. And in clearing out, in the garage attic, about this time last year, our son Kevin found a large framed photograph, which now hangs over the mantel in our keeping room, though it is pretty faded. I cannot imagine my Aunt Hunter ever having that fancy a dress; but evidently a traveling photographer came through and my enterprising grandmother got him to document the family.
And the church, and the preachers that came and went, as Methodist preachers do, filled the news. She enjoyed things new, doing something different, planting new kinds of beans or peas or even strawberries.
I’ve told many times in this column, but it is interesting to hear over again - in 1927, Mr. Bellingrath, building his fabulous gardens near Mobile, came through the Piney Woods, looking for good-sized specimens to transplant for instant effect. He bought one of Grandma Cain’s trees, as tall as her one-story log cabin, and had the men and the large truck to carry it back. Paid her $125 for it, and I do not remember that anyone ever told me what she did with the money.
It was probably a Professor Sargeant, or the species from which that camellia cultivar was made, as my mother said that one was Grandma’s favorite.
Two days ago, in a hurryup run to a local garden center, I swapped gift money for two good sized camellias in full bud and some blossoms, and one was a Professor Sargeant, the other a Debutante.
Sensibly, we bought them, but brought them home to put into the cold but sheltered space in the garage, until probably when the cold time had abated, before setting them into huge pots. And I promise you the last thing I did was spray the newly set trees very generously with deer repellant spray.
Just a way of honoring a great gardening ancestor, who always liked to try new things and see if they’d grow for her.