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The trip to town

I remember as a boy, I always looked forward to Saturday when I was visiting with my grandparents. That meant we would be taking a trip to town. It could mean some time in the 5&10, the grocery store or a stroll around the Courthouse Square or visiting with folks at the farmer’s market.

Going to town was special and meant the folks would put on their best clothes and their best manners.

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A little fig goes a long ways

There were several things that folks could depend on in the valley below the Gravelly Spur Mountain, one was that the cool clear water of the Frog Leg Creek trickled its way from the springs upon the mountain and flowed crystal clear throughout the valley insuring that no one went without the liquid of life; the leaves always turned the valley into a patchwork quilt of yellows, reds and a smattering of auburn come fall; and the lovely and interesting and sometimes quirky Lola Roberts will have enough fig preserves to cover every biscuit from Jim Town to Burke and back again.
As young Pearl was coming of age, she spent more and more time with the valley’s elder stateswoman. Her tenacity and her uniqueness set her apart from everyone else. From the squirrels that kept her company by having free run of the house to the birds that roosted next to her porch that she knew by name, many thought she was more than different.
There was no one more vocal about the well being of the valley and its natural inhabitants, or the welfare of folks who were in need. She often took up the issues no one else wanted to tackle and forged ahead bringing the valley around to her thinking about things.
But when the large bushes on the hillside behind her cabin filled with plump rich figs there was no one that took more delight in picking each of those fruit.
This year was another time that Pearl got to tag along as the two ladies with woven baskets filled them until the could not hold another. Lola passed the time telling stories of the pioneers who first came across the Gravelly Spur and forged out a meager existence in the timber laden valley while fending off Indian attack.
She would point almost ceremoniously at the large black spot on the rear of her cabin below where a fiery arrow had hit its mark only to have Lola’s great grandfather, a boy of eight, to climb out the loft window and detach the burning arrow and dousing the fire with a chamber pot returning to the window safely.
She spoke of how the family brought the first two fig bushes into the valley and from it the entire grove was born.
When the baskets could hold no more figs, the tales would stop and the ladies made their way down the hillside to the garden area below where a large cast iron pot sat over a large wood fire.
Lottie carefully sorted the figs one by one culling those she didn’t like and saving them for her bird friends.
The rest were prepared and dropped into the pot of boiling water above the flames in the garden.
Basket after basket of figs was added until the cast iron could hold no more and then another pot was added.
The figs were cooked and cooked hours on end as Lola reached into a variety of cotton sacks where she stored her individual spices and secret ingredients gathered from her woodland walks until the mixture bubbled with just the right plopping sound.
When it was all just right the savory sugar filled dark brown solution was dipped again and again with a wooden gourd filling Mason jar after Mason jar.
Lola would then carefully tie a ribbon around each and every jar preparing them for her later holiday delivery where she would spread her figs around.
For almost all except Grandma Kitty this was a delectable and joyous gift but for Kitty she could not stand figs but did not have the heart to tell Lola, so she always received them graciously with a smile and added the jar to the collection tucked way back up in the cupboard where they could never be found again.
But Kitty could just not contain herself when she came home one afternoon and found planted next to her back porch three of the prettiest fig bushes that ever touched God’s rich dark soil.
The three were also a gift from Lola but not for Kitty, this time for young Pearl who had helped her steadily.
But Kitty could not contain her frustration insisting on the removal of the bushes banishing them to some distant corner of the far, where only the birds and animals could find them but Grandpa Bill, never being able to resist the pleas of young Pearl defended their placement.
To this day even long after the old house sits in ruin the great great grandchildren of Lola’s feathered friends still roost and peck at Ms. Lola’s figs by the Grandma Kitty’s back porch.

