It was hard to keep her feet from slipping on the slimy, green algae oozing across the log footbridge. Rough ridges, from when it was hewed flat with an adze on the top side, were the only grip. If it had been store bought lumber, all planed and sanded, she would have never got across it. Below, the muddy creek roiled and slid its way down stream, surging forward and breathing a pulse of water along the top edge of the banks. Chunks of red clay plopped into the water every now and then, carving off the edges and expanding the width of the creek. It had been raining for 17 days straight now. Every single day it rained. Sometimes hard, sometimes just sprinkling. All the time grey. It was like living inside a cloud, or maybe like being a salamander, breathing air through your skin pores right from the water. Water seeped through her rain jacket, straggled her hair into messy tendrils, and ran off the tip of her nose. It was a cold rain, colder than it should be in the middle of May. They almost had a frost the other night, probably would have if the sky had ever cleared off. The garden was a soggy, muddy mess and her peas had rotted in the ground. The potatoes had somehow managed to grow enough tops before the rain started, so they hadn’t turned to mush. She had not been able to get anything else planted out yet, but she had a bunch of starts in a sunny window, waiting.
As she carefully stepped her way across her footbridge, holding tightly onto the single, rusted hand rail, she thought back to the grand old swinging bridge that sat here before and the Big Flood that finally took it out. She had loved that bridge. It was so much better built. She and her brothers and papaw had made it out of old suspension cables and parts collected from the long abandoned oil well that used to sit right behind the house. That well had petered out and been capped and newer, deeper ones had since taken its place, with gasoline engines and new fangled pumping jacks that came on a skid, already put together. They still only produced just enough oil for a small check each month. Barely enough to live on. And now she even had to pay to have the wells pumped instead of the gas being free, like it always was.
She remembered when she and her brothers had helped dismantle the original drill tower, like a giant erector set, sorting all the pieces and pulling the steel guy wires down to the creek like giant snakes. The boys had harnessed Beet and Tucker, the work horses, and hauled some oak logs down from the woods to split into boards for the bridge decking. They dug extra deep holes to hold up the pair of metal posts on either side of the creek, and hauled barrows and barrows of rocks to tamp down into the holes. It was hard work and took most of one fall to finish. It was the last time she can ever remember being allowed to work alongside her brothers, or her grandpa. He had driven them hard to finish that bridge before winter set in. He believed in doing things right and they built it tall and strong so that it would hold up over time. That bridge ended up being the last thing they ever built together. It wasn’t long after that she reached that age where she was only supposed to do more ladylike sorts of chores.
As it was she had to do most of the cooking and cleaning anyway. Her mother had died with her last baby and all her sisters would soon be married off. Her father didn’t want her to even meet any boys saying,
“You need to stay home where you belong, taking care of your brothers and the house. There is no need for you to go to school just so you can get ideas about leaving here. That’s what happened to your sisters.”
She hated that she never got to go to town or to the little school right down the road anymore. The only time she got away was once a year for the county fair, surrounded by her brothers and her father at all times.
Helping to build the new bridge had been a high point of her life. It was nice to get to do something besides housework, with all the cooking and gardening it took to feed her brothers and father and Pap. Most of the bridge work was too heavy for her but she helped pick rocks out of the newly plowed soil every winter and she could help by throwing them down the holes to support the uprights. When they had finally gotten the end pipes set in position and tamped the rocks in tight, it was time to string the metal suspension cables across the creek. Her brothers took turns monkeying up the twenty foot poles to push the heavy cables through the holes drilled up near the tops. Sweat ran down their backs as they gave the final effort to get the heavy cable lifted up and in. Once the end was pulled through and reached the ground again it took two work horses to pull it out to the anchors the boys had drilled into the bedrock, well back of the bridge.
She walked with the team, encouraging them not to give up when it got difficult, keeping them at a steady pace. After the horses had stretched them as far as they could, and all four cables were bolted to their anchors, it was obvious they were still hanging too loose.
