I got a pingback on yesterday’s post and it got me to thinking about another item between family members and friends.
Dreams flow well in letters, don’t they? I think we’ve lost part of that connection, especially because of the internet. No anticipation flutters our heartbeat when we think of getting an email. That sensation came when we waited for real mail, on paper, with ink covering the page like so much ivy growing out toward us, carrying dreams, images, and speculations. Secrets huddled within the lines of word leaves, providing us with tiny thrills and mysteries.
These were the reasons we wrote to cousins, best friends on vacation, or pen pals. Most of that is gone now with the arrival of internet. That loss is what I regret, for now, instead of picking up fountain pen and paper, I reach for a keyboard, and the thought and care that would had gone into writing to a love one has dissipated into a mist of remembered pleasure.
Can you imagine how much of our world’s history, knowledge, and philosophy would not exist if it weren’t for written letters?
Much of the ancient world would be a mystery to use without those letters between philosophers and historians. The treatise is a simple extension of the letter. Those documents formed the very foundation of what we know as literature, scientific notation, constitutions, etc.
Family members wrote to one another, knowing that they might never get a response from the one who’d moved so far away, or the one who’d stayed in the old neighborhood/country. Hope clung to fragile ink-covered pages, written with love, despair, anticipation, disgust, and all the rest of human emotion. Did those pioneers recognize the tradition they followed from a thousand years before?
As we move further into a new world that disdains the tangible personal letter, we need to look back for a moment to imprint in our minds what we’re giving up. Physical remains of letters have survived for thousands of years. One badly timed lightning strike can wipe out years of work or correspondence.
Mother Nature doesn’t care about electrons that floated around or are stored in the ether around us. A scrambled atmosphere can do as much damage in the long run as a flood. All communication is vulnerable to disaster, computer driven no less than the Pony Express.
At the end of the day, though, we choose to use our time to communicate with dreams, aspirations, and secrets from one person to another, or merely to open a channel and punch keys.
The individual decides. Quick and dirty or thoughtful and fulsome? When is the last time letters arrived in your mailbox?
There are those within family groups who play major roles but don’t take major precedence. The fault doesn’t come from any absence of caring, but rather a lack of connection between two members of the group. One case in point was my maternal grandfather.
I never felt as if Grandfather St. Clair liked me. I honestly don’t know how that conviction arose, whether from a perceived coldness toward me or whether it was simply that he didn’t know how to relate to little girls. Whatever the cause, I had that impression.
He showed me only a reserved man who had much knowledge of natural history and personal experience. He knew and understood so many secrets of the deep woods, and he connected with my brother on that level. They were always great friends, who spent entire days together, hunting, fishing, and sharing.
I couldn’t get close to Grandfather. I couldn’t understand his sense of humor any more than I could guess at his feelings toward me. All I could do was watch helplessly as opportunities to connect eroded over the years.
Wonderment always flowed through me after I discovered the history between my grandmother and him. When she met him, she was a widow with three marriages behind her and four sons and a daughter to finish rearing. He was a friend of her eldest three sons.
One day, when she grew tired of his hanging around her house and eating food that she’d provided through a great deal of hard work, she told him that if he was going to continue to practically living there, he might as well marry her and help provide a few groceries for the table. Grandfather took her up on that proposal.
That reality has the power to stun a person on first hearing. A woman, with four nearly grown sons and a young daughter, and a nineteen-year-old husband is not usually something one considers commonplace during the 1920’s. Today she’d be called more than a cougar, I’m sure.
Back then, though, times were hard. Practicality ruled the lives of many. Necessity drove the bus to the future.
The newlyweds settled down. Within a year my mother was born. The year was 1930. My grandmother was 44 years old at the time, and the Depression was deepening.
Grandfather took a job in the stone quarry to supplement what their small farm’s production. Each day he rose before dawn and walked five miles across country to get to work. He labored there until nearly dark and then returned home through those same hollows, fields, roads, and forests. I never discovered whether he complained about this new lot into which he’d entered so casually.
When WWII arrived on the country’s doorstep, he and my mother’s four brothers entered the service and were shipped abroad. My grandmother was left holding down the responsibility for two young daughters and a farm, as well as the worry of perhaps losing all of her sons and her husband.
At war’s end all the menfolk returned. Grandfather had survived North Africa. Was that the cause of the brooding gazes that took control of his eyes sometimes? I have no way of knowing. Or, did he remember how Grandmother’s youngest son—my brother’s namesake–and his good friend, died at an unmarked railroad crossing along with two other young veterans shortly after returning from the war?