(A story from Randall’s book “A Mountain Pearl: Appalachian Reminiscing and Recipes”)

A comb, mirror and a brush

As young Pearl sat quietly on the edge of the bed, the red, white and green patchwork quilt wrapped around her feet to ward off the chill of the January frost laying heavily upon fields of brown grass around the homestead below the Gravelly Spur mountain, she stared endlessly over the shoulder of her mother Kitty into the dressing table mirror.
Kitty worked carefully and diligently to take down her long reddish brown hair from the bun she had placed on her head before the rising of the morning sun.
She spread its length down upon her shoulders and towards the floor performing a nightly ritual that her mother Rachel taught her to do before the Scarlet fever came and took her red hair.
From the dark oak dressing table she picked up a brush left her by her mother, encrusted upon it in gold were lightly lilting engravings that surrounded the initials RMH. Beside it lay a matching comb and hand mirror. Kitty took the brush and slowly ran it through her hair as Pearl began counting “One, Two, Three….”
With each stroke Pearl quietly continued her mathematical exercise as Kitty moved from one side of her head to the other not missing a single strand of hair.
As the process continued, Kitty began humming the “Wildwood Flower” gathering momentum as she pulled each stroke.
What to some might seem like an eternity passed for these two in an instant as this quiet time the two shared as Kitty reached her 100 strokes.
When Pearl reached 100 in her count, Kitty turned and said its your turn now and Pearl sat upon the dark green upholstered stool in front of the dressing table and her mother took the golden comb in hand and pulled it through the reddish brown hair removing the tangles brought on from her day’s work around the farm.
She then reached for the brush that Pearl already had in her hand admiring the engraving upon its back.
“When I was just a little one, I watched Momma do this every night. Her hair simply stacked on the floor it was so long,” Kitty said.
“Why do we do this?” Pearl asked
“So that our hair will always be beautiful,” Kitty said.
“Why do we want our hair to be beautiful?” Pearl asked.
Kitty thought about this for a while before answering as she continued to run the brush through Pearl’s hair.
“You remember last year when we took that pony you are so fond of to the fair?” Kitty said.
“Yes,” Pearl replied.
“We’ll didn’t you spend nearly three hours brushing Roscoe down and trying to make his mane look just right?” Kitty asked.
“Yes, I wanted him to look good when everybody saw him and maybe win a ribbon,” Pearl said.
“That’s why we do this each night. We want to look good when everybody sees us,” Kitty said.
“Most of the time the only things that see me er Roscoe, the chickens, and our cow Flossie,” Pearl said. “And that old Stephens boy that’s always hanging around. I don’t much think they care how I look.”
“What about all of us, me and your dad, your brothers and sisters?” Kitty said.
“Well y’all don’t count, y’all have to like me no matter what I look like,” Pearl said.
“Yes, that’s true we will always love you no matter what you look like but even with those who are suppose to love us no matter what, its best to always put some effort into being someone to be proud to be around,” Kitty said.
“Then we better get to work on the twins Wilson and Woodrow, they were wollering in the mud all day and I shore ain’t proud to be around them,” Pearl said. “We better get the washtub out and start boiling some water to give them a bath.”
“I think we will pass on giving them a bath tonight,” Kitty said.
“Tomorrow?” Pearl said.
“We’ll see if there isn’t too much else to do,” Kitty said.
“Can we use some of your fancy perfumed water on them?” Pearl asked.
“I don’t think they will like that very much,” Kitty said.
“If you put a little on me, I’ll let them smell it and if they don’t run away we’ll know,” Pearl said. “I got some nice blue ribbon we can put behind their ears.”
As Kitty pulled the last stroke with the brush through Pearl’s hair, she sat the brush down upon the dressing table and said, “OK, now scoot off to bed.”
“May I go out and tell Wilson and Woodrow they are getting a bath tomorrow?” Pearl said.
“I have to go by the pig pen when I gather eggs in the morning. I’ll be sure to tell them what you have in mind although I think you are going to have an awfully tough time convincing them about your notion,” Kitty said.
As Pearl ran from the room, Kitty picked up the hand mirror and looked more closely at her hair, in one side of the mirror she noticed a portrait of her late mother hanging upon the wall and as she glanced to the other side of the mirror she saw Pearl peaking around the corner. Rather than chastising her for not going right off to bed she reflected on how interesting it was that all three of them were in her mother’s mirror.
(A story from Randall’s book “A Mountain Pearl: Appalachian Reminiscing and Recipes”)

