Shopping List, 1937
Rat poison. Cod liver oil. Thyroid tablets. Oil cloth, 1 2/3 yd. red paper & string. Coffee and coco. Steel wool. Wax paper & napkins.
In distinct, neat, feminine handwriting, was the beginning of a shopping list my Grandma Ruth made on the inside back cover of her checkbook in the fall of 1937. Over 40 years later, that checkbook was sitting on a desk in her bedroom, more than a year after her death, folded, propped open, and ready to be used.
Even though I had little emotional connection to my grandparents, I couldn’t bring myself to throw this and other items in the trash, during my assignment to clear their desk after my grandfather’s death, about a year after my grandmother passed. The budding historian in me was already showing an inheritance of appreciation for artifacts. I gently placed the checkbook in a box, took it home with several other items, and put them away for another 40 years.
It was a cold, bright, fall day when we drove out to the old house. I remember us all wearing heavy coats, and the odd shape of the light as it crept through the paper-thin glass of the windows. It was that old glass that gives a swirly effect looking in and out, an imperfection so different from today’s energy efficient, character deficient sameness. The house was old and dusty and dirty and smelled strange, this place where my grandparents lived for most of the 20thcentury. It was drafty and intimidating and ripe to be haunted, I thought. A haze of stale food, pipe smoke, bug spray, and something odd I’d later realize was marijuana, lingered.
My granddaddy — my daddy’s daddy — had died about a month before, and the contents of the house had to be dealt with. Daddy had been named executor, so the task fell mostly on him. It was surprising, because even at nine years old, it was clear to me my grandparents favored his older brother — and if it hadn’t been, overheard comments made it so.
Thanksgiving was approaching and Daddy and Mama and Daddy’s brother Billy wanted to get this done before Christmas. They faced an intimidating task. The two-story, white house was put together with pegs instead of nails, and was at once grand and plain and unkempt. It was the home Daddy grew up in, and even though I haven’t set foot in it in nearly four decades, the memories are vivid. There was a dark wood paneled sitting room on the backside of the house that included a sweeping staircase that opened to the front foyer. The upstairs included several large rooms that were locked up with all the furniture covered in bed sheets, as if they were in storage. The walls were plaster. The one room occupied by the sketchy caretaker was trashed. The floor was in total contrast to the lower level, open, airy, like something out of a magazine featuring Southern mansions. Dust motes twisted into long bars on the landing, and most windows on the north side offered a view of the Tar River, several hundred yards away, as well as the slum-like, drug infested trailer park my Granddaddy Troy had thought was a good idea for additional income.
Downstairs, where my grandparents spent most of their time, was like a throwback episode of “Hoarders.” The kitchen air hung heavy, thick with a closed-up odor, and there were bugs everywhere. One room over, the century-old dining table lay hidden under mounds of bills, trash, half-eaten food, bug spray, and knick-knacks. I specifically remember the 1970s red bird with a yellow top hat on an axle that rocked back-and-forth dipping its beak into a glass of water. A small sitting area/living room featured an old Siegler oil heater, and a failing apart couch propped up with bricks as well as a couple of ripped chairs, the innards sagging and hanging free. Daddy lit the heater, to cut the chill and allow work to begin.
Many trips to the county dump would be made over the ensuing weeks, as my older brothers and sisters and Mama and Daddy hauled out trash and broken or worn out remains from a life where it seemed the old couple hadn’t bought anything new since Eisenhower left office.
Cards. Matches. Peanut butter. 2 coconuts. Rice.
My grandparents loved rice pudding and fresh coconut for German chocolate cake, Ruth’s favorite. Troy used a work hammer to bang away at the hard brown shells. The never bought the bagged stuff.
On the other side of the sitting room was the master bedroom. Everyone waded in with trash bags. As I look back now, the adults had the most unpleasant and physically demanding tasks. I was told to clean off the old battered desk that was piled high with papers, pens, pencils, trash, and newspapers, all sorts of detritus of a long life.
People will often say, “It looks like they just left it and never came back,” when touring exhibits in museums. My grandparents’ home was like a museum, but the lived-in kind. Life happens until it stops and the remainders are left for someone else to deal with. Those things retained of such importance to one, in large part have no importance to others, the ones tasked with clean up.
With dread and a black trash bag, I started and soon became a self-styled Br’er Rabbit. Treasures abounded for a kid who spent an inordinate amount of time studying the old World Book Encyclopedias in our living room at home, poring over American history. On the floor next to the desk were copies of the RaleighNews & Observer, most of them dating back to World War II. Some were from the Korean War era, when Daddy served. They were mixed in with more recent issues, as if waiting to be read for the first time, even though it was 1979.
And then, there it was, on the backside of the desk, partially open: an old checkbook. The way it was arranged, it looked as if a check had just been written from it, but closer examination showed the dateline as 193__, and the most recent stub was from the spring of 1938, the oldest, from the fall of 1937. Before I was done, I’d retrieved the family’s 1943 ration books, an old pocket watch, and a fountain pen, among other papers. I ran off to find Mama, and to find out how much of this cool stuff they’d let me keep.
