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Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Tale of towheaded boys

Here we are, summer '71. Towheaded and buzzed within a hair of being scalped. That's with Granddaddy and Grandmaw Edge and Aunt Joan. Grandmaw was never without a smile.

Memorial Day was not the official start of summer for us growing up. We didn't get out of school until the first week of June usually. The official start was when Mr. Pearson announced free buzz cuts in his barber shop for summer. Dad would load us all in the car, even though it was less than a mile away, and head on up the road. I'm sure he figured that if we walked, someone was bound to disappear on the way. We didn't want a buzz cut. But, it was free and what parents of four boys are gonna pass that up. I think dad got one too.
Walking in was always an experience. His shop was once his back porch, all closed in. It was very long and narrow, with a door at one end and the door to his house in the middle. The big chair was at the far end. His shop was more than just a barber shop, it was also a minnow shop. Just as you walked in, on the left-hand side, behind the door, were sinks full of minnows. There were other fishing-related items and a pop machine next to that, and the chairs for waiting were on the right.
Each of us had to take our turn in the big chair while Mr. Pearson took the clippers from one side to the next. It didn't take long. This was not a salon. The only salon we had been to at that point was in the other direction and mom didn't take us too many times. She didn't like for us to hear all the stuff they talked about in there. It interested me a whole lot more than the fishing and hunting stories of the barber shop. She probably left us in the car most of the time. Crack the windows and we would be fine. You could do that back then, it was not considered child abuse I guess. But anyway, when he finished, he would take his big brush and sweep your neck with talc and we would jump down. Next!
When we were done, we looked like the smallest and most pitiful military regiment you could imagine. Towheaded and sorrowful. Everybody would say we were so cute. We didn't think it was so cute. I am not sure why he did this at the beginning of every summer. We didn't need another hair cut until it was time for school again in September. We were a cash cow for a barber shop. It was his community service I guess. He was a nice man. I can't fault him for his kindness. His marketing begged understanding.
Summer lasted forever. We only had someone watch us a couple of summers. Mom was home with us at first, but she started working when I started school. So when my oldest brother was a teenager, he was in charge. There were lots of kids in our neighborhood, so we ended up all over the place, but everyone knew who we were and everyone looked after everyone else. It was an easy way to grow up actually.
Evenings were spent outside until way past dark. We would get our big peanut butter jars ready for catching Lightning Bugs. Holes had to be punched in the top so they could breathe, but not so big that they could crawl out. A stick or two and some grass for a natural habitat was essential. The jars were glass and they were big and heavy. Just as it began to get dark, the front yard would light up. It seemed the Lightning Bugs were always just a few feet away and you had to chase them. But, when you caught one, you had to be very gentle with it and quickly throw it in the jar and slam the lid back down. It was hard to be gentle and forceful at the same time. That took some practice. Once you had a few in the jar, it was time to go in. We would get cleaned up and take our jars to bed. I would just lay there and stare at it, watching each one light up, and eventually I guess I would fall asleep. I don't remember them being there the next morning. Maybe mom set them free, back into the wild vastness of the front yard to live with the ones that evaded capture. Lightning Bugs still fascinate me today. Here in East TN, they call them Fireflies. I like that.
Chores were something else that meant it was summer. We had our regular chores to do all the time, but not many. But, when school was out, we had plenty to do. It did mean that on Saturday mom could take us to the pool though if we got them all done. She had to work lots of Saturdays but usually got home about 11 or noon. We would have everything done and she could just come in change and off to the pool, we would go. There was always a line to get in and next to that line, was another line. The second was full of kids that didn't have the money to get into the pool. Mom would always be suckered into paying for one. I remember one black kid in particular. It got to the point that he knew when we would get there and we would see him coming through the parking lot as we pulled in. Eventually, he just got in line with us and we all went in together. I want to say his name was Reggie, but I don't remember. I have no idea what ever happened to him. He went to school in the next town.
Mom always packed lunch and drinks for us, but occasionally we could buy something from the concession stand. Their french fries were the best in the world. I think it had to do with the combination of the chlorinated water, grease and salt. Most of the time, we would just pick at our lunch because of the one hour rule. We didn't want to have to stay out of the water for an hour after we ate, and we didn't want to drown either. It was a lot of pressure on a kid to weigh that decision out when you had a boat of french fries, let me just tell you. Sometimes the lifeguard would make the decision for us. They would blow the whistle and tell us it was time to clear the pool. Then they would open the pool for the adults to swim for a little bit. We would raid the cooler and fill up while mom was doing the backstroke.
The smells, sights, sounds and tastes of summer are still so vivid in my mind. The talc of the barber's brush, mixed with the minnows. The Lightning Bugs adding a glow to my bedroom at night. The lifeguard's whistle and the taste of those fries. We didn't have money for big vacations in the summer. Summer was our vacation and it was pretty cool.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Hey mom, I'm goin' up Markley's