The seeds of wisdom spit forth

This past week I gathered with kin beside the stream that flows by my late grandparent’s home in the mountains of Tennessee. The area is now a state park, in the stream one of our cousins placed a watermelon to chill its bright red innards. We shared so much fun that day, as we cleaned up, we discovered the melon ice cold, and it had missed out on all the fun. As I sat on the back porch today looking out watching the grass grow, this image carried me in my mind’s eye sitting similarly on my grandmother’s porch. It was a summer where I spent a lot of time with my Grandma Kitty and Aunt Norma Jean. Flossie, the milk cow, was meandering through the yard headed for a shade tree where she laid down and tried to create a bit of a breeze using her tail to move an almost non-existent breeze.
Grandma was doing a much better job in her rocker with her funeral home fan and her right arm. In fact she managed to move enough that I picked up a bit of the breeze as mother and I went back and forth on the porch swing. Norma Jean leaned back in a ladder back chair against the wall abnormally still for her.
It was one of those days once referred to as the dog days of summer. I never quite understood that except I guess that the similarities with dogs it brought to us humans. We all sat around with our tongues hanging out of our mouths panting or at least so it seemed to me as a kid.
After a while I just couldn’t stand being still so I headed down to the branch to dangle my feet in the water. You know that works a lot better if you take off your shoes and socks. I never said I was real bright back then, or maybe it was just the heat.
Before I knew what had happened I looked around and everyone from the porch had joined me and you know there were smiles on their faces. They actually remembered to take their shoes off.
It was like the branch filled our bodies with a sense of hope. Hope that the heat would pass, and we would once again feel like ourselves again.
It wasn’t long though until I realized it wasn’t me that had drawn the group to the branch, especially when I noticed mother had spread out a red and white tablecloth on the bank beneath a tree. On it was a large knife and a cutting board and a saltshaker but there was nothing else.
What I did not know was that Grandma had a surprise for me. She sent me down into the deepest spot in the branch and told me to reach in for a surprise.
There was a deep green watermelon from the garden that was now cold as can be from the water running over it for most of the day.
I lifted it out and brought it up and set it on the cutting board. My shoes squished with each step.
We all now gathered around as mother cut the watermelon in pieces and we each began eating our fill.
Red fruit with a touch of salt and all those black seeds. How do you be polite with all those black seeds?
I followed Grandma’s lead and realized she was throwing the conventions of proper etiquette out the window. Rather than disposing of them quietly in a napkin, she suggested that we have a contest and see how far we all could reach spitting a seed.
We all took turns, seeing who could get across the branch. It is amazing how far the ladies could spit. They made it to the other side almost every time. Occasionally one fell short and down the branch it floated.
With each round, we found more laughter, each of us eventually won, and by the time we finished the melon, we had almost forgotten how hot it was when we started.
Our heat-induced melancholy was lost to the mischief of a melon and all its little seeds.
An added bonus, next year, the watermelons were so close to the branch, they didn’t even have to be carried and put in, they just rolled in themselves.

A laugh with Rufus A. and Madeleen Doolittle

One of the more interesting characters I have met in my life is my second cousin twice-removed Rufus A. Doolittle. No matter how many times the family removed him he just kept coming back. If you meet Rufus on the street, he will always have on his old blue Bibb overalls covering nearly 300 pounds of his favorite dishes. He always said he was built more for comfort than for speed.

