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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
It is amazing how a sight, a sound or a smell can carry you in your mind’s eye to some distant place and time.
I came upon a patch of white daisies this week as I was walking along the back road in my hometown.
All of a sudden I was four years old again walking along the dirt footpath that led by my grandparent’s farmhouse. I bent over picking the very best flowers from the patch to create three bouquets, one each for my mom – Pearl, my Grandma Kitty and my Aunt Norma Jean.
My great Uncle Dud Doolittle was an entrepreneur extraordinaire who operated the little general store at Flintville Crossroads.
Now Uncle Dud was as swift as could be. He stood about five-foot-five and was wiry as a well-strung bed frame.
His circular Ben Franklin spectacles offset his gray hair, and he was seldom seen outside his wool, dark green-striped suit and favorite gray beaver hat.
When working in the store, he also wore a black visor on his head that looked odd because it made his bald spot shine as he worked below the store’s light bulb.
With the variety of folks who made his store a regular place to be, he was always finding himself in unique and unusual situations.
Folks were always eager to give a hand, especially Cousin Clara who made a drop by the store a daily ritual.
It was a quiet Friday afternoon in July of 1948. Uncle Dud stood on a rickety wooden ladder putting a shipment of canned peaches in his favorite pyramid display. As he drew his task to close Cousin Clara came in saying, “Sure is hot out there.”
She noticed a can lying below the ladder so she walked over and stepped under the ladder to pick it up. As she raised up, she knocked over the ladder sending Uncle Dud to the floor.
“Doggoned it,” Dud said. “I told you before to stay away from that ladder. Don’t you know it is bad luck to walk under a ladder?”
“I didn’t know you were superstitious,” Clara said.
“About the only time I am superstitious is when somebody like you walks under a ladder and deliberately sends me to the ground,” he said.
“Do you believe it is seven years bad luck to break a mirror?” Clara asked.
“No sireee! My Uncle Corn Walter broke a mirror, and he did not have a bit of bad luck,” Dud said.
“Why didn’t he?” Clara asked.
“He got bit by a rattlesnake and died two days later,” he said.
Throughout the conversation, Dud remained as he had landed on the floor — standing on his head.
“Why are you still like that?” she asked.
“When I stand on my head the blood rushes to my head, but when I stand on my feet the blood don’t seem to rush to my feet,” Dud said. “I didn’t know why, so I wanted to just stay here and think about it a minute or two.”
“Why, that’s easy to figure out in your case Uncle Dud,” Clara said. “Blood can’t go in to your feets because your feets are full, but it can go into your head cause your head’s empty.”
(The characters of Uncle Dud Doolittle and Cousin Clara are the property of Peach Picked Publishing in association with Katona Publishing and are used by permission.)
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