My earliest memories of my grandmother, Sophronia Harlin Martin date from the early 1960’s. Olfactory memory what it is, I remember her being sweaty. Not smelly – certainly perfectly clean – but I remember that smell of her outdoor activities: mowing the acre lot, or trimming the privet hedge that surrounded and meandered through it. I remember the sharp metallic smell of her sharpening the lawn mower blade on the bench grinder and sparks cascading across the basement garage. I remember the smoky smell in the adjacent rec-room fireplace where she heated up an iron rod and bent it into a fireplace poker. I remember smoke on her from burning leaves in the fall and dried pine needles piled under the hedges.
There were other smells too: her face powder that always made my throat close up in near nausea, her house’s wall mounted electric-resistance heaters burning off their dust in the fall, varnish-laden hair spray mixed with sugared apricots cooking and always in the background, freshly mown grass.
Sophronia was much more than a smelly grandmother. She didn’t play, so she wasn’t really a playmate, but she was always around and therefore a companion to a small boy. She didn’t laugh much, but I think that might have been as much from her fear her dentures would fall out as from a somewhat solemn personality. She would laugh and laugh heartily at times, and at the strangest things: bodily function jokes would always get her going. A good fart joke would have her laughing until tears streamed down her cheeks.
She could always tell a good story about “the old days.” Her life, 1905 – 1996, let her see amazing changes in the world. Her memories included watching her father string the first telephone wires through the trees to their house; a toy cook stove gotten from a Lebanon furniture merchant for the cost of a kiss from a little girl; her next older sister’s stubbornness. Notably absent were stories of her oldest sister, dead at age 21 having never recovered from Spanish Flu, the rumor being that Willie Lee’s death stayed with Sophronia for her entire life.
Truly her favorite story was about fording a creek with her horse Walter pulling the buggy.
Will and Minnie Harlin and their children lived on Sugar Flat Road, about 7 miles east of Lebanon Tennessee. Sophronia, the third child, and her two older sisters attended school at Mrs. Wooten’s private academy on West Main Street in Lebanon. As the older girls graduated, Sophronia wound up taking Walter and the buggy into town on her own each day. She would pick up a neighbor girl on the way. This must have been about 1920 or 1921 when Sophronia was 15 or 16.
At that time there was no bridge on the road and all horses, wagons and foot traffic had to ford the creek. Faulty memory suggests a wooden bridge had been recently washed away but I cannot say that with conviction. On the day in question, a new, concrete bridge was under construction but not yet finished. It had rained the night before and the water in the creek was high and fast. Sophronia and her friend were on their way to school. There was no turning around, no alternate route, so feeling she had no choice, Sophronia drove Walter and the buggy into the creek. About half way across the buggy began to float and Walter, lifted off his feet, began to swim. The swift current began carrying the horse, the buggy and the two girls down stream. Some might have panicked, but family lore is that Sophronia kept her and Walter’s eyes focused on the other bank with single minded determination. Sophronia applied the whip to Walter’s rump, and and Walter applied all his strength to pulling the girls (and himself) to safety.
Knowing my grandmother it is entirely possible that Sophronia could have pulled Walter and the buggy out of the creek by shear force of will.
(As an aside, the bridge that was under construction that day is still standing in 2017 and visible to the south of the main highway, Old Rome Pike, somewhat west of the intersection of Old Rome Pike and Sugar Flat Road. It is on private property now,)
I never heard Sophronia speak about any other animal with as much affection as she did when she spoke of Walter. I don’t know that she actually loved that horse, but she did have a relationship with him that stayed with her to the end of her life. There were cats and chickens and turkeys and geese, dogs and children and parakeets and fish and at least one tiny little turtle in a plastic bowl. She would nurse squirrels and baby robins and gerbils, making sure they took their baths whether they wanted to or not. Through it all, though, the only animal I remember her initiating a conversation about was the horse that had saved her life back around 1920. Walter who lived a good long life. Walter who knew his stall at the livery stable in town. Walter who knew the way home. Walter who wouldn’t pass a steam roller, the workmen would throw a cloth over his eyes and lead the terrified animal past the machine. Walter who was as gentle as a lamb and a faithful buggy horse, but would never allow a saddle on his back. Sophronia could, and did, entertain a child for hours imitating Walter bucking and kicking and fighting anyone who tried to ride him.
But even horses have to give up their pride sometime and Sophronia would always mention that when Walter was quite old, sometimes he would let Will Harlin on his back.
Sophronia’s stories of living on Sugar Flat Road outside Lebanon were certainly colored by nostalgia. Reading between the lines, or rather listening between the stories, it would be easy to imagine that her later life, and particularly her marriage, was not as happy as some. Let me hasten to add here that there is never a single hint, thought or rumor that Nathan Martin, (1905-1961) her husband of 36 years, was anything but a gracious, considerate and faithful man. Indeed, the stories I have heard would indicate that Nathan was completely devoted to Sophronia. Whatever the cause, we will never know, but it is obvious that wedded happiness eluded Sophronia. Certainly she mourned his death in 1961, but I can still see the steely edge come across her eyes and hear the ice in her voice answering my childish question “grandmama, won’t you be happy to see granddaddy in heaven some day?” and her terse answer “being married wasn’t always easy.”