This is a series of Facebook articles I wrote covering my childhood. So far, they have nothing to do with theater. Some day, they will.
MY FAMILY ALWAYS HAS BEEN HAUNTED
My family has always been haunted.
Go ahead, laugh. I won’t be offended.
It comes from putting down roots in a soil that was a crumbled mixture of Christianity and superstition, where voodoo and Pentecostalism shared the back roads and somebody’s auntie kept track of it all through the cards.
No one really believed in ghosts. No one doubted that spirits walked.
When I was young, I stayed with my grandfather’s second wife. She had a cane farm in the Louisiana bayou country. Strange land, stranger people. On certain nights, the woman who worked for Grandmother Clark sent me to bed with an amulet around my neck. I would lie awake, fingering its bits and pieces, listening to the rhythmic chanting that came from the bog back of the house.
The thing at the foot of the bed listened, too. I never figured out what it was. Shifting clouds of blackness mostly. It didn’t frighten me. It seemed happy just to stare.
Once I made fun of the goings-on in the bog. That afternoon, sitting under one of the big trees out front, a hunk of Spanish moss fell from the branches, enveloping me like a shroud. There were dozens of bugs crawling through its weave, spiders and slimy, wiggly things. The woman
heard me screaming and came and freed me from the moss. She checked, but I wasn’t bitten, not even once. I simply learned a lesson.
I was lucky with bites. A black snake lived in the house. We believed it had power over the other reptiles and kept them away. It’s true we never found a snake in the house. But outside … I was sitting on an old pier, dangling my feet in the water. A water moccasin came gliding up and left its mark. I didn’t die, though you wouldn’t have known it from the anguished wails of my mother. The woman said to me, “Don’t put temptation in the way of evil, boy.” Another lesson chalked up on the board.
The first family ghost story I remember hearing was told by my other grandmother, whom I called Mommy. On an old wooden dresser in her room was a double frame with faded pictures of two young girls. These were the twins, Chloe and Ruthie. Mommy had 13 children, but only five lived to adulthood. Aunt Chloe and Aunt Ruthie died during a diphtheria epidemic. Inseparable in life, they passed 19 minutes apart.
Mommy grieved for her little ones. She begged God for a sign they were in heaven. One night, she was rocking before the fire. A sound behind her caused her to look around. Chloe and Ruthie stood at the bedroom door. Ruthie was holding her favorite doll. She walked over to a table in the
center of the room and laid it gently down, then turned and, taking Chloe by the hand, went back into the bedroom. For the rest of her life, Mommy kept the doll propped up against the picture frame, the tiny cross that first appeared that night still hanging around its neck.
That was many years before I was born and I only had the story through Mommy’s telling. But I was there the night the horses came. There was a porch encircling our house, its wooden floor painted white. One night, we were sitting in the kitchen, reading, when we heard hooves pounding up the road. The neighboring farmer, a man with an ugly streak, kept horses. He treated them badly and, from time to time, they broke free. We thought it had happened again, except this time, they leapt unto the porch and ran around and around the house before finally jumping off and going back down the road.
When we checked the next morning, there were no scuff marks marring the white planks. There were no hoof marks in the dirt drive. Later, we heard the neighbor had died, trampled to death in his barn. Grandmother Clarke always said she was going to call the sheriff on the man, but she never did. We were glad we didn’t go outside to shoo the horses away.
There were other tales. Every family had them. That was how it was in our part of the country. Things happened. You accepted them and turned them into stories that became lore. Life moved on.
I had one story that was all my own. If you continued south along the road that ran in front of our house, there was an overgrown ruin, one of the “big houses” that dotted the countryside in the days before the War Between the States. The roof had fallen in, the windows had lost their glass panes. The front door hung open at a crazy angle.
All the kids knew the place was haunted. The whole idea of spirits and monsters was a big thing with us. We were always daring each other to go inside. Of course, we never did. We believed.
One night, that changed.
It was a dare, naturally. Bigger kids challenged me and my cousin, Roger Dale. Go inside during the night and spend one hour. They promised to wait outside. If anything really “bad” happened, they would come running.
Margaret Scaggs, a girl with a mass of red curls and the first love of my youth, was our know-it-all. She had heard the story of the house. How a slave had accidentally touched the owner’s daughter. How the owner had cut off the slave’s hand. We were primed.
Southern moons seem bigger than those in other parts of the country. They put out more light. You could see the twisted shapes of the live oaks, the moss swaying in the night breeze. The house stood out against its neighboring woods, the surviving walls pale white, seamed with shadows.
Roger Dale and I were scared, not that we would admit it. I was acutely aware of Margret’s wide eyes staring at me. I can remember sweat trickling down my back. It was hot, humid, and the air was filled with the calls of crickets, frogs and other night prowlers. Periodically, a grunt was
followed by a splash. A bog gator, out for his nightly patrol.
We crept up onto the porch. The weakened floor creaked at our passing. As we pushed the door further open, a grinding screech from its hinges paralyzed us. “It don’t matter,” Roger Dale hissed. “If there’re any haints, they know we’re coming.”
