Appalachian Thursday – Decoration Day

Mom - decoration

Mom decorating a grave with mountain laurel while wearing my favorite dress — 1960s.

Monday is Memorial Day–the unofficial start to summer. And in Appalachia it means time to start planning for Decoration Day. Usually held on a Sunday in June, this is a day when cemeteries would be tidied and flowers placed on the graves.

I’m not talking about those silk monstrosities either. I’m talking roses and daisies and mountain laurel. Maybe some irises that are still hanging on or peonies if you’re grandmother grows them.

I loved tying the little bundles of flowers against soft ferns and then picking the prettiest bouquets for my grandparents’ grave. It was a special day for the community and we’d linger at the church singing around the piano or just visiting long after the last bloom had been placed.

DECORATION DAY

They bring lawn chairs
and kitchen chairs, chairs
from the back bedroom
roped in pickup trucks.
They set them out front
of the church in clusters.

First they walk the cemetery
with Mason jars of flowers,
and stained peach baskets
holding bouquets cut and tied
against a backdrop of ferns
still damp with morning dew.
The fancy few bring silk flowers
frozen in time, unnatural, fading
in the glare of the sun.

Once kin have been counted
and all the flowers arranged,
they wander back to the chairs
and settle in to visit with the living.
Settle in much as they will one day
under the grass next door.

When the roll is called
up yonder, they’ll be there.

Appalachian Thursday – Time to Plant the Garden

farm market

A Farmer’s Market haul from late June last year. As pretty as the catalog pictures!

I still have to work hard to resist them.

The catalogs filled with beautiful, full-color images of corn and strawberries and squash and green beans . . . The displays of candy-colored seed packets at the store . . .

I don’t even have a garden.

Oh, sometimes I grow a pot of tomatoes on the porch or plant some herbs in the flower bed, but I don’t have a place to grow rainbow blend carrots no matter how gorgeous they are in that picture. All clean and perfectly straight.

The problem is, I know all too well how wonderful fresh garden produce is. And it’s been long enough that I’ve mostly forgotten the agony of weeding, harvesting, and putting up.

So when the catalogs start rolling in and the displays start going up, I begin to have delusions of grandeur. I can envision glossy, yellow ears of corn; watermelons that split open with a satisfying crack; and multi-hued peppers hanging like Christmas ornaments.

Bush beans, sugar snap peas, heirloom tomatoes, and baby lettuces wilted in a little bacon grease. Oh, the seed companies have my number!

When we were kids, Dad would sometimes let us choose something to grow in the garden. One year it was popcorn (which didn’t do well at all!). I always wanted watermelon, but the only time I remember it growing satisfactorily that far north was when we pitched rinds over the fence and the vines came up on their own.

I’ll probably attempt to grow something this year. I’ll succumb to the bedding plants at the garden center and tuck some peas between the cosmos or plant a hill of squash under the mock orange. There are already herbs in a pot on the porch.

I’ll be surprised if it all amounts to much. Mostly it’s just a nod to memories that grow prettier each spring when I pull them out and polish them once again.

Tomato and mayonnaise sandwich, anyone?

An Anniversary Reflection

anniversaryOn Saturday, my husband and I celebrated 23 years of marriage. That means, as of next year, I will have been married for half my life.

My wedding day feels like yesterday AND a lifetime ago. It wasn’t fancy–shoot, it was in the (literally) one-room country church I grew up attending. And if you want to know about the, ahem, restroom facilities, read this post (The Outhouse at My Wedding).

Like most brides, there are things I simply cannot recall (WHAT song did we dance to??) as well as things seared into my memory (Dad stranding us at the reception hall). But one of the things my husband and I both thought was perfect was the wedding cake.

I was NOT one of those brides who didn’t eat at her wedding. I was first in line for food and thoroughly enjoyed a slice of cake. Mom made it–chocolate cake with a ganache filling and fudge frosting. Holy cow, was it good! On the long drive home from WV to SC we pulled over at a rest stop and ate some out of the box with plastic forks. Delicious.

I told Mom I didn’t want a little bride and groom on top, but left the rest of the decorations up to her. She wrapped the layers in wide ribbon and placed a single, artificial Magnolia blossom on top (with an itty bitty mouse couple hiding under a petal). It was gorgeous. And now I can’t see Magnolia without thinking about my wedding day.

Which is kind of perfect. Did you know Magnolia trees can live 100 years+? And they can’t pollinate without the help of beetles attracted by the flowers’ sweet smell.

So, a flower that makes me think of my wedding day (and cake–I do like to think about cake) has incredible longevity and can’t succeed on its own. Kind of like marriage if we do it right.

Here’s hoping for at least another 23 years of growing through the seasons as Jim and I work together to nurture our love.

(And eat cake. I hope we always eat cake together.)

Appalachian Thursday – Turkeys, a dog, and poetry month

April is National Poetry Month. You probably knew that 😉 I think MOST of my poems fall into the Appalachian category in some form or fashion. Here’s one inspired by a walk in the woods with a dog and some turkeys . . . Sure do miss my Sammy . . .

Sammy

HOLDING BACK

He’s an old dog.
So, when he spies the turkeys
he tries to run like a nightmare
of running with leaden feet
and his goal fast receding.

I hold him, make him sit
and watch the turkeys fade
into the forest with a rustle of leaves
and soft calls of indignation.
I rub his head, massage aching hips,
scratch his panting, heaving side.
But his bright eyes are on the trees
and he would gladly give chase
if only I would let him.

I call him to my side
and head home.
He limps beside me
because it’s what I ask.
But he does not choose,
would never choose,
this holding back.

