Photo of My Grandfather, circa 1941

My Grandfather

The world was sepia-toned back then.  A man’s mules were not just machines to work the fields.  They were friends or enemies, members of the family you followed down the rows, piloting the plow with your strength and their strength over the years, to plant and tend the crops that were your life and their life.

             The mules were named Judy and Mandy.  Their ears were quizzical, their noses were soft, their teeth were large and they were apt to bite.  If Judy and Mandy were put in the same stall in the old, run-down stable, they would nip at each other, whicker nastily, and fuss.  If they were put in separate stalls, they would each kick the wall between them until it collapsed and they were together, to nip at each other and fuss.

             In the photo it is early spring.  The trees are just beginning to bud.  It is time to break the ground for the plant bed, to sow the tobacco seeds and cover the bed with canvas.  By May the plants are spreading small, flat green leaves.  It will be time to break the ground in the field with the mules, and set the tobacco plants by hand, backbreaking labor.      

The man is serious in this photo, sincere.  He wears his hat on the back of his head, so his face is revealed, open.  He wears worn overalls and a flimsy jacket.  He wears a clean white shirt. 

You cannot see his five children.  You cannot see his irreverent humor, or how he loved to hear his coonhounds run, their bell-like voices bawling “oh-oh-oh” as they raced on the trail of their prey. 

But you can see his hazel eyes if you look at me or my niece Judy.  And you can feel his love of animals in the dogs, cats, rabbits and chickens his great-great-grandchildren love.


Fishing on a Hot Summer Day

When it’s hot and humid I remember going fishing with Uncle Tip.  I was a teenager living with my parents on a small, hilly farm in Tennessee about a mile from the Cumberland River.  A number of my aunts and uncles lived up and down the road from us. Uncle Tip, whose real name was Clifford Settle, was married to Aunt Eunice, one of Daddy’s sisters.   They had retired to the country, and their son and grandchildren lived hours away.  So Uncle Tip decided to teach me to fly-fish in the river.

Fishing in the Cumberland was no fancy affair of expensive rods and reels, waders and L.L. Bean paraphernalia.  Uncle Tip had a small bass boat, a jon-boat as they were called, green metal with aluminum seats which got hot in the sun, and a bass motor, too small to pull a water-skier but powerful enough to putter up and down the river.  We would go out early in the morning or late afternoon.   Invariably it was quite hot, so I wore cutoff  jeans and a t-shirt, and Uncle Tip wore a cotton sport shirt with his work khakis and a Telephone Pioneers baseball cap to shelter his freckled face.  

Fly Fishing in the Cumberland
He took the boat upriver to whatever looked like a good spot, usually where a tree had fallen off the bank into the water, and there were shady spots from the other trees leaning over.  The fish liked to lurk in the shade once the day got warm, and our job was to tempt them to the surface with a carefully placed fly, letting it drift for a while as the boat drifted with the current. 

Uncle Tip taught me to hold the fly-rod lightly and flick it with my wrist, not my shoulder, so as to place the fly more accurately—and so as not to snag his hat, his shirt, a tree branch, or other obstacles in the way, as I frequently did at first.  He always put a neon-colored plastic popper on the line so you could see if the fish grabbed it before you felt it, since we were letting the line drag.   I didn’t catch very many fish, but to me that was unimportant.  There was something hypnotic about floating along, watching the line, then raising the rod to move the lure to a more promising place. 

Eventually Uncle Tip said, “Connie, want to go for a ride?”  I always said, “Yeah, sure, if you have time.”  He always had time.  We reeled in our lines, he put our catch in his creel, and we headed down the river.  Uncle Tip went just fast enough for us to feel the breeze.  I sat back and let it blow my hair away from my face.  He pointed out whose farm or house we were passing.  Parts of the river were more heavily wooded, oaks, elms, maples, cedar trees. 

Once I saw a white and grey hawk perched on a branch of a log in the river.  It looked like a ghost of a hawk, sharp-featured and keen but white with grey shadows.  Uncle Tip called it a “fish hawk.”  As we looked it dove off the branch and skimmed the river.  It didn’t catch a fish, and returned patiently to its branch. 

After a half hour at most, Uncle Tip would turn the boat around and we headed back to the boat slip.  I waded up the ramp, pulling the boat, conscious of the river’s tug on my calves.

See, Remember, Write

I grew up far from the ocean, but less than a mile away from the Cumberland River.  Muddy, brown, its banks thick with downed trees and ragged weeds, the Cumberland had a lot of barge traffic since it was a tributary of the Ohio River.  That meant catfish from the river tasted like diesel fuel.  But the river had a calm, deep presence.

Cumberland River
Cumberland River

I’m going to post some stories about fishing on the river and what it was like in those long, humid summer days with not much to do.  I thought a photo might be a good place to start.  Sometimes an image brings back clear memories of a time and place.  Sometimes a scent can resurrect a forgotten memory.  Even a sound–a mockingbird trilling a mashup of other bird’s songs, a dog barking in the far distance, just on the edge of hearing.

The Inner Cowgirl

Dale and Buttermilk
When I was four and five years old, my favorite clothing was my cowgirl outfit.  A canvas-colored skirt with brown fake leather fringe and a matching fringed vest, I wore it as much of the time as Mother would let me.  I had a cowboy hat and a double holster with cap pistols which I had inherited from my brother, and I think I recall a sheriff’s badge. 

I had a stick horse which I galloped up and down the hallway all day.  The noise of those boots clomping in a horse-like cadence must have been maddening but no one ever stopped me or told me to quiet down. 

I’m not sure where this cowgirl obsession came from.  I wore the outfit so much that the fake leather fringe was stubble.  Normally I was quiet, a reader, used to playing by myself.  Something about that cowgirl suit let me be as close to rambunctious and wild as I was able to get.  When I turned six years old and went to school I got over my cowgirl dreams.   

Then I saw a necklace at a gift shop a year ago, just before my job was eliminated.  It was a silver chain with a pendant which was a tiny frame for a picture, like a necklace with a saint or a Madonna on it.  This one had a drawing of a girl in Western clothes from the ‘30s or ‘40s, with an inscription, “Our Lady of the Inner Cowgirl.” 

I’ve had that necklace on my mind for a year now.  I feel a need for my inner cowgirl.  I want to get back that feeling of being brave, bold and invincible.

In her exhibit at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Dale Evans is quoted as saying:

“‘Cowgirl’ is an attitude really. A pioneer spirit, a special American brand of courage. The cowgirl faces life head-on, lives by her own lights, and makes no excuses. Cowgirls take stands; they speak up. They defend things they hold dear.”

Right now I feel tired and sore.  But it’s not too late.  Maybe I can still put on my cowgirl outfit, saddle up and ride to my own rescue. 

Tags:  memoir, creative writing, cowgirl

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