Thursday, April 11, 2013

An Appalachian Tale: Picture Puzzles by Ellen Apple

Picture Puzzles

Granny lived in the cabin here on our home place. That cabin likely was the first permanent shelter here, leastwise as far as I can tell. Now that ain’t to say that Indians weren’t here first off. Fact is, I feel fairly sure they was here. When we was little, we was always findin’ signs from them. Arrowheads was so commonplace I knowed some folks that has as many as a pickle crock would hold.

There are a few good places to find arrowheads. Along side creek beds where maybe hunters would set up for the night, in the fresh turned fields in the early spring, and the caves up on the ridge. Those caves always give me the willies, so I never spent too much time lingering in ‘em and I never did go no further in than the sun could find me. I ain’t skeered of the dark, and I ain’t skeered of no haints but I do carry what my daddy would call a healthy respect for both.

That cabin is a place that holds many a good memory for me ‘cause I used to be sneakin’ off there so much to sit with my granny. She had this ole potbelly stove in the front room, and even in the summertime she was more likely than not to be burnin’ a few lumps of coal or a pile of kindlin’, just so as she could fry some sausage and pop up a pan of popcorn in the grease. Her front room always seemed to smell of popcorn and sausage, and the kitchen was likely to be smelling of lemon pound cake.

Now my granny was never one to sit plumb idle, and there was a whole passel of things she kept at hand to keep ol’ Scratch from making use of her on this Earth. She was a fair hand at needlework, and liked to crochet as well. She had an endless thirst for learnin’ and always had a book or two with a page dog-eared for to mark her place. Now her choice in what to read was an education in itself. She could find a recipe in any magazine, and clipped them all out to try later. Whether she did is still up for debate, I think she done most of that fancy cookin’ in her own head. She liked books ‘bout other parts, like the old west days and over in other lands.  She had books ‘bout healin’ too, and kept her notes in there. She was a right fair hand at roots and plants. Lord, she poured the Sassyfrass tea down us in the wet months. And I reckon we ate enough liver and greens that none of us could ever have weak blood.

Bar none, her favorite thing to do whilst she sat around eatin’ popcorn and sausage was to work on picture puzzles. She had her a special table just for her puzzles. They was a lip all the way ‘round that table, and she had her a big ole’ piece of wallboard that was just a mite bigger than that table what she would keep it covered up with. She had took a length of feedsack cloth and crocheted her a pretty trim all around the edges and she would keep that wallboard covered with that cloth most days. My idea is that any dust that dared get in her cabin was kept off the puzzle this way, and she was able to keep nosy pitchers out of her business as well.

Those picture puzzles were a sight to behold, big ones that has 1000 pieces and more. When she finished one she was particular proud of, she would glue it all together and put it in a real pretty picture frame with glass and hang it, or give it to somebody. I promise you, anyone what was gifted with one of those picture puzzles felt they was right special in my granny’s heart. Most of them was pictures like we had in our schoolbooks. Bridges and buildings and mountains in far off places.

Sometimes I think mayhap Granny was so fond of those picture puzzles ‘cause while she was concentratin’ so fierce on that picture, getting it all put in the proper order, she in her head was travelling to those far off places. No matter how her soul wanted to fly to far off places, time and money and the way life played out for us kept her feet planted here on this land. As much as the beckoning can call us up to the highest points, this air and the dirt we walk keeps us here as sure as if we were a crop planted in the ground.

When my granny passed I was powerful sad. I cried, and could not rest nor sit still. My momma and daddy were my momma and daddy but my granny was special to me in a way that is even these years later hard to put to words. Being raised in the mountains, we are by need close to life and death. We learn to see the way life comes and leaves as being a necessary thing, like breathing or eating or sleeping. It was a fact in my head, and one I had felt, but never ever like that when my granny passed.