Papaw thought it over some and came up with the idea of tautening the cables by using a big wheel for better leverage. So the next chore involved moving the big, old wooden band wheel from up in the pump shack to down by the bridge cables. It was a twelve foot diameter wheel that had rocked the walking beam up and down, by way of a wide canvas belt turned by a one cylinder, natural gas engine. Papaw rigged it up with a ratchet gear so they could tighten the cables well above the water, out of reach of most floods. It took two, hundred foot cables on top and two down at floor level.
“Young’uns, I believe we could play a fiddle tune on those cables now. That’ll do her.”
They spent the next little while attaching a series of shorter wires for side braces and laying deck planks evenly across. She got to help weave the ropes through the wood ends and around the lower cables. Her brother Tom almost made her fall in more than once by jumping up and down on the cables while she was suspended out there in the middle with nothing much to hold on to.
“Just you wait till I get finished with these boards before you go riling things up, Tom. Then you can get it swinging and bucking without me on it. That is, if you want me to cook you any supper tonight.”
When the footbridge was finally done that fall it was the best built one anyone had ever seen. It spanned such a long ways across that you could get a nice rhythm going when you walked just right, timing your footsteps with the gentle rise and fall. That was her favorite part. If you got into stepping right you could have it heaving up and down pretty good after awhile and it was like dancing on a ship at sea. Her father hated it when she got it going like that, but she loved it more than anything. She couldn’t hardly cross it without getting a good surging swing going along the way. Father would tack on extra chores anytime he saw her do it but her granddad always said he built it to last and it could handle the stress.
“Leave her be, son. It’s just a bit of fun. That bridge can take it. We built her right. ”
That old bridge had held just fine for forty years. Sure, every few years they would have to replace a few of the deck boards with fresh ones, from the saw mill over the ridge, but the rest of it was almost indestructible. Being out in the weather was rough on the wood, even if it was oak. Chestnut would have lasted a lot longer, but since the Chestnut Blight came through, all the Chestnut trees had died and were long gone. Chestnut wood was hard to come by these days and too precious to waste on outside floorboards. You either saved it for furniture building or stored it away in the barn as a savings account for later. There would never again be Chestnuts growing to full size in the forest.
When the Big Flood of Fifty, the worst flood to ever hit here, came along, it rained so hard for so long that the creek grew into a raging monster. The water spread out, rising over top of both the first and second natural flood banks, across the bottomlands, covering the ground from one hill to the other, all along its length. Waves splashed wherever it ran up against trees, or sheds, or fences until the water worked away at whatever was in its’ path long enough to wear it clear away. It ripped fences and trees out and piled them up into huge dams, backing the creek up until it was as deep as a house and then would suddenly break loose and send off all the piled up debris downstream with such force that entire barns toppled into the water. Cows got stranded on little bits of high ground and then were washed away, bellowing, just their heads bobbing up every now and again, until they vanished.
The muddy water came all the way up to the top of the risen ground where our house stood and was lapping at the porch for three days before it finally stopped raining and the creek started to slowly recede. Silt and mud and trees and bits of buildings was left everywhere. Some places got leveled out and improved with rich new soil. Some spots had so many trees and trash piled up it would take years to clean up.
Our haystacks floated down stream and came to rest on the Overbridge’s farm down the road, still upright and dry. Grandpa always made sure we made good tight stacks, but even he was surprised they had floated so well. All the cross fences were gone. Those sturdy, steel pipe bridge supports caught all kinds of trash and trees floating down the creek and finally toppled over, the cables of the footbridge acting like a big seine net, scooping up all kinds of flotsam, wedging into a dam, digging and swirling out a deep pond on the upstream side. The only place to cross the creek for a long time after that was a long ways downstream.
Her family lost one old beef cow to the flood, but the Jersey milkers were safe in the upper barn. All the chickens and pigs had moved uphill into the woods for the duration and they eventually herded them back down. Their two story, wood sided, yellow farm house was placed just high enough to escape the waters.