Inside the door was a large hall, with a staircase at one end. Patches of moonlight spilled through the fallen roof and spotted the floor. The stairsteps rose in and out of the light. No way were we climbing that rotting ladder. Instead, we took shelter in one of the hall’s doorways, leaning back
against the frames, Roger Dale with his back to the stairs, me with a good view of the hall.
We had brought a ball and some jacks. All Southern kids played that game. Some us us were good at it. Well, Roger Dale, anyway. After a while, the moonlight shifted and it became too dark to see the jacks. We settled down to wait.
We both dozed. I don’t know why I woke. Maybe it was because I was cold. The hot, humid air had turned icy. And the silence was absolute. No crickets, no frogs, no rustling of leaves or tree branches. Then I heard it. The dragging, the crack-crack-crack of something striking wood. It came from the staircase.
The movement first called attention to itself about three steps above the hall floor. Something dropped from an upper step into a puddle of moonlight below. It moved across the light, long appendages pulling it to the edge of the next step, making a clack-clack-clack as they fought for leverage.
I kicked Roger Dale. His eyes opened. Before he could speak, I pointed into the hall. Whatever it was had reached the floor and was coming toward us. Bony fingers pulled it forward, shreds of what might have been deeply stained material trailed behind. The hairs rose on my neck. Fear took on a tangible form and crawled up my spine. “Jesus Christ,” Roger Dale said.
I would would like to say we were brave, that we really didn’t believe in ghosts, but we were boys and we knew what we were seeing. We got the hell out of Dodge, leaving the other kids and Margaret to race after us.
Such are the memories of growing up in the rural South. Are ghosts real? Do dismembered body parts crawl across floors? Most people don’t believe the stories, a few offer “rational” explanations (my favorite was the ”wounded coon”). Looking 60-some years into the past, I have no answers. I know only what happened. Anyway, I think, perhaps, that posing such questions is useless, and maybe dangerous. Grandmother Clarke, when I asked her about the things that happened out in the bog, said, “There is darkness in the world, child. Let it be.”
I am good at learning lessons.
GROWING UP SOUTHERN
Growing up southern wasn’t for the faint-hearted.
Even going to the bathroom was an adventure. You never knew what sort of critters you would find in the sink. And the lid to the toilet was always closed. You flushed before lifting it. The wise child avoided surprises.
At night, when the air hadn’t cooled and the humidity was thick, we slept on the pinewood floors. Lots of other things slept there, too. We poured salt around our bedding. Snakes and wigglies found the crystals uncomfortably sharp. We had a cat that prowled through the night. Every now and then I would hear crunching as she devoured a midnight snack.
When your house is set up against a swamp, you learn early about your neighbors. Cypress trees, with their draperies of moss and their knobby knees, were common place. Among them, a gator looked like just another log. The grass was kept short along the banks, the better to see what might be planning a lunch break.
Ripples were a cause for concern. Swamp water moved slow; water moccasins gliding just under the surface left a tell-tell wake. The workers on our farm told of catfish as big as hounds, able to swallow a kid in a single gulp. There were patches of quicksand. And places where air bubbled up to the surface with an audible ”plop.”
On some nights, when the mist was up, bits of light would flit from spot to spot. We called this “swamp fire.” I knew they weren’t fireflies. Too big. I asked Tante Helene, who worked for my grandmother, what they were. “They’re evil souls looking for a place to light,” she said. That pretty much put a kibosh on any night fishing.
Black snakes received considerable respect in this environment. Not only did they eat rats and other vermin, but it was believed that their fellow reptiles avoided them. A black snake lived in our house. It was about six feet along, and hefty. Other snakes must have believed the story. We never found any snake but Blackie in the house.
One day, the Hardshell Baptist preacher came to visit. He was a stern, pious man with no love for small boys. As he walked through the front door, Blackie came slithering down the stairs. The preacher let out a shout and ran for his car. Later, his son told me he had wet himself. Some childhood memories are treasured more than others.
Blackie had one bad habit. If you didn’t keep the dresser drawers closed, he would snuggle in among the hankies, underwear or whatever was kept there. Sometimes grandmother or Tante Helene would come along and push the drawer shut. My mother never learned. We would be doing something and we would hear a scream, followed by a thud. Grandmother Clarke would look at me and say “Fetch me the smelling salts, Kyle. We’ve got to do something about that snake.”
Not all of the creatures of my childhood were tangible. The thing that stood at the foot of my bed most nights was, as near as I could tell, made up of shifting swirls of darkness. It was silent, with a tendency to loom. It showed up one night, when I was 5, maybe 6. I was frightened. I told my grandmother. For several nights, she slipped into the room. She saw nothing.
I also told Tante Helene. She held to what we called “swamp religion,” a kind of voodoo but with a lot of Christian stuff in the mix. She said, “Do you see its teeth?” “No, Tante.” “Do its red eyes stare at you?” ”I don’t think it has eyes, Tante.” “Well, then, you just leave it alone and it will leave you alone.” She turned back to the sink, where she was washing dishes. Without looking at me, she said, “But if you ever see its teeth or its red eyes looking at you, you holler as loud as you can and I’ll come with the broom.”