Her wake was held at the home place, and she was laid out in her front room. Folks from all over came to pay their respects, for she was loved and known all over these parts. When the time came, I could not bring myself to look full on her face. I did not want my last sight of her to be when she was without breath in her lungs and a smile on her face. Her burying was done here at the home place as well. We have a plot set aside for our people, not far from the creek and where the wind whispers through the weeping willow on a sunny day. The grave markers are carved from those glacier rocks up on the mountain, and the menfolk of the family keeps a good fence up. That way the hogs and sheep and cows don’t graze over the grave plots.

It had been a season since granny had left me, and I reckon I had moped about and drug my feet to the point my momma and daddy were downright exasperated with me. I was outside meandering about, trying to act as though I had more chores to see to. I had slopped the hogs, and scattered scratch for the chickens. The eggs had been gathered and the cows had gone up the side of the hill and would not be back until my daddy sicced the dog to fetch ‘em when it was time to milk. My hand found the holey stone I had tucked in my pocket, and I decided this would be a right fine time to visit the top of my knobby hill.

I had all intentions of meandering up to that special place where Mother and I had our talks, it is true. But my wandering feet took me around the other side of the house, down past the spring house and towards the creek. Now our creek is special, for it begins here on our land, water just rising up out of the rocks and dancing down over the limestone. The creek begins as a fresh water spring, and it is the coldest, sweetest water known to man or woman in these parts. I reckon we could sell it to make money if we were so minded. My daddy had pipes laid, and we have water to the house that comes from that spring. Of course, these days we are all hooked up with The Water Project. I had a mind to tell you today of The Water Project, but if I start on that path I will get all riled up and I have no thought of being riled up when I am in a mood to be tellin’ you about my granny. That tale will have to be told another day.

No, I meandered myself right over towards that fresh water spring, and the place where the water pooled so deep and cool. Have you ever sat and sunk your toes into the soft mud in the bed of a creek? It is like unto velvet, or the soft fur of a pet rabbit. The minnows dart away, and the skippers and tadpoles make themselves scarce as well. We have salamanders in these parts that are the prettiest dark red color, like blood, and crawdads and turtles and garter snakes, all of which I have played with at the creek. I was always careful to play past where my daddy had laid that water pipe, so as to not muddy the water that my momma used to cook and wash our clothes.

As I sat there with my toes curled in the mud, contemplating on things as I was prone to do – more than my momma thought was “good for me” whatever that meant – my big toe ran across something that felt different. I worked at it for a few minutes using my toes then reached down into that icy cold water and pulled out a pretty. Now I was not exactly expecting to find a pretty this day, and certainly not in the fresh water spring pool there just up above where those family grave plots laid. 

An almost in one piece shell of a turtle. Now a turtle, the shell is a wonder to behold. The natives tell us their understanding of how all life came to be here on this earth by using the turtle, saying turtle carries the world on his back, the mountains and the rivers are seen in the pattern of the shell. As I sat there on a rock, running my finger over and around the grooves of that piece of shell I thought of how much a turtle shell brings to mind those picture puzzles granny was always a working on in the cabin. She carried us in a way, I reckon, just like that big turtle that Great Spirit made carries this whole world.

Granny is gone, but we still have pieces of her. We are pieces of her. There are so many folks what loved her, and she was always feeding and healing people, and did enjoy making us laugh when it was a time laughing was okay. Even now, her body down there in that grave, she is still with us.  I truly do believe that.

So anyways, I rinsed that piece of turtle shell off real good and took it to granny’s grave plot and nestled it in beside that piece of limestone my daddy had carved her name into and then took and polished it up right pretty. A pretty for my granny, to always be there when I want to go take a look and remember her and all she undertook on herself when she tried teaching me.

We are all making a picture puzzle in this life, just by the way we live and the people we see and love and sometimes have ill feelings towards. It is up to us to keep that picture pretty, and I have no need to tell you how to do that, now do I? Folks is not turtles, and though it may feel that way at times they are not toting the whole cares of the whole world on their back like that turtle.

