Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving Prodigal

Thanksgiving was a quiet day for Billy Gilbert. Since his wife Del died he mostly spent Thanksgiving alone. It wasn't that he didn't have folks who invited him to come be with them, he had turned down half a dozen invites for Thanksgiving this year. Around the little mountain town of Beloved, Kentucky everyone knew "Uncle Billy" Gilbert. He had an abundance of friends, neighbors and kin within a few miles.

Uncle Billy was also sought after by just about ever' older woman in the community. Hazel Williams led the pack. She had proclaimed about a year after Aunt Del Gilbert passed that "William Gilbert Senior was gonna be her man one of these days".

When Uncle Billy heard that second or third hand he just laughed, shook his head an' said, "That ain't ever gonna happen, y'all. No one could ever fill Del's place, especially not Hazel Williams. She don't even know my proper name, for goodness sakes."

Her statement just rubbed him the wrong way for a whole bunch of reasons. First an' foremost was the plain ol' fact he weren't interested in her or any other woman. He was 78 years old, set in his ways, content with life an' just not lookin'.

Mostly Hazel was plain ol' aggravatin'. She was the worst gossip that lived in Beloved, nosy, a busybody an' not much of a cook. She would drop by his ol' farm up the little holler to pay a "social call" an' to check on "poor ol' Bill" way too often for Uncle Billy. He got to parkin' his truck in the barn just so she would think he was gone an' leave him alone. Now an' again she would catch him out in the barnyard or on the porch. She would get out without an invite, stroll up an' take over his time, stayin' for hours if he couldn't think of anythin' to get up an' go do.

An' he hated that she called him "Bill" or "William". That weren't his name. No one called him Bill an' never was he William! His name was simply Billy Gilbert. That was his given name. Actually since his son was born he was Billy Gilbert Senior. He was Uncle Billy an' his son became "Little Billy" or for many it was "Little Bill". When he got older Little Billy had asked to be called Will instead of Little Billy. It made sense to have their names a bit different an most folks did call him Will, though some of the older kinfolks still referred to him as Little Billy.

Uncle Billy had told Hazel that his name wasn't Bill or William a thousand times. He suspected she was just uppity an' thought Billy was too common a name.

Well anyway, Uncle Billy had plenty of invites, he just preferred to be alone on Thanksgiving. Actually he was only alone Thanksgiving afternoon. By evenin' his ol' cabin became the meetin' place for a dozen men an' boys who always showed up with plates full of leftovers from their family feast.

It had started spontaneously several years before, two years or so after Aunt Del had passed. Folks got worried that Uncle Billy was spendin' Thanksgiving alone an' more than a dozen men an' boys showed up carryin' plates an' bowls prepared by wives wantin' to make sure the ol' man of the holler had some good food in his belly. They all spent the evenin' sittin' around, sharin' leftovers, tellin' stories an' enjoyin' the good company of men raised together.

That had become an unofficial custom for many of the fellers in the community. By evenin' they would kiss their wives an' family goodbye an' make their way to the little holler where Uncle Billy lived. They would have hands full of good food as they headed in the door of the ol' cabin. No one knocked, they all just went in. They were expected.

Uncle Billy stirred a huge pot of soup beans as he thought of the get together that would happen later that night. He had already made two cast iron skillets of regular cornbread an' two skillets of cracklin' bread (cornbread with cracklin's baked in). He would make a couple more skillets of cornbread before all them boys got there later. That was what he had made himself the first year an' it had become a tradition. Actually, he hadn't made soup beans the second year an' fellers asked him where the soup beans was!

As he stirred the soup beans he heard the screen door slap as it shut. Strange that someone was there that early. He really hoped it wasn't ol' Hazel Williams.. She snuck around an' would show up on Thanksgivin' now an' again. He wiped his hands on a dishrag an' turned to see who had come in.

Imagine his surprise when his son walked into the long kitchen an' just stood for a minute. Y'see, since Will had married Jennifer he didn't come home much. They lived in Akron, Ohio where Will was a veterinarian. They had a fine home up there an' Jennifer didn't think much of the mountains. Didn't think much of the home place where Will was raised. to her Will was William, though it wasn't his name at all. His diplomas said, "Billy Gilbert, Jr", the big sign outside the vet clinic had "Billy Gilbert, Jr, DVM" but she called him William, never Will, Billy or even Bill.

