Saturday, April 4, 2020

Find my books on Amazon!

Fiction or nonfiction. I enjoy writing in a variety of genres, just as I enjoy a variety of visual art mediums.

Find me on Twitter... @_RLMT.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Keep Going! (Memoir, part 2.)



Winston Churchill said, "If you're going through hell, keep going." I concur. Stubbornness has saved me a lot of grief. Not that it hasn't made other grief, but that's not the story I'm about to tell.

The part of Kentucky I've always known is different from the rest of the world, and it has its peculiarities even over most aspects of Appalachian culture. It's insular, though that's easing up.

It was once known as The Land of Saddlebags, thanks to a book of the same title by James Watt Raine. Roads in and out were scarce. One rode a horse or mule, or walked, to get around. There were nurses who traveled so among the hills, playing midwife, and librarian women who came to bring books to the back of beyond. It was a place full of diversity and was a big source of exports prior to the Civil War.

Since the people saw little of the outside world, though bigots touted the supremacy of white skin, the truth was very different. People went to church on Sunday, because it was a measure of conformity, and because they had been raised to do so. Faith is a word with many facets, good or bad.

I was there when my great-grandmother was laid out by the funeral home; no one saw fit to block a child from the truth, life always ending in death. (Since my mother was a beautician, I saw her do hair and make up on many corpses.) I was there, too, when my grandmother was laid out. Also my mother. Three generations of women. Many aunts, uncles, cousins, and even a sibling lay there on that same slab, and most of them I said goodbye to before the fancy dressing and padded box stage. Death terrifies us all until we get a close look at it; after that, it's the dread of the unknown that keeps us all hopping.

My great-grandmother always said, "I don't fear dying, but I do fear the sting of the asp." (In her far-older version of English, what she said was actually more like, "Ah don' fear a-dyin', jus' fear th' sting o' the asp, childern.") That's a reference to the King James Bible, Proverbs 23:32, "At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder." The way she said it, it sounded more like she was afraid of snakes. I was a teenager, before I understood what she meant. When she lay dying, her organs simply worn out with age at beyond 100 years of use, the nurses tried to tell my mother what was going on, and stuck on that old memory, Mom turned to me and said, "What must I do?"

Dad wasn't there, having had to go do something else. I was. I thought about it, having heard the options of forcing food or giving IV fluid to prolong life, which would disrupt the euphoric state of painless brain function, and I had seen the rapid eye movement and halting breath of my ancestor. I stood up straight and answered. "Mom, you have to let her go. She deserves peace. She's been there for this family for a century. She can't stay forever. Let her have this grace. Go sit with her and tell stories that would make her laugh."

Mom didn't see the nurse wilt with relief and flip me a thumbs-up. She just nodded and sat back down to hold her grandmother's hand. The woman told me later she had been so afraid Mom would fail to make a clear decision, as she had done before. Dad had spoken with her earlier, and explained the problem.

In a region where being able to buy liquor is a milestone of adulthood, I sat down beside the old woman, memorized her glaucoma-blasted eyes, the hooked nose, the strong cheekbones and skin as brown as my own, but at an advanced age, and thought about her stories. When Dad came back, he spoke with the nurses first, before coming in the room. He gave me a nod. I turned my seat over to him and went for a walk around the facility.

When my grandmother passed, it was a similar scene. Though my Mamaw was about a foot shorter than her mother, and blonde before the gray came in, the same hooked nose and cheekbones lay beneath the marks of aging. I was with both my parents when they died, and have seen other deaths occur. The worst of it is that I developed a need not to allow anyone to die alone, if I could help it.

It's a part of our culture. From the cradle to the grave, the land calls us home. Different churches, different beliefs, but a stubborn solidarity throughout.

All of the elderly people I grew up around used sea-going phrases or sayings that developed in faraway lands. I can remember a few.

"Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning. Red sky at night, sailor's delight."
"Gag at a gnat, swallow a camel."
"That's the straw the broke the camel's back."  
"In for a penny, in for a pound."