I sit from time to time and talk with my granny, mostly when I have knots in my mind because she was a right good hand at untying those mind knots. Mother and granny and my holey stone are all parts of my own picture puzzle. I leave her pretties as well, and I make sure to take her a wild violet when they come out. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

An Appalachian Tale: The Beckoning by Ellen Apple

The Beckoning

I recollect when I was just a youngin’, still in school, we were taught how these mountains came to be as they are these days. How great big glaciers slid their way down the surface of the earth, scarping and pushing and piling up rocks until the highest was so high and all the good soil was left down low. I reckon the scientists took a long time to figure all of that out. It is rather rough for a mountain woman like me to understand all the ages and eras and layers they taught us. I have a much better grasp on that I can see with my own eyes, and feel with my own hands.

They’s a hill that our homeplace backs right into. Remember when we were little and we would pack silty dirt into a old bowl and turn it out upside down? That round top that would be jutting up above all the dirt around it? That is what that hill reminds me of. ‘Course, they’re trees and rocks – Lord, the rocks we have. Gifts from those glaciers I suppose. Deer and cows and sheep and God knows what else have walked that slope so many times there are paths worn all the way down to the rock in places. In the springtime, when the scrub grass and violets and clover and dandelions all start coming in those paths look like some giant drug his finger through the dirt, leaving a trail for us regular folk to explore.

After the peepers have come, and the Forsythy bush by the front fence has come out in a yellow as bright as the Summer sun, those cowpaths start to beckon me.

Now the beckoning might come at any time by the time and calendars folks tend to keep. I have a bit of a chuckle to myself from time to time about such things. In the old days, the people kept time with nature. By the signs some folks might say. Moons came and went, and weather and the land kept a calendar to suit themselves. All the education and postulatin’ in the world has yet to be able to keep Mother Nature and Father Time on any schedule but their own. And Mother, she sure does have a mind of her own. Why, we might have a late Spring by man’s accounting but I promise you that Mother is not late, nor has she ever been early. All that happens is at it should be. An’ I don’t reckon we were supposed’n to understand and agree with her at all. They’s mysteries to life, and death, that keep to themselves no matter how hard we try to figure ‘em out. And that is truth you can put in your head to keep, ‘cause I know it to be so.

Well, this year Mother and Father have decided that ‘round about what we call May Day is when the beckoning has come upon me. It is hard for me to put to words what this beckoning is, or why I hear and feel it when others don’t far as I can tell. Of course, I never really talked it over with others much. Seems to be the sort of thing a woman might be wanting to keep to herself. I don’t want to start being known as one who is tetched, though tetched I very well may be. I do know they has been others in my line, menfolk and women as well, who were whispered as to maybe having the sight. An’ my Granny had a right good hand with healing plants. Many times when I was just a youngin’ I recollect the knock on the door callin’ her out in the wee hours, she and her pouch of plants and roots being needed for other folks or maybe a sick cow or lame mule.

What? You were thinkin’ that such things were only for people or that the tales you been told ‘bout the folks up here on the ridges and in the hollers was just talk? I am here to tell you that life is more, and less, than you ever thought to dream.

Now where was I? The beckoning. I have marked over 50 trips around the sun already in my life, and I hope to make many more. The beckoning started with me when I was still a snot nosed youngin’, not even a-knowing what weight being a woman would bring to my shoulders. The reason so many womenfolks has stooped shoulders, you know, it comes from that weight of love and worry and sorrow that keeps getting heaped on us year after year. It’s a rare thing indeed to see young girls stooped like that. The years have not piled in on them as of yet.

This ain’t no thing you can see, now, nor a sound that comes from the outside. It be more of a feeling that commences to roiling about inside one, but not a bilious feeling at all. Bilious makes one want to run to the outhouse, or grab the slop jar. This beckoning is more of a feeling that flutters about in your chest, like a starling caught up in a tree canopy and fighting to get free. I never was much one to talk things out with others, or to really stop and think things through. A bull in a china shop my momma used to call me. Settin’ off on my scattered way without thinkin’ out where I might be endin’ up when all was said an’ done.

