Not a Day Goes By

My father has started appearing in my dreams lately.  That hasn’t happened for a long time, and is a sure sign that I’m upset about something and looking for safety and security.  When Daddy is in a dream, he’s usually watching from the sidelines; he doesn’t take action.  I guess even my subconscious knows that he’s been gone a long time.  But

mother-and-daddy[2]
Mother and Daddy at home on the farm
that longing to feel safe and taken care of  will never go away, however old I may get.

I just realized today, Father’s Day, that Daddy died 40 years ago.  Forty years!  And I’m nearly the age that he was when he died of a sudden heart attack, chopping wood in the back yard at the farm.  It was hard to be young in a crazy time without his presence.  Sometimes I wonder how much he would have liked the adult I became.  I’m pretty sure he would have disapproved of many of the choices I made.  But I am sure he would never have stopped loving me.

I want to remember the good things, the tiny jewel-like memories that still remain:  Daddy taking me to the department store (McClellan’s) and buying the doll I had wanted for so long, a small one in a green dress; Daddy standing with a group of uncles and cousins at a relative’s wake (we called it “receiving friends”) and laughing at Uncle Fatty’s jokes; Daddy coming in from the fields for lunch and drinking sweetened iced tea from a giant glass, which I still have.  His khaki work clothes, how hard he had to scrub his hands with Lava soap  to get the dirt and grease off from working in the fields or at Uncle Preston’s garage.  Watching our black and white TV in the dark while he smoked a cigarette.

I miss him every day.  I’m sending out my love to him, and to all the fathers and uncles and brothers and grandpas who are father figures for children everywhere.  Happy Father’s Day!

 

Advertisements

The Dog Days of Summer

These hot August days remind me of Chico, the dog we had when I was in college and for several years after.  Chico was a German shepherd mix that I brought home from Knoxville as a tiny puppy.  He lived in a shoe box under my bed in the dorm for a few days, until I

Best friend in college!  Ok, Sallie was too.
Best friend in college! Ok, Sallie was too.

could get him home to the farm.  Despite being so young he didn’t know how to eat food yet, he persevered and grew into a 100-pound dog (with much care from Mother and Daddy).

Although I was away most of the time at school, he seemed to never forget that I was the one who rescued him, and he was devoted to me.  That devotion was tested to the extreme when I tried to get a tan during the summer break.

Tanning was a bad idea from the word go.  I had dark hair, but was very pale and had light hazel eyes, sure signs of a skin cancer magnet.  However, nobody knew about those things back in the day, and every teenage girl had to have a tan.  I would “lay out” on a collapsible chaise lounge on the concrete walkway in front of our house on a hot day, covering myself in SPF8 Coppertone (the highest strength then!) and shaking water on from Mother’s sprinkle bottle to cool off.

Chico was determined to be as close to me as possible, so he would lie in the sun next to my chair, panting.  This made him miserable, so his next move was to get underneath the chair in the small patch of shade.  That made me miserable, having a big, hot dog sweating under the chair, so I made him move.  He retreated to the shade at the side of the house, panting until he cooled down some.  Then the cycle repeated until we were both too hot to bear it, and I went in the air-conditioned house.

To this day, when I hear the drone of cidadas (dry flies, we called them) and the hum of unit air conditioners, I’m carried back to the young, skinny me, resolutely turning pink in pursuit of fashion, and that oversized, black-and-tan German shepherd panting in the sun.  All he ever got out of it besides my company was Nehi Orange, which he learned to drink from the bottle.

How I Learned to Drive, and My Dad

I want to apologize to my faithful followers (you know who you are) for taking such a long hiatus.  It’s been a very long, cold winter, and I just lost the energy to write somehow.  I meant to get this one out in February in memory of my father.  Better late than never, I65-dart-charger suppose.  And now that the snow is receding, maybe my juices will start rising, too.

February is the month when Daddy died, many years ago, not long after I graduated from college.  I think my love of cars comes from him.  He was a good mechanic and worked on all our cars, mostly at my uncle Preston’s garage.  Over the years our cars ranged from a turquoise Studebaker to a pale yellow Dodge Dart with pushbuttons to change gears, and a red Plymouth Sport Fury with bucket seats in between those two.  I also recall a battered station wagon of indeterminate breed at some point, and any number of beat-up old trucks for use on the farm.