"Hey mom, I'm goin' up Markley's" was something heard quite often in our house. If one of my brothers or me didn't say it, it was "Who's goin' up Markley's for me?" from mom. Markely's In-Between Store was a general mercantile I guess. It was the Walmart of our little town before we ever knew what Walmart was, or any chain store for that matter. And, we didn't actually go up, because it was south of us. For some reason, we all referred to south as up and north as down. When we went up Markley's, we just meant that we were going up to. I don't know why we dropped the "to" either. It was our Appalachian shorthand I guess.
Like I said, they carried all general merchandise. We mostly went in for the pop and a candy bar, but dad bought more than one pair of work boots and coveralls from them over the years. We may have even ordered a wood stove from them. I don't remember, but I know they had them. All that kind of stuff was in the back of the store and it was dark back there, so we stayed to the front where the good stuff was anyway.
When you walked up the wooden steps and onto the front porch of the store, you were greeted by a huge and heavy set of screen doors, followed by wood and glass double doors. If it was nice out or summertime, the wooden doors were propped open. The screen doors had big metal handles on them made by Sunbeam Bread or something like that. Every time we would come flying through the door, Mrs. Markley would say "Don't let that door slam!", just as it did just that. We'd reply "I'm sorry Mrs. Markley!" and keep on going.
There were coolers down the left-hand side of the store when you came in. In one of the coolers was always a big ole cloth bologna. If you wanted, they would cut off a thick piece with a butcher knife, grab a couple of slices of white bread, slather on some mayonnaise and there you had the best sandwich you ever tasted. They didn't worry about putting on plastic gloves or even getting a clean knife to cut the bologna with. The best they could do was rip off a piece of wax paper and put it down on the counter. When they were done, they used that to wrap up your sandwich. We were probably barefooted to begin with, so germs were not a concern anyway.
The isles were not very long, but they were tall, and they were stocked to the gills. Although as a kid, it probably seemed bigger and more stocked than it probably was. I could look up and down those isles for hours I think. I would look over the Hershey bars, Sugar Daddys, Big Chew bubble gum, Tootsie Pops and penny candy in between. All it would take was .35 cents to get a pop and a piece of candy or two. They had a big chest freezer with sliding glass doors on top to hold the ice cream. Oh, on a hot day, an ice cold pop and a Nutty Buddy was pure heaven. There were also regular groceries, but I was not one bit concerned about something I had to prepare. I wanted something right then. I remember getting a bag of Bugles and a pop on Friday nights so I could watch Donnie & Marie and have a snack.
Mr. & Mrs. Markley ran it every day, all day long. I only remember a time or two that they had someone else mind the store. They eventually retired and their son and his wife took over. By then I was a teenager and I could drive. But up to that point, goin up Markley's meant a walk about a mile away. That was nothing for us as kids. We did it all the time. We even did it for neighbors if they needed something. And, when we went for them, they usually paid for our pop and candy. By the way, if you have not figured out by now, a pop was any soda. It could have been a Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew or anything in a bottle. And as a kid, they all came in glass bottles which were returnable for a refund. That was another source of income for a pop. There was this one time that a neighbor told me that she had called Markley's and had them put something at the counter for her. All I had to do was pay for it and bring it to her. When I got there, sure enough, there was a bag on the counter and they were waiting for me to pay. I got myself a little something, paid for what was in her bag and began walking back home. I, of course, got a little curious, so I looked in the bag. It was a box of feminine products. I knew what they were by looking at the box because there was a box just like it in the linen closet at home. I just didn't know what feminine products were for. I didn't care. I had what I wanted too.
When we walked, we had two routes to take. One was the road. We lived just off the main road that connected all of the towns around us. There was a sidewalk for part of the walk, but that didn't start until you actually got into town. Lots of times, though, we would take the alternate route, which was the railroad tracks. That was the real scenic route. The tracks ran right behind our house. They actually touched our backyard. We pretty much knew when the train would be running, so we knew if it was safe to walk the tracks. And, if our calculations were off, there was usually enough room to get off the tracks if the train came rolling on by. I didn't care for being that close to the train, ever. I didn't really like it being that close to our house. My brothers would try to scare me with stories of Dracula and The Werewolf getting off they train at night and coming to the house, but I'll leave my daily torments from my brothers for another post... or several.
Markley's In-Between Store has been closed for a couple of decades now I think. It served it's purpose well when it was open. The store had actually been there for about a hundreds years before they bought it I believe. It was called Clem's Store then. I had even read once that the store used to set on the hill behind where it was when we knew it. It had apparently been moved on logs down the hill. Which is pretty amazing when you think of the size of the two-story building and the steepness of the hill. Today it would not be moved unless a dump truck took care of it.