After a while, I got used to whatever it was. In time, I even was glad of its presence, especially on stormy nights. Wind and rain have always terrified me. That swirling blackness, imaginary or real, stood between me and the chaos outside. But one night, the thing wasn’t there. It never came again. I missed it. I was lonely. Something had changed in my life.
I was growing up.
PAT’S ADVENTURES SOUTH OF THE MASON-DIXON LINE
Shortly after our marriage, I took Pat to visit my relatives in the South. Our first stop was New Iberia, La. We checked into a motel and Pat disappeared into the bathroom. Within seconds, she came out and slammed the door.
“We are not moving here!”
I checked the john. In the sink was a fine example of the local wildlife. About six inches long and 90 percent legs. The things that come out of Louisiana drains are the stuff of legend. At our house, anyway.
That night, we had dinner with Tante Helene’s daughter, Caroline. Afterward, we sat in the porch swing, watching creatures fly across the moon. “Those look like bats,” Pat said. She glanced at her arm. Eleven or so mosquitoes were having desert. A cricket chirped from her lap.
Another door slam.
“We are NOT moving here!”
Later in the trip, we visited Ash Lawn, former home of President James Monroe. Pat went inside the gift shop to purchase some souvenirs while I checked out the rocking chairs on the porch.
The shop’s screen door slammed. “Get in here!”
The residents of Virginia’s mountain country can trace their roots back to Elizabethan England. Their language reflects that, or would if it weren’t for the drawl. The clerk kept explaining how much the souvenirs cost. Pat couldn’t understand a word.
It wasn’t a problem. I placed a $50 bill on the counter and accepted the change.
“I hate you,” Pat said.
She slammed the car door as she got in. Did I mention that one of Pat’s few faults is that, when she finds a phrase she likes, she overuses it.
Tom Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again.
RAISED BY WOMEN
I was raised by women. My mother. My grandmother. My step-grandmother. But the most important female in my young life? Tante Helene, a black woman who worked with my step-grandmother on her cane farm in southern Louisiana.
The two women respected and trusted each other and Tante Helene was allowed a free hand with me. She was a wise, tolerant woman, generous with her love. She was scrupulously fair in administering discipline, and she never offended my dignity. When I needed a switching, she sent me out into the yard to pick the switch.
Tante Helene was born in the Carolina low country, but her father got a job in the cane fields and she grew into a woman in the country north of Avery Island. When she was 15, she married. Once, when someone asked me the name of her husband, I answered “Mr. No-good-layabout.” I never heard him referred to by any other.
Tante Helene was wiry; her slender frame always seemed too small for the blouses and long skirts that she wore. She loved the colorful scarves that my grandmother and I gave her at Christmas and on her birthday. One was always knotted around her waist.
Apart from the scarves, her favorite accessories were bracelets. She usually had a dozen or more climbing up both arms. They jangled while she worked. Her hats, which she mostly wore to church on Sunday, fascinated me. Feathers and flowers and birds and, most memorably, a large dragonfly. They were constantly in motion. Sometimes, when grandmother was ailing, Tante Helene would take me to her church. I remember the singing, and the folks jumping up and hollering ”hallelujah” and her hats. They seemed to be keeping time with the choir.
On those Sunday mornings, I learned that faith could be joyful, something that I desperately needed to remember later in my life.
Beneath her hats, Tante Helene’s hair was what some folks describe as ”salt and pepper.” Mostly pepper, the same rich black as the seeds she ground up for the shaker on the kitchen table. By the time I spent the first of four memorable summers with my step-grandmother, the salt had begun to show.
She did the cooking. “Honey, if we let your grandmother in the kitchen, we’d starve. The only thing she can do is scorch water.” In the years since, I have sampled the best that Paris and Rome had to offer, stuffed myself in Savannah, San Francisco and New Orleans, but I never had food like Tante Helene’s. Incredible gumbos, potato soup with oysters, things with shrimp and crawdads … I would collect frogs in the swamp and their legs showed up on the table that night. Under her instruction, her children, Caroline and Whit, and I would pick dandelions and wild cabbage from the fields, and the leaves of turnips, kale, collards, spinach and mustard from the garden at the side of the house, so she could “fry us up a mess of greens.”
It was Tante Helene who taught me how to survive in the world outside Grandmother Clarke’s house. She showed me which plants were okay to eat, and which were poisonous. She instructed me in the habits of alligators, cottonmouths and the-greatly-to-be-feared coral snake. I learned how to recognize a black widow spider and to appreciate the intricacies of spiderwebs, especially on a dewy morning. Satan put dark in the world, Tante Helene would say, but God balances it with light.
Sometimes, that balance was confusing. Tante Helene was a Christian, but she also dabbled in the “swamp religion.” It mixed elements of Voodoo, Catholicism and shamanism and scared the white folks. The participants generally met in the back country. I can remember hearing the drums and the chanting voices.
