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The Christmas Doll

The winter of ’34 in the valley below the Gravely Spur was an especially hard one. A Christmas snow had blanketed the valley, making travel through the mountain passes treacherous, even if taken by foot.
With one false step, even those who knew the routes by heart could find themselves slipping into a snow drift hiding a potential fall.
However, for most of the children of the valley the snow turned it into a winter wonderland. Pearl, Ruby and the Wood boys were finding whatever they could ride to go sledding down Turner’s gorge. At the bottom of the gorge lay a pond formed from Frog Leg Creek which was covered in a thick coat of ice almost strong enough for skating. No one had any skates so they would simply slide across on the soles of the new shoes they received when the crops were sold.
While the children were unaware, most of the parents of the valley knew that the reality of the year had left them all in dire straits.
Toys at Christmas were largely a luxury in the valley. Even the well-to-do families were having trouble this year. The customary apple, banana or piece of peppermint stick candy that most of the children found in their stocking might be missed this year.
Pearl had sensed the concerns of her parents and with six children and four share-cropping families to help, she knew her father was doing all he could that year.
The unexpected snow however made it difficult for anything not already on hand to be brought into the valley.
Still Pearl hoped that she might find a little something for her Christmas morning that she could call her very own.
As she was sliding on the ice, she listened as the Wood boys laughed about what happened to what they got the year before.
“I can’t believe what George did to our present last year,” Woody said. “We got a whole string of firecrackers to split between us boys and he nearly run us out of the house with them.”
“He got up early Christmas morning and found them. They had this long string running through connecting them, so he took that loose and was counting them and splitting them up so we all had the same amount,” he said. “He threw that long piece of string in the fire. That thing jumped back out right in the middle of his pile. You should have seen George when those firecrackers started going off in every direction. They even jumped up in the bed with the rest of us and got everybody up in the house.”
But in spite of the snow, Santa would be making his usual stops at the Gravelly Spur no matter what. Because of the terrain, this year he would only make one stop in the valley and all the neighbors would go by Christmas morning and pick up what he had brought for the valley children.
Santa’s helper in the valley was Rev. Ben Smathers, who waited patiently Christmas Eve for Santa’s arrival. As the families came to Big Lick Church Christmas morning, he would then, one by one, distribute the gifts and the community would then gather for a celebration of Christ‘s birth.
Christmas morning, Pearl was up early, anxious for the trip to the church. In her stocking she found an orange and a stick of candy. When the family arrived at the church, she joined the other children in line at the tree and stepped up to Rev. Smathers. He placed in her arms a little blonde doll in a woven basket lying upon a blue cotton pillow.
“It is so beautiful,” she said. “Is she really mine?”
“Yes, just for you my dear,” he said. “So you take good care of her.”
As she looked in the eyes of her new friend, Pearl beamed with the joy of Christmas.
It was not stacks of gifts which made her eyes glimmer and her face shine with the light of the season. It was one simple gift of her very own given by the heart of a pastor who knew without his help many children would do without that Christmas.

