O Shenandoah! Dirt Road Journal
This literary exploration is a somewhat fictionalized account of a typical hour or so in the later life of a now-deceased, well-known and beloved Valley neighbor, Caroline Keyser, whose family once spanned out to settle and farm a curve in the south branch of the Shenandoah River land known as Burner's Bottom (for low-lying, fertile and partly flood plain and prone fields bordered by flowing waters). Widowed for many years, Caroline shared her self, home and 100 or so acre farm -- stretching from bank cove up into reaches of the Massanutten mountain chain -- with day trippers, campers, family, friends and domestic animal companions generously and memorably throughout her seven-plus decades amongst us here. All of her extended family have moved out and on, replaced by mostly urban immigrants owning generally smaller, subdivided tracts on which have been erected modified trailers, "double-wides," cabins and more modernly designed and constructed houses, while the few remaining older homes became seasonal short-term vacation rental properties. Somewhat larger-scale farming for stock feed and commercial sale died with the passing of Elmer, another neighbor and contemporary cousin to Caroline, in the late 1990s. Like too many others he carried the digital, in another sense of that word, symbol of older days and ways to the grave with him -- a space on one hand where a finger had been lost to farming machinery in the process of fall pig butchering.
It's cool in the kitchen. Jessie bends to slide open the damper on her porcelain and cast iron cook stove. Warmth from her gas furnace in the old dining room, piled now with clothes and papers and a box for kittycat's next litter, never drifts through the doorway, around the corner to the kitchen table. She loves this room more now than all the rest of her two-storied family home, more than the closed-off high-ceilinged company rooms in their faded and falling wallpaper, more than the barren bedrooms upstairs, their windows chattering to the wind, more than the circling, softening, paint-pealing blue porches, more than her stone-walled root cellar with its teetering wire drying racks and musty shelves ajumble in dirt-streaked canning jars. Her fingers, brown and crispy wrinkled, smooth out creases in the green-checkered oil cloth that covers a long plank table Gary carpentered for her so long ago, cutting the oak tree from their mountain wood, sawing the boards with their mill. Jessie scrapes her three-legged stool across the curling linoleum and sits to study her paper. First, as always, she checks the date and day. Wednesday. Her son Richard will be by in two days, hauling sacks of corn for the chickens, cutting wood for her pile near the grape arbor. Maybe he'll ride a friend down, too. Maybe some of the new part-time people will stop up.|
Jess squinches her nose and grimaces. Strands of white hair stray out from their high knot as her head shakes vehemently side to side. Living alone'll kill ya', she mutters. Once the kitchen benches were full of sons and friends and borders and passers-through. Miss Agers, the teacher for the log school building they'd put up on a rocky field Uncle Yancey never pastured, had stayed for a few years in the bedroom over the parlor. She'd always sat next to the stove, quiet and busy, alone amidst the cacaphony of voices and footsteps and animals calling and babies crying. Gary sat by the back stairs and she, by the door. Neighbors stopped by to chat or borrow or bring or help. Dogs curled into corners on the porch. Cats hissed and hunted in the yard. There were jokes and laughter, gossip and fights, accidents and illness. Her young sister Lily, with consumption, had stayed on the side porch by the living room. Gary had put windows where screens had been so the sun would warm and ease her. Back then, Jessie thinks, everything was called t.b. that couldn't be called something else. Her neighbor's son, Jewell, had died of it, too, whatever it was.
It occurs to her that the chickens may be laying. The air is warming up, at least during the day, and the fields are turning a thick deep green. Yesterday, she saw a butterfly and buds on the cottonwood trees. Richard craves fertilized eggs with their large orange yolks. Jessie sees him for a moment in her mind's picture show, a small dark-headed and round little feller, fording the river with her to trade their large brown eggs for flour and sugar at the store by the church. When there was extra money, they'd have a treat like candy or store-bought bread. Jessie laughs and, pushing the paper aside, gets up from the table.
Where did I leave my stick, she wonders, and ties the new large-brimmed, red-flowered bonnet under her chin. As he'd done for so many years, Hal brought it from Pennsylvania on his last trip up to hunt and visit. The bonnets are always handmade and hard to come by, as only Amish women seem to wear them anymore. Jess hasn't sewn for years. I've always been an outdoor girl, she thinks, and with a bonnet on the world feels safer, cozier, and less glare-y. Jess smiles. For some reason, that reminds her that she wants to talk with Richard about putting a few cows in the upper pasture again. They always had cows, sometimes hogs, sometimes pheasants or quail and turkeys. Many years ago, they'd had work horses, gleaming black, toughly muscled, sure-footed Tennessee Walkers. It seems lonely, too quiet around the house with only a few chickens, a dog, some tiger cats. And the duck. Jess grins. Once the duck strayed off toward the river, but they chased it back home, penned it up for a month. Now it follows her everywhere.
Spying her walking stick leaned up against the freezer, Jess calls for Hotdog and finds him by her feet. She pushes open the graying wood screen door and together they walk toward the hen house, a large white duck waddling and quacking behind.
Midi music file, "Twilight Time"
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Original material © O Shenandoah! Country Rag April, 1996. All rights reserved.