Snow Days

We had a snow day here in New York on Thursday.  The city that never sleeps rarely shuts down, but the kids did get a day off from school.  I took a PTO day from work and avoided a snowy, icy commute.  It was nice to have a day at home, but I don’t have the enthusiasm for snow days that I did as a child.

Snow days were rare where we lived in Tennessee.  We usually got ice storms and just a little snow, maybe twice in the winter.  The state of the roads decided whether the schoolsnow-day buses could run.  Every time the weather forecast called for sleet or snow, I did a “snow dance” in the living room in front of the TV. Waiting for the school bus on a country road in the dark and cold of winter was not my idea of fun, and I was thrilled whenever we didn’t have to go to school.

Snow days were actually cozy as long as the power didn’t go out.  Ice on the trees often meant broken branches and downed power lines.  We had a wood-burning stove in the garage for emergencies like that.  Daddy made sure we always had a stack of wood split before winter came so we were prepared.  Snow days were a little bit of a break for him when he was a school bus driver, although he always had to feed the cows in the winter, no matter what the weather.

I remember one storm where we were out of school for two or three days on account of the ice.  When the roads began to clear, Daddy drove Mother and me up to my aunt and uncle’s house on the main road.  Aunt Eunice had made her version of spaghetti for lunch.  Friends of Italian descent, make sure you’re sitting down when you read this!  It involved ground beef and canned tomatoes, and was cooked in a crock pot.  That was the only spaghetti and meat sauce I ever had before I went to college.  It was a little greasy–I guess that was the ground beef!

After lunch, the adults played Rook, a card game that doesn’t have face cards.  They were brought up that normal playing cards were sinful, so Rook was the game of choice.  They would laugh and joke, and I read a book.

Daddy had an inspiration one snow day when I was in high school.  He took the hood off an old car which was no longer working, turned it upside down, and fixed it to the back of his tractor with a chain.  “Baby doll, you want to ride?” he asked me.  I enthusiastically jumped in, and he hauled me up and down the road on that car hood sled.  My cousins Dale and Don asked to borrow it when we were done, and Daddy unhooked it from the tractor.  They pushed it off a hill in their yard and jumped on board.  It was impossible to steer, so they ran straight into a tree.  One of them broke his arm–I think it was Don.

Share some memories of your snow days!

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Mother’s Irises

The iris is the state flower of Tennessee, where I grew up.  The classic color is purple, but my mother planted some unusual, beautiful ones on our farm.  In addition to purple, there Iris from Mother's bulbswere peach-colored, yellow, and white ones.  They were much bigger than the usual irises, almost like the orchid corsages you would wear to church on Easter Sunday.

I don’t remember where she got the starts for them.  Irises grow from roots called rhizomes that spread out as they grow.  When they get too thick, they stop blooming, so you have to thin them out periodically.  Someone gave Mother the starts and she planted them in the yard beside the house.  They grew and grew, blooming copiously every year.  She thinned them and gave some to my sister Sherrie, who planted the starts at her house.

Years later the irises at Sherrie’s house got too thick, so she thinned them and gave starts to our niece Judy.  Judy planted them at her house, and took starts with her again when she moved.  Judy also planted some at her mother’s house.  She sent me a photo last week, the one you see above–the irises are still blooming, still growing, years after my mother passed away.  The sight of that iris took me back to the rows of flowers blooming bravely in the back yard, so top-heavy that the wind or rain would easily beat them to the ground.  They bloomed in April in Tennessee, but are just opening now in cooler northern climes.

Mother loved her flowers, and irises always remind me of her.  Happy Mothers Day to all.

My Last Aunt

My father was born in 1913, toward the middle of a family of 10 children.  Mother was born in 1916, in the middle of a family of five children.  I am the youngest in my family of

Aunt Agnes at 90
Aunt Agnes at 90

five, 19 years younger than my oldest sister. So I grew up with a multitude of aunts and uncles, first cousins, second cousins, and even a couple of great-aunts in addition to my grandfather, when I was small.

I only have one aunt left out of all that multitude–27 aunts and uncles by blood or marriage when I was born (one had died young), and just one surviving now.  Aunt Agnes is 90 years old, born in 1924, Daddy’s youngest sister and 11 years younger than he was.