Daddy was not a good driving teacher, however.  He tried to teach Mother, long before I was born.  She said he made her nervous, and words were exchanged.  She left the car in a huff, and never learned to drive.  Mother was dependent her whole life on other people to drive her to do errands, buy groceries, or go to church. This was not uncommon in country women of her age, but it surely was an inconvenience and limited her freedom.

I was determined to get my learner’s permit and my license as soon as it was legal for me to drive.  I couldn’t take a driver’s course because I couldn’t get to the classes, since Daddy was at work, Mother couldn’t drive, and I didn’t have a license.  So I got the booklet to study and got ready for the written test on my own.  Once my permit arrived, I was ready to go!

I had a lot of theory about driving, but very little practice other than steering a tractor.  So I asked Daddy to help me practice.  He showed me how to brake and hit the gas.  Then he turned me loose to practice in a field in back of the house.  My brother had abandoned a scarred-up Volkswagen Beetle at our house on the farm at some point, which didn’t have a license plate and was scarcely capable of moving.  So Daddy put some gas in it from a can and left me to practice driving around the field.

Everything went well at first, although I didn’t know how to change gears with a stick shift.  I just went around and around the field in first gear, steering and practicing turn signals.  Then I decided I was bored and wanted to stop for a while, so I hit the brake.  No response!  Granted, the car was going very slow, but it didn’t have any brakes left.  Well, I thought, how long before it runs out of gas?  I knew there wasn’t much left in the tank.

So I went around and around and around until it started slowing down even more.  This was my chance.  I steered it into the back bumper of Daddy’s latest battered truck.  There was a little bump, and then the engine died.  I hopped out and abandoned it.

Daddy never asked me what happened.  And my next practice session was in the yellow Dodge Dart with him.

 

Homegrown vs. Store-bought

I was shopping the other day, looking at whole chickens in the grocery store.  The prices ranged from $2.99/lb. for factory-farmed, on-special chickens to $14.99/lb. for organic,

Photo by Niall Kennedy
Photo by Niall Kennedy

free-range, kosher chickens.  I gasped at the price, and then I remembered my mother’s reaction to free-range chickens.

Mother grew up on a small farm before the Great Depression, and they raised their own chickens and hogs, churned their own butter, grew vegetables, and mostly bought staples like flour, cornmeal, sugar and salt.  They canned and preserved everything they could for the coming winter.

People think of this now as healthy, organic and being close to nature.  It actually was due to poverty and lack of other alternatives!  If the garden did poorly or the winter supplies ran out, there were days when dinner was biscuits and gravy made from bacon grease.  You didn’t kill a chicken until its laying capability was past.  Then it was killed and cooked, and often it was stringy and tough.

By the time I was a teenager we were living on a farm again, after some years living in a small town and a brief sojourn in Texas due to Daddy’s job.  Money was an issue again, so we had a vegetable garden, and Mother and I canned and froze quarts and quarts of vegetables.  We did not raise chickens, but Aunt Lou, Mother’s sister, did, and we bought eggs from her when she had them to spare.  Otherwise we shopped at the store for eggs and for chicken to cook.

Aunt Lou’s chickens were truly free-range, brown hens pecking around the yard, but they did get chicken feed to eat and had a coop to roost in.  They laid lovely brown eggs with rich yellow yolks.  Occasionally Aunt Lou would offer Mother a freshly killed chicken.  Mother always accepted it and thanked her, but her private reaction was different.  “These things are tough and gamey,” she said.  “I’d rather have a nice clean one from the store!”  Not to mention that she had to pluck and clean the homegrown, free-range chicken.  And she was right, the flavor was stronger, and they were not tender.

I think of Mother whenever I see the high prices on those in the store.  There should be a middle way between factory farming and having hens in your back yard, and it shouldn’t cost $14.99 per pound!

The Wind in the Trees

A few weeks ago I went back to Tennessee to visit my sister.  She lives with her husband on a 400-acre farm about an hour from Nashville, in a two-story house which his great-great-iPhone Photos 028great (maybe more) grandparents on his mother’s side built somewhere in the 1800’s.  It’s been modernized considerably, but it still has painted brick walls and a large front porch with posts.  The windows are tall and narrow, as was the fashion back then.  I suppose the cost of glass had something to do with that, too.

When you’re inside the house, you could be in a suburb anywhere.  With air conditioners, ceiling fans, a dishwasher, a media room with recliners, satellite TV and internet, and cellphones, you’d never know you were in the country.   But sitting on the front porch brought it home to me.

