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.

Stormy Mornin' Chores

Uncle Billy Gilbert woke up earlier than usual but just laid in bed for a good while. His ol' bones ached this mornin' an' he knew just what it meant. He wanted to roll over an' get a bit more sleep, but it was goin' to be an early mornin'. He could doze in his chair later in the day, there'd sure be time later. His ol' bones told him so.

He sat on the side of the bed an' reached for his sock, slipped them on an' rose to put on his dungarees an' work shirt that hung on the ancient ladder back chair sittin' by the bed. He moved slow, not wantin' to wake Aunt Del. He stopped to hear her slow, steady breathin' and knew she still slept on. No sense in them both wakin' this early. Arthur would keep plenty of company, "good ol' Arthur-itis" he chuckled to himself. "You sure did wake me early. You an' that storm movin' across the ridges yonder." he thought.

Even as he dressed he could see flashes of lightnin' high on the mountain in the distance. He was hopin' to get the milkin' done before the thunder got too bad. His ol' milk cow Sue got cranky durin' storms an might either kick him or the bucket over. 'Course, folks used to say a cow's milk would sour if a feller milked durin' a storm. Uncle Billy didn't take no truck to them ol' wive's tales.

Uncle Billy eased toward the back door real quiet like. Aunt Del made him keep his work boots by the back door. His son Will had bought him some real fine leather slippers to wear indoors, but he was content with just his monkey socks if he couldn't wear his boots. The leather slippes sat under the bed, side by side. If Will ever came to visit he would slip them on an' brag on them heartily an' then slide them back under the bed when Will left.

"Billy, Billy are you up already" Del asked softly. Though no one else was in the ol' cabin she still whispered in the early mornin'.

"Yes, Darlin'. Storms a'comin'. I need to get ol' Sue milked." he answered.

"Get what eggs is our there too. That way I won't have to go out in the rain. You want me to start fixin' breakfast early?"

"Nah." he said, "Stay right there in that bed for a while. I'll milk an gather the eggs. Them hens won't be out in the yard this mornin' either. I'll feed them in the hen house. I reckon their layin' might be off if'n it storms hard."

"Yes, I'd imagine so. You sure you don't want me to cook you some breakfast now?"

"Lands no, Sweet Darlin'. I'd get my belly full an' never get the milkin' done. You jest lay there an' get a little shut eye. I'm thinkin' I'll brush ol' Joe this mornin'. He'll be wantin' out an' I don't want him a'boltin' when it commences to thunderin'."

"Alright, Billy. Maybe just for a few more minutes. I wouldn't mind dozin' a bit longer." She said as she laid back onto her feather pillow. "Don't let that dang mule kick you, you hear me?"

"Yes mam." he chuckled. Joe was a little ornery an' didn't like thunder one bit. He kicked through his stall more than once durin' storms.

Uncle Billy worried about Aunt Del right smart these days. She was awful frail an' just didn't bounce back when she was sick. "I'll be back in later. I expect I'll bring the milk in in a bit an' then back to feed the chickens an' brush Joe."

He sat down to put his boots on an' tie them up tight.  He called Ol' Dog who was layin' by Uncle Billy's easy chair. Ol' Dog had been watchin' an' waitin' for that call. His ol' tail started thumpin' the floor an' he stood up an' bounced over to the door. Ol' Dog would get breakfast when Uncle Billy did. While Uncle Billy milked an' saw to his other chores,

Ol' Dog would make his rounds, inspectin' the farm for any sign of foxes, coons or possums. If he sniffed up trouble he might disappear for most of the mornin', wanderin' back when he finally gave up his hunt.

When the door opened Ol' Dog ran out to the barn, Uncle Billy followed a good but slower, milk bucket in hand. Sue heard him as he headed for the barn an' let out a low beller, lettin' him know she had been waitin' what must seem like forever to a milk cow.

"Hold on Sue. I'm a'comin'. I'm a'comin'. He grinned as he walked into the barn, opened her stall an' let her out to the center of the barn. She walked over too the manger on the side wall an' waited as he filled it with silage. She started eatin' slowly an' turned her head to watch as Uncle Billy picked up his milk stool an' positioned it an' the milk bucket. He had filled another bucket with water an' carefully washed Sue's udder before he started to milk. With practiced care he leaned his head onto Sue's side an' began to fill the bucket. Warm streams of creamy milk squirted into the bucket. The smell of the barn, warm milk an' ol' Sue warmed his heart.

Sue was part Jersey an' had lots of cream in her milk. Aunt Del made butter several times a week an' had Uncle Billy take her around to sell her butter up an' down several hollers. She would churn it an' then mold it in one of her butter molds. Hard to believe but some folks didn't milk anymore an' even bought that nasty white margarine that had to be squished around with the yellow colorin' to get it to even look like butter. Give him real butter any day.

