Appalachian Thursday – Brush Arbor Meetings

Churches were still hosting revivals when I was a kid. Often held all week or maybe over a series of weekends, they were big community events meant to appeal to folks who weren’t coming to church on a regular basis. Out-of-town preachers might come–sometimes they were even preachers with TV programs! There was LOTS of music, loud preaching, and an almost festival-like atmosphere.

Brush arbor meeting, 1975.
Photography by Stephen Hough.
Springfield-Greene County Library.

I suppose they still happen, but I sure haven’t heard of any in a long time.

And back before the modern church or tent revival was the brush arbor meeting. In When Silence Sings my hero, Colman, preaches under a brush arbor. Originally, these were temporary structures built quickly in areas where there wasn’t a church. If a preacher or circuit rider came through, people would set some poles, lay cross pieces to make the skeleton of a roof, and then lay leafy branches (brush) across that to keep off the sun and at least some of the rain. People would come from miles around and camp out for as long as the preaching lasted.

Hmmm. Maybe a viable alternative in these coronavirus days?

Here’s a snippet from When Silence Sings–Colman wants to preach a sermon at his first brush arbor meeting but resorts to telling a story instead . . .

“Over in White Sulphur Springs, there was a farmer who had twelve strapping sons. Ten were by his first wife and the last two by his second wife, who was the prettiest, sweetest thing you ever saw. And maybe because of that, the farmer loved those two least boys more than the first batch—especially the next to youngest, who was named Joe.

“Well, as you can imagine, boys being the way they are”—a chuckle ran through the crowd—“the older ones got jealous and decided they’d teach Joe a lesson. But things got out of hand, and they ended up talking some gypsies into taking their little brother away with them as little more than a slave. . . .”

And so he told them the story of Joseph and his wayward brothers as if they lived in Fayette County. He told about Joe rotting in jail until he earned the jailer’s trust, how he eventually made his way to the mayor’s house, and how the mayor’s wife tried to seduce him. He told about Joe getting to be deputy mayor in spite of all those troubles and how his brothers showed up one day needing help.

“Then Joe had ’em right where he wanted ’em,” Colman said.

He could see folks leaning forward, some of the younger ones with their mouths hanging open. These people liked a good story, and Joseph’s tale was one of the best.

“And you know what he did?” Colman leaned over the pulpit as though he had a secret to tell. “After he toyed with them awhile he . . . forgave them.”

Those who knew the story smiled like they were in on a joke, and the ones who didn’t know it looked like he’d just tricked them.

“I know what some of you are thinking,” Colman went on. “Why didn’t that boy get his revenge? Why didn’t he make his brothers suffer like he’d suffered? That’d be fair. But here’s what ole Joe had to say: ‘But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good.’” He let that sink in for a minute. “Basically, Joe said his brothers had failed when they tried to do something bad to him because God’s plan was bigger and better than theirs. God took the bad that was in their hearts and turned it into something better than even Joe himself could have dreamed.”

Colman settled back on his heels. He was tired. He’d been storytelling for a long time now. His throat felt dry and his legs shaky. Worst of all, his gut was telling him he might need to excuse himself before long. But he wasn’t quite done. He looked to Ivy whose expression was one of utter delight. He took a deep breath.

“You see, we can do all kinds of things to try and make our situations better or someone else’s worse, but in the end, God’s got us beat. Whatever His plan is, that’s what’s going to happen.” He gripped the side of his makeshift pulpit. “Do you folks want to be at peace?”

Heads nodded, and a sprinkling of people voiced an amen.

“Do you want to feel joy?”

This time the amens were louder.

“Then stop fighting God,” Colman said. He bowed his head, then raised it again. “It’s like a fly trying to move an elephant. You might think you’re making headway, but if you are, it’s only because you and the elephant were already headed the same direction.”

Monday Meanderings

It’s a rare weekend that we don’t take Thistle for a good, long meander through the mountains. So I thought I’d start sharing snippets of our walks with YOU come Monday. A good way to start the week, I think.

This is what we call Fairy Tale Trail. If you wonder why, just check out that massive, mossy tree, its roots twisting into the trail. The path winds along the creek with the mountain rising steeply on either side. There are pools and rills and stepping stones. It’s kind of magical. The flower is a woods lily. They typically grow in groups–you can see more in the background. And can’t you just picture a fairy pausing to rest on that mossy stone?

Appalachian Thursday – Porch Swings

I enjoy looking at historic homes on-line and recently realized that porch swings are much more common to the rural south–including Appalachia. It finally hit me that northern homes don’t have as many swings–or porches for that matter–because the season for sitting outside is so much shorter.