The porch is wide and long, with comfortable furniture and hanging plants.  The yard and porch are shaded by several ancient trees, oaks and pecans.  The gravel driveway winds under the trees to the road, less than a quarter-mile away.  The distance is far enough that I couldn’t hear the sound of traffic, and there didn’t seem to be much other than the occasional tractor or farm truck.  My brother-in-law’s tractor shed is in a field next to the yard, but the fields they farm are across the road, so there was no sound of tractors or mechanical work.

Sitting on the front porch with my sister, feeling the breeze, the only sound was the rustle of summer leaves, green and supple.  We watched a rabbit hop slowly across the yard from one covered spot to another, wary of hawks or a neighbor dog.  A bobwhite called from the field. Later in the day I walked to the fence on one side and spotted a snake in the grass, curving its shiny black body to move swiftly in a straight line, intent on some mission under one of the oak trees.

Hearing the wind in the trees took me back to evenings on Aunt Lou and Uncle Floyd’s porch, listening to them talk with Mother and Daddy and tell stories.  That porch was on a wood-plank dogtrot house, not at all like my brother-in-law’s family mansion.  But the smell of cut grass, the birds calling and the wind in the trees will always take me back to childhood.

 

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Mother and Daddy at home on the farm
Mother and Daddy at home on the farm

I always get contemplative at this time of year.  I think we all go into the new year hoping for the best, making resolutions, looking for better days.  Most of us think, “If I could lose 20 pounds, my life would change for the better,” or “If I got a new job, everything would be great!”  We look back as well.  Remembering the bad times and the good, progress made or lost–I think of that Bruce Springsteen line, “One step forward, two steps back.”

A lot of us have had to face a new reality during the years of the Great Recession and afterward.  The old life is not coming back.  That job, that money, that ease of living, will not be ours again.  It’s the new normal, and unpleasant as it may be, we have to adjust.

Like most people in their 50s, I didn’t expect this.  But when I remember my parents, I see that it happened to them as well, for different reasons.

Daddy worked for several years for a government contractor driving ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) into the tunnels where they were stored after the warheads were assembled.  Yes, that’s really what my dad did for a living!  But when the Vietnam War came about, gradually the cold war lost emphasis, government spending for nuclear “defense” was cut–and Daddy was laid off.  His life was never the same.

He was reduced to doing hard physical labor, unloading trucks and carrying meat in to the commissary freezers at Ft. Campbell, KY when he was in his late 50s.  He had a heart attack and couldn’t do that job any more, so he drove a school bus.  All the while he was farming our small farm.  He died of his second heart attack not long after I graduated from college.

The good news in all this was, he loved the farm and was never happier than when he was feeding the cows or driving the tractor.  We managed to keep our house and the farm despite mortgages, and when Daddy died there was property to sell so Mother had something to live on.  It was never carefree or easy, but we had family and friends and fun.

So when I feel like whining I try to remember that this is a new cycle and I’ve been given a second chance to keep going, to make this life work.  And hopefully to have some fun along the way!

Generations of Irises

Iris from Mother's bulbsMy mother was always fond of flowers.  Wherever we lived, she planted bulbs and weeded flower beds.  Our yard was never elaborate or manicured, and she certainly never read gardening books or drew plans.  But I remember four o’clocks which bloomed in the evening shade, and beds of zinnias and marigolds scorching in the summer sun.  She planted tiger lilies on the edges of the back yard at the house we lived in when I was in elementary school and phlox clinging to a rocky outcropping by the kitchen door.

When we moved to the farm someone gave Mother several varieties of irises.  Some of them were the classic purple ones which are the state flower of Tennessee.  Others had huge blossoms in unusual colors, including peach.  They were the last of the bulbs to bloom each spring (technically speaking, they grew from rhizomes) and gave us a week or two of glory before the heat set in.  In order to keep them blooming year after year, the rhizomes have to be thinned out.  Mother gave some to my sister Sherrie, who planted them in her yard.  As recently as three years ago they were still blossoming.

I’m not sure how some of Sherrie’s rhizomes got to my niece Judy in Ohio, but they did.  The photo is of a peach-colored iris blooming in Judy’s yard this spring.  She has two plants that still come up and flower, descendants of the original stock that was planted in the late ’60s on our farm.  Out of those roots….maybe they will last long enough to provide rhizomes for another generation, another yard, more springs.