Archive for November, 2018

The Old Home Place

My father Kelsey and his sister Margaret, older by five years, walked to public school every day to the town of Azle, where they were proud of their perfect attendance.  It wasn’t an onerous journey, only a little over two miles, but they liked to take the short cut through the woods that put them on the Jacksboro Highway where they, often as not, could pick up a ride into town.  Their path through the scrub oak, briars, and prickly pears was hard won, requiring some dedicated work with a machete and often scaring up opossums, jackrabbits or armadillos.  It was Margaret who did most of the hacking, while Kelsey carried his father’s coping saw, severing the bushes down low to keep the stumps short.  Their path widened over years of use, finally becoming Greg Avenue, a euphemism for the double-rutted wagon track through the scrub that dead-ended at the Martin-Reynold’s home place.  The road, now dedicated to the county of Parker, is a two-lane asphalt not-quite-scenic by-way.


Margaret was a good enough student especially at arithmetic where she outshone all the girls.  But it was Kelsey who was the scholar.  He made straight A’s from the beginning, with Margaret playing little teacher to his precocious child.  They both received a lot of attention for their school work from their father, Harry Allen Densmore Martin, who was proud of his secondary school diploma and wanted his son, and daughter too, to enjoy the same benefits.  He worked the farm, not out of love for farming, but to make a life and a living; he played with ideas of what a grander vista might be like somewhere else, somewhere west like Oregon or California.  He was a tall, broad shouldered man, strong and capable at just about anything he put his hand to.  Most everybody knew how to slap together boards in those days, but he took some genuine enjoyment in the geometry of construction.  Over many years he became known as a finish carpenter and was always willing to take on jobs around Azle and environs just west of Ft. Worth.


In those days near every man worked a homestead but also needed to find a way to come up with spending money.  Harry had his carpentry which paid well but tended to be seasonal.  A blue norther could blow in with absolutely no warning and change all his best laid plans to finish a job, so most of the work got scheduled for the heat of the year.  He wasn’t all that fond of chickens, but they were a good way to bring in some money in between the farm work and the carpentry.  He built a galvanized tin commercial building to house a hundred or so layers and began making a weekly egg run into Ft. Worth.  His wife Minnie Mae Reynolds-Martin always kept an assortment of chickens and a rooster to provide an endless source of fixin’s for Sunday dinners.


On any given Sunday, the designated hen would be cornered and caught amid a great cacophony of cackling until death restored silence.  Minnie used an axe for chicken whacking, but Harry with his burly right arm would swing the bird round and round like a sling, and then snap the neck with a twist of his wrist.  Harry’s way was better, avoiding the bloody mess of the chicken running round and round with its head cut off until it fell to the ground and even then kept running until it forgot what running was about.  Where was it going anyway?  It is a puzzle why a snapped-neck-chicken would hang peaceably awaiting death, while an axed one made such a fuss.  Maybe getting swung in a circle beforehand made it dizzy.  It’s a mystery.


Something was always getting killed on that farmstead.  That’s probably true of most rural dwellings.  Where there’s lots of life, death follows not far behind.  Field mice migrated in from the garden and pastures.  Snakes joined them, usually just garter, but all too often copperheads, a poisonous variety that often sent Grandma Minnie Mae running for her hoe.  She was a consummate snake chopper and never once got bit.  There were rattlesnakes too, but I never tangled with one of them except once on the far side of the milk barn.  It coiled up, commenced rattling, and set me on a ground covering run.  That old snake scared the bejesus out of me, but I managed to evade its fangs.  Black-snakes were common and liked to curl up in the hen nests hoping for a nice warm chicken egg to bite and suck.  They were five or six feet long, scary as hell, but not poisonous.  In any case, it was a good idea to look into a nest before reaching in for an egg.  No need to scare yourself to death.


The autumn of every year was hog killing time.  Grandpa stuck and drained his own pig but hauled it to the commercial locker for dressing and packaging.  For a fee he could rent a freezer-locker and store the meat for as long as it lasted.  Grandpa’s sausage recipe was the best I ever tasted.  He was partial to sage, and was that sausage ever loaded!  A freezer locker represented a big advance from earlier times.  The old method for preserving pork was to smoke the hams and shoulders and to keep the sausage by frying and then preserving it submerged in its own grease, balled and arranged in crockery pots.  That was primitive but tasty.  Grease was an effective preservative for meats as was sugar for keeping fruit.  It was a relatively newfangled approach to canning food to seal it in glass Ball jars.  As I visited summer after summer, I was able to see the march of progress in their kitchen and larder.


My earliest memories of being on the Martin farm were trips into town to deliver farm-fresh eggs, a stop at the drug store for a chocolate soda at the authentic fountain where he showed me off to his old friends and a swing by the frozen food locker for a package of sausage for tomorrow’s breakfast.  He loved to mention that I was his best grand-child, an odd statement since I was his only one.  When I asked about the incongruity, he only chuckled.  Once we stopped at the town library to talk to old Eula Nation, years ago a teacher at the school when my Dad was a student.  Mrs. Nation had in retirement decided to start a public library.  In those days, you could just do things like that.  Grandpa liked to parade me around as Kelsey’s daughter, from whom great things were expected.  That always made me start quivering in my boots.  I recalled how Grandpa had always called young and pretty Minnie Mae “the best.”  She too was “the only.”  Maybe that was his little joke on the women in his life.  I didn’t laugh.


It’s distinctly odd that the more I ruminate about this place, the more I sound like a Texan.  The words lose their self-conscious studied edge.  A drawl creeps in.  It’s the same with the chickens.  Years later when in turn of the twenty-first century Virginia, I had a flock of hens, I wrote about their escapades in the same odd picturesque Texan lilt and flow.  It’s a mystery.  Which voice is the right one?  Is there a right one?

