Dipping, with Cousins [Childhood Summers on the Farm]Posted: June 7, 2010
Most country people dip snuff. My Great Uncle Rufus does, and so does his wife Aunt Ella. When she sits on her porch swing, she spits it into the yard and the chickens run up and eat it. Their house is on the Big Road down the hill from my grandpa’s. I know they are poor because their house has no paint on it. Even the inside walls are just boards with no paint or wallpaper on them, and there’s no ceiling, just a roof with rafters. They have a white pan and a dipper in the kitchen that they drink well water out of. It is dark in their house and it stinks, like raw wood and overripe vegetables and snuff juice.
My grandma does not dip snuff like other country women. She is more dignified. My grandpa does dip. Snuff comes in tiny round silver cans that fit in your shirt pocket. Barbara, Mike, and I are in cahoots to try our grandpa’s snuff. Mike, because he is the favored one and gets to follow our grandpa around, knows where it is. There are some benefits to having one grandchild with the inside scoop.
There’s a tumbledown tool shed just north of the barn beside the yellow dirt lane, which is part of an old Indian road that keeps on going to the old home site by the plum tree. In the shed are ancient things, some that belonged to my great grandpappy George Thomas Hardy and maybe my great great grandpappy Beaman Barnes Hardy—rusty shoe forms, shovels, old chains and bridles and blinders, cow bells, plows, hoes. And on a little shelf inside the door to the right, high up, sits Grandpa’s cache.
Mike reaches up and gets a tiny tin. He opens it and is the first to get a pinch of the brown powder. It looks like chili powder. It’s not hot, though. It’s just bitter and sharp. We’re not sure what to do with it once it is inside our mouths, so we end up swallowing some. We sit in the dark shed among the rust and sharpness of tools and blades and rattles of chains. We talk and use, Mike dipping the most.
Suddenly, we are not feeling well. We hold our stomachs and walk doubled over to the house. We let the back screen door slam behind us, alerting our grandma to look up from her doughboard. She watches us walk through the kitchen. We make it as far as the dining room, where Mike collapses on the floor, and Barbara and I ease onto ladderback chairs.
Our grandma stands in the doorway and puts her hands on her hips. She laughs that throaty laugh of hers.
“Mm-hm. I know exactly what y’all younguns have been doin’. You’ve been into your granddaddy’s snuff, that’s what.” She wipes her hands on her apron, her dimples cutting long lines down her cheeks. “Mm-hm, you’ve been out to that shed, you got into your granddaddy’s dip, and you been eatin’ it.” Soft chuckles continue to bubble out of her throat. “You deserve what you get.”
She stands there in her light blue pedal pushers, her silver hair glowing in a blue rinse Aunt Joyce put on it. She has short legs and muscular calves, and as I look at them in my sickened condition, they blur and I think they are my own.
Mike turns green. He is moaning and writhing on the floor. He pulls his knees up to his chest, then kicks his legs in the air, one at a time. Our grandma leans against the doorway and continues to laugh.
“Doncha know you’re not supposed to eat it?”
Mike groans and thrusts his chin up and his head back.
“Can’t you do something for him?” I ask.
“Nope, it’ll wear off, and I bet he’s learned hisself a good lesson.”
The smell of her chicken and dumplings and homemade biscuits doesn’t make any of us feel better.
Later, our grandma decides to do something to help us out. She retrieves three empty snuff cans from the smokehouse and washes them thoroughly with her pink detergent. Then she mixes up Hershey’s cocoa and sugar and puts it into the tins. We each get our own “snuff” and we carry the cans around with us and take occasional pinches of the sweet powder. We can live with this.
(Excerpt from “Cousins,” a memoir essay)
Mike Hardy — January 9, 1950-May 30, 2010