Thursday, March 30, 2017
I am a boy of 4 or 5, standing in the cold morning air of the Blue Ridge, dressed in my Sunday best. Beside me, my sister Diana squints into the frosty sunlight as my mother, Joyce, a slim, nervous woman from New Hampshire, with dark hair and a wonderful smile, peers through the horn-rimmed glasses that were stylish at the time and holds her daughter gently but firmly in place.
My father is Gilbert, Jr., a slender man still in his twenties whose face is too serious by far for the laughter it owns. Braced against a great black car, a Packard, I think, his shoulders are square, the hair above his well-shaped ears a thick golden frost, still shorn in tight military buzz from recent service with just a touch of rise to a flat-top in front, a short wave front of individuality. He is holding my hand, limiting me to small arc of movement I have explored endlessly until the moment in which the picture is taken.
There is wood smoke in the air, the rank smell of livestock and the green of a nearby garden, still thriving below the frost thanks to dozens of carefully-placed milk jugs and a half-dozen feed sacks. Cats mill around the back door, unmolested by the short, fat mongrel dog, Poochie, dark as a sausage and just as round. Chickens scratch and cluck at the red and yellow soil through patches of blackberries and rank mountain grass, fearless and too feral for hawks, serpents, cats or hound, as if aware of their eventual date with an axe and frying pan.
Beyond the white-painted wood and screen door voices mix with laughter and the clatter of plates and pans as a shifting breeze carries the smell of cigarette smoke, coffee, scrapple, bacon and eggs, onions and potatoes frying in the lard of sausage freshly made from hogs which have grown to maturity in the hog wallow behind the cinderblock garage, beyond which the mountain drops down in a steep tangle of cedars, greenbrier, locust trees wrapped in honeysuckle, goat’s head thorns waiting for unwary feet in the poor soil that gives way to a boulder field.
Above, the Blue Ridge Mountains rise away in a shadowed mass of hardwoods, sprinkled with ancient cedars and groves of pine, bone white sycamores, catalpa and sumac adding their bright colors, fox grapes draping the trees shadowing forest floors covered by pine needles, skunk cabbage and the ever present poison ivy. Deer move through meadows bounded by autumn olive and mountain laurel, sometimes bear and bobcats and the rumor of a ‘painter’ or panther, something forest biologists deny with all their might despite persistent rumors.
Skunks and possum and raccoons inhabit the forest, garter snakes slipping through the leaves, vicious copperheads and rattlers “big as your arm”, black snakes scaled like dragons chasing wood mice, moles and chipmunks, squirrels leaping madly through the high canopy, scolding the robins, sparrows and finches that hopped and flew through the branches, jays gossiping loudly as crows and blackbirds fight their age-old duels against the deep blue skies, buzzards riding thermals toward the clouds, transformed in their grace from scavengers to aerodynamic wonders. A red-tailed hawk screamed from somewhere, challenging the world, and locusts begin to sing in the rising warmth.
My grandfather’s land is perched high on a ridge in Kite Hollow, and across the steep narrow defile, through the towering sycamores, a grown-up might glimpse the trailer of my uncle, Philip. In the distance, the mountains roll down, hiding the valley surrounding the tiny, distant town of Stanley rising abruptly into the twisting mountain folds that are home to the Skyline Drive, once the hunting trails of the Seneca and other northern tribes.
Trash is taken to the boulder field on a regular basis, often burned, leaving the stench of charred plastic and paper, the reek of the hog lot and the faint undertone of rotting food hanging over this beautiful vista in a miasmic cloud.
The stench is the smell of Progress; at one time, ‘trash’ consisted mostly of cracked cups, broken plates and jars and broken wooden furniture that would burn. Food was not thrown away in a family that had known the hunger of the Depression; leftovers became new meals, and what few scraps were created went to the hogs, the legion of cats, and Poochie. Waste is not a plague among people who reuse jelly jars as glasses, whose food is grown or shot within sight of home, who catch their fish from rivers and streams within walking distance.
Society has moved away from simple containers to a world of petrochemicals and plastic, creating barren forests and toxic streams that require constant stocking, mountains of trash which will last forever. When one considers the vast quantities of household and industrial waste which are transported into these places and buried by contractors who profit from pollution, the small transgressions of an impoverished generation seem miniscule by comparison.
When even the burned debris piles up in ‘the dump’, someone with a machine is called in to push the berm of melted glass and unburnable debris further down the hill, although this has not been done in some time. Local legend holds that there is a bulldozer operator still on his machine somewhere in one of the numerous unstable talus fields that dot the steep mountains of the Blue Ridge, taken down by overconfidence and stupidity, buried alive.
As a child, I recall being briefly convinced that the talus field in the story was the one behind Granddaddy’s hog lot and that the ritual burning was to cover up the smell.