Oh, and she was always Jennifer. Never Jen, Jenny or any other nickname. She made it clear the first time Uncle Billy called her Jenny that her name was Jennifer.

Uncle Billy stood in shock for a minute, not know what to say, what to do. He nodded at Will, "Hullo youngin'. How you been?"

Will stood quiet for a bit, "Howdy, Pappy. Them some soup beans?"

"Yep, they are. You wantin' some?"

"Wouldn't mind a bowl, Pap. Any cracklin' bread?" Will asked.

"Better believe it. You allowed to have some?" his Daddy asked with a grin. Uncle Billy knew Wil snuck a bite of good ol' mountain food when he could. Jennifer didn't approve, of course. She didn't approve of lard, bacon grease, soup beans, corn bread, fatback, bacon, ham, fried chicken or most of what Will ate growin' up in the mountains. Because of Jennifer, Will's diet was almost that of a vegetarian with only a little fish or chicken thrown in.

That was all it took. Uncle Billy didn't know why Will was there, but knew somethin' was wrong. His boy just didn't come 'round on holidays, didn't come round much at all. Jennifer didn't like the mountains, didn't like the little holler, didn't seem to like mountain folks. Strange that she would marry a mountain boy. she did her best to wring the mountains out of Will.

Will grabbed the back of an ol' ladderback chair that sat by the table an' dropped into it with his eyes already wet. "Oh Pappy, she left me. Jennifer up an' moved out. I went to a convention to get some continuing education classes an' when I got back she had mostly cleaned the house out. Most of the furniture was gone. Divorce papers were on the kitchen counter an' a letter."

"Son, didn't you know? Had things been that bad?"

"Pap", Will looked up into his Daddy's blue eyes. His eyes were the same shade of dark blue, his features a younger reflection of the older man. "Pap, I thought things were OK. Jennifer was never much of romance, huggin' or warmth. I thought things were OK. She left me for a lawyer, Pappy. He was the one who drew up the divorce papers!"

His Daddy didn't know what to say. He just pulled out another chair an' sat down, waitin'. He knew Will wasn't done. "Pappy, she took all our bank account. She took the car, took most of the furniture, even my basketball signed by Adolph Rupp! She is askin' for half of my retirement fund. She couldn't take that without the courts or she would have drained it too. She wants the house to be sold and wants half of the proceeds. I don't know what I'm going to do."

Uncle Billy stood, went over to his son and wrapped his arms around his boy's shoulders. Will cried hard as he leaned into his Daddy. "I don't know either, son, but I'll help you any way I can."

"Can I stay for a while? I can't go home right now. I don't want to go home right now."

"Of course. You know you don't have to ask."

"Oh Pappy, I haven't been much of a son." Will cried. "I am so sorry. I was to worried about pleasing her that I stayed away, I pushed you away."

"Yep, you did. No doubt, you did."

"I am so sorry, Pappy. So very sorry. Will you forgive me?"

"Son, Will, Billy Boy, I already have. No need to even ask."

"Why Daddy? Why would you forgive me already?"

"Do you remember the story of the Prodigal Son? I know y'all don't go to church, but do you remember when I read it to you, when you learned about it in Sunday School?" Uncle Billy asked.

"Of course I do. But I am not the Prodigal. I didn't ask for my part an go away to some foreign country and waste it. I haven't come back asking to be your servant." Will was a bit indignant, thinking his Daddy was being a little judgmental at the wrong time.

"Of course not. That ain't the point at all. Y'see, that Daddy forgave his son before he ever showed up, walkin' toward home. It is a Daddy's nature to love his youngin's in spite of what they do, of what they are. A good Daddy forgives, loves an' waits, not because of what they do, but in spite of anything they do. He loves them because they are his."

"Oh." was all Will could say.

"Now Will, I need to go down the road to Hap's to make a couple calls or we'll have a dozen or more fellers comin' in after while. I need to tell them not to come this year. Me an' you will sit, eat some soup beans an' cracklin' bread an' just visit."

