Old bricks have a comforting mystique not found in their younger siblings. Tarnished colors and time-worn textures cause me to ponder what stories they might have to tell. The ones I find most compelling are the solid bricks of yesterday’s chimneys, their faded reds and oranges lightly shaded with soot. Those are the bricks I’ve been listening to lately.
During the summer of 2021 our family began doing some overdue maintenance and light restoration of my mother’s childhood home. My grandparents, Alger Benjamin Hill and Carrie Mae Bembry Holland Hill, lived there when I was growing up. The distance between our homes was only five miles so we visited often, a blessing I took for granted back then.
Grandmama’s house wasn’t fancy and won’t be when we’re finished. Its welcoming simplicity no doubt helped spawn some rather magical moments of childhood. I still marvel that a small dwelling was able to accommodate dozens of family members. Splendid dinners with jovial kinfolks who loved being together is what I remember most fondly. If laughter could have shattered glass, Grandmama’s windows would have been paneless.
Two double-sided chimneys were lowered years ago just enough to fit under a new metal roof. Granddaddy’s ax had been retired much earlier when the fireplaces were sealed and space heaters placed on the hearths. In April I took about three more feet off the chimney tops from inside the attic, preparing the fireplaces for gas logs.
My earliest memory of Grandmama’s home is when I was around four. Granddaddy was still chopping wood every winter back then and kept an ample supply in the back yard. I didn’t spend many nights with them or anywhere else as a kid, preferring my own bed as I still do. One overnight visit, however, has stayed with me for three reasons: liniment, water, and fire.
Separate beds in the same room is how my grandparents slept, her on a double and him on a single with what must have been hardy slats. He was a big man, six feet two and well over two hundred pounds with large bones and strong calloused hands. It was all that little bed could handle.
Granddaddy’s legs were scarred from countless skirmishes with uncooperative livestock. He and his heavy-duty walking stick could be persuasive, but he took some hard licks along the way. At night he’d rub homemade liniment on his battered shins. The main ingredient was kerosene, I think, but that may be a guess I made long ago and decided to believe.
As a child I thought liniment took Granddaddy’s pain away. I realized later it was only a distraction, something to get his mind off what was hurting. The same is true of most bottled remedies, or maybe all of them. Temporary numbness can be found in a glass but never a cure that will last.
In World War I Granddaddy was given an Army uniform and free passage to France by Uncle Sam. He was among a small group of survivors who were gassed in a trench while fighting the Germans. That’s all I know except Mama said he got a small pension because of the gassing.
He died in 1964 when I was eleven. It had never crossed my mind to ask him about war or anything else of consequence. Maybe he wouldn’t have talked about it, but probably would have been glad someone was interested. Ill-tempered bulls and stubborn mules left multiple scars we could see, but unseen marks sometimes hurt the worse. He probably came home from France with plenty of those.
We’ll talk about water and fire next week, Lord willing. There’s nothing spectacular about either recollection. They’re just two little memories special to me because they survived while others died.
I’ve been chipping the mortar off those old chimney bricks this spring. One day when the weather was especially nice, I spent all morning and most of the afternoon cleaning them up. No one was with me, but I didn’t feel alone. Bricks, I’ve learned, are more willing to reveal the past when it’s quiet.
These old bricks have been through the fire, so I figure they deserve to be heard. I’ll keep listening for a while, hoping they have a few more stories to tell.