It was a week after the rain stopped that we were finally able to take our shoes off and find a place to cross the creek and make it down the road, which had washed out in numerous places. Deep gouges showed where mud had slipped down off the hills, taking all the trees and throwing them across the road.
One mudslide came right through the back wall of the Gaskin’s house and filled their kitchen with mud, ruining everything in there. They were all asleep in their beds at the other end of the house when it happened and they were OK. Nobody had any footbridges left and the shallow crossings for the pickups and tractors all had to be re-dug.
That was all such a long time ago, even though she remembers it like yesterday. Nothing was ever the same afterwards. Some folks just up and left when they lost everything. The ones that stayed chiseled away at the clean up for years. Nobody trusted the creek to stay put anymore.
So now, with her brothers and sisters all grown and gone, and her mother and father and grandpa long dead, all she had was this pitiful single log for a footbridge and a life time of memories. She didn’t really need a big fancy bridge anymore but she missed the time they all had when they built it. She missed her brothers, Deal, who went off to war and came back so changed, and Tom, who never made it back at all. She missed her sisters, who had all moved far away and never made the trip back to visit anymore. She missed her Papaw who stood up for her when her dad wouldn’t. She missed the way the neighbors used to help each other out without expecting anything in return.
Why was she feeling so wrought up over things that had happened so far in the past? What would her papaw say if he saw her acting like this?
“Now girl. Get your britches pulled up and your boots on. Time to get a move on and live for today. There’s work to be done still. Who else is going to do it if not you? Walk yourself across that foot log and go see your neighbors. See if they need anything. Stop worrying about what isn’t even there anymore. You’ve got good health and you’re getting around alright. Go help those that need it.”
Besides, this rain, wasn’t anything like the rain had been back in 1950. People had telephones now and could call each for help when they needed it. She had neighbors that would drive her into town if she asked. Things weren’t so bad. She was just an old lady wishing for things to be different when really, things were better now. She must remember that.
Tessie owned our land before we did. She had lived in her yellowish farmhouse across the creek and a little ways downstream, for her entire eighty six years, the last fifty alone. All her brothers and sisters were gone, having left as soon as they could. Tessie was the youngest of eleven and they were all dead now. She had never married because her father ran off the only man who had proposed to her. She and her beau were supposed to elope and her father found out their plans before they had a chance. He never even let her know about all the letters that he burnt without opening. Tessie’s mother had died birthing her and she was never forgiven for it. Her father had decided to keep her home to tend to him. She told me that he kept a long red beard and every time she came over to visit she would start with,
“Your man should cut off that beard. I don’t like a man with a beard. Can’t trust ‘em. Makes ‘em look mean.”
Tessie was under five tall, a little stooped with age, and had the
longest white hair. It had never been cut and she kept it up in a twisted bun at the nape of her neck with a lot of hair pins. She wore men’s long sleeved plaid shirts, buttoned all the way up, and baggy work pants, no matter what the weather was. In winter, more like October till May, she added long johns underneath. She also wore brogans, leather lace up work boots, and carried a cane made of a young tree wounded from a twining honeysuckle vine in its youth. There were dates and initials carved into it denoting various events in her later life. Every first of the month she walked the six miles of gravel road into town to collect her Social Security check, buy what she couldn’t grow herself, and have lunch with people she knew in the old folks home. We always offered her a ride, but she preferred to walk in as long as she was able. She would have a poke in each hand on the way back though and was sometimes willing to accept a lift.
A single log spanned the creek, from Tessie’s mailbox on the road, and joined a narrow foot path through the grass, over to the house and barn. The log had been adzed flat on the top side and a wider board had been added and screwed down at some point. A thin hand railing made of a rusty steel well pipe ran along the downstream side, for balance if you slipped. Two log steps brought you down to ground level and the path up to the house, which sat about a hundred feet back , up on the second flood bank. The creek flooded regularly but the water had never gotten into the two story wooden house. Water would surround the corrugated metal shack at the oil well, which sat right in the low bend of the creek, and sometimes, in the worst floods, water got right up to the barn door. There was a creek crossing near the oil well you could drive a truck through, but it wasn’t hardly ever used, and had almost disappeared. Tessie had never driven a car so she didn’t need to get a car across, and the oil men didn’t need to unless there was major work to be done at the well. Tessie carried everything she needed across the little footbridge in her two grocery pokes. The mail carrier brought her the local newspaper every week and she would be waiting for him when he arrived. She didn’t get visitors and her only relatives lived way down near Weston and never came around.