My sister Sherrie and I went to see her a few weeks ago when I made a quick visit back to Tennessee.  Aunt Agnes is still living on her own at her insistence, and with the assistance of her two children who take turns visiting every day and checking on her.  They wanted to get someone to live with her, but Aunt Agnes wouldn’t agree to it.  They had to take her car keys away a few years ago after she had a wreck and narrowly avoided a really bad accident.  She had a stroke a few months ago and recovered well, but she is unsteady on her feet now and has trouble with her short-term memory.

Aunt Agnes has always been a curious combination of unconventional and conventional.  She stayed in a painful marriage until her husband died, probably because divorce was shameful to her and her family.  Yet she worked at Fort Campbell as a civilian employee for many years, raising her family as a working mom.  Not a common thing in the ’50s and ’60s, even in the ’70s!  She’s always been devoted to her church and is a firm believer, but never to my knowledge cast aspersions at people in her family (like me, and some others I could name) who did not always live the way good Southern Baptists are supposed to live.  With her, family comes first, and her fondness for a relative goes a long way, even with a wayward niece like me.

Since the stroke she’s lost her appetite and has become quite thin and frail.  While Sherrie and I were there, Sherrie asked her if she wanted to have lunch.  Aunt Agnes had forgotten it was lunchtime.  She mentioned how she missed going to Captain D’s after church on Sunday, so I went through the drive-through and brought back that nasty, salty, fried fish for us all.  She ate maybe three bites.

I was surprised to get a card from her this week–I wasn’t sure if the stroke had affected her ability to write.  Inside was a perfectly clear and coherent note, and a $20 bill to pay for the lunch.  “Do not send the money back,” she wrote, and underlined it.  In her mind I’m still little Connie.  She’s the last one to remember me that way.

 

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.

 

Heat Wave

A modern-day air conditioning unit in Vicksburg, MS
A modern-day air conditioning unit in Vicksburg, MS

My friend Ed observed the other day that the two forces which made the modern South possible are integration and air conditioning.  The more I think about that statement, the truer it becomes.  We obviously still have huge issues with racial tensions throughout this country–the sad case of Trayvon Martin makes that only too clear.  Yet, as my African-American friend has told me before, things are a whole lot better than they were 50 years ago.  I hope we can get still further down that road.

On the subject of air conditioning, the heat and humidity of this summer has led me to remember what it was like in the summer in Tennessee.  When I was a small child we only had a big unit air conditioner in the dining room window, which was supposed to cool the entire house.  It was not nearly big enough, so we had circulating fans on the floor in our bedrooms.  The rhythmic hum of the fan was as good as white noise to help me fall asleep, while the movement of air washing over me made me feel cooler.

On the worst nights, when the air conditioner just couldn’t cool enough and the air was thick with humidity, Daddy would get out the car and we would go for a ride after dark with the windows rolled down.  The sticky air didn’t help much but the breeze coming through the windows was better.

We spent one summer in an old, dilapidated house without enough wiring for air conditioners while the house on the farm was being built.  It had thick walls which did keep it from heating up as much as it would have otherwise.  But many a night I laid in bed, sheets thrown off, sweating even with a fan pointed at me from the floor.

Air conditioning in modern office buildings made it possible for industry to move to the South, which made city life and civilization preferable to farming for many people, and brought diverse populations to the area.  Air conditioning in homes made it much more comfortable to live there.  It was a big change which I am grateful for, even here in New York–the third heat wave of the summer began yesterday!

Definitely Summer, or, the Mockingbird

Photo by Dick Daniels
Photo by Dick Daniels

At four o’clock every morning for the past week, I have been reminded that it is indeed summer.  That’s when the mockingbird begins singing.  He starts around four, and he doesn’t finish his repertory until the sun starts getting hotter around 8 a.m.

He perches on top of a parking lot light and sings and sings and sings.  Somewhere in the distance is another mockingbird, so they engage in this duel to establish their territory.  Sometimes he’ll tune up again in the evening, but usually it’s a morning routine.

The mockingbird is a very inventive musician and does mash-ups of other birds’ songs, getting faster as he goes, and sometimes rearranging the sequence.  I think of him as the Glee chorister of the animal kingdom.  I wouldn’t mind the early morning chorale if I could just sleep through it, or at least roll over and go back to sleep.

