14 February 2011

The Spring From Whence I Came

I never met my great-grandfather, but I can clearly remember my great-grandmother from my childhood. I remember her gardening; pulling up weeds and pushing a lawn mower when she was nearly ninety-nine years old. Whenever we visited her, I always wanted to play in the creek by her house. The tiny stream rushed over boulders that I would climb up and down. I would find rocks to build dams in the stream. It was one of my favorite games. I suppose the game didn't really have a purpose other than to create something. And maybe to assert control over something strong and relentless like nature; something like water that can't really ever be tamed. But, that's not how I saw it as a child. I just thought that rivers and streams and creeks were fun as hell.

I remember my great-grandmother seeming tough but graceful, even in her old, old age. She was always smiling when we visited and seemed to be infinitely gracious of everyone around. My mother says she was an amazing cook when she was younger. The recipes I grew up eating were derived in her kitchen. The biscuits were masterpieces made from scratch; made with real lard. 

There was a mentally handicapped man named Carl that lived next door to her who was a savant banjo picker. She took care of him until the last day that she was physically able. He passed away not long after her. The doctor's called it something or another - he was pretty old, after all - but, everyone around knew the truth. It was her glowing life-spirit that was keeping him alive all those years. She nourished the people around her with it.

I remember my great-grandmother's house. It was old and it felt old and it smelled old. It was often covered in black dust from the nearby coal mines and the trucks carting the country’s energy up and down the mountainside. The floor plan was laid out such that it was one big loop; a young child’s racetrack of old books and black and white photos and dishes and one thousand other things I didn't comprehend then and didn't really care to. Intimacy made me nervous when I was young - even familial intimacy. I was embarrassed to hear family stories and mortified when someone asked me if I had a girlfriend.

There was a real fireplace in her house and I remember seeing pieces of coal burning in it. There was a sun room with green carpet that made me strangely uncomfortable. The house's exterior was partially constructed from stone that men in the family carried there from a nearby creek bed. More art than science, each misshapen stone had to be closely examined and re-examined to assemble the castle-esque puzzle.  Each stone had to be a perfect fit; they were massive and moving any one of them was a huge undertaking. But they finished the walls and they never crumbled.

I once sat in our car in her driveway that was cut out of the hillside with two tall walls on either side of us while a rare mountain tornado passed right over our heads during a violent thunderstorm. The transformers on the power line in front of us exploded one after another like dominoes triggering fireworks.

She once told my sister that she had always grown a few cotton plants in her garden to remind her of her childhood. She said they always grew fields of cotton when she was young; that some of it was a kind of special cotton; that as a little girl, she knew some of the men that worked the fields would sometimes pick some of that special cotton and go out behind the barn, roll it in tobacco leaves and smoke it.

She hadn't been expected to live as long as she did. Decades earlier she had fallen extremely ill. The situation was so dire that there came a time when the doctor who was visiting her home took the waiting family outside and told them all that she was on the edge of passing and that they should say their final goodbyes before it was too late. But, when everyone came back into the room she was sitting up, revived and asked, "Where have you all been?" as if nothing were wrong. My mother was always very close with her and she later confided that when everyone had left the room there was a bright, warm light that slowly crawled up her body. And she was better. This is story that my family tells. When they recount it, their faces are grave. She lived another thirty years or so.

I never met my great-grandfather, but I was told the story of his wedding day wherein he married my great-grandmother. It was supposed to be a shared wedding. Him and his brother were marrying my great-grandmother and her sister. It all seemed picturesque on paper, but when the wedding day arrived the brides were dressed and smiling and the grooms were nowhere to be found. But, strangely, no one panicked. Everyone waited. And waited. And waited. When they all got hungry, the guests began to eat the food meant for the reception. They picked at it until it was all gone. And still they waited.

The sun was setting when my great-grandfather and his brother finally arrived on horseback. They had decided that morning to celebrate their upcoming nuptials with a round of whiskey. And while the guests were waiting, the whiskey kept pouring. And pouring. And pouring. At some point in this misguided (and certainly inebriated) celebration of their good luck in love, my great-grandfather accidentally shot himself in the leg with his pistol. When their horses trotted into the ceremony his leg was still bleeding.

Although it was nightfall by then, the pastor had waited patiently for the arrival of the grooms. The guests were all still waiting. A doctor amidst them bandaged my great-grandfather's leg and the vows were said. The reception meal had long since been consumed, but the guests had mercifully left the wedding cake. The cake was sliced and the bond of marriage was formed, even as the whiskey tinged blood soaked slowly through the bandages.

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