The Carriage Driver³ - Grandma’s Basement
Tobias Coal sat on a park bench near the Commons. He had a one dollar bag of bird seed in his hand and birds gathered about his feet waiting their chance at a seed. He wore heavy overalls. It was a lifelong habit. Thick boots protected his feet. He was the thirteenth child in his family and he was now alone at age eighty-eight.
He was not the thirteenth child for long. The oldest ran off in 1931, at age fourteen. He was never heard from again. “Momma always said he was lost to the Depression.” Tobias spoke to the birds, “My first born, she always said, with a tear in her eye.”
Tobias put two big fingers into the small bag of seed and sprinkled seed on the ground. “Of course, then I was not number thirteen anymore. The number changed pretty fast over the years. Three brothers fought the big war. One died on the push to Manila with the First Infantry Division. The First Calvary patch was on the sleeve of the other two. They’re gone too. One in North Africa and one in Sicily. Momma said I guess that makes us every bit as American as everybody else.”
A pigeon hopped up on this thick boot, listening to the soothing voice of Tobias. This brought a warm smile to the weathered face. He dropped more seed at his feet and watched the eager birds feed.
“We were some of the lucky people in this country. Grandma had a big house. The house was paid for and through the hard times, we all worked like devils to keep the place together. Food grew in the garden. The women had the skills to put up food which was stored in the basement. Let me tell you, there were long cashless periods of time in those days. Grandma would kick us all out of the house and tell us to come back when we earned a nickel.” A gentle chuckle escaped him. “Are you listening birds.”
The birds skipped a foot away as Tobias leaned forward, then skipped back.
“One winter day near Christmas, me and George went up behind the Miller’s farm and took some soft pine branches off some trees. We fashioned Christmas wreaths and sold them over in town. We brought home $0.45 and almost got a wiping, cause Grandma thought we must have stolen the money.” His eyes glistened with the thought.
People strolled by Tobias, going this way and that, not knowing how much history he had to share if they cared to bother with him. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees to get a better look at the birds at his feet. The bag of seed was close to empty. He started to put his fingers in the sack, then thought different. He turned the bag over and let the seeds spill. That was greeted by flapping wings and a flurry of movement and his last earthly smile.
Captain Griffin Chaffey sat in his carriage with Nuelle harnessed and ready to go. He felt good to be back in the city where he had worked for so many years. He was enjoying the warmth of the day and the scent of salt air from the Atlantic. He climbed down and shared an apple with Nuelle, as it was a time-honored tradition.
It was not always the case, but today he recognized the name in his book. Over the last century, his fares included many members of the Coal family.
Griffin and Nuelle arrived in time to see a barefoot young man, age ten or eleven wearing heavy overalls and sack shirt standing in front of a park bench. His notable dark hair, wide smile and twinkling eyes made quite a picture.
Nuelle pulled the carriage to a stop in front of him and Griffin climbed down. “Hello, I have been sent for you,” he told young Tobias.
“I was hoping to see you.” He looked over at the small group of birds eating the last of his bag of seed and smiled. “The birds were my companion for the last many years while I waited.”
Griffin could not help but return the smile offered so freely. He extended his hand and offered young Tobias a hand into the carriage.
“Mister that is a beautiful horse. What is her name?”
“That is Nuelle. Do you know where you want to go?”
“I was just about to tell the birds about my Grandma’s basement. They already heard the stories of the big house and some of the struggles. But I was just fix’n to explain the best place ever.” Tobias sat back, he opened and closed his hands and stretched his feet. “I come from a large family and that is no lie. Grandma had a big place, but we had no trouble filling the place up. Well, one of Grandma’s friends took sick. Her name, if I remember proper, was Mrs. Priscilla, and she taught at the elementary school. When she got sick, we moved her right in and with her came some boxes that were stored in the basement.” Tobias looked up at Griffin to see if he was listening, then continued. “I was the one that had to bring the boxes down. It was a big space, and it was quiet. Light entered by access windows on each side. You know the kind of light that beams into a room and you can see the little bits of dust in the air. It was such a special place. There were shelves that held pickled cauliflower and carrots. There were many shelves that held jars of dried beans from the garden. Light shined on row after row of strawberry and peach preserves put up from forgotten summers gone by. So, I cleared myself a little place to lay down. That became my place. Then, after she was gone, I went and looked into some of Mrs. Priscilla’s boxes. What I found there changed everything for me.” He took a deep breath and smiled. “The boiler was in the basement, so it was warm summer and winter. I found Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, and Nights with Uncle Remus, right along side of The Tales of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Tom the Kitten. There were afternoon adventures alongside Robin Hood and the intrigue of King Solomon’s Mines.”
Nuelle had pulled away from the curb and paraded down the middle of the street.
“Mister, when Ma and Grandma were upstairs cooking fruit and rhubarb pies the smell in the basement could practically lift me onto a cloud. I was surrounded by and protected by a loving family. We worked hard together to make sure no one we knew went hungry if they found themselves facing hard times. Most of all we loved each other. Did I tell you that I was the thirteenth child?”
Griffin smiled at the scene painted by the young man. A young man that at eighty-eight had learned that some of the best times turn out to be the hard times. “No, you did not mention that.”
“I am the last to go,” He smiled. But we left many good people behind to take our place. At one time there were forty-five nieces and nephews. I could never keep track of their kids. There seems like hundreds of them.” Tobias stopped. “Am I talking too much?”
“Not at all,” Griffin assured him.
Tobias’ thoughts drifted back to Grandma’s basement. Where sunlight shined through mason jars of strawberry preserves and pickled onions. When he spoke again, he said, “I want to go there.”