In the mountains of NC we’ve hit prime porch-sitting weather. Warm days, cool evenings, occasional rain pattering on the roof, and soft breezes. And while I really like our house, one of its shortcomings is a pitiful front porch. We sit on the steps sometimes (Thistle LOVES doing this first thing in the morning) but the porch is too narrow for a swing. My husband hung one for me along the creek out back, which is a GORGEOUS spot, but it’s still not a porch swing.

There’s just something about a porch with a swing and a couple of rocking chairs that causes family and friends to congregate. And talk lazily about nothing. And wave at cars driving by. And watch the weather change. And just be at ease.

I’ve been thinking about porch swings I’ve known. There was the one on the back porch of the house I grew up in. Mom would sit there and read to us in the summer. It felt special to be outside in my nightgown, fresh from a bath, tucked in beside Mom. At least once, the chains gave way, dumping us. Which is mostly funny when you’re six.

Then there was the swing at Grandma’s. It was tucked in behind a cedar at the corner of the porch–I can still smell that spice if I close my eyes. We would argue over who got to sit in the swing with Grandma and watch cars go by. She actually lived on the paved road and we might see a half dozen cars of an evening. Exciting!

Porch swing rules included:

  • Not swinging too hard or too high.
  • Not pushing your siblings in the swing (or out of it).
  • Only one person controlled the motion by pushing off the floorboards with their foot.
  • If you brought a quilt to the swing, you took it back in when you were done.
  • In the winter, the swing would be taken down and stored or raised up too high for anyone to sit (Why?? I don’t know).
  • Dad tested the chains/rope each spring to make sure the swing was safe.

One of these days we’re going to have a house with a wide front porch and a comfy swing. Until then, I’ll enjoy my memories and hope the ropes on the creekside swing we left out all winter haven’t rotted through . . .

What Momma Left Behind – Winner

If you subscribe to my newsletter, you likely saw the recent giveaway I held for a copy of What Momma Left Behind. I did the random number thing yesterday and was delighted to reach out to Barbara Klein to let her know she’d won!

I love promoting Appalachian stories–especially when they’re written by dear friends. I had the privilege of endorsing Cindy Sproles’ latest offering which releases in June. Cindy writes gritty, realistic fiction that doesn’t pull any punches. No sweet romance, this! But what it is, is GOOD. And since it’s set during a 19th century pandemic–it’s also strangely applicable to our lives these days.

Worie Dressar is 17 years old when influenza and typhoid ravage her Appalachian Mountain community in 1877, leaving behind a growing number of orphaned children with no way to care for themselves. Worie’s mother has been secretly feeding a number of these little ones on Sourwood Mountain. But when she dies suddenly, Worie is left to figure out why and how she was caring for them.

Plagued with two good-for-nothing brothers–one greedy and the other a drunkard–Worie fights to save her home and the orphaned children now in her begrudging care. Along the way, she will discover the beauty of unconditional love and the power of forgiveness as she cares for all of Momma’s children.

I hope you’ll check this moving story out even if you didn’t win my giveaway. And if you’re interested in receiving my newsletter with future giveaways (and recipes and book news and pictures of my dog), you can sign up HERE.

Appalachian Thursday – Haying Season

Thistle and I have been walking through a neighbor’s pasture lately. There’s a critter trail we take and I can’t walk through the waist high grasses without thinking about my father telling us to stay out of the hayfield lest we mash down the grasses ahead of hay season.

When I was a kid, the first cutting typically came pretty close to the last day of school. For so many children, summer meant freedom–going to the pool, plenty of time to play, vacations. For my brothers and me it more often meant working in the hayfield–or the garden.

Until I got old enough to be more help than hindrance in the field, my job was to carry Mason jars of ice water out to the workers. Not a hard job, though fresh-cut stubble is mighty hard on bare feet.

When I got bigger and stronger, I stacked bales as they were tossed onto a wagon moving slowly through the fields. It’s important to alternate rows for a secure stack. Some days I got to drive the tractor which is almost fun until you get to a steep hill and have to stop and start without jerking bales (or people) off the wagon.

And there was always the need for extra hands to unload the wagon (we used a hay elevator to carry the bales to the barn loft) then to stack the hay inside. I can remember more than one rush to the barn as dark clouds swarmed the sky. Rain is NOT good for hay.