The first week we moved into our little cement, milking parlor shack, Tessie came by to visit. She wouldn’t come inside but we shared a cup of coffee outside sitting on a couple of logs. The other neighbors had warned us off from her, but she was friendly, and gave us advice about gardening and stories about various flood events over the years. She wanted to make sure we knew to respect the creek and the power it had. Living in a bottom you do have to make peace with your creek if you don’t want to lose all the work you put into it. She showed us where the different flood banks were and how often we could expect the water to rise to each one, and the creek proved her right, over and over again. So we were careful not to build the goat barn, the chicken house, or the outhouse where the water would reach and we put the garden where it would dry out quickest in the spring. The bottom land had a lot of red clay and once it got wet it took awhile to dry out. We parked the tractor, the VW bug, and the stockpiled sawmill lumber well back from the low spots. Tessie came by about once a week and I always looked forward to her visits.
One August day she came by when the sweet corn was just coming in. She didn’t have any ready yet so I was picking her a few ears to take home. She said,
“Well, you’d better have your shotgun ready tonight. Those coons ‘ll be out here eating your corn. It’s a full moon. They know when it’s ripe and I always sit out in the garden with my gun or I wouldn’t get any corn at all.”
Sure enough, the coons got in the garden that night, but we heard them and went out and scared them off. We didn’t want to shoot them. We were vegetarians and not into killing anything. They got a few ears but we managed to beat them to most of it. We picked, husked and scraped the kernels off the cobs, packed it into pint canning jars, and had enough sweet corn for the winter. Barney and Daniel, our donkey and pony, ate the husks and the chickens pecked the cobs clean. Tessie came back the next week and told us she had shot three raccoons in one night. She hung their bodies on stakes in her garden to deter their friends. The neighbor’s kids had told us she wielded a mean shotgun and would shoot at them if they ventured over there. They had no business being over there so I didn’t see a problem. She was a good shot and was obviously just scaring them away.
As time went by, Tessie told us more stories about her life. She invited us over once to see where the Magic Lilies come up. She showed us a section of mown grass. She had just mowed using one of those hand pushed reel mowers.
“See that spot along there? In the grass? Tomorrow there will be magic flowers pop up. Come by and see.”
So the next day we walked over, and sure enough, there was a whole line of big pink lilies on stalks about a foot and a half tall that had not been there yesterday. We had never seen them before and were amazed that she knew exactly when they would arrive.
“Well, I have been keeping watch on them for a lot of years now. Do you want some to take home and plant?”
Well, yes, we did. So she said she would give us some cut ones now for the table and bring us by a few bulbs after they had gone dormant again in the fall. I planted them alongside our outhouse to pretty it up some, along with the cowslips and Forget-me-nots and Tiger Lilies she gave me later. I have managed to plant bits of these at every house I have lived in over the years and still have some today, forty years later. I love having plants with a history and stories behind them. Seeing them come up each year brings back memories of people and places and times the same way photographs do.
Tessie always planted Irish potatoes, from sets she had saved the year before. She didn’t go for the new fangled ones they sold in the feed store. She showed us how to cut them in pieces for planting, when to hoe them up, how to dig under them with our fingers to get the new potatoes, and how to cure the full grown ones for storing in the winter. We didn’t have a root cellar like she did though, so we had to pile ours up in hay mounds covered with dirt to keep them from freezing in the winter. We got that idea from the Mother Earth News and it worked fine. She saved seed from all her peas, beans, squash and onions too. One year she gave me some Multiplier Onion sets. They were cool. They grew little miniature sets at the top of the stalks and you would save them and plant them to grow more plants for the onion at the bottom. They were a purple colored set on a green stalk and looked pretty in the garden. I have run out of those onions and would like to get some more one day.