Mamaw (Mom's mother) used an old story to scare me when she thought I was misbehaving. A figure of raw hide and bloody guts, lurking in the chimney. I later found it was a Cherokee story, turned around. Instead of a smoke hole, she used "chimney." I was forbidden to eat fish and drink milk in the same meal... a food taboo I still can't place.

In the mists of time, much is lost. Information not written down fades away, and new generations must either replace it or build new. It's all about the story we come from, and where we're going in it. Things not passed along, parts of family history, are done so at a price too precious, in my opinion. Hiding shame or displaying a lack of dignity is a stone flung into a pool where the ripples never end.

Death is not the end, but a passing of the torch; the disapproval of elders is a scourge used on the most rebellious. We stand up straight, to make our mistakes or successes with equal dignity, or we hide beneath a garden of stony silence.

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Voices Make Me Do it. [Writing sample and commentary.]


The Appalachia, specifically Kentucky, that I knew in my childhood is fading fast. People were different back then, more down to earth and practical. That doesn't mean they were or are lacking compassion; the opposite is true. The proof is in the music and arts made popular by their ease of use on front porches, where swatting summer mosquitoes and singing off key while frogs sang all night out at the pond was the usual evening entertainment. Cold ice tea, beer, fried chicken, and biscuits. Home. To remember is to carry forward the battle, a blended culture based on story telling. A region respecting the art of bards.


There are few songs in Appalachian music to rival the bittersweet beauty of Put My Little Shoes Away. In the song, a dying child asks its mother to put away its most treasured belongings, a pair of little shoes. "Give them all my toys, Mother, but put my little shoes away..." It's tragic and vivid. It cries out to our heritage, the strength of generations of immigrants, poverty and struggle versus hard work and honest profit.


From time to time, fragments of the past float up in my brain, creating voices where none existed, almost as if time and experience have created spirits that refuse to lie down and rest. When that happens, I have to let it flow. Open the valve, let it flow. Otherwise, the pain of silence is unbearable.

The following is what became of one such inner episode:

Momma says I shouldn't talk to strangers, but you're a neighbor, so it should be ah'ight. Them's right purty flow'rs you got there; I bet my granny would like 'em. She grows all kinds o' flow'rs. Momma says hit's a waste o' time, a waste of good sleepin' hours. Momma's at work down at the rest'rant right now.

Yesterday hit rained, I know. Got a lot o' mud puddles in th' road. I like to ride my bike through 'em, but Momma gits mad when I git m' good clothes dirty. She says she reckons warshin' clothes hain't a good pass-time when you're tired.

Lookee, I got me a candy-bar. Momma just got the food-stamps; they call that "SNAP Benefits" now, she said, but hit's the same thing. 'Long 'bout the end of the month, won't be no candy, cause the money and the food stamps done run out. So's I make 'em last, the two candy-bars I git. Got a Pay-Day so there wouldn't be choc'late to melt in my pockets. Purty smart, eh? Well, I miss the choc'late. But not as much as I like the sweet lastin'.

Yessum, I know that, an' I brush my teeth. When Momma can get some toothpaste. Some of the bristles is gone outta m' toothbrush, but I still use it. Hain't got 'nother'n. Just the one. But it still works. Momma says soap an' soda's about all she can handle paying for, an' toilet paper. Gotta have gas t' git t' work, an' hit's precious to buy. Can't waste ary dollar on frippery, Granny says. Momma says 'yes ma'am'.

Momma sleeps a lot. I gots a key to the house, see? Granny sleeps a lot too; she says she's just restin' her eyes. Granny's supposed to watch me, but I wake her up before Momma gits home and we sit an' eat sammidges in front of the TV with ice-tea. Gotta knock that dang cat outta the way, ever' time. Sits on the footstool and scratches them fleas like hit was a preacher poundin' on the pulpit a-Sunday. Granny calls 'at cat names, then tells me not to say 'em. Not fair, I call it.