Markley's In-Between Store as it looks today. I would say the building is about 150 or more years old. It served it's community well. In its heyday, it was one of three stores in a row, on what was thought of as Main Street.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

We had the best Mom, and that's no Tale.

We had the best Mom. The Creator knew exactly what he was doing when he gave us her. I'm not so sure he gave her a fair deal with us sometimes, though. We had to say goodbye to mom over a dozen years ago now. It sounds like forever and feels like a moment ago.

I can still hear her voice. Some people would say that she and I sounded alike. Some would say that I looked like her. "Oh, that's Barbara's boy for sure!" They'd say. I got her temperament too. Well, maybe more like her temper. You could get her dander up, and she would commence to slamming cabinet doors in the kitchen like you have never heard cabinets slammed before. I remember one time she started slamming doors and when she opened the next door, a wine glass fell out and popped her on the head. It shattered and glass cascaded all around her, and she began to laugh. She got the message loud and clear. Laughing at yourself is important.

Mom was funny, even when she was upset about something. I think it was her way of coping with things that bothered her. She did love to laugh and she thought we were hilarious sometimes. She liked to sing too. I don't think many people knew that about her. You would catch her humming something or singing while she was busy. But I don't remember her ever joining the church choir or anything like that. I don't think she thought she could sing, but she could. I remember her telling me that when she was a little girl, she somehow discovered that if she would sing into the gas tank on the car, it had this incredible echoing sound like you were singing into a microphone on a big stage. So, she did that one day with her father's car. They soon found her passed out, apparently from inhaling too many of the fumes. That may have stunted her desire for the spotlight.

She was a lot like her own mother too. She grew up staying busy, being faithful and knowing that you contributed to the household. That is how she raised us as well. We all had chores to do, but we never took care of as many things as she did. Her mom was straightforward. She told you exactly how it was and how it was going to be. Mom was kind of the same way, but maybe not as direct. Maybe I just looked past it. She went to church pretty regularly and for a few years, she and dad were the leaders of our youth group. She volunteered for lots of things at the church. That was another thing she believed in contributing to; your community. She didn't do huge things because she was not in it for the glory, but the gratification. She mostly did the small things that people didn't usually think about. Cleaning the bathrooms at the church. Washing dishes at the fire hall. Collecting donations door to door.

She was a strong woman, but she had her weaknesses. She battled cancer three times, but a moth flying around her could bring her to tears. She called them "cattlebats". It took me forever to figure out why she called them that. I think I asked her once and she just said that's what they are. But, I think it was just her way of saying "candle bats", which would make more sense. Her reaction to one did not make sense, though. One time there was a cattlebat flying around in the car and she broke the door handle off trying to get out. You always knew where there was one around. She was the first to spot it and then she would yell "Cattlebat!!" That meant, drop whatever you were doing and save her. We are all so grateful that she didn't like the smell of moth balls, or they would have been everywhere in our house. I don't remember her being scared of much more, though. Cattlebats was enough.

