—by Alyce Faye Bragg
March may have come in like a docile little lamb, but today the March lion is prowling restlessly around the house. He is spitting flurries of snow, and threatening the spring peepers. After a few tentative croaks from the pond, they have subsided into silence. The flock of robins that bombarded our yard a day or so ago have disappeared, probably wishing that they hadn’t left warmer climes so soon.
Robins are considered a true harbinger of spring, although we have some that stay here all winter. When you see a large gathering of them descend suddenly this time of year, you can be sure that they have migrated back to the hills. Also, you can be sure that spring is not far behind.
Winter weather grips our hills yet, and the fire feels warm and comforting when the day’s work is done. There’s still time to relax at night before the springtime chores begin; time to pop a bowl of popcorn or make some homemade cookies before bedtime.
I loved cold winter nights when I was a little girl. After the dishes were washed and put away, the zinc water buckets were filled up from the pitcher pump down at the Virginia office building (and I can still hear Mom saying, “Larry, have you brought in the night water?”) we would gather around Daddy for tales of long ago.
Daddy was a master story teller and had many rich experiences in his past. We would beg for a story of when he went “Out West” and he would settle back in his chair, snuggle the baby on his lap, and begin. He was 27 years old before he married and settled down, and had “hoboed” west twice during the depression. He confessed that he was only a jump or two ahead of the “revenooers” who were hot on his trail for making moonshine, although there were thousands of unemployed men who rode the rails at that time.
We shivered with him as he recounted riding across the plains, cold and hungry, in an open boxcar. Our indignation rose when a muscular storekeeper picked him up by the seat of his pants and scruff of his neck and threw him out of his store when he asked for a handout, shouting, “We don’t allow no bums in here!”
We camped out in a hobo jungle with him and made mulligan stew; eagerly opened the big package that a kindly butcher had given him to discover a whole hog skin. “Weren’t you disappointed, Daddy?” we invariably asked. “Well, maybe a little bit,” he would grin. “But those other hoboes jumped on it and began cutting it into hunks to put in their beans and stew–they sure weren’t!”
We cringed as we heard the luckless hobo scream when he caught his foot in the couplings of a train as it labored uphill and shed tears when one man fell off in a deep Colorado gorge. We panned for gold in Oregon one winter with him, and at this point he always got out the little pouch of gold dust that he had collected.
It was only after he had a massive stroke that eventually ended his life that he told me that many of his “hobo” tales were embellishments on the truth. I was oddly deflated. All my life I had believed them as gospel truth. Fact and fantasy were so intermingled by then that not even he could separate them.
Sometimes we would beg Mom to tell us “about when she was a little girl down on Big Laurel Creek.” Many people today will tell you that it was easier than to raise a dozen youngsters than it is to raise a couple now. I don’t think easier is the right word. Grandpa and Grandma Samples had eleven children to provide for; her day began at four in the morning when she got up to build a fire in the wood cook stove and cook breakfast.
The older boys were rousted out about five. Grandma had to milk and feed the livestock, and sometimes the older girls helped with the milking. Grandpa and the older boys had left as soon as they ate breakfast to work in the fields or to cut wood. Even the little ones got out of bed by six o’clock, and the school age children faced a two mile walk to school. The day had begun.
If it was washday, Grandma had to carry the water from Big Laurel Creek, heat it on the stove or fireplace, and go at the dirty clothes with a washtub and washboard. I wonder how many of us modern mothers could walk in Grandma’s footsteps? No wonder they sewed their long-johns on for the winter!
Mom would describe the boy’s high top shoes that even the girls also wore; shoes that always split down the back before winter was over. She would tell of the long, cold walk they had each day to Liberty School, carrying their lunch pails containing cold biscuits smeared with apple butter.
Then Grandpa Hooge would gather the children around the fireplace and get down the well-used family Bible in his rough, work-worn hands. After he read from God’s word, they would all kneel while he led in prayer and asked the Lord to keep and protect his family.
We could hear the wind wailing through the cracks in our rough-boarded Jenny Lind house, and we would pull our chairs closer to the fire and wrap our feed sack gowns a little tighter around us, feeling that we were the luckiest children in the world.
I REMEMBER, I REMEMBER
By Thomas Hood
I remember, I remember,
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn:
He never came a wink too soon,
Nor brought too long a day:
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away.
The roses, red and white;
The violets and the lily-cups,
Those flowers made of light!
The lilacs where the robin built,
And where my brother set
The laburnum on his birthday,–
The tree is living yet!
I remember, I remember,
Where I used to swing;
And thought the air must rush as fresh
To swallows on the wing:
My spirit flew in feathers then,
That is so heavy now,
And summer pools could hardly cool
The fever on my brow!
I remember, I remember,
The fir trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was a childish ignorance,
But now ‘tis little joy
To know I’m farther off from heaven
Than when I was a boy.
(I have to disagree with the poet, as I feel I’m a lot closer to heaven than when I was a child. Such precious memories!)