Yesterday I helped weed the garden an' pulled up some plants I wasn't s'posed to. That's where 'at bruise come from. Momma said she's sorry, just so tired she can't think straight. Worrit, I reckon, 'bout Granny an' me an' the 'lectric bill. We all gotta drain on Momma. I split out a pair of jeans an' ripped a shirt last month when some kid called me a welfare bastard, whatever that is, an' I pounded his head some. Momma was still upset over bein' woke up by the school an' replacin' my clothes, so the garden thing hurt more. I didn't mean to harm, hit just happened while the sweat was runnin' in my eyes. Reckon the bruise'll heal. Usually does.

Well, I gotta run now. 'Bout time to feed Granny an' git me a bolony sammidge too. Momma'll be home soon. Work t' do. 'Bye, now.
.......................................

This is a work of fiction (social commentary, a story told by a storyteller) based on composite fact, told in the voice of a child living in the hills of Appalachia, dealing with the problems of his youth as has every one of his ancestors has done before him. Times change, problems remain, yet the people endure and adapt as they must, and go on.

Copyright: author R.L.M.Tipton (Home page http://songoftheraincrow.blogspot.com)

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The hard part? (Memoir.)




                          

     The Hard Part? 


 


The hard part is the beginning.
A body has no choice about who, what, when, why, or how. You have to go along for the ride.

It all started in a Lexington hospital, a ten month baby staring, confused, into the light of an early morning, bereft of a warm shelter. Dad was there with my siblings, when the doctor ran out into the waiting room, threw wide the towel he'd wrapped me in, and said, "It's a girl, see?"

It had to improve from there, trust me. There have been ups and downs. So far, I've handled whatever came at me. I hope I've done so with a measure of enduring aplomb, but hey, I'm still new at this. Aren't we all?

Growing up in eastern Kentucky during the early 1960s was a unique experience. I remember my mother's grandmother well; she was born in Clay County, Virginia, and came "west" when she was about ten years old, in a caravan of wagons with her family and others. That was around 1901, according to what I was told. They had sheep, a form of livestock I didn't become remotely familiar with until I was in my thirties.

I wasn't a "normal" child by today's standards. I was late born, my parents old enough to, technically, be my grandparents. I knew both of my mother's parents and my father's mother. Yet I had siblings who were teenagers shortly after my birth.

Intruder! Yes, that's me. And I did make the most of it. After I got a pair of eyeglasses, especially. It's kind of hard to be a kid trying to conquer the world when you can't see where the hell you're going.

I've survived, nonetheless, to a little over half of Mom's mother and grandmother's ages... they lived to be over 100. Mom, alas, made it to 88, as did Dad, before passing on. I survived with a healthy phobia for nursing homes and hospitals, and a long string of odd skills that seem to be fading away from the Appalachian heritage.

If you can't hunt, fish, preserve meat and vegetables, work leather, grow a garden, handle horses and hunting dogs, or drive a mule in the log woods, you've got a lot of catching up to do where I'm concerned. I was outside more hours than inside, as a child, and had the brown skin to prove it.

Mom remembered being a small child among her young cousins, taking the colorful beads and ribbons of her paternal grandmother's ceremonial clothing while the old woman rocked, crying unashamed tears, knowing that the time was coming when her children's children would have to pass as white in an intolerant world. I was born with a full head of long, black hair over light olive skin, a throwback who turned brown when kissed by sunlight. On some level it bothered my mother. I remember screaming in pain when she tried to use Ajax or Commet, some gritty scrubbing cleaner, with a harsh brush, in a very misguided effort to remove the "black" from my elbows and knees. Thankfully, Dad heard me and stopped her. When I say it was painfully funny, I mean that in all ways.

To sum it up, the family story is of a strong measure of Cherokee and some Choctaw genetics in the family. We all had or have scoop-teeth in front, along with other physical markers. There is no registry involved, no genetic testing being suitable either, and so it rests. I can give nothing to the Nations, and so I ask little of them beyond my usual, which is "Teach me." It will have to be good enough.