I am sure we were hard on her at times, but she remained dedicated to us. She loved all of us equally, which meant that we were all her favorite. I just happen to know I was her favoritest favorite. Don't tell my brothers. I'm not sure they could handle the truth at this point. Her favorite color was yellow. Her favorite flowers were irises and roses. I grow both and think of her often when they bloom. I remember the hillside at the bottom of our yard when we were growing up, being filled with irises. We also had a triangle shaped bed of them by the back door. We never grew roses, but my grandmother had several in her yard. On Mother's Day weekend, we would have visited and they would have walked around the yard, looking at all of grandmaw's flowers. Grandmaw would give us cuttings of things. Not much survived, but we did have some Rose Of Sharon trees that she started for us and I am sure that's where the irises first came from. I also have Rose Of Sharon in our garden today. So much of what we have, I know mom would love to walk around and look at and talk about.
My mother-in-law will be over for dinner this afternoon. We will walk around and look at all of the flowers, shrubs and bushes and anything else that is in bloom or growing right now. If she sees a weed she will pull it. I could use the help. I take in those moments. They make me feel even more at home. I am blessed to have had such a great mom. I am blessed to have a great mother-in-law too. No matter how old you get, you always need your mom. No matter how old she gets, I think she always needs to be a mom too.

My yellow irises. We never had yellow ones growing up. I think most of ours were blue and pink, but these make me think of mom. I took this a couple of days ago. Today there is just one bloom left. I think she was holding out for Mother's Day.

Our yellow roses. My grandmaw had a yellow rose bush behind her garage. It was not out where you could really see it with the rest of her flowers, but she enjoyed it just the same.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Tale of Charlie and Mary