Grandmother was more liberal than most women of her acquaintance; she loved theater and Shakespeare, in particular; but she drew the line at some of Tante Helene’s more outre beliefs. But Tante Helene was strong-minded and I wore many an amulet in those four years, slept with stuff under my pillow and learned to have a healthy respect for evil (Satan’s ”dark”). The first two didn’t hurt me, and the third was a valuable life lesson.
I also was absorbing a lesson that, to my shame, I didn’t recognize at the time. Once a month, Tante Helene and my grandmother would go into New Iberia to have their hair done. Not that you would have noticed in Tante Helene’s case. She kept it cropped close to the skull. “It’s too hot to wear it any other way,” she would say, taking the scissors to mine.
Looking back, I realize now how racist we were. How ugly our behavior was. How ashamed I am still. Grandmother went to the hair salon on the courthouse square, Tante Helene to a shop in another part of town where black people lived. While they were at the beauty shop, I went to the movies with Caroline and Whit. They had to sit upstairs. I wasn’t allowed to sit with them, so I sat on the main floor with the other white kids, who saw me come into the theater with my black friends and called me names I can’t bear to repeat. I hated them, I hated being by myself. Once I slipped upstairs. “You’re going to get it,” Caroline said. Sure enough, I was caught by the manager, who called my grandmother and asked her to come and get me. I was setting a bad example for the other white kids.
Caroline and Whit. They were the best friends of my childhood. An inseparable trio, we were pirates, cowboys, soldiers, doctors, fearless explorers and Frankenstein monsters together. There wasn’t any nonsense about gender. Caroline ruled us with an iron hand and ready fist. She always took the best parts and we had to be satisfied with roles as her supernumeraries.
It was Caroline who planned our pranks. It was she who supervised the action. And it was she who was out on the porch reading a book when Whit and I were caught and faced retribution from Tante Helene.
Those were carefree days, the best of my youth, I think. I always hated it when I had to go home to my “other family.” That household was ruled by a woman, too: my actual grandmother, who was deeply religious and convinced the dark was in everything, especially boys. Life in her charge was the worst sort of dysfunctional. I am not sure I can ever write about it.
Instead, I will remember those long Louisiana evenings, sitting on the front porch steps, one woman shelling peas, the other crocheting, the kids working on their coloring books. I was safe, I was loved, I was happy.
As I cope with the problems that come with old age, I draw on those long ago feelings. Yes, I have pain, I have waded in the darkness, but I have a wonderful wife, a great dog, many friends and a firm if occasionally somewhat unconventional belief in God’s balancing act.
The voice of Tante Helene echoes, as she reaches over and gently turns my head upward to gaze at the night sky.
“See those stars, honey. They are the eyes of angels and every one of them is watching you. You don’t have to ever be afraid.”
DANCES AROUND A LIGHT POLE
My best friend was a light pole. That says a lot.
My childhood geography was schizoid. Summers were spent with my grandfather’s second wife on a farm in Louisiana. Shakespeare at bedtime, theater, art, trips to New York. So much laughter. A life in the sun.
The rest of the time, I lived with my mother in a house ruled by my grandfather’s first wife. It jutted from a mountainside overlooking the small coal-mining town of Logan, W.Va. We were church-going people, ever aware of sin and wary of the pleasures of the imagination. Life seemed grey, like the slag heaps of the surrounding mines that oozed steadily into the creeks.
An only child, and lonely, I poured out my troubles to that pole. It heard about my mother’s exhaustion (she worked three jobs as the sole support of her mother, sister, two brothers and me), my uncle’s constant ill-treatment that made me afraid to be in the same room with him and Mommy’s frequent switchings that led to my wearing my first pair of long pants to school one afternoon. The pole counseled patience. I liked to think it promised revenge.
The shaft stood at the base of High Street, which climbed the hillside to our house, or, if you went the other way, led to what downtown there was. Across from it, a stone retaining wall held up the elementary school I attended. Further down the hill from the pole were blocks of apartment buildings and the Methodist church.
Directly opposite the pole was one of those grocery stores found mostly in fading memories. It was full of old-fashioned wonders, wax candy with juice inside, blue Popsicles and a red metal container that on hot days was filled with ice, frigid water and bottles of soda pop.
The post was stalwart. It did tend to sway crazily in a storm but it never broke, a lesson I absorbed unknowingly. It was wood, of course. The base was a mosaic of rough carvings, mostly of initials, mostly done by kids. “KHL” was there. I hadn’t yet become ashamed of my middle name, which was the same as my Dad’s.
Two of the initials stood out from the rest. “L” and “E,” surrounded by a crooked heart pierced with an arrow. They were carved by Lester, whose last name is lost to me, for his girlfriend, Evelyn, whose last name I don’t think I ever knew. (I did know how to pronounce her first name: “Eve-a-lynn.” Her mother always called her that. We knew her as Evie.)
Lester and Evelyn were above the rest of us. They were teenagers, beautiful (to me, at least) and lordly with the attitude that came from recently graduating high school. While we played near the post, they would sit on the steps leading up to the elementary school, indulging in what we called “necking,” but never really going beyond that.