He took the bucket of milk inside an' sat it on the side table. Del was still sleepin' as he went back out, closin' the door quietly. He filled a pan with cracked corn which he scattered on the ground in the hen house. The hens were waitin' for him as he stepped in. He gathered the eggs, placin' each in the empty pan. He sat the pan an' eggs on a table an grabbed his curry comb as he walked over to Joe's stall.

He stopped to pull off part of a bale of hay that he put in the other manger on the wall opposite from Sue who was still slowly eatin' her silage. He opened Joe's stall an' Joe walked out an' over to his manger to begin eatin' his hay. Uncle Billy slipped his hand through the curry comb and patted Joe on the side.

As he an' the mule stood side by side, Uncle Billy saw the thunderhead movin' toward his place, pushin' up the holler pretty fast now. The sky lit up several times an' the thunder rolled an' echoed up an' down the holler. Rain hit the tim roof all at once. Man an' mule had turned their heads to see the lightnin' an' see the rain head toward them. Joe finally turned back to his feed an Uncle Billy turned to his task.

"Mornin' Joe. You doin' OK this mornin'?" he asked. Joe's ears perked up but the ol' roan mule just kept on a'eatin'. Uncle Billy Gilbert grinned, started brushin' his mule an' commenced his mornin' prayers...

"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."

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Ghosts an' Spooks an' Haint's

Now youngin's, did I ever tell you about the things in the barn?
Them things that linger in the shadows an' corners all through the day,
Just waitin' till dusky dusk an' deep dark night to slink an' slither out.

Them things what have spider web-y fingers to caress your face an' neck with bad intentions. They are sure enough in there, waitin' for ye.

'Course y'all might just hear the haints what clank an' moan. No, not the wind whisperin' an' whistlin' through the cracks in them ol' boards.

That is sure what they want you to think, but it ain't that a'tall.
They is ghosts an' spooks an' haints, y'all, ghosts an' spooks an' haints.

They creep an' crawl about, dancin' in the dusky spaces, knockin' an' cryin',
Maybe even callin' your name, real whispery like.
Don't go, don't listen, just sit real still an' wait.

Mornin' always comes, they always hide
Always sneak into some corner, some hidey hole.
They are plumb afraid of the mornin', afraid of the light

But they are there, sure enough.

They want you to think they are done gone,
They is ghosts an' spooks an' haints, y'all, ghosts an' spooks an' haints.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Hens, eggs and Uncle Buck

Much of the time when I post stories or poems they tend to be warm or even bittersweet. Today I have a story on my mind that is not so much of either. It is a story of childhood, of the harshness of nature and the love of a kind and gentle Uncle that had a terrible task.

When I was a boy I loved wanderin' around my Grandma and Grandpa Hollen's farm. The smokehouse was dark and full of mystery. It smelled of old corn meal, salted meats an' oiled tools. The barn was down a path, just a little further than the smokehouse, but off limits till I was a bit older. When  I was finally old enough to go there I would climb the steps of that log barn, look down the square openings to the mangers below where the two mules, Joe and Dick would eat hay. It was wonderful place to explore.

Between the smokehouse and log barn was my Grandpa's orchard. The trees were ancient, low and
gnarly an' the apples sometimes just as gnarly as the parent tree. They were, however, most wonderful to a little boy who could go out and pull one from a branch an' eat it right there on the spot. Grandma would patiently gather the apples, peel and slice and make fried apples, canned apples, apple sauce or maybe dry them and later make fried apple pies in her cast iron skillet.

The branches had been twisted and formed low so fruit was easy to harvest. I always thought Grandpa or maybe my Uncle Buck (his real name was Bert, but he was always Uncle Buck to me) shaped and nursed them trees in the ol' orchard to that shape just for us to play on. The trees grew together with age and for a little boy it was hard to tell where one tree ended and another began. It was a paradise made for little boys an' my brother and I played there sometimes for hours.

When the sun would start to set it became mysterious an' scary. There were secrets in the orchard too. Secrets I didn't know till I was a grown man. Secrets mostly forgotten by all but me an' one or two older relatives. Secrets not evil, but sad. That, however, is a story for another day.

Behind the smokehouse was the hen house. It was sort of a lean-to that was attached to the back of the smokehouse. Grandma would open the door, step in an' gather eggs in the folds of her apron. If I was there she would give me an egg or two to carefully carry inside an' place in the big bowl that all the eggs were placed in.