Papaw (Mom's father) taught me to make a fish trap. Mamaw (or Granny... Mom's mother) , taught me to cook and can. Dad taught me gardening, hunting, fishing, how to process all those meats and present them as edible, and to walk the woods with understanding. He also taught me horsemanship, how to train dogs, and how to learn well without a formal education. My great-grandmother, born circa 1881, told me stories while I sat in her lap; she was blind, and I helped her clean and break beans or peas, my stubby fingers already skilled with a paring knife as I cleaned away the bad spots for her.

When you grow up seeing the world through the eyes of the past, even a summer hide, a worthless, thin, almost transparent summer hide isn't quite as worthless as some would have it. Even a bluepelt has the makings of rawhide.


A brief glimpse into The Glimmerings. (Novel excerpt.)

              An excerpt from an older novel series: fantasy of the magical realism flavor.
                                                                            - RLMT.


~*~


      Something about the shape of that elderly female face worried him momentarily. She flipped something dusty at him, a substance with a delicate scent of herbs and something else held in the cloud of its passing. It glimmered, a faint glow suffusing the powdery stuff as it left her hands. When it hit him, he staggered as if slammed into by a large, heavy object.

     He heard the person say in a voice shimmering like delicate silver, yet hard as tempered steel, May your body reflect the size of your functional soul, and may only the scent of your haven release you to be whole and fulfilled. Once, twice, thrice, by the truths of the veils, so mote it be.
      A roaring wave of violent, rushing nausea swept over Logan. He aimed with sudden precision for the men’s loo door, the light around him somehow seeming to have turned a spring-leaf-green. In the bathroom, he was thoroughly sick. He wiped his dripping face with a damp paper towel, aching shudders racking his body. A slick of sweat coated him and Logan yearned for a place to rest where the cool air might soothe his misery.

~*~

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Starting over.

Established readers of this blog will notice that I've removed the past postings from it. I'm changing my life to focus on things that make me happy. I'm exhausted with the whole anxiety-for-pseudofun-and-profit game. This is my life. I intend to make the most of what's left.

Stay tuned for changes.

RLMT

Thursday, April 27, 2017

This isn't just horsing around. It's a day out of my own life. (Memoir.)

ROUGHING IT


_________



_________

A writer and visual artist, R. L. M. Tipton
is descended from Scots-Irish, German, English,
and Cherokee ancestors who first came into Powell County, Kentucky,
as early as the early 1880s,
about four generations ago.  
She is no stranger to living off grid.

_________________________________

     Every winter, responsible people worry about the roads, often wondering if they can scrape up enough cash to pay the heating bill before the pipes freeze up. It's cold, and while Kentucky is at risk for more ice storms than blizzards, it can be uncomfortable. It's hard to see the beauty in something that makes your bones ache and your wallet suffer. That's understandable.
    
    When we were kids, all we saw was a day off from school on occasion. It seemed a  fine time to go make some snow cream or slide down a nearby hill on sled of some sort.  When you're young and the cocoa's being made by someone who loves you while you deliberately turn into a human Popsicle, getting cold is a lark.

     I was the same. It's been many years since I was young and sassy, yet I have my memories of fun. I've slipped and slid using greased cardboard, real metal-runner equipped sleds, inner tubes from a big truck or tractor, or even a sheet of heavy plastic. But my most favorite activity in the winter was to ride a horse on the coldest of days, to take a wild, chilling trip around the lake and into the woods where there was no human to share that priceless experience.
     I remember one day in particular, from those years past:

     The day dawned bitterly cold; the air seemed to freeze around a breath, like the words or a sigh might fall tinkling to the ground in an instant. The snow was, for once, several inches deep and powder dry. Under it all was a thin skim of ice atop the long-frozen ground. Everything seemed white and ice blue, cold to look at, even, and bright enough to be painful to the eye. I'd been stuck in the house for what seemed like ages, but had only been overnight. And I had my mind made up: today, I would ride.

     The crackling cold was only a minor irritation compared to the need to be in the woods, old Bess carrying me along like a feather on the wind, the sharp smells of pine and frozen lake water wrapping chilly fingers around us. The woods were calling. I would have bet every dime my teenage hands could gather that old Bess was just as restless as I; kindred souls speak the same language.