As Uncle Billy got up he hugged Will once more, went over an' turned down the soup beans to a simmer. "Stir these a couple times while I'm gone. Don't want our supper to burn."

Will sat for just a minute before he stood up, "Pappy, don't make them calls. I want those men to come over. I need them to come over. I need to laugh, to hug the necks of a few cousins and old friends. I need to be around mountain folks right now."

"You sure, Will? What if they ask questions? What if they get nosy? What you gonna tell them?"

"I'm sure, Pap. After all, wasn't there a feast at the end of that story? I'll just tell them the truth. I'll tell them the Prodigal Vet has come home." Will laughed.

"That's fine, boy, but I ain't killin' my cow."

Friday, October 31, 2014

Little Ol' Towns

They ain't much very special 
About little ol' towns
Hidin' deep in the mountains
Not much business around.

Why, they can't even afford 
A single stoplight in some
They roll up their sidewalks
Before the sun ever sets.
Folks still sit out on porches
Ol' men whittle an' wait
Drinkin' sody pop an' Moonpies 
Chewin', spittin' to boot.

They tell lies, swap knives

Laugh at their own jokes
Their wives still are pesterin'
While they sit a' jesterin'

Women still gossip over coffee,
Tea and a fresh baked crumb cake
They rant, rave an' rail on
At the messes their husbands make.

Ornery youngin's wander yards,
 Back alleys an' half empty streets
Prankin' an yankin' a little gal's hair
Hootin' an' hollerin', fillin' the air.

It ain't much of a place
To raise youngin's ye know
Ain't even no movies
Not many places to go.

Yet as they talk of their town
The place they was raised
Folks get all misty, red eyed an'
Weepy, rememberin' how it was.



Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Foggy mornin' in the mountains

The fog is thick, as if the clouds dropped down to wrap misty arms around the mountains an' fill the hollers to the brim. Darkness latches onto the fog an' pushes hard agin the on-comin' day.

The thick damp mist muffles the sounds of dawn. Birds are feather fluffed an' quiet, waitin' for the sun that still hides behind the clouds. Roosters wander out of the hen house damp an' bedraggled, not willin' yet to crow an' call in the dawn.

Big Ben clocks ring harsh in the not yet day, unwindin' as they cry "rise an' shine". Ol' men reach out an' lift the clock to stare with sleep sandy eyes, seein' it ain't yet sunrise, thinkin' Big Ben must be lyin', must be wrong.

But mantle clocks an' that big ol' number 18 sized pocket watch, coin silver case an' 17 jewel sure both speak the same truth. Mornin' has come, no sun has risen, but mornin' has come home to the hills.

As they rise up, womenfolks sit on the side of the bed, gatherin' their long hair into buns, pullin' strands tight an' under tortoise shell combs. Aprons on, they head for the kitchens to throw kindlin' into cook stoves, light a fire, wash up an' get breakfast together.

The menfolks are more verbal as they stand, groan moanin' an' unsteady with mornin' aches to pull on overalls, drag on worn out socks and slowly tie up scuffed brogans. In cabins up an' down the creek they wander to the kitchen, wash up in the pans of water warm an' waitin' for them, grab a sup of water from the dipper before they lift the pail, head for the well to draw fresh water an' then to the barn to feed the mules, milk the cows an' begin the day's work.

It is mornin' in the mountains, hidden by the fog, not delayed.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Mornin' in the Mountains

Though dawn is still far away
Old eyes blink once, twice, open.
Nothing stirs in the early darkness
Big Ben alarm clock steadily ticks
Counting time, keepin' the beat
Keepin' a steady pace, onward till morn.
The yellowed newspapers pasted tight
Against the walls are still unseen
Old news, oxymoron long forgotten
Now keeps out the wind an' cold.
Deep feather bed is a sleepy nest
Quilts are hand stitched security
Pulled chin high an' held tight
Against the day, the morn, the dawn.
Then high on the hill, just there
A lone robin wakes, shakes an' sings
Inside a blink, a yawn an' ol' leg creaks.
Ol' dog's long vigil held on the floor
Curled nose to tail on a braided rag rug.
Them creakin' bones made ol' dog stir
Tail thumpin' 'gainst ancient chestnut
Hand hewn, sandstone smoothed puncheon floor.
Deep in a holler, down the creek
An ol' ramblin' cabin sits quiet like
Coiled tight like a spring, waitin'
For the ol' Big Ben to ringle jangle
Mornin'! Good mornin', Get up an' go.
Soon lights will lighten, brighten windows
Push through the humid darkness
Coffee, boiled long, strong, aroma thick
Will seep through every door,
Curl in every corner, warmin' hearth an' heart
It is mornin' in the mountains.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Stormy Mornin' Chores - Part Two