I mentioned in the previous post, the one about porches, my neighbors who used both of their porches. I didn't tell you their names. They were Charlie and Mary. They had been married for more than 60 years when Charlie passed. Mary followed him a couple of years later.
When I was just a kid, probably six or seven, I began visiting and hanging out at their house. They lived just a house away, in a white block house that Charlie built. It was stuccoed on the outside, but you could still see the outline of the cinder blocks in some areas. They had a building just a few feet away from the back porch that they called the smokehouse. It had not been used to smoke anything in years, but it still had that smell that was somewhat offensive to your nose, but familiar to your senses. They had another building they used to smoke meats in. It was at the back end of their property. It was the old outhouse. I know, who would smoke meats in an old outhouse? Well, they did. It did not sit over the hole anymore. They had moved it thankfully. And, Charlie did not smoke too many meats as the years went by.
I'll just refer to the building near the house as the smokehouse since that's what we called it, and you can just forget about that smokin' outhouse. So, the smokehouse was a bit of a catchall for garden tools. It also had the wringer washer in it. There was a workbench and a huge chest freezer. It was always dark in there. There was a small window and the old wooden door for light. Mary had curtains at that little window, even though it was just the smokehouse. You could see it from the road, so appearances were important.
There was a wash day to observe each week, and it was still a chore. They used that old washer every week. They never had a modern washing machine or dryer. All the clothes were washed with Borax and anything white was bleached regularly. The clothesline was up next to the huge garden, which was shielded from view by a row of boxwood. Mary would always be wearing her apron when she was working and she had a huge bag of clothespins.
The freezer in the smokehouse was full of wild turkeys, squirrel, dove and deer meat that Charlie would hunt. He never hunted for sport, it was always to provide. I went hunting with him once, and once was all it took. I think he knew before that day even came that he was not going to bag one single animal. This was just to take me out for the experience. I had shot a gun before. We had guns in the house growing up. Today I don't care for them much and you won't find one in our house. I respect them and they had their purpose back then. Anyway, Charlie had me out in the woods at 5 am and we had to wait quietly and patiently for the sun to come up. That old phrase "It's always darkest before the dawn" is true when you are squatted down in the woods at 5 am and the temperature is hanging somewhere around freezing. It was one of the darkest moments of my life. I prayed that we would not see a thing. I appreciated the sacrifice but did not want to be part of it. I understood it, and I respected it, and I never went again. We left the woods about 7 am and headed home for some breakfast. Charlie never asked me to go again either.
Mary was always busy around the house. She never stopped much, until the evening. Then it was time for a cup of hot tea and a cookie or two. We could sit for hours talking then, or retreat to the living room to watch Jeopardy and Wheel Of Fortune. Mary taught me so many things. I had two incredible grandmothers, but being with her was like having a third. Charlie was a wealth of knowledge too, but he had strong opinions and they did not always match mine. Even as a kid, teenager, and young adult, we did not see eye to eye on lots of things, but I respected him and I rarely challenged him. It was not worth it. He was not going to change, and he was not going to change me.
I would help Charlie outside with mowing the yard and helping put out the garden. He loved passing on what he knew about growing corn, potatoes, squash and such. He taught me how to use the tiller, how to make a potato hill and how to tie off the rows to make them good and straight. They always had a huge garden. We would be working away and if he got tired he would always say "Whew! Boy, I am all petered out!" Rarely would we run the water hose up to the garden. Most of the time we would drop the watering can down in the cistern and fish out as much as we needed, which was always a lot. I would help him put the garden out, and I would help Mary put the garden up. She taught me a little about canning. Although when she used the pressure cooker, she wanted everyone out of the house. It was not until I was much older that she would trust me to stay. She passed on her Bread & Butter Pickle recipe to me. I make them every year now and there are some that wait for me to put a new batch up. I give her all the credit, but I have to admit, they are pretty darn good. She first showed me how to make refrigerator pickles. I made some that year and canned them myself. I entered a jar in the Shenandoah County Fair and won first prize in my category. I don't remember if my category was just pickles or pickles made by a 13-year-old boy, but I won. Today I pickle just about anything that will hold its own in a jar of vinegar.
She also passed along her secrets to making fresh homemade bread and rolls. She would make it all the time and it looked so easy. She even told me how her grandfather taught her how to make bread and this was his recipe. She said that he made bread for the soldiers in his camp during the Civil War. Well, I was honored to learn the trade, but something got lost in translation. I still have that recipe, but I have tried it several times and I never got more than a door stop out of mine. She also taught me how to make pie crust. Now that I can do. The secret to that is ice cold water, cold fat, and even cold hands. You don't want your dough to become warm while you mix and work it. Also, don't overwork it. Be very careful to just knead it only as much as necessary to  incorporate all the flour, or it will be tough. Then chill it again before rolling it out on a cold surface. If the fat in the mix warms up while you mix it or it rests; your crust will be greasy. You want it flaky and tender. There now you have the secrets to the best pie crust in the world! I bet you thought I was going to pass on my prize winning refrigerator pickle recipe or my now famous Bread & Butter Pickle recipe. That might come, but you will have to wait.
Their cellar was truly a root cellar. They would lime the potatoes to keep them from going bad. They had wooden shelves that lined the right-hand side as you got to the bottom of the stairs. The shelves were always filled with jars of whatever she had put up. There were beans, corn, peas, carrots, squash and soups that she would make and can. To get all of that ready, we would sit for hours on the back porch snappin' beans, hullin' peas, shuckin' corn; you name it. There was lots of work to growing and putting up your own food. But, it was a way of life that they knew. It was not part of a movement for them, it was merely what they knew for survival.
Charlie and Mary taught me lots of other things as well over the years. Things that you only learn by observation, not by doing. Well, at least not until doing on your own some time later. Like when Charlie was sick and in the hospital, just a couple of weeks before he passed away. I was there with his daughter and we were off to the side of the hospital room while Mary was by his side. He was about to go into surgery and he wanted to talk to her. He apologized for not building her a bigger house, for not giving her more things, for not... and the list went on. She listened for just a minute and told him she had all of those things with him. The house was bigger than they needed, and they never wanted for anything, that they had all they ever needed. As he went into surgery, they both said what they needed to say and heard what they needed to hear. He came out of his surgery fine. He just didn't have the strength to come back home after that, and he passed the day before he was scheduled to go into rehab.
What they taught me there was that life is not about the what, but the who. It's not about the how much, but what you need. I learned that even more when my parents were both gone and we had to clean out the house. My brothers and I each took a few things that meant something to us and the rest was just stuff at that point. It wasn't useless, but it wasn't necessary. For me, even a while after bringing stuff home with me, I found myself realizing that some of it was just more stuff. I packed some things up, to pass on one day. It does have meaning, and that is its usefulness now. The rest is all stuff, and you don't cherish those things as much as you do the moments and memories that you have.