Image source: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/wooden-bridge-1-1406385
Daddy’d turn south off Route 60 onto KY 32 about halfway between Morehead and Elliottville, near Hogtown, rumble across the wooden-plank bridge that had no sides, then follow the dirt road and the creek that cut through the hills just there. When Old House Creek was running low, we’d just splash on through, but when it was running high, we eased through the low spots so as not to flood out the engine. At the head of the holler, where the creek forked into a Y, was the old home place. My roots are there, a mile and a half from the blacktop.
Spring sun touched the cow pasture, warming the great gray rock that was nearly level, nearly as big as a room. I’d scramble up the boulders at the base, scraping one knee on the side rough as cement, and check to make sure no snakes had decided to sun themselves in my house. I’d open the Sir Walter Raleigh cigar box, all gold and black, and arrange the china tea set on the green moss and gray lichen: white, painted with pink roses and green leaves, four cups, three saucers, a lidless pot no bigger than my thumb. I’d handle each tiny piece gently, as befits precious things.
Rosebushes leaned on the wire critter fence, pink and wine-red blooms the size of half-dollars crowding through the four-inch squares from spring through summer. Over time, lavender irises, pink peonies, white hollyhocks, and golden sunflowers joined the roses. I could smell them as I mowed the front yard with the reel mower, the scissory sound more rewarding than the grass clippings.
The path to the vegetable garden cut through the chicken yard. I’d pick my way through the droppings, holding my breath the whole way so as not to breathe in the ammonia smell. The hens squawked and flapped, following me with beady, hostile eyes; wondering, maybe, whether I’ve come for their eggs or for one of them; angry when I closed the garden gate against their predations, keeping the cabbages, beets, carrots, and beans for myself. I carried a saltshaker in my pocket. I’d lick a sun-warmed tomato, sprinkle salt on the wet spot, and take a bite, juice running down my fingers and dripping off my elbow and chin. One tomato, two tomatoes, three…I’d throw the nubby cores to the pigs and fill my skirt with tomatoes before returning to the house.
When summer sun parched the ground—when the grass turned yellow and crinkly underfoot and the hot wind swirled dirt devils in the bare patches—I’d wade in the water hole outside the critter fence, stirring up silky bottom mud brown as my spindly legs. If I stood long still, the silt settled. Minnows and crawdads I seldom caught kissed my calves.
In the backyard, a swing hung from the thickest branch of the gnarled apple tree—a heavy, prickly, wheat-colored rope with a raw-wood plank seat, notched on each end to fit the rope. It was harder to keep my balance than on the tire swing, but I could pump so high my toes passed the top of the nearby well, creating my own cooling breeze.
When the day’s efforts wore me down, I’d sit on the front-porch swing, swaying gently, the chains creaking, careful of my bare feet so as not to pick up splinters from the weathered floorboards. By day, dandelions buttoned down the grass. At night, stars pinned the velvet sky in place. Bees buzzed the chorus of the day, spring peepers or summer cicadas were the singers of the night. The paths of fireflies and stars laced the halves together.
Year-round, the rhythmic psssst-psssst, psssst-psssst of milk hitting the side of the aluminum pail called the cats, mewling and twining around the cow’s hobbled hind legs, waiting for a teat to be turned in their direction, the stream of milk wetting their faces. Steam curled up from the pail, the smell of warm milk mixing with the smell of barn hay needing to be mucked out. That milk sloshed in the churn in time with the regular up-down rhythm of the dasher, on and on, patience a necessary virtue. Great-Granny was blind and couldn’t do much, but she taught me the churning rhythm by chanting, “Churn, butter, churn. Churn, butter, churn. Johnny’s at the garden gate, waiting for his butter cake. Churn, butter, churn.” I learned the rhythm but tired quickly. Great-Granny didn’t need to chant and never seemed to tire.
Through long summer days, vegetables were cold-packed, sun-dried, or root-cellared. Sour pie cherries, Concord grapes, and apples of all sorts came into their own. On crisp fall days I’d shell popcorn till my thumbs blistered while apple butter bubbled in the big, black cast-iron cauldron hung over a fire in the backyard. Wood smoke and the tang of cooking apples hung in the air, reminders that soon those corncobs soaked in kerosene would be tinder for the stoves.
The waterfall that gave birth to the main branch of Old House Creek was magical in winter. Ice cascading over the cliffs, covering boulders and muting the burble of winter water running under its crystal blanket. It was a frozen palace, a visit worth the cold-stiffened fingers and faces. Aunt Mary, Sissy, and I, snuggled into a feather tick under a heap of quilts, slept warm through winter nights. And when snow drifted around the stone pillars that held up the house, covered the stone slab steps, and crept over the edge of the porch, I’d take the dishpan to a clean drift and pack it full. Granny stopped her work, stirred in eggs, sugar, top milk, and vanilla. Snowcream, grainy and sweet, melted fast in the bowl, faster on my tongue.
At the old home place, I learned not to fear the blacksnake hanging high in the corncrib when I fetched corn for the chickens. Granny said to leave it in peace because it kept down the rats and mice, and besides, I was too big to be prey. She warned me never to taste the pink curing salt, even though animals need salt to live. She also said that salt kills plants, which I found odd. But Granny knew everything and never lied, so I accepted that that was just the way things worked. She showed me how to pluck the Sunday chicken and singe the pinfeathers, and when she cut it open, she showed me the string of eggs-to-be, the yellow globes getting bigger nearer the tail end.
Time has unmasked the reality of those magical visits. The old home place was just one hundred eighty acres of hills surrounding a handkerchief of hardscrabble homestead. A tired little house—two porches, two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, three wood-burning stoves, and no indoor plumbing. Back then I took as given the chamber pots under the beds at night and daytime trips to the outhouse, far enough from the house that we didn’t usually smell it. Yes, I saw the washtubs and the corrugated washboard, but only as an adult, reading through her papers, did I realize that the number of pieces of clothing washed in a day was an achievement worthy of being recorded in her diary. I loved the spring-fed well, indifferent to the need to break ice in winter to get to that sweet water. I didn’t think about how the feather ticks and quilts came to be. On the coldest winter days, when icy drafts swirled around ankles, I joined the circle standing around the potbellied stove, turning like meat on a spit to warm all sides, giving no thought to who split the wood, lit the morning fires, or cleared the ashes. Helping with animal chores and the fact that they had to be done every day didn’t translate to understanding that that meant no vacations, ever.
I’ve never wanted Granny’s life for myself. Still, if I could go back to the old home place, I would again feel loved and cared for and safe. I would face the world bravely, and my hands would hold all the wealth worth having.
Vivian Lawry’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in more than sixty literary journals and anthologies, from Adanna Literary Journal to Xavier Review. Her stories appear in Virginia is for Mysteries, Virginia is for Mysteries Volume II, and Virginia is for Mysteries Volume III, anthologies of short fiction featuring landmarks of Virginia. She has four books as well: Dark Harbor and Tiger Heart (installments in the Chesapeake Bay Mysteries), Nettie’s Books, a historical novel of strength and change, and Different Drummer: a collection of off-beat fiction. A complete list of her publications can be found at vivianlawry.com.