The chickens roamed the farm, only goin' into the hen house at night. Grandma fed them in the yard between the house an' the smokehouse each day. A big ol' tractor tire had been cut in half an' she would pour the dishwater into it. Them chickens would rush for that water to find tidbits of food that had fallen into the dishpan. A few hens an' the rooster would fly into the apple trees to roost. I loved to hear the big ol' red rooster startin' to wake up an' crowin' back in the orchard.

Most of the hens nested in the hen house. Now an' again one would start nestin' in the weeds an' it was my job to watch an' find their nests. Young hens would lay eggs in a nest in the weeds an' just leave it. Critters would often get the eggs an' sometimes folks had egg suckin' dogs that would rob ever' nest they could find. Occasionally an ol' hen would nest long enough for chicks to hatch an' out of the weeds a hen would stroll one day with little ol' yellow chicks right behind like some sort of parade.

When I found a nest with chicks I would tell Uncle Buck so he could get the nest an' take the hen to the hen house. Chicks didn't live long out wanderin' around in the weeds. Uncle Buck could put the hen an' chicks on one end so she couldn't get out while they grew up.

One summer day I was playin' at the end of the orchard, climbin' one of the low limbs an' playin' Tarzan. As I surveyed my domain I heard a quiet "peep" an' searched the grass below. I saw a nest an' an ol' hen an' realized I had missed her nest. I went to get Uncle Buck an' he followed me back to the nest.

He shoo shoo-ee'd the hen off an' started to pick up the eggs. He stopped an' knelt down for a closer look. I bent over to see what he was lookin at. The eggs were hatchin' an a couple chicks were strugglin', not yet out of their shells. Uncle Buck was right quiet like an' told me to go into the smokehouse an' get a basket for him.

I was sort of surprised but did as he asked. Normally he would just gather nest an' all in his hands, carry it to the hen house with the ol' hen cluckin' an worryin' right behind him.  This time he gathered the eggs an' chicks up one by one an' laid them in that basket. I asked him what he was doin' an' he said he had to do somethin'. Told me to go to the house.

Then he walked down the hill to the creek - named Little Creek an' headed toward Red Bird River. I followed him an' he kept sayin', "Stevie, go on back now. I don't want you to see this."

I followed him anyway an' when he got to the river he walked downstream a way an' knelt down. He sat the basket on the ground an' I realized he was gonna drown them chicks. I started cryin' an' ran to him, beggin' him not to drown them. I cried an' he took me in one arm, sat me on his knee an' showed me the basket.

When Uncle Buck got upset or mad he would stutter a little as he did now, "I di-didn't want you to s-see this, Stevie. Them flies have done blowed these eggs as the chicks would b-break a little hole. That damn hen left them too much an' the flies blowed them eggs."

I looked an' saw that the chicks were covered in fly larvae... maggots. Uncle Buck didn't want them to suffer an' be eat up alive. I stared an' cried. I asked him if I could pray for them an' he said yes. I don't remember my exact words but it was something like, "God, I am sad them chicks are hurt an' mad at them flies. I am sad Uncle Buck has to do what he has to do, so take care of these chicks an' help me an' Uncle Buck get over bein' sad an' cryin'. Amen"

Uncle Buck told me to go stand where Little Creek ran into Red Bird River. He walked further downstream an' knelt again. Carefully he laid each egg into the deep water. I sort of figured it was like a burial at sea an' told him so when he walked back to me.

He didn't say nothin' as we turned to walk back to the house. I reached up an' took his hand. He carried the basket in his other hand as we stepped from stone to stone in the creek. He held my hand the whole way an' helped me in the "slippy" places.

When we got to the little dirt road that led up to the house I pulled on his hand, "I reckon we had to do that, didn't we,Uncle Buck?"

"Yessir, we did, Stevie."

"I love you Uncle Buck."

Uncle Buck just grinned that bashful grin he had. My Daddy's family was never much for sayin' that mushy stuff. Instead he tucked that basket under his arm an' rubbed my ol' burr haircut real good. Uncle Buck was my favorite.

Many years later I sat by his bed as he breathed his last few breaths. I held his hand for a long time. I don't know that he was aware I was there, that I held his hand, but I did. I leaned over an' whispered to him, "I love you Uncle Buck.". As he was takin' those last few breaths tears rolled down his cheeks.

I'm told that happens a lot in those last few minutes, just a natural thing an' he probably didn't even know I was there. Didn't matter to me. I stood an' held his hand an' remembered all the times I spent with him. Memories of eatin' watermelon right in the rows of the garden, goin' swimmin' an' jumpin' off his arms as he threw me up an' into the river.

An' I remembered holdin' his hand as we walked home that terrible day. I don't remember ever sayin' that to him before that day. I don't know how many times in my life I told him that. Only thing I remember now are those two times

Those two summer days, the first time and last time I said, "I love you Uncle Buck".