For a graduation gift, Lester’s dad gave him an old Ford that the family had bought before the war. Lester spent every moment he could restoring it. He took a shine to me and, for that reason, I was allowed to give it a shine. How I loved those times, polishing enthusiastically, moving to the faint strains of the radio from the grocery store, blossoming under the tolerant regard of a “real adult.”
Now, I realize Lester wasn’t happy. His folks didn’t have the money to send him to college and he worked in a garage. Evelyn’s father managed the local dime store. Naturally, Lester wasn’t good enough. He drank to compensate. (This was a small southern town. There were no drugs but liquor and smokes were always available, even to me had I dared.)
My mother came into the room. She was quiet and I could tell from the way she looked at Mommy that something had happened. Lester and Evelyn were dead. There had been a sleety rain followed by a cold snap and High Street was covered in ice. Coming around the curve, Lester lost control and the Ford plunged into the apartments below.
It was said they were running away. It was said he was drunk.
For weeks, we kids traced the rough initials with our fingers. We were filled with a sadness we didn’t understand – the first stirrings of our mortality. A little piece of innocence walked down the road and never came back.
Mostly, the post held happy memories. It was home base for our games. Hide and seek, of course, and a form of tag which we invented where one kid guarded the pole and the rest of us tried to touch it without being caught.
At night, it was a gathering place. I can hear younger readers shake their heads in disbelief. Children allowed outside after dark? What were parents thinking? Well, it was a small town, and safe. Everyone was your parent; someone one always had an eye on you.
The light atop the pole was a magnet for flying insects, which led, in turn, to bats. They would flit through the beams, causing the girls to scream and cover their hair. We boys were nervous, too, but we would never have admitted it.
We told stories in the pool of light, ghost stories usually, each one more outrageous than the last, each one resulting in ever more dramatic reactions from the listeners. In fairness, it actually was scary. Outside the light, the West Virginia night was fearsome. Who knew what lurked at its edges, or what waited up the holler behind the store?
I never told anyone about the shadows I saw sitting on the school steps. The kids would have thought it was just another story. Maybe it was. Or maybe I only wanted to believe there was another life out there, one where Lester and Evelyn still necked on the steps and, like Shakespeare said, the world was a stage where I could be a player.
Every child’s dream. But here’s something from the hindsight of 72 years: Dreams aren’t always ghosts. Not if you believe.
MOONSHINING WITH UNCLE SCOTT
In the ’50s, when I was a boy, the hill country of eastern Kentucky was rugged terrain. Stony outcrops reared up out of dense forests, the trees smothered with vines and the clearings filled with nettles, poison ivy and wildflowers of every shape and hue. Snakes and biting insects made life a misery for the squirrels, deer and the occasional bear. Human infiltration was not for the faint-hearted.
But the land had been settled since the 1700s. Roads and power lines snaked across the top of the ridges. Farms clung to the hillsides, with fields and pastures sliding into the ravines below. Water came from wells, or from springs that bubbled up from beneath an overhang.
A lot of tobacco was grown then. Around every corner was an old barn, usually a storm or two from falling in on itself, but with leaves from that year’s crop drying in the rafters. There might be a rusting Ford pickup from the ’20s inside the barn, or a wooden wagon, missing a wheel or two. On the side of the rickety structure, an advertisement for Mail Pouch tobacco or Chattanooga’s Rock City faded slowly into obscurity.
It wasn’t all tobacco. Most people had a corn crop and, closer to the house, a vegetable patch. Turkeys and chickens scratched in the yard. A pig or two wallowed in a muddy pen. A dog lazed on the porch. It was hardscrabble living. Nobody got rich, but kids got raised and bills more or less got paid.
The Browns, my stepfather Cecil’s people, lived atop one of those ridges, in an old farmhouse that had said goodbye to better days. The stove used wood, and you pumped water into the sink, yet the place boasted electric lights, thanks to those power lines, and indoor facilities, courtesy of a son-in-law who was a plumber. The closest town was Morehead, which had a state college (now a university), a Woolworth’s and a Piggly Wiggly supermarket. The family went into town maybe once a month, except for the boys, who went more often to get drunk.
Daily needs were met by a general store further down the road. It housed a post office and a gas pump. I remember it as also having farm equipment, some cotton clothes, the coldest Nehi orange pop I ever tasted (thanks to being submerged in a tub of ice water) and just about every chewing tobacco known to mankind. Anything else, the ridge people grew or made themselves.
Cecil’s dad, Tom Pres, had been a schoolteacher out west. I’m not sure if his mom, Jesse, had been a teacher, but she was educated. She gave Cecil the middle name, Cassius, because she had been reading Shakespeare’s ”Julius Caesar” when he was born. Their six boys – Vertie, Cecil, Doris, Scott, Orville and Seldon – and three girls – Esta Mae, Lucy and Beatrice – had been schooled, though the girls took to it more than the boys.
