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As Memorial Day approaches, I like to ponder the special meaning that this holiday holds for Kentuckians.  Although Memorial Day was originally set aside as a day to honor Union soldiers who were killed in the Civil War, it has come to mean much more, especially in Appalachia.

Every year thousands of former Kentuckians make the long journey from their homes to trudge up steep, lonely hillsides, often in remote areas, to visit family cemeteries.

Why does this ritual endure?

It endures because each time they stand atop the windswept hills, amid the bones of their ancestors, they are back home.  Once again, they are where they belong, and the memories roar around them like a flood.

These bottle green days of spring are reminiscent of days when they accompanied Grandmother in the April sunshine to pick wild greens, while from the dogwood-frosted hills, came the sad call of a mourning dove.  They induce thoughts of walking through brown patches of plowed earth, dropping seeds or potato sets into the welcoming soil.

Children’s voices echo from the twilight summers past, laughing from the fun of chasing and catching fireflies, only to let them go again.  The voice of a whipporwhill, an insistent, unseen piper, enticed the troops onto the front porches where the adults sat watching the night sky pierced by stars.

In the fall, October’s high azure skies were unsullied by clouds, as youngsters crackled over the russet matting of fallen leaves to gather the treasure of nuts that the tall hickories so generously yielded.

One-room schools, tobacco-filled barns, elections, hog killings, Christmas plays, striped candy canes and warm patchwork quilts all create memories that swirl in the hearts of these erstwhile Kentuckians and then gradually recede as they deliver their synthetic flowers and walk slowly away.

Unlike those of us who have chosen to remain in Appalachia, their world is no longer encompassed by these beloved hills.  Their feet no longer tread the paths of their forebears.  The scope of their lives is not defined by time-honored traditions.  Their happiness does not depend on the scarlet flash of a cardinal’s wing or the paintbox of wildflowers on hills and meadows.  They do not require a continuous fellowship with their native soil or their ancestral legacy for contentment.

They have found pleasure among people with diverse accents, in places where the terrain is flat and monotonous, and in modern lifestyles.  Yet, the familiar beckons them, and they are irresistibly drawn afresh to the fountainhead of their essence.

Their kinship will not be denied.

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I can’t remember a world without you. I toddled after you from babyhood, and you were my playmate, my confidant, and my friend. The same blood ran through our veins, and that connection was mystical and intense. Some part of each day was spent together until we became adults. You walked in rain or shine to catch the school bus with me in the mornings and returned to spend the evening after dinner. You were generous and indulgent, and if I cried over some small disappointment, you fished in your grubby, little-boy pockets to find something to make me smile. I wish you could do that now.

We crunched through russet leaves on windswept hills, exploring, playing follow-the leader, and gathering hickory nuts. We made up fantastic tales and executed dashing sword fights with sticks. Our pennies were saved to buy hot dogs to roast over an open fire, and you taught me to put peanuts in my RC cola. You invented a call known only to us, something between a Tarzan yell and a squeal. It was our secret code.

As we grew older, we would put my old record player between us and talk the evening away while we listened to scratchy 45’s. Your favorites were “Roses are Red” and “Rhythm of the Rain.” I hated the former, and you poked fun at my penchant for Cat Stevens. I looked up to you in a way that you never realized. Somewhere, I have a school photo of you on which I had written, “my hero” in my childish penmanship.

You became a bearded man with a family of your own, and we left that enchanted childhood behind us, but the chain was never broken. Sometimes circumstances tested it, but the bond held. Our telephone conversations were of Olympic proportions, and you always made me laugh. I shared a camaraderie with you that was unique and hard to find in this world. Now, I’m folding it away in a heart that feels like a bruised stone.

I saw you on Tuesday, and I knew it was goodbye. I patted your hand when I left and said, “I’ll see you again.” I’m counting on that.

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I am remembering my cousin, Steve Oakley, on this morning before Easter. Our coloring eggs together is a favorite memory of mine, and I have very few childhood reminiscences in which he did not have a significant role. We would sit at our kitchen table and joyfully transform the dull hen’s eggs into a rainbow of Easter eggs, making a most iridescent mess for my mother to clean up afterwards.

The odor of vinegar would pinch our noses as we concocted the dye in containers that we gleaned from who knows where. Paper or Styrofoam cups were not readily available to us then. We often tried to create exotic colors by mixing hues and double-dipping the eggs, an effort that was largely unsuccessful. Nevertheless, Steve always had some innovative idea for designing unusual eggs, despite past failures.

Steve and I both owned Daisy BB guns, and one Easter weekend, he was suffering from a very red and swollen eye, the result of a ricocheting BB, but he still arrived as usual to help me color eggs. I can see him as plainly as if happened yesterday, dipping eggs and doggedly “enjoying” the activity. I was so upset about his eye, but he would not let our tradition go unobserved.

On Easter after Sunday School, my mother would hide the eggs in the vacant lot across the road from our house, and several of us would run wild in the tangled vinca vines and tufts of spring green grass, gleefully searching for them. After all the eggs had been found, we’d often hide them again, but eventually, we’d loll in the grass, drape ourselves over the steps, or sit on the porch and peel the Easter from the eggs. My mother would give us all a cold bottle of RC Cola, and the finder of the lucky egg received a quarter.

We were fortunate to be happy and uncomplicated children, growing up in a quiet, close-knit community. One of my favorite books is “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but as I remember those Easters, I am convinced that Jem and Scout had nothing on us.

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As I sit here waiting for my daughter in the warm October night, I embrace the silky dusk, wrapping it around my tired soul.  Time has stopped here for me as I sit  in my car in this lonely parking lot, listening to the traffic sounds echoing from Main Street.  This time and place remind me of an old Twilight Zone episode.  The streets running through the 1950’s are much like the streets of Salyersville, Kentucky on this  unseasonable  fall evening.  I hear the rise and fall of voices somewhere, and artificial light falls on the whitewashed block wall in front of me, casting weird, foreshortened shadows.
       