Mockingbirds remind me of where I grew up in Tennessee–they are the state bird.  As a child and a teenager I could sleep through a bomb going off, so the pre-dawn concerts didn’t bother me.  My dad was known to chase a noisy bird away–see my archives for the story of the whippoorwill.  I learned the lesson, however, that birds are crafty, and will wait until you are back in bed to start up their song again.

So I am waiting for the height of summer, when the mockingbird will have proved his manhood to his mate and will quiet down again except for running trills just before dark.  I like the way he flicks his wings and tail to show the patches of white, then covers them again modestly.  I agree with Atticus Finch that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, “because “they don’t do one thing for us but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us”.[38]

Even if they are singing long before I want to get up!

Remembering Mother on Mother’s Day

Fronie Bowers Jones
Fronie Bowers Jones
I still miss Mother a lot. We made each other crazy when I was growing up, and I got as far away from her as I reasonably could. But I never left for good and I always came back. Following are some excerpts from a story I wrote for a writing class. It wasn’t really a story; it was a list of recollections. So here are some random memories of Mother, for Mother’s Day.

1. Her eyes used to be dark brown, very big. Uncle Hoy said she was the prettiest girl in the community where they grew up, which was Blooming Grove, Tennessee. In her old age, they faded to almost tan-colored.

2. She wore print cotton dresses in cheerful flower patterns. She didn’t wear pants until after Daddy died in 1977, I don’t think.

3. She fell and cracked her kneecap chasing my dog Whitey around the yard when I was 8 or 9. She was trying to throw away sticks blown off the trees by a storm. He kept fetching them back, and she yelled, “You stupid dog!” and chased him with a stick. I laughed and laughed, until she slipped on the wet grass and fell.

4. The only time she ever went to Florida, I took her. I drove from Atlanta in September 1981 and picked her up. We drove to St. Augustine and Daytona Beach. It was the coolest September on record. But she finally saw the ocean, the red and orange sunrises and sunsets, walked in the edge of the surf, and sat in a beach chair on the boardwalk with some other people, who seemed elderly to me. We went to Marineland, and she was too tired to walk from one show to another. That’s when I knew she was sick, not just getting older. She was sick ever after that. Mother must have been about 62 years old.

5. She stayed with me in the hospital for a week when I fractured a vertebra in my back. I was 10 years old, and had been thrown out of a swing when the chain broke on my side–six kids in a porch-type swing in a frame, trying to see how high we could go. I was so bored, because the hospitals didn’t have TVs then (1965?), and she couldn’t drive, so she couldn’t get to the library. She bought me every children’s book in the hospital gift shop, all the ancient paperbacks—Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Elsie Dinsmore. I read them all. I hated Elsie Dinsmore. What a little priss!

6. When I was in high school, she made a trade with Aunt Eunice Settle (Daddy’s sister). We would can a bushel of Kentucky Wonder beans for her, and Aunt Eunice would slipcover our couch. It took both of us an entire day. Aunt Eunice’s work was done in about three hours. Aunt Eunice always got the best of any bargain going.

7. Mother’s hands were always big and knobby-jointed. She said they were like Papa’s (her father, Herman Bowers), while mine were long-fingered and thin like Mama’s (her mother, Blanche Collier Bowers). Papa and Mama both died before I was born.

8. Mother never learned to drive, ride a bike, or roller-skate. She liked to play Rook, a sort of Southern Baptist card game with no “face cards.” Good Christians didn’t play cards when she was a child.

9. Aunt Elsie was Mother’s best friend from the time they were five years old. One day when they were children Mother had a new dress, a rare occurance, and Aunt Elsie wanted to wear it. They switched dresses on the way to school so Aunt Elsie could wear it. That’s how much Mother loved her, that she would do that. Aunt Elsie was an aunt by marriage. She and Mother married brothers; Mother married George, Aunt Elsie married Jesse. Aunt Elsie’s brother, Uncle Floyd, married Mother’s sister, Aunt Mattie Lou.

The entire “story” is “50 Things About My Mother.” I wrote them in a notebook as I commuted by train to Manhattan. I’m glad I got them written down. Happy Mother’s Day to all my family, friends and readers!