Tessie’s house was very old, built by her father in the 1870’s I think. It was built of sawmill lumber using Yankee Framing, which means there are no studs in the walls. The inch plus thick boards are laid upright on the inside and then the siding is nailed to the outside in the horizontal direction. All the windows and doors are framed with inch boards too. There is no space for insulation. They used wallpaper to thwart the drafts coming in the cracks. The floor joists under the house sat on rocks and were made of logs that were flattened on the top side with an adze, but still had their bark on the rounded sides. The back of the house faced into the hill and was L shaped with a porch the whole way. The well where Tessie got all her water was about fifteen feet from the porch with a stone path leading to it. There was a roof over the well and a pitcher pump had been added, but the well itself was open, and you could shine a light down to see the water. The hole was hand dug and about 30 feet deep, about three feet wide, and lined with bricks. Tessie hauled all her water from the well to the kitchen using two blue speckled enameled buckets at a time. She always boiled the water before she drank it.
Tessie had been trying to get somebody to clean her well out for awhile because it had not been scrubbed down in quite a few years. She was unable to pay much and couldn’t find anyone to do the work. It didn’t help that all the neighbors thought she was a crabby old witch. We finally caved in and offered to do it for her. This was a going to be a big job requiring an electric water pump, which we had to borrow, garden hoses, a ladder to go down the well on, buckets of bleach water and scrub brushes. First, we shined a light down the well to inspect the situation. We squinted into the hole.
“Oh, my God! There is something floating in the water. I think it’s Mr. Grey!”
Our cat had gone missing and there had been no sign of her for a month. Her name was Mr. Grey. Tessie hurried out back of the nearby shed and puked-over and over. She had been drinking water with a dead cat floating in it for a month! Good thing she boiled the water, but still, really gross.
We lowered a bucket down the well and scooped the decomposing, smelly, soggy remains of our cat into it and buried her up in the woods. Then we stuck the hose way down in the water and started pumping the well out, which took all night with the pump running. In the morning we lowered the ladder into the hole, took up our buckets and scrub brushes and stepped down in. There was still water coming in at the bottom so we started down low and worked our way up, takings turns. It was creepy down there in the dark and cold. Eck would scrub awhile, then come up for air and light and I’d go down. It took us a few hours but we got it cleaned up, then ran the pump some more to rinse the sides, pumped it all back out, and let it start refilling. It took a few days to come back up to its normal level. The next thing to do was to build a cover so nothing else would be able to fall in. It was kind of ironic that it was our cat that had fallen in. We felt bad for Tessie unknowingly drinking the bad water, responsible for the cat, and so relieved Tessie didn’t have any lasting effects from it. We built a frame to fit the top and stapled hardware cloth to it. While we were at it we built a wooden bucket rest under the pitcher pump to make filling the buckets a little easier.
In Tessie’s kitchen there was the most beautiful cast iron gas cook stove I have ever seen. I seriously coveted that stove. It had nickel plaiting on the handles and trim, a warming shelf, and stood on stout, curved legs. I asked her how she kept it so black and shiny and she told me,
“You’ve got to rub tallow into it ones’t every week. Can’t be any salt in it and it’s got to be beef tallow, can’t be pork. Can’t use butter or it will smoke. I get some ground beef from the Overfields down the road and cook it up for supper and save the fat offen it, get the oven going on a slow cook and rub it in everywhere, ‘cept where it’s nickel. Use toothpowder on that to get it shiny clean. “
She had replaced her old gas refrigerator with an electric one some years back and no longer used her old gas lights, having found the electric ones to be cleaner and brighter. We didn’t have electric in our shack and had to put our gas refrigerator outside under the eaves because of the fumes it put off, so I got that. Our lighting was from kerosene lamps because it was hard to find working gas fixtures anymore. Tessie wouldn’t part with hers though. We all had free gas piped in to our houses from all the oil and gas wells, which saved on electric bills, if you had one. It was OK until it froze off in the winter from all the drip gas accumulated in the lines. Then you needed a backup heat source like wood. There should have been a calcium dryer installed at the well heads but that would have cost a lot of money that nobody had. We didn’t even have a pressure regulator on our line.