Uncle Billy paused as he brushed ol' Joe and thought for just a minute before he began;"Mornin' to you too, Lord. This here is Billy Gilbert. I've got a few folks on my mind this mornin'. Thought I might lift 'em up to y'all an ask for a couple blessin's for 'em.

 First Lord, than you for my dear wife, Del. She is such a blessin' to me. I know I don't deserve her, just like I don't reckon I deserve Your love either. But I sure am grateful for both her and You.

I know that Will ain't where he should be with You. Don't know what to do about that. He just don't want to hear me tell him much of anythin' these days. He's my boy, Lord. He is just as hard headed as I am an' I suppose that is some of the reason why he don't come home much. He don't take much to farm life or mountain life either. Well, bless him an his wife Helen. Yep, I know she don't think much of us, thinks we are poor an' dumb. I don't reckon she cares for us, but as long as she loves him, well that is fine, just fine."

He brushed for a good bit, ponderin' an' studyin' on what he had prayed about. He sort of sniffed a little an' wiped his nose an' one eye on the sleeve of his shirt. That boy Will hadn't been home in several years. He wasn't much for writin' either. Now an' again Uncle Billy an' Aunt Del would go over to Hap Collin's house an' call Will. They would talk for several minutes to Will an' have a quick "Hello, how are you?" from Helen.

Those conversations always ended with Aunt Del cryin' an' Uncle Billy just wishin' they hadn't bothered.

He started again, a little more quiet than before, "Father, how do you do it? We stray, don't talk to you in years an' You still love us. I just don't know, Lord. I just don't rightly know." He spoke softly as he brushed.

"Anyway, don't forget to help out the Collinses up on Little Creek. That youngin' of theirs has the asthma. This past winter was awful hard on her. I suspect the coal grate they heat with ain't doin' her much good a'tall. Bless our pastor an' his family. Keep him preachin' the word, Lord. He is young but is doin' fine."

He brushed for a while an' studied on things a bit more, "Well, Joe an' you too Lord. I have to get in. Del will have breakfast for me an' I don't want her a'fussin'. Not that she does. She puts up with a lot, I reckon."

As if on cue ol' Joe snorted an' Uncle Billy laughed, "I don't need any comments outta you, you sorry mule. I swear if that mule wasn't listenin', Lord."

The mule was led to his stall. Uncle Billy threw a scoop of corn into the feed box before he left. He remembered the pan of eggs an' picked them up as he left the barn to head for the cabin. When he opened the kitchen door the lights were out still. He held the door open as Ol' Dog came in.

He knew Del had been tired, she just had not bounced back as quick this last time she was sick. Though he weren't much of a cook, he knew he could fry some bacon an' eggs. They was left over biscuits in the icebox he could warm up an' though she would fuss, she would appreciate him lettin' her sleep.

He carefully measured scoops of JFG coffee as he threw them into the ol' pot. He poured in the right amount of water an' put the pot on to boil. Some folks thought boiled coffee was awful strong, but him an' Del liked it that way.

The cast iron skillets were in the oven. He carefully lifted one out an' shut the oven door right quiet like. He put the skillet on the gas stove, turned the burner on to heat the cast iron before addin' the bacon. Now, this was what ever'body called "country bacon". It still had a rind on one side. He liked to gnaw on that rind after the softer part of the bacon strip was gone. Aunt Del tol' him all that grease weren't good for him. He was 76 an' still goin' strong. He planned on bein' 'round for quite a few years.

