Southern Scribe
    our culture of storytelling


 Porch Tale    


The Clean Smell of Dirt

By Jonna Turner


  The clean, pungent smell of dirt is one of my many childhood memories of the summers I spent with my grandmother in Rome, Georgia. Gran lived in a brick and white clapboard house with an open basement that had a dirt floor. I loved smelling the clean earth when I went down to the basement to retrieve jars of homemade preserves or jelly off the wooden shelves.

The house had no garage so the basement was where the push mower and the wringer washer were kept. I remember Grandpop pulling the push mower out of the basement and sharpening the blades with a metal file to keep them razor-sharp.  And, the clothes that came out of Granís washer had to be run through the wringer on top to press out the water. Then we shook the clothes, carried them outside in a basket, and hung them on a clothesline.  When we brought them in at the end of the day, they smelled of fresh Georgia breezes and sunshine.

Life at Granís was true, unhurried southernness.  She was a registered nurse who worked the eleven-to-seven shift and slept each morning through early afternoon.  When she woke up, we usually went to the curb market to get fresh vegetables for dinner.  I remember driving over in her 1952 Chevrolet pale green. When we arrived at the market, there were usually fluffy wisps of cotton floating in the air from the thirty-foot-tall cottonwood trees behind the market.  I blew at the white wisps to watch them flutter through the air while I helped Gran select such home-grown vegetables as crisp snap beans, shiny ears of yellow corn, purple-hulled peas, and fat red tomatoes.

After we returned home, I often watched Gran make dinner.  When the vegetables were washed, chopped, and put on to cook with ham or bacon grease for flavoring, she either made cornbread or biscuits. When she made biscuits, she used a white sideboard that held a bin in the top for flour with a built-in sifter beneath and a metal pullout counter.  She showed me how to knead the dough and roll it out on the counter, keeping it well floured so the rolling pin wouldnít stick.  Then, I would cut out the biscuits with a tin cutter, which was handed down from her grandmother.  To give the biscuits an extra flavor, we added a touch of butter on the top before popping them into the oven.  By the time Grandpop came in from work, dinner was ready with fresh bread, vegetables, and either fried chicken, country ham, or some kind of beef.  Along with this heavy, delicious meal would come tall glasses of freshly brewed iced tea.

After dinner, I cleaned the kitchen and washed dishes.  I washed them in a dishpan in an aluminum sink. When finished, I threw a dish towel over the clean dishes, left them to drain in the rack on the drain board, and went outside to sit in a striped-canvas lawn chair under a fifty-foot-tall oak tree.  By evening, a cool breeze drifted across the yard, even in mid summer.  Curled in my chair, I listened to my grandparents chat with neighbors while they sipped on Kentucky bourbon.  All the while, the crickets played their squeaky night music and the lightning bugs darted in and out of the bushes and flashed their tiny yellow beacons.

Sometimes, after dinner, Grandpop drove my friend, Margie, and me to Royís Pool, where we swam until dark.  Or, Margie and I stayed at home and played hide-n-seek with the boys next door, Randle and Wayne. The neighborhood was full of wonderful, dark, scary, hiding places.

One of my not-so-fond memories of childhood days at Granís is the time I set the woods on fire.  I had begged Gran to let me camp out with Margie who was a Girl Scout.  Margie was eleven and I was twelve.  Gran refused.  She said the area was not safe at night because of the drifters who occasionally camped there.  But, she did allow us to go out to the woods and make our breakfast the next morning.  So, at daylight, Margie and I trekked out into the woods, built a campfire, and made scrambled eggs and bacon in an iron skillet.  The breakfast tasted delicious in the misty Georgia morning, even though the eggs were sprinkled with pine needles from the trees that overhung our campfire.

When breakfast was over, I put out the campfire.  A non-Girl Scout, I threw dirt on the fire as Margie instructed, and all appeared to be as we had found it when we packed up our gear and headed for home.  Later that afternoon, Margieís mom drove us to a movie.  When she returned later, she told us the woods behind their house had caught fire; fire trucks had been everywhere.  I was terrified it was my fault and I would be arrested.  But, thirty-plus years later, no one has come to arrest me for arson.

One of my fondest memories of life at Granís is the room in which I slept.  My room was the dining room, complete with a large oak table, china cabinet filled with pink-floral dishes, a fireplace, and my roll-away bed.  On the heavy, oak mantle in the dining room stood a black German clock, which ticked softly and chimed on the hour.  The soothing sound of the ticking lulled me to sleep each night.  Before my grandmother passed away, she gave me that clock, which now sits proudly on the mantle in my kitchen, ticking away peacefully and still bringing back happy memories of summers at Granís.

Gran is gone now, but she lived a full, rich life until her early eighties.  I often think of her when I hear the clock chime, and each time I plant flowers or repot houseplants, the clean smell of rich, dark dirt brings back memories of Gran, her basement, Georgia sunshine, and carefree summer days.

Jonna Rathbun aka Jonna Turner won the Manuscript Contest for Best Adult Book at the DreamMaker Workshop in August 2003 for her mystery novel, New Pictures of an Old Murder, which is under consideration by Penguin Group International. Her first mystery novel, The Desk (1st Books, 2002 ISBN: 0-7596-8215-1) is under consideration for ďA Good Book to ReadĒ by Womanís Day magazine. (E-mail:; URL:


© 2004, Jonna Turner, All Rights Reserved