Warsh and wear

Today most folks don’t give a second thought if they get their clothes dirty to go and change into another outfit.
In the valley below the Gravelly Spur, an abundance of clothes in the closet was not something that most folks experienced.
The Woods boys, like everyone, were often faced with limited things to wear. Little Woody had only two pairs of overalls and two shirts.
After working in the fields two days in a row, both pairs of his overalls and his two shirts were stained with red dirt and mud. He came to his older sister and said “I haven’t got anything to wear to school tomorrow.”
She took him into the bedroom reached into the closet, pulled out her extra dress, and laid it on the bed.
“Get that on and I’ll wash up your overalls.”
Little Woody didn’t have much choice in the matter it was either put the dress on or run around in his all together. So out of the clod covered overalls and into the gray colored dress he slipped.
So even though it was late in the day, she pulled out the washtub and the warshboard and scrubbed them overalls from rusty brown to a faded blue.
She took them out and hung them to dry on the clothesline, as one would normally do.
As the family went to sleep that night, the temperature dropped way below freezing. When the family slowly made their way out into the kitchen wiping the sleep from their eyes with the rooster’s crow, little Woody’s older sister sent one of the other boys to fetch the overalls while she cooked.
He brought them in frozen solid, straight as a board. He stands them in the corner taking a bit of delight in the feat.
Woody is standing there in her gray dress and says “What are we going to do, I can’t were those to school and I am sure not wearing this dress.”
She took the overalls and shirts and placed them on chairs by the fireplace and within just a short time the overalls and shirts had melted into something looking like the occupants had simply disappeared. She quickly ironed one of the shirts.
Woody could not wait to get out of the dress and as soon as the overalls were warm enough and before the iron had hit them, he was into one of the pairs and out of that dress.
While the experience might not have been so bad for little Woody if his older brothers did not see the whole thing as an opportunity for some good old fashion ribbing once they got to school.
When the Moss brothers asked the Wood boys what they had done the night before each mentioned some adventure they had but one of them had to say, “Woody didn’t do anything. He was afraid to come out of the house cause someone might see him wearing sister’s dress.”
Needless to say this was enough to get Little Woody’s blood to boiling and with a little more agitation its safe to say that clean pair of overalls picked up a little schoolyard dirt as the kidders found themselves on the receiving end of his frustration.
Good thing his sister washed both pairs of overalls or he’d been back in that dress all over again.

A leaf  of strength

The leaf swayed hanging on to the lonely limb tightly.  As if, to say to the world “I am not done and you are not going to make me fall down no matter what you throw at me.” All of its fellow leaves had given up the ghost blowing in whatever direction the wind desired them to go. Some managed to find a resting place at the foot of the majestic oak tree to spend the winter becoming the woodland blanket upon which the rain would fall before soaking into the ground.
My Grandad sat quietly on the porch staring at the leave bobbing in the wind.
He had come back from a tremendous stroke that took the wind from his earthly sails. The man who seemed would not bend to nothing could now barely lift himself from the chair in which he sat.
On this fall day though spying that lone leaf seemed to fortify him more than anything that anyone had to bolster his spirits. He stared endlessly watching its fight and as the fight struggled on from one day to two, to a week, his personal strength seemed to grow.
He managed each day no matter how the wind blew or what elements forced themselves past the mountain homestead, he walked himself out to the porch to spend some time sitting, later leaning against the porch post, and then standing as upright as the years would allow. He was always looking off towards the oak tree and its one hold out to the whims of the world saying nothing that revealed the focus of his internal thoughts.
As the winter came on strong, he would rise up and with his cane in hand, he eventually walked off the porch and towards that mighty oak tree going as far as he felt comfortable then returning to the porch. With each trip he got closer to his goal and he soon reached the tree looking straight up towards the hanging leaf.
There were a few times he would take one hand lean against the trunk of the tree and with the other lift his cane as far as he could trying to hit the leaf that centered his focus. He was just shy of reaching it and he would eventually tire and return to the warmth of the fireplace inside.
The light covering of snow did not even dissuade him to making his trek to the oak and returning home and with each passing day he grew stronger.
By the first signs of spring, he no longer limited his walking to just the tree and he was taken on even more of the activities that made his day sing around the farm.
It was on a spring day that the tree had refilled all its limbs and the greenery made it full and majestic. Grandad could no longer see the lone leaf from the porch so he decided to make another trek to see what had become of his now old companion who he fought alongside against the world’s elements.
As he reached the tree, he looked upon the ground to find it to no avail so he turned his gaze upward and amongst the lush green leaves there it was – one brown leaf still holding on to its place amidst the green youngsters around it.
Grandad’s face seemed to change as his face fought back the effects of the stroke moved to show a smile.
He raised his cane, almost in a sense of a salute to the lone leaf, then turned and walked down the trail towards the valley store. Emboldened by the lone leaf, he was figuring to hold on to his place in the world and stand as the man he was inside, no matter what nature threw against him.
We need more people in this world who work to overcome what they face finding the inner strength that God placed within each of His creations.

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.”