Finding Inspiration – Smith, Rash & Cash

App writersThe Appalachian Studies Association held their annual conference in Asheville this past weekend. Can you believe it? An entire association dedicated to the study of Appalachia.

While I didn’t have a chance to go to the full conference, I was able to attend the keynote event. It featured Appalachian author Wiley Cash interviewing fellow authors Lee Smith and Ron Rash. I mean, how could I NOT attend? If you aren’t familiar with these storytellers, check out Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home, Rash’s Serena, and Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies. Or anything else any of them have written.

The event was a delight and there was much worth repeating, but here’s my top takeaway–if you want to write well, hang out with the old folks.

A common theme among these wonderful authors talking about how they became writers and where they find their inspiration was spending time with their elders. I think this is common among those of us who have grown (are growing) up in Appalachia.

When I was a kid there wasn’t a youth group. There weren’t any community activities or programs for the youth. Oh, sure, when we had community events (the bean supper at Lucille’s, swimming at Aunt Bess’, or Toad’s wiener roast) the kids would run off and get into trouble together, but we always ended up back in the company of adults.

One of my most precious memories is curling up in Dad’s lap where he sat cross-legged in a room full of men talking, smoking, and playing music. The sweat would dry on my skin as the rumble of voices and laughter lulled me to sleep. I don’t remember what they talked about (oh, how I wish I did), but I think I absorbed those stories, those tall tales through my very pores.

On Sundays we went visiting. We’d sit in family members’ living rooms wearied by the drone of adults talking about weather and people and politics and even religion. And while there was many a Sunday when I would have given the last slice of chocolate cake to be set free, now I recognize how precious that time was.

When I write these days, it’s almost as if my fingers on the keyboard are tracing out voices imprinted deep in my memory. I don’t write stories so much as I find them again. As if I were sitting, once more, among the old folks.

Only this time I’m listening . . . and writing it all down.

Appalachian Thursday – Onion Sets & Sweet Peas

farm market

It’s officially the time of year when seed catalogs become irresistible. I pore over gaudy pictures of corn with luxurious silks, scandalously red tomatoes, strawberries glinting like jewels, and squash that make me wonder why I don’t eat vegetables ALL the time.

And I begin to dream of gardening.

Of course, the dream is nothing like reality. There’s no thought of the tractor breaking down while disking the garden. I forget the bazillion rocks we “harvested” from the freshly plowed rows on the farm each spring. And weeds? Come on . . . as long as we don’t let them get ahead of us . . .

But my husband is the voice of reason. And he reminds me that I’m not even very good at gardening. Last summer I estimate that I got at least $15 worth of cherry tomatoes from the $14 plant I kept in a pot out front. (We won’t talk about the cost of potting soil.) And my herbs are certainly a savings over buying those plastic packs at the grocery store. As long as I remember to use them. Last summer’s potatoes were certainly a savings since I just planted some old, store-bought spuds that had sprouted in the pantry. I at least broke even on that one.

And yet . . .

When I see the sign at Southern States advertising onion sets. And picture sweet peas flowering on a trellis made from baling twine . . . well. Thank goodness for nostalgia. I think it’s mostly what sells my books.

Redeeming My Characters

BooksLike children, I’m not supposed to have a favorite character. But Frank Post (along with the Talbot sisters) stole my heart. Frank is a blend of so many men I knew growing up. Men who were tough, flawed, opinionated, and most of all tender-hearted beneath those gruff exteriors. There were a few times I even thought about stopping by for a visit on trips home. (Oh right, my characters aren’t REAL!)

This week, I’m sharing Frank’s thoughts about doubting faith.

FRANK POST — THE DOUBTING ONE
Miracle in a Dry Season & Until the Harvest

I think I would’ve liked going fishing with the disciples. Especially if that Thomas feller was along. I’m a lot like Thomas—don’t hardly believe a thing until I can get my fingers wrapped around it and see it with my own eyes.

And there’s been a time or two in my life when I felt left out—like Thomas must have when all the rest of his friends were talking about seeing Jesus back from the dead—alive and kicking. There it is, written in John, chapter twenty. “But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said unto them, ‘Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.’”

It’s hard, when everyone else sees a rainbow while you’ve got our head down, chopping firewood and digging ditches. For a lot of years, I just kept my head down. I figured if I wasn’t meant to see what other folks did, I’d just stop looking for it. Jesus probably didn’t want the likes of me anyway.

Thing is though, when enough people tell you how pretty the rainbow is, you get a hankering to see it for yourself. Except I didn’t want to admit the truth of that, so I put conditions on my belief. Like Thomas, who wouldn’t believe until he put his hand in the wound in Jesus’ side.

That’s when I heard about a woman in town—she had a child and no husband, so I knew she’d made mistakes, too. And even though the gossips talked about her behind her back, she stepped up and fed anyone who was hungry that summer the drought was so bad.

I ate her food—best I ever had. And for just a minute there, I caught a glimpse of that rainbow. Eating a plain bowl of beans, I could see how love was supposed to look. I could smell it and taste it and it hit me like it must have when Thomas finally saw Jesus and knew he really was God.

“After eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, ‘Peace be unto you.’ Then saith he to Thomas, ‘Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.’ And Thomas answered and said unto him, ‘My Lord and my God.’”

I’m glad at least one of the disciples was as hard-headed as me. And although I might not have seen Jesus in the flesh, I surely have seen Him—still see Him—in the way poor, sinful folks reach out to give one another a hand. So if you’ve got your head down like I did for so long, you might try looking up and around. Jesus, he’ll sneak up on you, if you let him.