The Browns were hard people, flinty as the rock beneath their feet. Jesse had a tongue that could flay you alive, and the boys were always in trouble. But they weren’t unkind to a stepson whose mother was not entirely welcome in their midst. Mother had a degree in accounting, a well-paid job and dressed accordingly. Putting on airs, Jesse thought. But they didn’t hold it against me personally. Tom Pres was the changeling in the group, a gentle dreamer who would take me up to the barn, where we would sit on the wagon tongue and he would tell me stories about his days out west. The tales inflamed my imagination and kick-started a lifelong love for the country on the other side of the Mississippi.
Jesse was more practical. She figured there was no way my mother was going to teach me common sense, so she would tell me about each vegetable and what you had to do to get it to grow in that inhospitable soil. She pointed out dangerous weeds and taught me how to chop off the head of a snake with a garden hoe. When the cantankerous old gobbler that ruled the yard chased me ’round and ’round the well head, she would come out with her broom and shoo him away.
I repaid her with amusement. She sent me out one morning to gather eggs. The hens were nesting on them. I thought, OK, just lift them up … Jesse had tears running down her cheeks from laughing as she put Mercurochrome on my scratches and peck marks.
Uncle Vertie was my favorite of the Brown boys, but he had moved to Wisconsin as a young man (where we would later join him). My next favorite was Scott. He was a handsome devil, given to chasing women and getting into trouble with the law. Mother was always having to drive into Morehead to bail him out of jail. There had been a brawl in a bar, or a dispute over some lady or a game of pool. Uncle Scott was handy with his fists, and slow to run from a confrontation, so he was always the one who got cuffed and hauled away.
For some reason, he took a liking to me. He called me Peckerhead and enjoyed coming up behind me and giving me a burr-head, rubbing my scalp raw. Usually, though, he was sprawled on the day bed in the back room, rip-snoring drunk and smelling like he’d had a run-in with a skunk. None of that mattered to me. I suffered from an acute case of hero-worship. He’d wake up, grin lopsidedly and I’d sneak him a ”restorative” behind Jesse’s back.
Mother wasn’t immune to that grin. She made endless bail-outs since Uncle Scott’s siblings (and Jesse) were all for letting him rot in his cell. She never said no when I asked to go riding with Uncle Scott in his truck. She knew he cared about me and it would be woe to anyone who tried to do me harm.
If only she’d known the rest of it.
Uncle Scott was a moonshiner. He must have been good at his craft because there was a fair-sized demand for his product. We jounced down rutty back roads, many of them old wagon trails half returned to nature, dropping off the jugs and bottles that were hidden in the ”secret places” he had built into the body of the truck. I was proud because he didn’t hide those compartments from me. And doubly proud because the couple of times we were stopped by the state police, they never found them. “Just showing Peckerhead here the country. He’s from up in West Virginia,” Uncle Scott would say. And off we’d go, singing Johnny Cash and Tennessee Ernie Ford at the top of our lungs.
For all that I was part of the delivery system, the source remained a mystery. Uncle Scott would disappear for days at a time. “He likes living rough,” Jesse would say. ”At least he’s not in jail.” She never said that last part with any confidence, though. You just didn’t know, until someone from the store would come up and say they’d had a call from him and he needed bail money.
One day, he was feeling especially companionable. My head tingled from his ministrations. Finally, he said, “Put on your boots and get your jacket. Let’s go for a walk.”
Off-side the barn, an old wagon track led down into the cliffs, as we called them. It was overgrown with weeds and grasses. The seeds stuck to my pants legs and sometimes got up under them, which wasn’t a good thing. The track wound down the side of the ridge until it reached a cleared space around an old cabin that was falling into ruin. This had belonged to one of the Browns, just whom I can’t remember, but who had been long dead even then. I wanted to explore it, but Uncle Scott said no. There were rattlers there, and they didn’t like visitors. We carefully skirted the area and headed on down to the bottom of the ridge.
These were the cliffs, large drifts of sandstone that were gritty to the touch. There must have been harder rocks mixed in, because at one end, a stream of water spilled over the edge, forming a pool beneath. It was cool there, cold almost, especially after the summer heat of the ridge top. The air was damp, and full of smells, mostly of vegetation. It was a rich, fecund odor that immediately said “wild” to my impressionable mind. For a couple or maybe three generations, Brown women had hauled their linens and clothes down there for a good wash and gossip.
Uncle Scott pulled back a tangled mass of foliage to reveal a pipe, which led off downstream. Putting the greenery back into place, we set out to follow the pipe. Soon, we branched off the trail onto a path that you wouldn’t have noticed unless you were looking for it. Made by deer, probably. Uncle Scott carried a large stick he had picked up back at the pool. It was forked at one end. After maybe a five-minute hike, there it was: the still. I don’t pretend to understand how the thing worked. There was a big copper pot, some wooden barrels and a lot of tubing. There was a fire pit. The first thing Uncle Scott did was send me off into the woods looking for fallen branches, which he then set ablaze, letting the wood settle into red-hot coals surrounded by powdery black/white ash.
He bustled about while I watched, then sat on a rock shelf and told me stories about some of his more memorable drunks. When whatever was happening happened, he gathered up a couple of mugs from inside an old wooden box and turned a spigot on one of the barrels, filling them with ”shine.”