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The ragged caravan of velocipedes moved down Erie Avenue headed for MEAC (Madisonville Education and Assistance Center) loaded with 195 boxes of great-bird fixin’s.  It was a unique experience showing up right-on-the-dot at the advertised 9:30 AM to join that lively crew of 17.  They were already locked and loaded, ready to go.  I was the first to volunteer and the last to show up—not late, not early, exactly on time— my signature approach to getting there.  But these Episcopalians were already grooving.  There were only a pathetic few cardboard containers left to fill my Highlander.  They were promptly stowed, and after a prayerful blessing we were off in a cloud of love-thy-neighbor dust.


I didn’t know where I was going, a common problem for me, new to the state, but I’ve learned that in Ohio you are just supposed to know these things.  I took off, roughly toward where I thought MEAC must surely be.  It worked.  In no time at all what had been a rough aggregate of disparate vehicles converged on the center of Madisonville, a merry clot of good will.


Everybody grabbed a stack of loaded cardboard from any vehicle and filed into the quiet grey building.  In no time at all, vans were empty and an impressive stack of heaving containers strained a long row of sturdy tables, creaking, sagging, wanting just to give of their bounty.  And give they did.  The first donation was to the assorted Redeemer parishioners who volunteered for this project, asked by a frantic Liz Coley to lend a hand and a vehicle to the annual event.  I had hesitated to offer my car with its peeling clear-coat to a group of surely better ones.  But—why not?  The rest is history, or moving in that direction.  Getting to show up and be a part of this loving roundup is the best Thanksgiving gift a person could receive.  What fun to imagine the grateful happy faces soon to be arrayed about our stack of plain unwrapped boxes.


I’ll never forget this, my first experience of benevolent Episcopalians in action.  They came—they gave—they conquered.  And they didn’t have a whole lot to say about it.  They just made it happen.  The lady representing our Presbyterian counterparts rounded us up for a photo-op, and everybody agreed on a group grin.  There wasn’t even a flash as her iPhone swallowed the cheerful scene.  Everybody waved and headed out to wherever.  Our job was done—this time.


But, there’ll be a next time.  Next time I’ll know that it’s a good thing to offer, even what is not much.  I couldn’t even think of lifting those boxes with my old tricky shoulders, but others could.  I can do some small part of what is needed, so I’ll be there.  The rest is up to God.

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Old Wood

The truth is I am an aggregation of lovely bones cunningly festooned with living meat intent on staying motile to some glorious end.  I could make a finale to this puzzle of being me, but think what I would miss.  There are so many books to read, so many writing prompts to coax into luxuriant bloom.  How could I just stop?  My grandmother Minnie Mae used to moan, “I wish I had ever-thin’ done.”  She said this, rubbing her old hurting hands, like a blessing or maybe a curse on all the things she intended to do, wanted to do, must surely do before this day’s sun set over the calf pasture.  Then she would heave herself up from her wobbly wired-together rocker and head out to the woodpile for some kindling.  Mornings were for serious chopping, splitting the craggy oak logs into pieces that stood a chance of fitting into her wood-stove.  Men, once here, now gone, men with hard muscle that could man either end of a crosscut, had cut logs into stove length rounds, stacked to wait for splitting, then stacked to wait for carrying to hearth and stove.  As day followed day, the logs, rounds, splits, and even kindling disappeared, ferried into the house to cook and to comfort.  Minnie Mae could never declare ever-thin’ done as long as there was still wood waiting for her.  Her wood.  The coin of her existence.


I only knew Minnie Mae Reynolds Martin as a grouchy old woman who was glad to see me arrive and probably glad to see me go, though she cried every time, saying that she would surely not live to see me another summer.  It had never occurred to my child mind that she had once been young like me, much less being a beauty.  Daddies sister, my Aunt Margaret disabused me of that silly notion one day.  She pulled a book off her shelf, flipped it open to a hidden for safekeeping photogravure, a tiny image of Minnie Mae in her glory.  I didn’t believe her.  Couldn’t.  How could that alluring visage be my old wrinkled, sun-bonneted, feed sack adorned, foot-skuffing, slouching along Grandma?  Margaret explained that Grandpa, Harry Allen Densmore Martin, was besotted with her, adored her, always called her “the best,”


There was a kernel of wisdom lurking among her words that I didn’t want to see.  If Grandma was once young and beautiful, then I too might someday become old and grisly.  But time was on my side.  Aeons would pass before such a thing could happen.  I need only nestle into being my supple lush-braided dozen-year-old self and forget about the remote possibility of ever becoming old.


But old is time relative.  Now I’m eighty.  After these many years of trying to not be like Grandma, it’s time to get busy reading and writing—even playing.  I still have some good years left.  Grandma didn’t kick the proverbial bucket until she was eighty-nine.  That morning she had chopped the morning’s stove wood, baked buttermilk biscuits from scratch, made ham and eggs with red-eye gravy, and only then lay down for a rest before starting lunch.  When the ischemic attack kicked her in the chest, she reached for Margaret, who was sitting beside her watching the newfangled television box.  She could only jerk a bit of Margaret’s hair, so great was the pain in her arm and chest.  Margaret, zoned into the new wonder, ignored her, but gave her a good pinch to settle her down.


Since I haven’t ever touched red-eye gravy and am adhering to the paleo diet, I will surely have another nine years to read and write and learn.  But lacking a woodpile out back to keep me mean and fit, who knows?

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