Teeny’s socks & Billy & Gerald. L.G. plate. Emmogene book. Lee box dishes. Stationary. Socks. Underwear 40.
This was Ruth’s shopping and Christmas list. “Teeny” was Daddy’s nickname. While a big man of six feet and well over 200 pounds as an adult, he was undersized as a baby, with dark curls so charming, he won a Sears Roebuck Baby Contest in 1933. There is a small portrait and engraved silver cup in my parents’ house that commemorates it. Billy was his older brother, and Gerald was a cousin I don’t remember. L.G. was Lester Gold Brantley, my great-uncle, a kind man and voracious reader I used to wish was my granddaddy. Or, it might have been his warm, educated son, who was a junior, and was born in 1937. He went on to be a college professor, and when he passed, his brother gave me Junior’s extensive book collection. I don’t know who Lee was. Socks must have been in short supply. I assume the underwear was for Troy, he was probably a size 40 in those days. It’s hard to say, as there are very few photographs of them prior to “old age.”
1937 was a big year. War clouds were darkening in Europe. Japan invaded China, and sunk the USS Panay near Nanking, claiming not to have seen the American flags painted on the deck. The incident turned American opinion against the Japanese, and foreshadowed Pearl Harbor. Amelia Earhardt disappeared, the Hindenburg crashed, and FDR was trying to extract the United States from the Great Depression and threatening to expand and pack the Supreme Court. Spam was invented; the sort-of meat thing, not the bulk email. The first issue of LOOKmagazine hit the streets and DC Comics was birthed. Daffy Duck, Morgan Freeman and Waylon Jennings were born. King Edward married Wallis Simpson. The Golden Gate Bridge opened. Snow White was in theaters, and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God came off the presses, and Tolkien gave the world The Hobbit.
Things were quieter in sleepy North Carolina. Democrat Clyde Hoey was governor. He made his name by appointing a black man to the board of trustees of a black college, opposing a third term for FDR, and later, as a U.S. Senator, by opposing statehood for Hawaii. The tobacco and cotton farm support programs that lasted until the next century started. My grandparents on both sides, as well as my parents, benefitted from these programs, the last in a multi-century line of farmers.
In Nash County, where my grandparents lived, things weren’t much different than they had been in the previous century. The big news was that the Rural Electrification Administration was sending $16 million for electric lines to the area. Electricity was promoted by informing citizens that the average monthly bill in the county was $3.23. Newspapers were dominated by ads for “good young mules,” and many dealers offered to take trade-ins.
In addition to farming, my grandparents briefly ran a country store after Daddy got back from Korea. Ruth, an old maid for years, had income from land she had accumulated through purchase and inheritance across two counties. There’s a prison near Nashville, the county seat, on one parcel she owned. The average house cost $4,100 and the average annual salary was $1,780 a year. A car could be had for $760 and gas was 10 cents a gallon, a loaf of bread was a penny less. Phone numbers were often just two digits.
I feel sure anyone else would have bagged and trashed my findings, only because the rest of my family is far more practical and neat than I am, and far less obsessed with history. We didn’t have a lot of books, mostly an old set of World Book Encyclopedias from the mid-1960s, and the yearbook updates issued each year.
My stash had to be culled quite a bit. Papers riddled with silverfish and other pests were disposed of, and I was able to fit what I kept into a leftover third grade folder. After carefully looking through the items, I tucked them away, a newspaper or two, the ration books, and the checkbook. Once cleared, the desk looked as though it might collapse, but Mama saw something else. She took it down the road to a retired man who spent his days resurrecting items that looked like landfill-bound trash into priceless heirlooms and antiques. She repeated this with countless pieces in the same condition, the few things Daddy got from the will, most of the land and the house going to his oldest brother. I used the desk for years to do homework and today it still looks amazing. That’s where the folder stayed until just a few years ago.
I was not, as I saw then, and know now, missing my grandparents and I was not alone. No one seemed emotional except Daddy. My grandparents were an irascible, bitter, grouchy couple. While it has been over 40 years since their passing, they are rarely mentioned by family, or recalled by friends. Are they forgotten or repressed? It stands out to me because my maternal grandmother, known by Granny even to those she wasn’t related, comes up often, usually with a warm smile and funny recollection of her quirkiness and resiliency.
My grandparents offer few pleasant memories, mostly limited to Ruth laughing at me. Troy usually wore a dress shirt and slacks with a fedora out in public, no matter the occasion, and at his house, usually sat around in a sleeveless, ribbed white undershirt, those dress slacks and no socks. This was particularly unsettling as he lost toes to diabetes and often called attention to it. Typically, he pointed out that I should be spanked more, usually when my inevitable boredom during visits resulted in me wriggling around in a dining room chair whose cane bottom was broken and scratched my legs. When I got older, I usually played outside or went to visit the kindly, elderly lady who rented a house on the farm just a few yards away. There was a point where I felt guilty about my feelings towards Ruth and Troy, but that passed, as the simple reality set in that they simply were not nice people. It happens, but now I’m at the age where it makes me sad, and a little, tiny part of me fears and hopes I’m not passed that recalcitrant inheritance.
