Willie Renon Norton
It is Daddy Will, as we called my grandfather, who deserves the credit for sparking my interest in family history.  All of us “grandkids” were fed doses of it like sweet iced tea out of a bottle.  Gathered around my grandfather’s small house that felt more like home to us than our modern houses in town, we’d listen to the stories he’d tell of uncles, aunts, and great-grandparents, -- the living weren’t exempt-- until the grownups shooed us off the porch with commands to go play.

We formed a pack then, cousins of all sizes, colors of hair.  We ran to find an old dog to pat, or a litter of new kittens to coax away from Mama Cat or Blackie.  The cats were always called either “Mama Cat” or “Blackie”.  Blackie is self-explanatory; “Mama Cat” was the all-purpose name that referred to every female cat that was not the color of the coal mined from the slopes of the hills of Northern Alabama. 

We turned the kittens upside down and argued over their sexes, never certain of the gender of the mewing balls of fluff.  We named them, knowing all the while they would grow up to be addressed in the same manner as all generations of felines that had roamed our family’s farm. 

After the fun with the animals wore away, we splintered into factions.  The game of choice amongst my favorite cousins was “Lock the Littlest in the Storm Cellar”.  We formed a club which, to join, required that the youngest pass an “initiation”.  The rite of passage involved descending the stairs and fighting the cobwebs for a trip to the below ground storm cellar built years before any of us were born.

The musty smell hit before our eyes adjusted to the darkness. Slivers of light fell on jars of canned goods sitting on shelves layered with years of dust.  Voices would lower to a whisper in an effort to ward off the evil lurking in the dankest recesses of the cinder-blocked room. 

After a moment of standing in a cluster looking around, the older cousins would break for the door, inevitably leaving the youngest standing there, stock still, until the cellar door was closed and latched from the outside.  The littlest screamed as the near-total darkness fell upon him then beat upon the door and begged to be let out.
Sometimes we set them free right away but just as often, we ran to the top of the mound of earth and danced a jig on the small cement platform covering the cellar.  A small pipe covered by a tent of sheet metal lay in the center of the concrete and provided air and a bit of light to the cellar below.  As our dance slowed to a halt, we sat around the pipe listening to the wailing below. 

At this point, some of the most hard-hearted of the group would decide to go to the pond or out into the woods surrounding the house.   Sometimes an aunt or an uncle heard the ruckus and threatened to “blister our behinds” if the prisoner was not immediately released.  Once in a while, the victim was freed simply because an older cousin was feeling particularly merciful. The price of this benevolence was the doom of having to spend the rest of the afternoon playing with the littlest.

Eventually, all the cousins wandered back to the house and Daddy Will would look at the dirt-covered lot of us and say, “Reckon y’all would want to go pick you a watermelon?”

Each spring, in a surge of grandfatherly love, he planted a field of watermelons that ripened in the midst of summer.  The flesh of those watermelons gleamed as brightly as rubies in the sun.    Its sweetness was crisp and cool and the smell of soil clung to the rind.  It tasted like childhood; it tasted like Alabama.

Almost as soon as the watermelons were planted, we began our campaign to pick them.   “When do you think they’ll be ripe?” we asked.

“How many more weeks?”

“Do you think they’ll be ready next time we visit?”

“Daddy Will, there might be one down there that’s ripe today.  Can we go check?”

A trip to the watermelon patch was grandchild nirvana.  Daddy Will walked around the field with us, showing us how to thump them and what thick, hollow sound should follow.  Each child chose his own melon then Daddy Will took a knife out of his pocket and cut the stem cleanly away from the vine.

We loaded them onto the truck, everyone carrying their own.  The smaller cousins insisted that they did not need help until we heard a thump and looked down to see the jewel-toned reds and greens of the watermelon clashing with the orange hues of the soil.  In grandfatherly tones, Daddy Will led the tearful child back into the patch and came out a few minutes later carrying an even bigger watermelon with the child proudly holding the loop at the pants leg of his overalls.

On the bumpy ride through the fields and up the dirt road to the house, we sat in the back of the old green Ford pickup with the watermelons between our legs arguing over whose was biggest, whose was the most perfect shape, whose would have the best taste. 

Back at the farm, we unloaded them and struggled to carry or roll them to the redwood picnic table underneath the pines and sweet gums next to the house.  Daddy Will cut them one by one, handing huge wedges to adults and children alike.  An aunt ran to the kitchen for the saltshaker and some forks then we all settled in the shade and listened to Daddy Will weave the stories of our family history never realizing we had been creating our own stories for generations to come.
                                                     Copyright 2001--Molly Thomas-Hicks
Will Norton, at age 96, with granddaughter Molly and great-grandsons Evan (l) and Jonah (r) in August 2000.