It was hard for me to understand the reasons behind the dump, hard to understand my father’s embarrassment for the place and life in which he had grown up, for the necessity that created the short arc between the hillside garden and smoke house filled with hams and bacon to the trash-strewn mountainside
Down the hill, out of the fall line of both the unstable boulder field and the spreading delta of trash, well out of sight of the family homeplace, live my great uncles, Shirley and Dick. Once, long ago in the era of great promises known as the New Deal, this generation of Grays had joined the masons who every day climbed down into the Potomac, trusting in great coffer dams to hold back the mighty waters of the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay as they mixed mud and laid the millions of bricks that formed the foundations and soaring columns of the Memorial Bridge, an architectural triumph of function and beauty that became a landmark in Washington, D. C.
It is often the fate of those whose hands create great marvels to be forgotten, too often to live in obscure poverty. Although one of the greatest cities on earth lay less than three hours away, actually within sight of the highest peaks of the Skyline Drive, there was a vast disparity between what folks in the hollows of the mountain considered ‘well off’ and the Capitol’s bloated, self-serving definitions of that condition.
At the time, I did not understand poverty, did not yet understand history, and had no concept of how it had shaped the cultures of the Appalachian Mountains for better and for worse, and created a mythical place called Appalachia, “a place about which more is known that is not true than any other place in the world”, and a population that is still the most unrecognized minority in America.
Although there had been many storms and oceans of passage in a life so short, for the most part, the world was still a bright parade of days and dreams; I knew only that these were my relatives and this was where he meant when my father said “Home”.
I could not understand why going there made him so happy and being there, so sad.
My grandmother is revealed as the door opens with a rusty squeal of hinges and the musical twang of the spring; she waves away a passing June bug and calls out to us.
“Y’all come eat!”
Hilda is a short, round woman, with red cheeks and a wide smile of bad teeth, thick strong arms and hands, bright eyes and a wicked laugh that can turn nasty or sink to a loving chuckle at a moment’s notice. Whether company comes at break of day or middle of the night, Hilda is always ready with a pot of coffee and a plate of food, and no one is turned away from her table hungry. Her grey-streaked hair is pulled back and she mops sweat from her neck with a damp cloth as she talks softly to the milling cats, promising them treats as Poochie waddles past, into the cooler kitchen, in search of scraps.
My grandfather is a great, stooping bear of a man with a face that I see more every day as I look into the mirror, although mine carries none of the incredible weariness that comes from being born and raised, then starting a family of your own, looking for work in the grinding poverty and lack of opportunity in the wake of the Depression. Perhaps it is because of those years that he is always ready to smile, and his eyes, netted in folds and creases, twinkle as his mouth fights against a grin.
Granddaddy is not a saint, by any means; he talks rough and he smokes Pall Malls and he has a past with parts he’d rather not talk about, like anyone who has lived through hard times. But he is one of the deepest loves of my childhood, a figure and a force that has shaped all our lives for generations.
Standing, looking back, I believe that whatever harm folks think he might have done in the world, he surely did a lot of good, as well, building monuments, working like a titan for every dime he earned.
Now he snatches me up, freeing me from my father’s firm grip and his rough stubble of beard scratches at me as he hugs me close, smiling and laughing gently as I giggle and squirm, his lips against my face, the smell of his aftershave and tobacco a cachet that is love. His rough workman’s hands tousle my hair and he puts me down, says something to my father about ‘growing like a weed’, and turns to reach for my sister, who stretches eager arms and laughs as he swings her around into another hug and kiss, then hands her back to my mother, whom he calls ‘pretty as a spring day’. She blushes and smiles, a shy Madonna revealed, moves toward the house.
“Come on, Gilbert!” Hilda calls. “Don’t let it get cold!”
“Well,” Granddaddy’s voice is the rasp of a lifetime smoker. “I reckon we’d best git t’the kitchen, a-fore Hilda takes a switch to us.”
“Road kill?” my dad asks, despite having spent the previous day among the folks cutting up butchered hogs, grinding sausage and pressing out lard.
“Gil!” My mother’s voice is scandalized despite having heard this joke a hundred times.
“Reckon we can rustle some up in you’ve a hankerin’.”
“Well, as long as it has Hilda’s tomato gravy on it, I guess we can eat it.”
Hilda’s gravy, liberally sprinkled with black pepper and the occasional flake of wood ash, is legendary in the household, and deservedly so.
“Don’t get none o’ that gravy on your head, boy.” Granddaddy says and winks at me. “Your tongue’ll slap your brains out tryin’ to git it!”
I laugh because it is an old joke, one of the best, and because it is so good to see my father smile. My sister laughs because everyone else is laughing, a high, pure sound of joy.
My mother shakes her head, a grin breaking through the disapproval.
Together, we walk down an ancient path into morning, dappled in the shadows of the Blue Ridge.