Cups & saucers. Corn flakes. Bes. tonal. Shampoo tint. Light ash blond. 6 5/7.
The most fascinating thing to me about Ruth was always her age. As a child, and sometimes now, I marked time with its connection to events in history. Ruth was born in 1891 and I can remember asking her if she remembered the Spanish-American War. She usually just laughed and clapped her hands together. Very many of her male neighbors were Confederate veterans. Her grandparents were German immigrants. She was nearly 30 when World War I broke out, and married Troy the year Charles Lindberg crossed the Atlantic. He was 10 years her junior.
My daddy was born the year Hitler came to power, when Ruth was 42. He was 36 when I was born, and it always seemed significant to me that while my friends had daddies that were Vietnam veterans, my dad served during the largely-forgotten Korean War. I’ve kept the older parent tradition going, being 31, 36, and 38 when my children were born. I wish I had access to the stories they could possibly have told me, the history they could have brought to life. But would they? Would I have something to remember them by other than Ruth always wore dresses and horn-rimmed glasses and stockings, no matter the time of day?
That Troy put garden poison on his curing hams to keep out the bugs in the smokehouse, or that even as doctors pleaded with him to mind his diabetes (and the fact that he was constantly losing toes), his stubbornness prevailed? What could Troy have told me about my ancestors, who lived and farmed in eastern North Carolina since the 17thcentury? Shouldn’t there be something better to remember?
The remaining checks in the old book resemble today’s version in shape and layout, but not much else. There is no digitized string of routing and account numbers, as required today. There is no pre-printed name or number. These checks had an engraving of a tobacco plant and the name The Planters National Bank and Trust Company, one of the largest banks in North Carolina at the time, and one that eventually through mergers became part of what today is PNC Bank.
The stubbed entries offer a peak into routines that are so different from today. Few checks were written in my grandparent’s time, as most transactions were cash. It was understandable following the banking collapse that people were still distrustful of banks. This was the depth of the Depression. Today, we make more swipes in a day and drive farther to work than they did in a month. Then, there was little need or time to leave the farm. There is no organization to the list — all the basics were produced on the farm, from meat to vegetables. Webb’s Mill, where corn and wheat could be ground, was within walking distance, just across Highway 64 in a right turn of the Tar River.
On October 9, 1937, Ruth was in Rocky Mount and bought a new pair of leg braces for my Uncle Henry, paying Dr. Wheeldon $94, which is a little over $1,600 today. She went downtown and wrote another check at Sears Roebuck for $4.82 ($84.21 today) for “merchandise.” I assume Troy was with her, as she never drove or had a license.
There are no other entries until preparations for Christmas and end-of-year bills were taken care of. On December 13, 1937, she paid Oettinger’s $15 for a permanent. This would be a $262 hairdo today. This is perhaps the most staggering finding for me, as my grandparents were known in polite circles as “frugal,” but in hard whispers as “stingy” or “tightwads.” I never saw them as generous, and don’t recall any gifts at Christmas or my birthday. Surely there must have been some, right?
With so few transactions, and the account being at a Rocky Mount bank, I’ve concluded that the checkbook was a separate household account. Ruth was from Edgecombe, next door to Nash, and where Rocky Mount straddles the county line. Most of their banking was likely done in nearby tiny Spring Hope. The last three transactions closed out 1937 and ended in the spring of 1938, with no explanation. A farm and home insurance payment was made for $39.34 to B.R. Bissette on the last day on 1937. A trip was made to Sears Roebuck on April 14, 1938, where $3.58 was spent on “mdse.” and another $26.44 was cut to Mutual Life Insurance Companies for their policies. I don’t know if the account was closed, or new checks issued, or why the checkbook was kept around almost a half century after its last use.
And now I realize that my relationship has matured with my grandparents all these years later. I didn’t enjoy visiting them, they didn’t dote on their youngest grandson. But now, with insight into their day-to-day lives, and with several years as a parent under my belt, I see them not warmer, but perhaps more real, people who needed socks and medicine and who liked sweets made with coconut, and vain enough to splurge on expensive salons. They lived in turbulent times, and times that wore on them and certainly influenced their behavior. It’s sad in a way that they are far more interesting to me in the context of the range of history they experienced than they were alive as my closely connected relatives. Most of my friends have warm memories of their grandparents. That home I was intimidated by and dreaded going in, prompts me to want to go back and walk through one more time with my historian wife. I think it should be restored and wonder if I should be the person to approach my uncle about it. It could be grand and wonderful, where it once wasn’t, and construct a bridge and a relationship way after its time has passed.
Michael K. Brantley is the author of Galvanized: The Unlikely Odyssey of a Reluctant Carolina Confederate (University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books, forthcoming, 2019). His first book was a memoir about growing up in eastern North Carolina, entitled Memory Cards: Portraits from a Rural Journey (Black Rose, 2015). Michael has an MA in English from East Carolina University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte to go with a BS in Communications from Barton College. Michael currently works as a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at North Carolina Wesleyan College. He lives with his wife and children in rural Nash County, North Carolina.