Stars are twinkling above the still-green hills, and katydids and crickets provide background music.  A woman’s soprano laughter slices through the evening air, and momentarily, her high heels click-clack past me. I hear a car door shut.   

Anything can happen on a night like this.  A dog begins to bark, and I would not be surprised to see Rod Serling step out from behind the dark, leafy tree beside me, his cigarette smoke swirling sinuously into another dimension.

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 The past several mornings just as I have arrived at my workplace, I have seen flocks of Canada geese flying overhead, honking their farewells.  I watched this morning as a few large groups of birds met and formed several smaller groups, executing a beautiful choreography as they maneuvered into their standard V-formation.  They rose up on glossy wings, defying gravity, as I stood earthbound watching them go. 

 Their departure seemed timely, as I have been thinking much about goodbyes in recent days.  The migration of the geese reminded me of all the heavy-hearted leave-takings that I have experienced in my lifetime.  I have watched my parents, grandparents, nephew, aunts, uncles, father-in-law, brothers-in-law, cousins, friends, and neighbors travel beyond the distant horizon.  Goodbye is hard for those of us who cannot go on the journey, but for those who have embarked on the flight, the adventure has begun.  They may look on us with sadness at the parting, but the irresistible pull of the deep calling unto the deep draws them onward until they cannot and would not look back. 

 The exodus of the geese heralds the coming of cold, dark winter for us, but their travels will lead them to find summer again.  How I envied them this morning!  King David, the sweet singer of Israel, said, “Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest.”  I bid Godspeed to those who have earned their wings, and I hope that I, too, someday may mount up with wings as eagles, confident in my destination.

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As I drove home from work one evening this week, I noticed a tall, stately goldenrod beside the road near my house.  It nodded nonchalantly to me as I passed, and the bowing of its plumy head called up a primordial sorrow in me, one that I have experienced the past few years during the subtle transition from summer to autumn.   Soon the soft petals of summer will yield to blazing sumacs and falling leaves.  Fall is a topaz smoldering in nature’s crown, darkly beautiful in contrast to the emerald gleam of summer.  Yet, its beauty is draped in a veil of sadness, as endings often are.  Autumn marches slowly in, being careful not to usurp summer’s place too suddenly, and so we are wooed with mellow sunshine and clear blue skies.  We are surprised and a little angered on the morning that cold needles of frost stab the lingering flowers and remind us that Winter lurks behind the bright pumpkin and the Thanksgiving feast, reaching out its icy fingers to kill that which remains. 

Change is hard to bear, and growing older is an unexpected and unwelcome transformation.  Autumn warns me that life is never static.  Today’s sunshine is replaced with tomorrow’s rain, and the splendorous decay of the fall season reminds me that too soon, life is spent.  May God grant me the grace to walk into the approaching autumn of my life and not hold too fast to the waning summer—to find beauty and fruitfulness in the seasons ahead and to embrace them with a grateful heart.     

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Mother’s Day engenders sentimental recollections of gentle mothers whose cool hands caressed fevered brows and whose well-modulated voices articulated their love for their children. I am a mother, so I know the depth and the reality of a mother’s love. I, too, remember my mother’s love and kindness, but I also remember her independence, her spirit, and her strength, which also made me strong.

Did her cool hand lie on my fevered brow? Yes, many times, and I can still feel the metal of her wedding band against my forehead as she checked my temperature. I also remember her wielding spoons full of the most awful-tasting medicine and saying, “Open your mouth. Don’t spit that out! Don’t you dare spit that out!”

I remember kicking and screaming upon receiving a shot from the family doctor, and I’ll never forget the dressing down my mother gave me afterwards. She would have done a drill sergeant proud, and I never misbehaved at the doctor’s office again. Thereafter, when the doctor gave me my lollipop, I had earned it.

I remember a mother who was never too busy in the evenings to go on jaunts to the woods to look for faeries, or to play her guitar and sing, work puzzles, or play games. She often called to me to look at the flame of a cardinal’s wing burning in the evergreens or to listen to the music of tree frogs. She taught me to love nature and to have sympathy for all living things. Nevertheless, this was the same mother who practically annihilated me for going wading in the creek barefoot because she understood the contamination of what looked like nice, clean water to me.

My mother taught me that God sees the sparrow that falls, and she believed in living by faith. Even though she did not want me to borrow tomorrow’s cares, she expected me to do my best at my endeavors. I knew better than to bring home anything less than a B on my schoolwork, and that was barely tolerated. I was made to practice the piano for one hour every day because my grandmother was paying good money for my lessons, and I owed it to her to do my best, and I’d better appreciate it, too.

I remember, “Did you hear what I said, little girl?” “You come right back here and close that door without slamming it,” and “You will apologize this instant.” I’ll never forget, “Straighten up that face before it freezes that way,” but I think her ultimate remark was, “I hope you have a daughter exactly like you are someday.”

She was the first one to hold me in this life, and I was the last one to hold her. Thirty-one years ago, I stood by her bed in the hospital and watched my tiny, fierce little mother succumb to cancer too soon, and I was not ready to let her go. I thought a pillar of strength had faded out of my life, but I was wrong. She left her strength behind. She had taught me well, as I have tried to teach my own daughter. Being an indulgent parent is easy. Being a vigilant, effective one takes guts.

Love is indeed stronger than death. My mother’s love glows in the twilight mist. It calls me in the mourning dove’s song. It beckons me along woodland paths. It thunders in my heart as I stand at her grave, bereft but not forsaken.

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