In Tessie’s parlor room there was a pump organ and an old wind up Victorola record player. Sometimes when I visited we would play a record and it sounded pretty good. The organ needed some work on the leaky bellows to work right, and she said she wasn’t very good at playing it anymore, so I didn’t get to hear that. It was a beautiful piece of furniture though, dark oak wood with mirrored lamp shelves, inlaid mother of pearl decorations and scrollwork. There was a store bought oriental type rug on the floor, where all the other rooms had floral patterned linoleum rugs tacked down. All the floors squeaked in places but she kept them scrubbed and polished with beeswax. The windows had pull down plastic lace shades and she kept the rooms dark, pretty much only using the kitchen and one bedroom upstairs. Her bed frame was strung with rope and had to be tightened every once and awhile due to humidity stretching the ropes. I helped her with that a couple of times. She had an old horsehair mattress and on top of that a feather bed tick, then the sheets, then another lighter feather tick for a blanket. You could barely see her down in there when she laid in bed. Once she fell and broke her arm and was feeling poorly there for awhile and I would go over and make her some tea and brush her hair and put it back up in the bun for her. Her hair went all the way down past her waist and was snowy white.
In the parlor was an old photograph of Tessie in her twenties wearing a long white dress and standing with her two Jersey cows. She was beautiful. I asked her about it and she acted like it was somebody else in the picture, some other life.
“There used to be a man came by every Friday to pick up my butter, sour cream and buttermilk. We couldn’t keep it cold enough to sell much of the fresh milk. It was the only time in my life I ever earned any money, but I never did get to spend any of it. Father made me give it all to him. I didn’t mind really, I loved my cows, but it would have been nice to have some of it for myself.”
When I asked her about her brothers and sisters she got kind of sad. She was always going on about Una and what a bright kid she was. I asked,
“Who was Una? What happened to her, where was she now? “
“Oh, they took her away from here, down to Weston State Hospital. There wasn’t anything at all wrong with her, but nobody would listen to me. It wasn’t her fault. She didn’t ever do anything bad. She wasn’t crazy. She was a sweet, bright baby girl. The problem was, her mama was my sister and her papa was my brother, and nobody but me wanted her around. When father found out the truth about who her Daddy was, he called in the authorities and they decided she needed to be taken away, for her own good. The morning after they took her away, I found my brother hanging dead from that apple tree, right next the garden. My sister ran off right after and I never saw her again. Father wouldn’t talk about it and forbid me to ask. One of my cousins came by a few years later, though, and told me they had let Una out, to live with a couple who couldn’t have kids of their own, and she was doing fine. She didn’t know what ever happened to my sister. She was way older than me and she is sure to be dead by now.”
So that is where I came by the name of our first sheep, Una. She was a sweet little lamb we brought home from Mountain (used to be called Mole Hill) in the VW bug. She fit on my lap and enjoyed the ride. Later, when we got the milk goats she would jump up on the milking stand to be milked too. She had the softest udder. Her first lamb we called Newton, since we had him neutered, and the second we called Nebo. But that was later.