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The seeds of wisdom spit forth

As I sat on the back porch watching the grass die, I could not help but find myself in my mind’s eye sitting similarly on my grandmother’s porch. It was a summer where I spent a lot of time with my Grandma Kitty and Aunt Norma Jean. Flossie, the milk cow, was meandering through the yard headed for a shade tree where she laid down and tried to create a bit of a breeze using her tail to move an almost non-existent breeze.

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Fishing and the one that got away

Grandma Kitty pulled her shiny case knife from the pocket of her blue apron. She reached down far to the bottom of the cane pole and cut it.
“This will make a good one,” she said, as she handed it to a three-year-old me. Then she cut one for herself.
As we walked to her favorite spot along Frogleg Creek, I could not help but take a peak within the small metal pail she had given me to carry. I knew it would have something good for us to eat, like some chocolate pie or a piece of coconut cake.
I almost fell down when as I looked beneath the lid, only to have my hopes dashed by a bucket of dirt filled with red wigglers.
“Granny, what are we going to have to eat,” I said. “I thought this was our food.”
“It is food, but it is for the fishes,” she said.
“You will have to wait till we find some berries or maybe a plum tree,” she said.
“What are we going to do with these poles?” I said.
“I am going to tie some string on them and you and I are going to spend the morning fishing,” she said.
As we walked along the trail, I noticed a stick lying across the trail. I rushed ahead to pick it up.
“Hold your horses, boy,” she said, as she took her cane pole and popped on the back of what I thought was a stick. The stick slithered away like a bolt of lightening.
“That’s your first rule of being in the mountains, son — be careful where you put your hands,” she said. “We share this space with all kinds of critters. Some don’t care much for sharing.”
As we reached the spot along the banks of the creek, she said. “This is it.”
Conveniently, a huge oak log had fallen there. Upon it we sat.
“All you need to do is put one of the wigglers on the safety pin and drop your line in the water like this,” she said.
She handed me the pole. Then she fixed the other one, carefully attaching the string, safety pin and adding the worm.
As we sat there side by side with our poles in the water, I know I probably asked her a million questions about the leaves, the trees and the little green frog which hopped on my shoe.
She patiently answered every one. We sat there for what seemed like hours enjoying the mountain breeze which flowed over the Gravelly Spur and along the Frogleg Creek.
“Well, we better be getting back,” she said as she pulled her line out of the water.
Just as her pin touched the top of the cold waters, the biggest fish I ever saw jumped by her line.
“Granny, did you see that?” I said. “We can’t leave, we have not got that fish yet.”
“Yes, we did,” she said.
Close your eyes, “Can you see it?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then you will carry that fish with you everywhere you go,” she said.
“So we did catch a fish,” I said. “Today, we caught the biggest fish of all.”
“We caught something much better,” she said. “We caught each other.”
From Randall Franks’s book “A Mountain  Pearl.”