This was fresh family history when I came along as mother’s firstborn. I knew the man who could produce a fantastically productive garden and harvest from the wild much of the other necessities for my grandmother’s kitchen. I watched the man who held secrets close to his shirtfront and rarely laughed.
I don’t remember him at my grandmother’s funeral, but only afterward, due to circumstances that resonated into the months that followed.
This is my memory of my grandfather. I heard about his humor from others. It must have been too subtle for me to recognize as a child. By the time I reached adulthood, we were both different people who acknowledged each other, gave due respect, and found common ground in the family group.
I admit that these are only a few of the memories that I should have of the man and that time in my life. I also admit that, due to an accident, I remember only a small bit of those early years. I have images and impressions of some of my childhood and many of those triggered only because the recollections from other members of the family.
The thing that I found odd, now that I stop to ponder this man and my family, is that my grandmother was 74 when she died in 1960. He died in 1984, having barely attained the age of 75. They both had major strokes before death claimed them. Even apart, they came together.
Growing up in or around the South during the 50’s and 60’s was an interesting way to discover life.
When we visited my father’s parents in Kentucky during that time, everything seemed new and exciting to me. There were people who I didn’t get to see but a few times a year, people I knew as family. There were cousins close to my age, aunts and uncles, great aunts and uncles, and others who were attached to the family, though I was never really sure in what capacity.
One of the latter group members was a man named Paul. He lived with my grandparents much of the time, occupying an upper quarter of their house. He was a quiet-spirited man who seldom spoke, but when he did, his was a soft and thoughtful voice. He had a slow smile which told silent stories when few were looking his way.
As a girl, I couldn’t place him anywhere in my family lexicon, had no logical placement for him that pigeon-holed him neatly in relationship to me. He would occasionally speak to me, in greeting as much as for any other reason. He worked for my grandpa during tobacco season, as far as I knew. and lived with them as a kind of hired farm hand.
I was probably in middle school before I discovered that he lived on grandpa’s farm only part of the time. Paul had other places where he lived for weeks or months on end. That knowledge confused me more than thinking of him as what the books called “poor relations.”
Years later I found out that Paul had been wounded during the war. At that time there were only three wars significant enough to be given capital letters; the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.
It didn’t matter to me which of the world wars was referenced. I’d discovered that Paul was a victim, a kind of hero who made his way in the world, doing whatever he could to support himself beyond the tiny pension he received from the government.
Paul wasn’t any blood kin. He needed help to make it in the world, and he received some of that help at my grandparents’ home. He ate at their table, slept under Granny’s hand-made quilts, and watched TV with them in the evening.
That tall, lean man, who presented himself with his neat and immaculate clothing, and who remained always self-contained, fascinated me. I wanted to know his stories, his history. I wanted to know why he’d chosen to get so close to my grandparents.
Throughout my adulthood, his existence, his attendance at the fringe of my early life, kept his presence within reach in the few early memories I had of grandpa’s farm. I always wondered why. When did he arrive within the family confines and how did he stay there for so long? I never found out.
One thing I learned over my lifetime is that families in the South ebb and flow through necessity and whim. There’s a belief in God’s will that places people and situations in a person’s life path. Single people, such as Paul, often found employment and a home at the same farm.
Knowing this common practice doesn’t compensate for not knowing the entire story. Over the years I’ve asked about this family member who wasn’t. I’m still not satisfied with the information gained, but I’ve given up on digging deeper. Perhaps this story is meant to remain a mystery for me.
I wonder how many of those I know now have such a person linked to their families. It’s none of my business, of course, but it begs the question. I’d hate to think that in that respect, I’m the oddball.
The cultural differences between far North frontier country and Southern deep roots would throw anybody into shock.
The precipitator of this condition of shock may lie in the fact that many in the North tend to categorize the South. Some dismiss those of the South as the eccentric cousins who aren’t discussed in polite society all that often. After all, they say, Southerners are the ones who brought about that wicked Civil War and all, don’t you know.
Believe it or not, there are those that still think that way. Aside from that, according to others, Southerners are known to be just a hair short on the mental acuity scale. Otherwise they would be out in the world far more and be recognized for their entrepreneurial acumen and social hipness.
Sarcastic? Me? Never!