Tessie used to tell us about all the floods there had been over the years on our creek. They were all named for the year in which they occurred. Flood of 36, flood of 50, etc. The one in 1950 was the worst and it floated her haystacks out of her bottom , way down the road to the Overfield’s farm and left them sitting there, high and dry. Nothing wrong with them at all,Tessie said,
“I knew how to build a proper haystack is why. I built them up from the base by winding the layers of long hay around the center pole, slowly walking around and around as I went, tamping down each layer. By the time it was at the top of the pole it was 12 feet high and densely packed. I never lost any to mold or rot. When that flood came up they floated pretty as you please, just like a boat, and they landed the same way. Overfield’s tried to claim them for their own but I held my ground and I went down there with the mule I used to have and hauled them on home. Had to get the boys up the road to help me rig up a sled to pull them onto to, but we got every one of them stacks. I needed that hay for the Jersey’s and the mule and I wasn’t about to let them steal all that work away from me. They called the sheriff, saying I was trespassing but he made them cooperate. What’s right is right. They lost a bunch of their hay too is why they were being mean about it. Well, they just had to go get their own hay back. I doubt theirs was nowhere as good as mine though. I can show you how to make a good stack of your own hay when you’re ready.”
So, when we got our own hay cut and raked she did show us and we managed to make a halfway decent job of it. I don’t think ours would have stayed intact floating down the creek, but it kept our critters fed that winter. We didn’t have a barn to keep hay in so this was a big help. We made our hay using a horse drawn mower and a ground driven, side delivery rake, both of which we pulled behind our tractor. Then we drove over the windrows with a flat bed wagon and the hay loader, a contraption that looked like a manure spreader standing up on its hind legs. It raked the hay up onto a slanted bed with hooks and chains pulling it up and over the top and dropped it onto the wagon bed. My job was to stand on the bed and level the load out with a pitchfork as it landed. It worked pretty well except that it also picked up any snakes hanging out in the hay and dropped them on my head. Copperheads are not meant to fall from the sky onto your head. I learned to jump out of the way fast. That first year we killed sixteen copperheads in our hay bottom. It was the first thing we learned how to kill, usually with a hoe or an axe. Tessie told us,
“Whenever you get a copperhead, leave him dead where you kilt him, and come back at sunset. You’ll find the mate to it curled up beside him and you can get her too.”
She was right about that. Worked every time. We wouldn’t have killed them if they would have left us alone, but they were getting totally out of hand. Coming in the house. One morning, after a windy night, I went outside to check if the gas had blown out on the refrigerator. I had not even had any coffee yet. I stuck my face down low on the ground to see the burner up underneath there, and there was a copperhead staring right at me. That was unnerving. I went and got a bent coat hanger, dragged him out, and killed him. At sunset, sure enough, there was another one. Eck got that one. Didn’t seem to work the same way with black snakes though.
The blacksnakes were pretty darn abundant when we first moved in, too. They aren’t poisonous though, and I generally like snakes. They eat mice and don’t usually bother people much. However, the old pile of hay we slept in the first few nights was their home first. We pitched it all outside and made a giant compost pile so we could put our bed and stuff inside the shack. The black snakes did not appreciate us tossing their home outside and proceeded to harass us every chance they got. They swung from the rafters, striking at us. They slithered into tight places and scared us half to death. Once, we opened the silverware drawer on the stove to get a spoon and found it filled with a six-footer. We kept throwing them outside, they‘d come right on back in. They were on our bookshelves and you’d reach for a book and grab a snake. One night they were under the bed, and we ended up sleeping out in the car. That was the final straw. That was when we decided it was them or us and we were going to each have to kill them. I got the neighbor in to kill mine, because I thought he would be better at it. That was a bad decision. He started in chasing and swinging and getting the poor snake all riled up, blood was flying, blood got on the books. It smelled like a skunk from the snake fear. Eck killed the second one and he was much quicker about it. Better all the way around. Still we were vegetarians and did not enjoy the process at all. The snakes got us back though, by laying all their eggs in our new compost pile before we killed them. They started hatching a few weeks later and we had to kill the babies too. I tried feeding them to the chickens, they were kind of like worms, but they would have nothing to do with them. We had to chop them up and it was really gross. Later that summer it was the copperheads. After that, the snake population was so decimated that it was quiet for a few years.