And then the best part–a long shower or a trip to the swimming hole to wash the chaff from places you wouldn’t think it could go. It’s almost worth getting that hot, sweaty, and dirty just to feel cool water sluice across your skin. Then a well-earned supper perfectly seasoned by the day’s labor. I don’t remember what we ate, but it was good.

Now don’t let me fool you. I worked, but not nearly so hard as my brothers and the other boys and men my dad hired to help. Sometimes it pays to be the girl.

And now, as an adult, when I drive by a field of fresh-mown hay, or see a farmer tedding in preparation for the rake, then the baler, I roll down the car window and breathe deeply. The smell reminds me of the satisfaction of a barn full of hay ready for winter. And it almost makes me wish I could spend a day sweating under the summer sun.


Is closure even a THING?

It’s been three weeks since Dad died. I’m getting used to the idea.

wedding day
That’s Dad grinning with me on my wedding day.

But not really.

Maybe that’s the catch. I don’t actually want to be less sad about losing my father. It feels right to me that I’ll be sad not to have him around until I die and we’re together again. I hope I’ll get more used to the sadness–that it will become more familiar–but I don’t want it to go away. I don’t want to CLOSE this part of my heart and my life.

I brought home a huge stack of Dad’s CDs. He loved music–had an incredible record collection at one point–and many of my memories include his favorite soundtracks playing in the background. The last time I spoke to him, I could hear Andy Williams singing “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” on the CD player.

Over the weekend I remembered that I’d been meaning to order a Tex Ritter CD for him. Except I can’t now. I was going to record him telling some of his stories. Too late. I heard a news clip about politics in WV and I thought I’d mention it. Nope.

I remember moments I haven’t thought about in years. I think of things I’d like to say. I plan what we’ll do next time I’m in town . . .

And I’m glad. I’m glad he’s still so much with me that I forget he’s not. I hope if I live to be 90 I’ll still have moments when I think about giving my dad a hug . . . about telling him what’s going on in my life . . . about that question I’ve been meaning to ask.

I’m realizing that I don’t really want closure–whatever that is. What I want is to love and be loved now matter which side of the heavenly veil each of us is on.

I looked up the opposite of closure and Merriam-Webster said that would be continuation. Sounds right to me.

Appalachian Thursday – 17-Year Plague

As if 2020 hasn’t been hard enough already.

The east coast–specifically NC, WV, and VA (how did TN opt out?)–are due for the emergence of the 17-year cicada. Folks often call them locusts, but they’re really Magicicada periodical cicadas. Wow–what a name!

The 13-year and 17-year types fall into this category and they’re identified by brood numbers. It seems Brood IX was last seen in 2003–17 years ago. Which means they should soon be crawling out from their 17-year slumber refreshed and ready to make some NOISE.

Which is the primary issue with cicadas in my opinion. Sure they’re creepy looking and those husks they leave attached to every surface are weird, but it’s the constant whirring that wears me down. One year we had two major broods emerge at the same time and hiking became an act of aural endurance.

Fortunately, they party hard and then die down in four to six weeks. They only come out to mate, lay their eggs, and die. The eggs hatch later on and the nymphs burrow into the ground where they’ll nap for another 17 years. And you thought your life-cycle was rough!

Of course, there are superstitions and myths surrounding these periodic insects including:

  • They’re a plague sent to punish people. Well, the Bible set us up for that one. But the Biblical plague was locusts (a kind of grasshopper) and not cicadas. Locusts destroy crops, cicadas mostly just make a lot of annoying noise.
  • They poison fruit with their sting. Cicadas can’t sting (hallelujah!). They do cut slits in tree trunks and branches to lay their eggs, which may be where this notion came from.
  • They predict war. Cicadas often have distinct black edges on their front wings in the shape of a W. This was seen as an omen of war.

I remember one cicada summer when we had a cat that ate the insects non-stop. Somehow this made him horribly thin, but he did love to crunch them like popcorn. And a few years ago another brood came out in WV delighting my niece who had a “bug cage” that she filled with them.

Here’s hoping Brood IX keeps the party in check this year . . . In case you’re wondering about your part of the country, here’s a handy-dandy chart letting you know when broods are expected in various locations.

Oh right–this happens EVERY year

Over the weekend I draped my peonies in an old sheet to keep them from getting nipped by frost. The last frost date for our part of the mountains is May 15 but we’ve had such a lovely spring that lots of folks jumped the gun with their spring planting.

Sure enough, Saturday night dropped down to 30 degrees–which probably wasn’t cold enough to hurt anything but better safe than sorry. My husband felt like this was an unusually late cold snap. I assured him it was just blackberry winter, pointing out the brambles blooming along the side of the yard.

