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. 


  1. Another great story! It makes me think back about my own Grandparents, and their little sayings & quirks. I hope you don't mind that I'm posting a link to these on FB. I think everyone who takes the time to read your stories, would love this!

  2. Not at all Randy. I consider that to be a high compliment. Maybe by incorporating the language and nuances we heard as children in things we write online we can help preserve an important part of what it means to be from these hills and hollers.

  3. Beautiful piece of writing!

  4. I found your site on THE APPALACHIAN PROJECT FB page, and am so glad I did. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story and will move on to your next one. It so reminded me on my own childhood in WV. Thank you so much for sharing!

  5. You have made my day! I am so glad you enjoyed my tale, I enjoyed writing it so much and have been touched that it has been so well received.