Wednesday, July 18, 2018

You Ever Dipped Snuff?

As I was writing my book Leave Him? I felt the need to do a little research in order to be authentic; after all, how can you accurately describe something you have never personally experienced? I went to the store and asked for a can of Bruton Scotch Snuff. The packaging looked much like I remembered although the container was now made of plastic instead of the tin of years ago. I had observed my great-grandmother ‘take a dip’ every time I saw her as I was growing up.

To a young girl ‘taking a dip’ looked a lot like eating dirt and the spitting that was required afterward, done as discreetly as possible into a jar kept out of sight, was still appeared nasty-not something I wanted to do. As a kid, I was more inclined to try smoking, making my own cigarettes out of a brown paper bag rolled around a weed called rabbit tobacco; it was a cleaner habit. I had smelled of Grandma Pate’s snuff, but I never tried it.

It took a bit of courage even as an adult to rake the brown powder in between my lip and teeth- all in the effort of research. The things we writers must endure. As the powder moistened the power of the snuff was released. I held it in my mouth long enough to figure out what it tasted like and pondered the appeal it must have had on a woman in her eighties. I then had what I needed to write the following scene, but you can bet that I was not interested in adopting dippin snuff as my new vice.

AN EXCERPT FROM Leave Him? available for sale at in print or ebook:
Ella Mae
The hours passed more slowly when a body got too old to stay busy. The slow ticking of the clock and less need for sleep gave plenty of time for the mind to wander. Ella didn’t take having a mind that could wander for granted. She had seen many who lived to see their eighties lose all their sense. She looked down at her wrinkled hands as she sat in her chair.
“These hands cause me much pain. Every time I move my fingers the pain shoots up my arm to the shoulder. It feels like knives are stabbing through it, if my hands rise at all.”
Fighting the pain, she reached over to the side table to get her snuff can. She opened the lid of the Bruton Scotch Snuff can, put the wooden paddle in and withdrew enough for a dip. After a few seconds the familiar earthy taste filled her mouth. Her thoughts were a little clearer, and her heart beat a little faster.
The morning sunlight brightened the otherwise dreary room. Her eyes had gotten so bad that she couldn’t see to sew or read. Plus she could hardly walk in the house, let alone walk in the yard alone. The metal walker helped her balance and get up and down, but it proved so cumbersome she had no way to get it down the steps by herself.
Remonda, the youngest of Roselle’s kids, was the only one still living at home, so the house was a lot quieter than it had been when all of her five children lived with them. Ella Mae had grown accustomed to the noise of the teenaged girls fussing with each other and the younger Gary and Remonda playing. With Remonda gone to school during the days and Hoyt and Roselle working, the silence seemed to surround her. Ella Mae thought about that. These past few years were the first she had really been alone, and they dragged out since there was nothing to do.
She still cooked every now and then, but mostly she just sat and dipped snuff. She thought back to the first time she tried slipping the brown powder between her teeth and lower lip a few years after she had left Harvey…
She opened the door to see her friend Sally’s broad smile and twinkling eyes. Her hands were behind her back. “I’ve got something for you. It’s gonna be great.”
Ella Mae reached for her friend’s arm, but she twisted away from her. “Not yet. You gotta come out on the front porch and sit in the rockers with me.”
It was a warm, early summer day, and Ella Mae had been working in the house most of the morning with her mother. She wanted to get the gardening done in the afternoon and knew she would be bending over about a thousand times, so sitting a spell would be a welcome change.
She sighed a bit and looked at Sally. “Well, you gonna show me what you got now?”
Sally smiled again as she unfolded the top of the small brown paper bag and reached in and pulled out a can of Bruton Snuff.
“I think this is just what you need to calm yourself when you think of Harvey. I read about it in the paper. The advertisement says that it has a soothing effect, plus it is supposed to be good disinfectant for the mouth.”
Ella Mae smiled at Sally. “You beat all I ever seen, always searching for a cure for Harvey Pate. I’ve seen women dip that stuff and spit that brown slime on the side of the street. Why do you think I need to take up that habit?”
“Awe, those ole women you saw doing that were just unrefined. You and I are going to be sophisticated dippers. The advertisement in the paper showed one woman using this wooden paddle like this one to put the snuff in her mouth while another woman, wearing the prettiest dress, carefully spit into a small jelly jar. I got everything we need to try it. See.” Sally pulled an empty jelly jar out of the bag and sat it on the floor between them and then she reached in and found a small wooden paddle that she sat in her lap.
Ella Mae laughed out loud.
“See, it is making you feel better already.”
She smiled. “You make me feel better, Sally. You always make me feel better. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you. You have been the one to get me to take another step all my life.”
“Awe, now I just do for you what you would do for me. Ain’t that what we’re supposed to do?”
Sally twisted the top of the can of snuff until it came off. The sudden loosening filled the air with an unexpected brown powdery cloud that flew up Sally’s nose. Ella Mae watched her friend’s nose wrinkle and her eyes squeeze shut as she let out a huge sneeze.
Ella Mae laughed and said, “Well, that stuff has already got you good. I’m not sure we need to go puttin it in our mouths if a sniff of it can do that.”
Sally sneezed again, gathered her composure, then explained, “I just didn’t expect the top to come off like that and the can to be so full. It smells pretty good. Here take a whiff.”
Ella Mae carefully held the can under her nose just far enough to see what the contents smelled like.
“It’s not that bad, just different, like cinnamon. Looks like dirt though. I have memories of making mud pies with my sisters when I was little and remember them tricking me into taking a bite. I hope this tastes better than that.”
“Well, I’ll be brave and go first to prove it’s okay.”
Sally plunged the wooden paddle into the snuff then carefully slipped the powder between her lower lip and her teeth. Ella Mae watched her friend smile then say, “Come on you try it.”
Ella Mae followed her example then the two of them rocked waiting for the presumed effect. As her mouth’s juices moistened the snuff, she felt her heart start to beat a little faster. A small calming started, maybe it was taking a minute to rock and just breathe or maybe there was something to this snuff stuff after all.

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