A daisy for Momma

The old T model Ford chugged and stammered its way along the thin pig trail that crisscrossed up the side of the Gravelly Spur Mountain.
On one side looking down was a shear drop, while the other side was straight up.
As Pearl looked off the mountainside, in the valley below the farmer’s new crops of corn were beginning to show some strength in the neatly planted rows they laid off earlier in the year traipsing behind their best mule teams.
The mountain laurel dotted the side of the mountain and a faint smell of wild roses occasionally whisped through the open car.
This trip up the mountainside would eventually reach a point where the car would stop because there was no more passable road and Grandma Kitty, Grandpa Bill and little Pearl would get out and walk the rest of the way.
Their goals were three fold — Grandpa Bill was scouting the mountainside for any usable timber, Grandma Kitty was planning to hit her favorite spots to gather remedy roots, barks and berries, but the main goal involved a tremendously large bouquet of daisies tightly grasped in Pearl’s hand.
You see this was Mother’s Day weekend and for Kitty and Bill their mothers were both in heaven.
Grandpa Bill’s mother lay in a green patch of ground nestled between stately cedar trees on the side of the mountain where generations of the family rested, while Grandma Kitty’s mother was buried miles away in another county.
Through the years they had created a tradition of alternating between the locations on days like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Memorial Day.
As the T model hit the end of the road, Grandpa Bill shut her off and picked up the lunch pales sitting neatly in the back seat. Grandma Kitty pulled her burlap sack from beneath the seat and Pearl jumped out without losing a single daisy from her bouquet.
As they walked up the old mountain trail Grandpa looked over at an old cabin and said, “Pearl, that there is where your great, great, great grandpappy built his home after beating them there Red Coats.”
Though abandoned the lonely the cabin still held its position strongly on the side of the mountain creating a natural fortification against potential attack from indians.
Grandma Kitty spied a bit of wormseed and she strayed from the trail to gather some to grind. Some of the neighbor’s kids had needed a batch of her remedy to rid them of worms.
The canopy of the dogwood trees almost hid the entrance to the little cemetery.
As you walk between two majestic oak trees, in a clearing high on top of the mountain, was this lush green field with lines of stones marking departed loved ones. Some stones were store bought with fancy writing on them while some were simply mountain stone where someone had chiseled in the name of those gone on.
Pearl had made this trip before and knew the ritual just as if it was a part of daily life.
As they stopped near the edge of the cemetery, Pearl gave half of the daisies to her father ‘cept six.
He took them and walked over to where his mother slept. He sat down on the grass next to the stone and started talking with her. He told her about how the crops were last year, how the children were, and anything he thought might interest her.
As he did this Kitty took Pearl’s hand and they walked to the graves of the other six mothers who came before her and placed one daisy on each plot of mountain ground.
When they finished Bill had placed his flowers on the grave, told his mom how much he loved her and said goodbye once again.
He joined Kitty and Pearl and they walked slowly to the edge of the cemetery that went up to the very edge of the mountainside.
Pearl still tightly gripped the other half of the bouquet and when the time was right she gave it to Kitty ‘cept one.
Kitty quietly held the bouquet and looked to the east to her ancestral home, she called out to the four winds to carry her love to her mother dear and she tossed the daisies across the sky and they flew through the air off the mountainside.
As Kitty walked back to join Bill and Pearl, Pearl looked up at her and handed her the one remaining daisy she would not relinquish earlier.
“Mommy, I want you to have my love now. I don’t want to wait until I have to talk to a stone or to the four winds.”
Kitty put her arms around her and Bill put his around Kitty’s. They stood there and gazed off the mountainside watching the four winds carry the daisies across the sky.
For more stories of the Gravelly Spur, see the book “A Mountain Pearl.”

A mountain elf

The winds pounded upon the side of the house sitting in the shadow of Gravelly Spur Mountain and seeped beneath the cracks around the windows and doors letting the chill of winter in the walls warmed by the wood stacked and burning in the fireplace.

The sound of bells tinkled as they were pulled from a wood box which sat by the evergreen tree placed with love in the corner of the main room.

Pearl tied the small bells with yarn to the boughs. In a small pan, Grandma Kitty popped corn which would soon string into lengths to surround the tree from top to bottom.

“Well, that should be enough,” she said. “Everyone find a place and let’s get busy.”

The time spent stringing brought all the family ‘round to sit upon every open space as stories of Christmas passed were recalled and hopes and wishes for the coming yuletide rang through the laughter.

“I want a wagon,” Nellie said as Pearl used her to model the popcorn string instead of the tree.

Little Ma, Grandad Bill’s grandmother sat closest to the fire with her sewing in hand, refreshing the dress of the angel which he would soon place on the treetop when all was said and done.

Soon one of the children started singing “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem,” and the rest would join in as the work continued.

A knock at the door brought Bill to find no one there. He stepped outside on the porch seeing no one in sight and not a footprint visible in the light smattering of snow on the ground.

“No one is around,” he said as he returned to his work.