I was out in the side yard, tryin’ to keep outta way of my momma as she had set to gettin’ all the washin’ done at once. After catching my right arm plum up to my elbow in the wringer one day she was more at ease if I kept myself scarce when the Maytag was a’dancin on the back porch. Being too short to pin the clothes up once they was washed my only real chore on laundry day was to help her lift the line up with the forked pole so the sheets and my daddy’s britches didn’t trail in the dirt. A warm breeze came across my face, making a strand of hair tickle my nose and make me want to laugh. I looked up towards that ol’ high knobby hill, seein’ that cowpath, and all of a sudden I just knew I had to climb up there.

They is two ways I know of to climb a hill, a hard way and a easy way. Even as a youngin’ I would pick the easy way – keepin’ my energy in case I needed it for somethin’ more vital I suppose.

Hard climbing is goin’ all out, not resting none or looking at the pretties along the way. Hard climbing is like not understanding that laughin’ makes it easier to cry right when cryin’ times come.

Easy climbing is a pure joy, and in itself is enough to make one not mind overmuch when there are bugs and itchy weeds trying to make you want to go back before you get to where you want to be. Truth be told, a good easy climb might take a girl so long she needs to carry a biscuit spread with apple butter with her. Just in case she gets peckish along the way. So off I darted into the house, grabbed me a biscuit to wrap up in one of my daddy’s bandanas and off I went. My momma hollered for me not to wander off too far, and I waved my hand in her direction just to show I heard her as I headed up the hill.
My granny told me once I don’t so much walk as meander. They taught us in school that a meandering stream is one that makes its way through the land in a path that ain’t straight but that instead follows the soft earth, going around and over the rocks and stones and roots that gets in the way. I guess that makes a right smart sense to me. Why step on a rock and hurt your foot, or trip over a root and scrape your knee when you can go a little this way or that and avoid all the bother?

So up the cowpath I meandered away, taking in secrets and picking up pretties along the way. You do know what I mean when I say picking up pretties don’t you? Pretties is those thing the birds and critters and ole Mother herself leaves lying around, just waitin’ for a girl to find and decide upon. You decide upon a pretty by weighin’ the attraction against the aggravation. If something is too big or heavy or smelly or still attached you just admire and remember where it were. If it is just small and light enough to fit in your pocket or to fold up in a bandana then you can decide upon takin’ it with you. Later on there may be another pretty that you like more, so you can change ‘em out one for the other. I have been known to pick and change out pretties a half dozen times on a good climb. My pretties tend to be bird feathers, snail shells, and rocks. Especially rocks.

So, there I was, meandering up the cowpaths picking up and squirreling away my pretties. The further up the hill I went, the more settled that fluttering in my chest was. I found three special pretties that day that I knew were keepers. A shard of shell from a hatched out robin, a bit of quartz rock worn smooth and shaped all round yet with a hole ‘most dead center through it, and a raven’s feather all blue black and shiny. Having long since eaten my apple butter biscuit I wrapped my pretties in the bandana and tucked it in my pocket. After stopping to rest a bit every now and then, I finally found myself as near to the top of that knob of land I had ever been.

The sun was about high in the sky, so I knew it was time for my momma to put dinner on the table but I felt more inclined to linger a bit than to go back down that hill so soon. I found myself a sitting place, a flat piece of limestone jutting out from one of those big ole glacier rocks. They was dark spots on the shady sides, where the mosses liked to gather and suck up the water running down the crooks and crannies after a shower passed over.

One thing most folks don’t know about living up here where we do is that many days it is like being in a cloud. The mists will gather in the hollers and the air gets a softness that is both a comfort and a bother. When you take it into your head to go to the top of a ridge it is like unto walking through the clouds and coming out in the sunny side of the sky. In springtime the rains come often, and the air drops to so cool at night the mist rises from the hollers like fingers, wrapping around you and putting a chill through your skin all the way to bone. Come noontime, the sun just burns off all that mist, from the top of the ridges down to the greenest holler.