Tessie came by one day and wanted to get us to help her paint her house. She had been doing all the lower half herself but was having trouble getting up and down the ladder. How can you say no to that? She was almost ninety years old and still painting her own house! So we went over and she showed us what she wanted. First thing was a trip to town and the hardware store for more paint. Then we had to dip crude oil out of the tank by the oil well to thin it. That was different. That explained why her house was yellowish, instead of full blown yellow. I don’t know why they show crude as black on TV because it’s not that color here. It had a nice clear, golden color and mixed fine with the oil based paint. It seemed to do a good job. I wonder about how flammable her house is though. Still that house has stood there for over a hundred years so far and is not showing much sign of rot. The county road gets crude oil put down on it too. Keeps the dust down and makes the hard packed dirt and gravel seem almost paved. And the drip gas we collect from the low point on the lines, which happens to be us, is useful for starting brush piles and even for running tractors, if you don’t mind fiddling with the carburetor and shortening the lifespan of the motor. It tends to burn too hot and fast. You can tell when somebody is using it in their tractor just by the fast sound of it. You wouldn’t want to run a good tractor on it.
When Tessie hit 90 she finally started slowing down, and we made a habit of taking her to town on the first of the month. We’d go to the bank to cash her check, Berdines Variety Store for kerosene lamp globes and wicks, Stout Hardware for beeswax, window glass and tools, the old wooden floored A and P grocery store for peanut butter and coffee and such. Then we’d stop for lunch at the senior center and she’d get to visit with people she used to know. It was an all day affair and fairly exhausting but I enjoyed it.
Then, we went away up to New Jersey for a couple of months, to make some quick money. We farmed our animals out to various people and took the dogs with us. I kept dreaming about Tessie. She was crying and begging to be let go. I got worried and we came back to find her missing from her house. It was all locked up and there was no sign of her. Nobody seemed to know where she was. Finally we found her in the hospital 45 miles away. It was a Catholic Hospital with nuns and everything. Tessie was not Catholic, she didn’t even go to church. I located her up on the third floor, in a room with tubes and machines all hooked up to her. The nurse said she had been brought in by her cousins, after collapsing while they were visiting. Something was wrong about this. Where had these so called cousins come from? What were they up to? Then I remembered she had told me one of her quite removed cousins had been writing to her and trying to get her to give her antiques to him, the organ, the Victorola and such. She had written him back and said no. Apparently he had shown up on her doorstep once or twice trying to convince her. He told the nurse he had found her, locked in her house, dying. She would not let him in, told him to leave her alone. She wanted to die in peace, at home, alone. Then he could have whatever he wanted. He broke the door down and carted her off to the hospital about two weeks before I got there. Right about the time I started to have my dreams.
I walked over to the bed and sat down, picking up her hand. The nurse said,
“She has been totally unresponsive. She can’t hear or speak, poor thing. It is a good thing her cousin found her and brought her to us.”
Looking around at all the tubes and machines I knew she did not want, I held her hand, smoothed her hair, and started talking to her.
“Tessie, it’s OK. You can let go. They can’t hold you here.”
She opened her eyes, tears streaming down her face.
“I am so sorry I was not there for you. I know you wanted to die at home, without all this. You can decide when to go. It’s up to you. Don’t let them make you go through this. Just let it go.”
I released her hand and went out into the nurse’s station and asked to speak with the charge nurse.
“Why are you keeping her alive like this? She wants to die. She is ready. You are prolonging her pain.”
The Nurse got really huffy and said,
“It is God’s will, not ours, not yours, that counts. If HE wants her to die she will.”
“Not as long as you have all those tubes and machines breathing for her, feeding her. That makes it your will, the hospitals will, not any Gods” I argued.
I went back to the room and Tessie’s side.
“You have had a good life Tessie. If you want to go, you can. I will be here with you. I am not leaving. Try to relax and let it all go. Thank you for everything you have taught me. I will miss you but you can let it all go”
Tessie looked me in the eyes, took one last deep breath and was gone. The nurses did not get there in time to prevent her. I turned and walked out, down the long corridor, the stairways, outside into the fresh air. I got in the car and cried. At least she would suffer no more.
-Wendy lee Maddox, writing at edgewisewoods.com
Getting a word in edgewise through storytelling and pictures