Now, the strongest – and only – liquor I’d ever tasted until then had been some gin I’d stolen from my Uncle George, my mother’s brother. I hadn’t liked the taste and quickly put the bottle back. So, for all practical purposes, I was a virgin. And, like a virgin, I was nervous as hell. I didn’t sip. I didn’t drink. I gulped. I’m quite sure Mount St. Helens didn’t go off like that stuff exploded in my insides. From my lips to my gut, I was on fire. I tried to spit it out, but it erupted from my nose, making things worse. Uncle Scott collapsed in laughter. ”Whoa, Peckerhead, take it easy. This is good stuff. Don’t rush it. Enjoy it.”
It was good stuff, powerful maybe, but smooth when you treated it properly. I had one cup, then another. I was very happy. I gave Johnny Cash the workout of his life. Uncle Scott good-naturedly stuffed his handkerchief in my mouth. “Shut up, boy. You don’t know who’s listening.”
I was feeling no pain. I certainly wasn’t aware of my surroundings. Suddenly, Uncle Scott blanched. He rose up slowly. “Don’t move, Peckerhead, not a muscle.” I had no idea why he said that, but I didn’t move. Uncle Scott picked up his stick and abruptly thrust it into the ground beside me – neatly pinning a rattlesnake with the forked end. A really big rattlesnake. He whipped out his knife and cut off the reptile’s head, then reached behind and cut off the rattles. He gave them to me. “You gotta be aware of what’s around you,” he said. “These bastards usually shake their rattles – but not always.”
What with the close call and the “shine,” I couldn’t walk very well. Uncle Scott finally gave up and hoisted me atop his shoulders. Singing, we made our way back to the house. Mother was waiting on the front porch. Uncle Scott carefully sat me down. I grinned at my mother and said “Hi, I’m drunk,” and promptly fell on my ash – er, butt. Words erupted from my mother’s mouth that I never knew she knew. Uncle Scott grinned. Jesse looked pensive. For the first time, I think she thought there was hope for ”that woman.”
Me? I threw up on my mother’s shoes. It was a memorable day.
SLIPPING IN AMONG THE GHOSTS
For many years, the ghosts of my youth could be seen in snapshots, mostly black and white, sometimes sepia, their edges worn, the images faded and creased by time.
There was my Aunt Lou, reaching out to stop me from eating dirt from under the steps of our house in Logan, W.Va. There was Grandmother Sizemore, staring crossly from an oval shaped frame, dressed in her Sunday finery and her hair pulled severely into a bun. In one picture, Uncle George smiled at me as I sat behind the wheel of a car, presumably his, while, in another, my step-grandmother and her co-worker shucked peas on a Louisiana porch.
Most potent of all, Mother and Aunt Lou posed in a garden, the women – the two were widely regarded as beauties – representing the epitome of 1940 style. Mother was 19, Aunt Lou was 21 and I was two years away from making my entrance.
These people are long gone. My uncles and their children were victims of Huntington’s disease, the curse of the Sizemore clan.The others fell prey to various ills. Only Mother and I survived into this new millennia, then she, too, left for a brighter horizon.
The photographs also have been lost, destroyed in a fire that took my school yearbooks, the programs of the theatrical productions I was involved in as a child and young adult and the lock of Aunt Lou’s hair that Mother kept after Lou – short for Luetta – died of a ruptured appendix.
To my surprise, the memory of those images remains vivid, as if they were part of documentary footage that flickers across the tattered screen of my mind. There are gaps, times and people who are irretrievably lost, but the older I get, the more vivid my childhood becomes. Sitting here before my computer, I see with clarity those pages in my mother’s scrapbook, which we would pour over while sitting at the kitchen table during college breaks.
It isn’t only photographs. Looking back, I realize my childhood was filled with wonder: floating through a Louisiana swamp on a pirogue, spending the night in the haunted ruins of a plantation, appearing on stage in “Life with Father” and “The Corn is Green,” reading Mark Twain for the first time and, huddled under a tent of blankets, discovering by flashlight the writings of adventurer Richard Haliburton.
So much, and so many characters.
Some of the more interesting people lived on or near my maternal great-grandparents’ farm, located in a remote hollow outside Branchland, W.Va. My mother’s mother, Melissa Sizemore, was one of five Clark daughters and six sons (Southern families were big; Melissa had seven children of her own). The Clarks were farmers who raised pigs and dairy cows and were, I suppose, poor, though no one ever went hungry and there always were decent clothes for church.
Melissa married David Clark, a distant cousin. I know very little about Grandpa David, other than he joined the Army just in time for World War I and trained at Camp Beauregard Army Base in Pineville, La. There, he met and fell in love with a Louisiana girl. He promptly divorced Melissa and moved to the bayou country where he soon died from fever (a tragedy that, round-about, led to me spending summers with my step-grandmother Clark on her cane plantation – but that’s another story. Several, actually).
Divorce was a great sin to a Hardshell Baptist, which may account for Melissa’s pinched look in the photograph I remember. To restore propriety, she married Alfred Sizemore, had those seven kids and frequently sought refuge in the bosom of her family. When I grew old enough, I tagged along.