As I sat there on my shelf of rock, I felt as though Mother herself was burning that fluttering right out of my chest and I commenced to feeling more like the me I was more used to being. My heart wasn’t thumping no more and I felt a lightness and sort of happy in my belly I had never known before in all my days. Even a youngin’ can have worries, and I had been carrying a few burdens in my deepest self I had not seen fit to tell about to other folks. No matter what they were, or even if they may seem that burdensome to others. For me they had become a weight, and up there on that knob of rock Mother seen fit to help me untangle some knots in my mind and ease the weight I had been a toting around.

After a bit it were as though I was being given answers to questions I never knew I had, and I will tell you one thing for sure. The first time this happens it can be a mite scary. I was not yet knowing what was happening to me, and it was a good thing I was up there with Mother ‘cause she spoke to me in that way she has that makes one know things are okay. I had a peace about me then, one that I was needing to be sure.

All at once I knew that those things I had been trying to tote around all on my lonesome were going to work themselves out, and that Mother was the one that would do most of the working. Yes, there was things that were beyond me or my momma or daddy or even my granny. But that was okay, leastways for now.

I took the bandana I had wrapped my pretties in and laid it out on that big ole limestone outcropping. I untied my knot, and placed each of the pretties on the stone, side by side. After a bit I knew that I could tote the stone with the hole back down the hill with me but that Mother would be mighty happy were I to leave that egg shard and black feather there with her. She had in someway I had yet to divine placed the pretties just where a meandering girl might find them, and each had their story to tell.

That piece of a robins egg, just a shard of blue shell? It was a telling me that I had to let some things break so they could be more of what they were meant to be from the beginning. We can’t be keeping an egg forever, cause it will spile and be of no use to anyone. An iffen we want to hear the birds sing, why they have to hatch out and learn to fly so they can find the things what makes them sing.

That blue black feather that had fallen from a ravens wing? It was a telling me that sorrows have weight to them, but they fall down below and land soft even as we go on the journey we were meant to take. The weight of our sorrows and worries can sure enough grow so great that we cannot carry on another step or take our next breath. T’only choice we have is to let them fall away gentle as we go, let them land soft on Mother for she will truly take care of them.

That quartz rock with the hole in it? That had the most to tell, and so much I needed to be keeping it with me for a long time. I carry it with me to this day, and each and every time the beckoning has come upon me I have toted it up to the top of that knob with me. My life has taken a path none of could have foreseen when I was just a youngin’, and I am here in the homeplace still. Many odd and wondrous things have been in my days, things that made me laugh ‘til I cried and things that hurt my soul deep I could not shed a tear or lift a word the knife of sorrow were so sharp upon my heart.

The beckoning has been my constant. I never know when it will be upon me. At first it came only in the spring of the year, when Mother and Father got their heads together and decided it was time for everything to get on with the business of living and dying. Over time, I have felt it more and less, depending I guess upon the weight I was tryin’ to tote with me. There has been years it visited as many as half a dozen times, and there was once I did not feel the pull for almost 15 moons. Each time, I take my meandering climb up to my knob. Each time Mother leaves pretties along the way for me to bring up to her. They has been times I found the pretties waiting for me the next time I come, and I knowed they was gifts and Mother let me know who they was to go to next. I always take my holey stone with me, and as time has passed I have learnt that if I always have her in my pocket, or tucked away in my bosom right next to my heart, I can easier tote the worries of my life until Mother beckons me up the path to the knob again.

One day soon I reckon I will tell you more about Mother, and the beckoning, the things she has taught and showed to me some of which I am now seeing are my place to pass along. But right now, right this minute? I have a path to meander up, and a few pretties to gather up to take to Mother. For the beckoning is upon me this day, and it is a call I have to answer. 

Original artwork by Roger Lee Apple