I can tell you two things for certain sure. I grew up with half my family from the South where I spent as much time as possible, and I lived in the western part of the South for more years than I care to count.
‘Course, living there cured me of one thing–smoking. Couldn’t do it anymore. Didn’t need to be doing it in the first place. Found a way to get rid of the habit for good, and I’ve never been more glad about anything in my life.
Because of my age I remember how the older South used to function. I remember the time before the Civil Rights Movement. I remember watching an older black gentleman step off the sidewalk so that my mother, grandmother, and I could walk past him as he tipped his hat to us. I also remember crying because I thought I’d done something wrong that made him not want to be on the same street as me.
My mother, of course, explained the situation to me right there on the sidewalk. I got indignant (I was very good then at doing indignant) and demanded my grandmother explain why her people would ever do such a thing. All of which upset her no end, as you can imagine. I was very young at the time, challenging an elder about social etiquette. And I did apologize later.
Things settled down a bit during the rest of the visit, but I’ve always been able to close my eyes and see that episode behind the lids anytime I wanted. It was a great social leveler for me.
What else do I remember? I remember catching Grandaddy and my little brother one afternoon, down feeding the hogs (my grandparents were farmers–what were known as sharecroppers, actually.) Indignation swarmed up my backside that afternoon, too.
They were sitting in the back of the big cargo wagon that was heaped with little bitty watermelons about the size of half a soccer ball. Grandaddy would cut a melon in half, hand one half to my brother while keeping one for himself. Each of them would scoop out the heart of the melon, eat it, and then throw the rest to the hogs across the fence before moving on to the next melon.
Now, I knew how those little melons tasted. They were like watermelon flavored honey in a bowl, and I wanted my fair share. Well, wouldn’t you know that the good-old-boys party was just wrapping up when I arrived. I only got the one little melon. –Not that I could have stuffed more than one down my gullet anyway.–
Ever Ride A Cow?
There was a neighbor boy named Hunter who lived down the lane. He used a big Black Angus bull for a horse and rode that animal everywhere. My brother wanted to be just like Hunter, running through the woods barefoot, shooting his .22 and generally running wild.
To that end little bro decided one day, while we were helping my aunt milk the cows, that he wanted to ride one of them. Now, my aunt was raised on a farm and knew how a farm and its animals operated. And she had a really good suspicion what would happen if bro rode milk cow.
She couldn’t talk him out of it, though, so when all the milk was secured and the cows were ready to go back out into the pasture, she asked him which cow he fancied. Being the adventurer that he was, he chose the big Guernsey. Well, my aunt got the cow out into the barn’s center, made sure of the halter rope, and told him to hop right up there on the cow.
I have to admit, he did pretty good. He managed to last almost the entire 8 seconds before hitting the ground with a whoosh. He was a bit stunned. After all, Hunter made it look so easy. But then, Hunter wasn’t trying to ride a milk cow that had never held a rider before. Hurt? Nah, bro wasn’t hurt, except for his pride.
I confess. I laughed my tail off. My good aunt didn’t, bless her heart. That was the last I ever saw of that cow, though.
I remember an ice storm at Thanksgiving one year, which forced us to drive home in it on less-than-new tires and seeing my dad white-knuckled at the wheel, knowing he was silently praying that we made it home one state away before we got killed. I do believe Mom was praying just as hard as Dad.
Personally, I was enjoying the fairy castle quality the ice gave all the trees and undergrowth. I’d never seen the effects of an ice storms before. All these years later, I’ve seen too many years of destruction from Nature’s Ice Queen.
There were so many times back then when fun was had by simply playing Red Rover in my grandparents front yard. Or standing in the stripping shed during our autumn visits, stripping tobacco to put in the drying barns. That time was filled with country music blaring from the radio, listening to my grandmother and aunts relate family history and community news in soft twang that amuses so many not of the South, and just spending time together.
The one thing that the south will never be short of is family solidarity. A family member might bring the wrath of the family down on his/her head by shaming the family name, but before that any member will fight to the death for any other member of that family.
The South is hot, sticky, contrary sometimes, and solidly itself. It doesn’t claim to be anything else and never will. If you want proof of that, go down to South America and into Brazil’s interior and visit the city that our South built from the ashes of the Civil War. They still Fly the Confederate flag as their own. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,965976,00.html
Betcha didn’t know that, huh?
‘Til next time, have a great day, y’all. Catch the last of those lightning bugs and enjoy the homemade ice cream. I’ll have the peach, please.