Life on the Branchland farm has a lot of those gaps I mentioned. I remember some things but have forgotten more. One thing I do remember are the cows. I had a thing about exploring the woods and, to reach the trees, it was necessary to cross the pastures. Not a bad thing, since I have always had a rotten sense of direction. “Pap,” as I called my great-grandfather, told me that, if ever I got lost, I should just hang on to a cow’s tail. They always found their way back for milking.
He neglected to mention one of the hazards of walking home behind a cow. Upon arrival, I was summarily dunked in a tub of water out behind the house and vigorously scrubbed. I also discovered my grandmother and great-grandmother had many words for ”stupid” – which may account for the vivid recall of the incident and to explain why, to this day, I won’t drink milk.
Then there was Rosellen, one of the innumerable cousins. She also liked exploring the countryside, and unlike me, she knew a lot about the things we found there. She especially loved ferns. I soon learned to recognize climbing ferns, filmy ferns, rusty woodsias (which she called ”Granny’s Lace”), shield ferns and the scarily-named adder’s tongue fern (like Indiana Jones, I hated snakes; still do). In spring, we would chew on the “fiddle heads,” which were the coiled sprouts of young ferns, and collect the foliage of older plants, which the women would add to the mess of greens that were always cooking on the stove.
I soon learned to tell a hickory tree from a beech, and a black locust from a black gum. As we walked along, Rosellen would point to a tree and say “Oak?” and I’d say “No, a sycamore,” and she would laugh and say, “Silly, it’s a walnut.” My favorites were the red spruce, which will always be my idea of a Christmas tree, even if they are a bit spindly. Once, we came across a large stump. “Chestnut,” she said, sadly, and told me about the great blight that destroyed the once plentiful species.
Today, far removed from those explorations, I can’t remember all the wildflowers we collected. But once in a while, I will come across a picture of a coltsfoot or those delicate pink and white blossoms Rosellen called ”spring beauties” and her face and voice will reach out to me across the years.
She will bend down, push aside a screen of grasses and expose a plant. “That’s pokeweed (or, maybe, moonseed). It’s poisonous. It could kill you.” Or I will hear her say, “Three leaves, let it be,” helping me learn to avoid poison ivy.
The special reward of our forest walks was ginseng, a highly prized root that could be sold for what seemed to me a lot of money. It was used for every thing from curing ailments to making tea. Rosellen had an eye for it and, when she spotted a plant, would take the small shovel she carried and dig up the root. My great-grandmother would always call out to us as we returned, “Find any sang, kids?”
It was at Branchland that I first learned about sex. Not the doing, the concept. The scandal of the family was a couple, Lacey and Rolly, who lived in a log house further up the hollow. Their union did not involve clergy. I really didn’t know what that meant but I knew it was a terrible sin. Nevertheless, she was Melissa’s niece, they were family. We called upon them, my grandmother’s face more pinched than ever, and had iced lemonade on the porch.
I thought Aunt Lacey made the best lemonade in the whole world and that Uncle Rolly was the best-looking man I had ever seen. It was hero-worship at first sight – and, now I realize, something more. Aunt Lacey was a voluptuous woman, bursting out of her thin cotton dresses and usually barefooted. Those bare feet greatly disturbed me. I would sit on the stoop and, when I thought no one was looking, I would stare at them. Incredible toes. I also would gather flowers during my walks in the woods and bring them to her. She would kiss me and take them and put them in a glass of water on the windowsill. I tingled.
I never figured out what Uncle Rolly did. He was one of those Southern men whose only job seemed to be laying around oozing testosterone. He was very good at it. Aunt Lacey certainly thought so. She was always touching him. Grandmother Melissa disapproved, but she was not immune to Rolly’s appeal. He would say something teasing and, in spite of herself, she would smile. Later, on the way back to the farmhouse, she would say “That Rolly is a no-acount sinner. Don’t you go hanging ’round him.”
But of course I did. Every chance I got. He liked to grab me and give me what we called a “burr head.” The tussling greatly disturbed me, too, but it wasn’t anything to worry my family. He was as enamored of Aunt Lacey as I was. He was the first man to ever talk to me in that way about girls. Most of what he said was incomprehensible, but I did get the general drift. Somewhere in my future there was a Lacey. Life would be good.
Reading these words, I wonder what happened to Lacey and Rolly, Rosellen and the other Clarks. When my mother remarried and we moved to Wisconsin, that part of my life drifted away, never to return. For many years, I never thought of them; only recently have their faces begun reappearing in my memories. Like those faded snapshots in my mother’s scrapbook, they suddenly are very vivid. The cling of Aunt Lacey’s dresses, the humid air of a southern afternoon, the rough texture of a log wall, are as real as they were then. I can feel the breeze on my face, the crunch of leaves beneath my feet, the taste of ice-cold lemonade sliding down my throat.
You can’t go back, not literally, but, after a fashion you can return, another ghost slipping in among the ghosts. The past is the scrapbook of the brain.