“It was the mountain elf making sure we were hard at work preparing for Christmas morn,” Little Ma said.

“The mountain elf,” what’s that Pearl said as she rushed by her side at the fire.

“You see when our people came to the mountains, from Scotland and Ireland, many of them came with their trunks filled with clothes and bits and pieces of the past from the old country. The elves crawled in alongside the bits and pieces and came to live here with us,” she said.

“What do the look like?” Pearl asked.

“I’ve never seen one but they say they are just like us but smaller,” she said. “They watch after the bits and pieces and make sure they are cared for.”

“Why did they bang on the door,” Pearl asked.

“The bells and this angel were some of the bits and pieces that came over and have passed down through the years,” she said. “They like to see us using them, it reminds them of home. Christmas is the time of year when we all think of home and what has come before and hopefully what will be. I think that is why they knocked, so they could look inside when the door opened. I think when we hang the bells and they ring, it brings them.”

“Do they help Santa on Christmas, is that why you call them an elf?” Pearl said.

“In a way, we are all mountain elves, we all tend to each other’s things, look after one another and help make sure that what is needed be gotten, if it can be got,” she said. “So I reckon they do help him, just like each of us do dear. Now, we best be gettin’ this tree decorated or Christmas will be come and gone and we will have missed it.”

The group begins to sing “Jingle Bells” as the popcorn is wrapped around the tree and the bells swing and ring. Pearl runs to look out the front window to see if a mountain elf may be spying from the other side.

A privy and some plums

The gentle falling of snowflakes takes me back to the days when cold weather would bring a tough decision at the old family homestead.

Being cold in the winter was a common experience, since the only heat came from a fire in the main room. Grandma would always be the one up early to get the fire going before anyone else was out from under their warm down covers.
Sometimes in the middle of the night, the call of nature would come upon me. Unlike our house in town, where the bathroom was only about 15-feet down the hall, I was faced with a decision to make a 20-yard dash to the outhouse or simply utilize the chamber pot.
Most would use the chamber pot. But for some reason as a kid, even when the temperature dipped into the teens, I would push myself to put on my old black leather work boots and my brown quilted coat with the hood and make the trek up to the old white pine outhouse.
It wasn’t a very fancy building, much like those depicted in so many arts and crafts designs. The lumber from which it was made was hewn by hand and weathered by years of use. A simple wood latch kept critters from wandering in there with you. It wasn’t always successful, however.
I remember one time my little cousin, Wilbur, was making use of the facilities. Wilbur wasn’t very tall for his age. With his small frame I wonder how he managed not to fall in, I had trouble myself when I was young. After a few minutes in there, he ran out pulling up his britches, claiming there was a creature attacking him from underneath like the monster from the black lagoon. After investigation, we discovered that it was a two-legged dominicker from the hen house which apparently had decided to peck more than the ground.
In the summer, without air-conditioning, evenings were spent sitting on the front porch to catch a breeze to ease the heat which built in the house throughout the day. A trip to the old privy would find many types of crawly and flying critters, although they seldom bothered me except for an occasional sting. I seem to remember that happening one time. I then spent the rest of the day with a Bruton Snuff poultice attached to whatever part of my body the critter stung.
While I can reminisce fondly about trips to that quaint little building, as someone who was raised in the city, I must say that with the exception of the great solitude of the outhouse amidst God’s great outdoors, I did much prefer modern porcelain versions.
However, when the plums come in, I often wish I could take a trip back to the outhouse. About 20-feet beyond it was a red plum tree that often required my attention. I just loved making a trip out there to eat my fill.
Of course, my mother and grandma would warn me to stay out of the plums. “If you eat too many, you will get sick,” they would say, and they were right.
If I spent an hour up that plum tree, I would spend most of the next day about 20 feet away.
Thankfully, I never got a visit from the dominicker from beneath.

From Randall Franks’s “A Mountain Pearl: Appalachian Reminiscing and Recipes.”