It has been sitting on our deck in steadily deteriorating condition for a dozen years or so, making a mockery of any profession I might make of being a handy guy around the house.
It probably was built by my grandfather, Herbert Daulphus Groves, who was a sharecropper in East Texas in the 1920s and ’30s. And who was wise enough to go by H.D.
One of my uncles explained in a piece he wrote about growing up in the Depression that his father worked “on the halves,” which meant that the landlord furnished a house, land, seeds, fertilizer and staple goods, and my grandfather and older members of the family worked the farm. Accounts were settled up at harvest time. One year, after the settling up, my granddad showed a profit of fifty cents for the year. Every other year he came out in the hole.
The farm where my grandparents lived and worked was an event space before the term was invented; it was where the Saturday night community dances were held. My grandmother played the piano, my dad played guitar and my granddad was responsible for liquid refreshments — “home brew” that he made available for purchase while reserving some for household consumption.
Limited by a third-grade education, my granddad took whatever jobs he could find to support his family. He was working in Texas City, Texas in 1947 when 600 people were killed in what has been called the largest industrial disaster in America’s history.
He was working in San Diego in 1945 when his not-quite 20-year-old daughter, his youngest, was found dead in the apartment she shared with her sailor-husband. Either because he couldn’t afford a ticket or because he couldn’t tear himself away from his beloved Audrey, he sat beside her casket in the baggage car of a train from San Diego to the little town in East Texas where she was to be buried.
One day when my dad and I were driving along backroads near where he grew up (Smyrna, Texas, whose current citizenry is outnumbered by the population of the local cemetery, 215 to 1,307), he pointed to a dilapidated farmhouse across a field and said, “That’s one of the places we lived when my dad was sharecropping.”
We pulled off the road and trudged through knee-high grass until we got to what had once been the back porch of a farmhouse. That is where we found it: a wooden bin, three feet by two feet by a foot and a half, divided into two more or less equal parts. My dad recognized it immediately. “We kept corn in one side,” he said, “and potatoes in the other.”
Purely functional and primitively made, it probably had never been painted. The hinges were rusty, and a couple of boards needed to be replaced.
I don’t know what being on that back porch meant to my dad after all those years. “We were poor,” he used to say, “but there was always somebody who had less.”
For me, the old bin was an artifact of our family’s struggles in harder times than I have ever known.
My dad and I could have marshalled plenty of rationalizations for what we did — the old bin was just sitting there rotting away; nobody knew it was there; we didn’t know who owned the property or how to find out — but we didn’t bother. We hauled it across the field, put it in the back of my dad’s pick-up and drove off. It has been on our deck ever since, with little prospect of being the subject of a much-needed renovation.
Then along came COVID-19, bringing with it an exploding vocabulary — pandemic, coronavirus, vector — who even knew what “social distancing” was a month ago? — and lots of spare time.
Needing something to do in the self-isolation sentence that has been handed down to all of us — and something to keep an unnamed grandson off the screen while he is out of school — I decided, finally, to repair the old bin.
As of this writing, I am still in the planning/purchasing supplies phase of the project. By the time I am finished — hopefully before our sentence has been lifted — I will have replaced more of the original boards than are left. Which will mean that I won’t be able to say in all honesty that it’s a bin my granddad built.
I think I will say that it’s a bin my granddad — and my grandson and I — built.