Happens every year. But then I got to thinking maybe it IS unusually cold for this far into May. So I checked old blog posts (since I tend to repeat myself). And there you go. I wrote about blackberry winter falling on May 4, 2011, and again on May 5, 2016. Which means this year is all of five days later. I think that’s what you call “statistically insignificant.”

It amazes me how quickly we forget from year to year. The weather gets warm and we think spring is here to stay. Then it snows on the daffodils. Just like last year. It gets hot and we think summer has taken up residence. Then comes a chill evening requiring sweaters and wool socks. Just like last year.

I take comfort in this. We can both count on the seasons AND be surprised by them. Kind of like a really good story with a surprise twist that deep down feels exactly right. We can trust that blackberry winter is coming while thinking that somehow this year it won’t. People. Aren’t we something else??

And in case you’re wondering about any more cold snaps, here are ALL the winters you can expect in Appalachia–just two more to go:

  • Redbud winter – When the redbud trees bloom
  • Dogwood winter – When the dogwood trees bloom
  • Locust winter – When the locust trees bloom (see a pattern?)
  • Blackberry winter – When the blackberry brambles bloom
  • Britches winter – The full name is linsey-woolsey britches winter which means it’s the last time it’ll be cold enough to wear your long underwear
  • Whipporwill winter – This one is barely cold enough to call winter, but it’s when the whippoorwills migrate north from Mexico

Farewell for now . . .

It’s been a tough week, but also one filled with blessings. We had a small, family only service for my Dad at the farm in West Virginia. It was a terrible, wonderful day.

A pastor Dad’s known since high school delivered the service on the deck at the farm house. Then we trooped out through the pasture to Sheep Rock where we tucked Dad’s ashes beneath the soil and leaves. My brothers topped it with a carved stone that was part of the chimney in the house Dad grew up in. It was as right as such a thing can be.

It was good spending time with my brothers–we so rarely all come together. And it was good to remember . . . I’m grateful I have memories enough to last a long, long time.

Appalachian Thursday – Saying Goodbye to Dad

If you follow my blog you know Monday was my anniversary. It was also the day my Dad died. He’s the one who passed the storytelling gene on to me. So many of his stories are woven into my novels.

Dad finding my first novel on the
shelf at the Upshur County Public Library.

He fought for a long time. Parkinson’s Disease. Congestive heart failure. A hip replacement. Dentures. A broken shoulder and hip (the one NOT replaced). It was rough.

For the past five five years, my trips home were scheduled around holidays and neurology appointments. Tomorrow my husband and I will head that way for Dad’s last appointment. This one with my brothers to scatter his ashes on the farm he loved.

Dad hadn’t been the vibrant, charming, opinionated, storyteller I grew up knowing and loving for quite some time. And in a strange way, losing him, has finally freed me up to really remember the man I loved so much.

In place of the challenges of the last few years, here’s what’s now rising to the surface of my memory:

  • Holding his ring and middle finger because that was all my little girl hand could manage.
  • Tagging along whenever he’d let me. I enjoyed a Shirley Temple at a political something or other in Charleston, WV. So grown up!
  • Birthday “dates” as a teenager and young adult. We’d get dressed up and go somewhere “fancy.” Oh, how special it made me feel.
  • Singing in the car. Even as Dad faded, he loved to sing. Hymns, Sons of the Pioneers, Christmas carols. We both sounded terrible but didn’t let that stop us.
  • Yard saling–we’d get up early on a Saturday and hit yard sales until we got hungry. Then we’d have a big breakfast at a diner somewhere.
  • Graduation flowers. When I graduated from college, Dad emptied the fridge, took the shelves out, and put a HUGE bouquet of flowers in there so it’d stay as fresh as possible.
  • Walking me down the aisle and dancing to “What a Wonderful World,” at the reception.
  • Dad at the launch party for my first novel–the last time he traveled to NC. He told me how proud he was.

And then there was that smile. When I’m really happy, I have my Dad’s smile. Big. Infectious. Joyful. Parkinson’s–with it’s muscle immobilizing effect–robbed him of that smile. But last November, when we were at the neurologist’s office, he winked at me. It had long been our secret way of saying, “I love you,” without words. He’d been teasing the doctor and I knew there was a big smile in that wink.

I spoke to him Saturday. He told me he was feeling better and I believed him–which, I think, is exactly what he wanted. Before I hung up the phone I didn’t say goodbye. I said, “Love you. Talk to you soon.”

Man. I’m really looking forward to that.


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