The oven warmed up for the biscuits as he fried the bacon. When it was warm he put five biscuits in to warm. He still crept around the kitchen, not wantin' to wake his wife. He knew he should drain some of the bacon grease off, but he liked his eggs good an' greasy. He cracked six eggs into the pan after it cooled a bit. Three eggs came out before the yellow was cooked through. He didn't like a cooked through yolk.

Breakfast was on the table. He even made gravy. Nossir, it was not up to Del's standards, but it would do. It would do. He quickly fed Ol' Dog then headed for the bedroom.

He walked into the bedroom and called, "Del, you better get your sorry self out of that bed. I have done made breakfast. The day is half gone."

"Del? Del, darlin', y'all better wake up now." He stepped closer as he called her name, yet she didn't stir.

"Del? Dellie, are ye alright? Sweet darlin', wake up now."

Aunt Del Gilbert didn't stir, she didn't move as he stepped right next to their bed. This was the bed her Daddy had made them when they took up housekeepin'. Uncle Billy's eyes started to fill with tears.

"Oh Del. Can you hear me? Wake up now, Dellie, honey. Open your eyes an' let me know you are OK." he pleaded.

His pleading didn't change a thing. In his heart of hearts he knew. Though he begged her to answer, he knew she never would answer again. He stood for the longest time lookin' at the bed, at the still figure of his wife. He hadn't realized just how thin she had become. When he looked at her now he saw she was tiny under the quilts.

He took his bandana out of his back pocket an' wiped his eyes. The tears didn't stop as he sat on the side of the bed. He gently took her hand, noticin' that her weddin' band was loose on her finger. He smoothed her hair with his other hand. Though she was only a year younger than him and was 74, he still saw that auburn haired gal he loved, that he teased an' tormented as a school boy.

Her glasses, hair pins an' the tortoise shell combs she kept in her hair were laid carefully in a small china plate she kept on the nightstand. He closed his eyes an' could still see her taking the combs out of her hair, pullin' the hair pins one by one as she placed them on the plate. She carefully took off her glasses, folded them before placing them with the combs an' pins.

When he got in bed the night before, he had reached over as he had every night he was home for the last 58 years of their marriage an' kissed her gently on her lips.

" Good night, sweet Dellie." he had whispered, just as he had on their weddin' night.

"Good night, Billy Gilbert. I love you, husband." was her reply that first night an' ever' night since. Last night was the last time he would ever hear those words. Never again in this lifetime would he hear her confess her love.

He sat on the side of the bed for hours, just holdin' the hand of his childhood sweetheart. There had never been another. Never would be another for him.

When he finally stood up he saw Ol' Dog layin' across the threshold, guardin' his masters, watchin' with eyes that knew with a canine wisdom that death had come to visit.

Each mirror he covered with sheets as was the custom in the mountain. He opened the face of the clock an' stopped the pendulum. The clock would not be started again till after his darlin' was buried.

He sat down and quickly ate his breakfast, the only meal he would have that day. Neighbors would try to get him to eat, but he had too much to do. He redded up the dishes an' washed them. No one was comin' into Del's kitchen to see a mess. It weren't goin' to be that way.

He got a pencil an' paper an' started makin' a list of what he needed to do. First thing was to go over to Hap's house an' call Will. Then over to the church to tell the preacher an' his wife. Hazel, the preacher's wife would arrange for women of the church to come an' wash Del's body an' dress her.

He went to the chiffarobe an' selected Aunt Del's best dress. He laid out a slip, stockin's an' shoes too so the church women wouldn't have to dig through his wife's things. He thought for a moment an' got Del's pillbox hat too. She would want to wear that hat even though it was more common for her to wear a bonnet around the farm an' even to town.

He looked again at his beloved, made sure her eyes were closed an' her hair smoothed. "Come on, Ol' Dog. I'm gonna need you to guard the door till the womenfolks get here."

He put the list he had made in his pocket, thought for a moment an' realized he needed to stop an' see Big Bill about diggin' a grave for Del. With another quick note added, the list went into his shirt pocket. He walked to the truck, got in an' just sat for so very long, lookin' at the little cabin they had called home.

It all changed this mornin'. The whole world changed was all he thought, over an' over as he started his truck, put it into gear an' backed up.