     When I left the house, I had on so many layers of clothing that I waddled. The snow was slippery beneath my feet, and hiking boots took care of that nicely. In deference to the bitter cold and the wind chill of traveling horseback, I intended to skip the saddle and use Bess's warmth to aid in preventing frostbite. In the edge of the barn, I stopped to wipe my eyes. The wind was sharp, though the sunlight had turned everything in its path to cold fire. My barely-exposed cheeks were numb, my nose the same.

     I began to doubt the wisdom of my decision to ride, and had almost made up my mind to go back home when a golden head thrust over the stall wall, huffing and whickering eager welcome. Cold as I was, I melted. Who could say no to a face like that?

     The bridle was on in a trice, and I scrambled, clumsy in my many layers, onto her back. She jigged in place, trying to take the bit and go. I stayed with her, wrapping my legs in the saddle blanket I'd tossed up across her neck. The ends of it fluttered slightly in the stiff breeze at the edge of the clearing, and she reared onto her hinders for long seconds, dancing in the icy slickness with borium-enforced steel shoes. A handful of dark red mane held me up; her winter coat was sleek and full, slippery against my jeans.

     We stepped out onto the blacktop road and made our way to the far end of my parent's loop driveway. It was a steep hill, but missed the greater length of icy blacktop base to walk on. I could circle Bess around and go straight to the creek-rocked road to the lake and hill trails. The question, at that point, was not if my sassy old mare would act up, but rather when. 

 
     Near the top of the hill, almost to the house, it happened. She began her ritual telegraph of action. Right ear flickers. Left ear. Head turns to the right, then the left. I was breathless... and she wrung her tail just as I grabbed a fierce handful of thick mane.

   One more stride....

   At the top of the road there, on a level with the house, she thrust her compact, meaty rump skyward, trying to get her head down and buck. Then she quickly recovered and attempted to bolt. I compensated, laughed wildly, and stayed put. She stretched into a lope around the back of the house with both short ears perked up and forward. To the hills with us, she seemed to cry; I feel wonderful and we need to run! If I had come off on the frozen ground, it would have probably meant more than a slight injury. The ground, so uneven, was filled with saplings and stumps all around, and rough stones beneath us. I was young enough not to care, reckless enough to glory in it. The old mare was never old in heart. A fine pair we were, it was often said -- wild eyed and moving like a centaur into battle.

     The wind off the lake was razored and so cold it burned. We made it to the tree line and the hills broke the back of the killer wind for us, though the ridge-line trails were blown almost clear of snow. Here and there, tracks of deer or dog showed briefly, the wind keeping secrets in its transparent path.

     Bess took the bit in her teeth and I let her.

     Blood-dark tail a-flag, she blew hot steam from her nostrils as she pounded the ground with hard hooves. The swing of her gallop up a slight rise reached fever pitch, those short, perfect ears flattened back angrily, furious at not being able to take full flight.
 
      At the top of the ridge, she slowed up, snorting steam and dancing sideways from a cardinal that blew past us. Ears up again, she collected herself into a prancing running-walk, smooth as silk and a joy to sit. I glimpsed a fox in the distance; it went out of sight with something feathered still fluttering in its mouth. A crash of brushy stuff over the hill told tales of a whitetail doe and her fawn startled by Bess's charge up the hillside.  A murder of crows cursed us from the treetops, unafraid of the horse where a person on foot would have made all things silent within a few footfalls.

      We traveled the whole trail, coming down the backside where a slide had long ago broken the original logging trail, a path set there before the region was ripped of all the primordial forest that once grew on it. The original path makers were the woodland bison, a creature extinct for over a hundred years, perhaps more. The slide was a place best walked on a good day with a stout staff of hickory or sassafras; a horse had to travel it sitting on hind feet and haunches, and it was not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced to attempt while on horseback. 

 
     At the bottom, we cut back up into the gap of the Chaney Orchard, long abandoned and grown up. At the ridge again, we caught up with the original trail, headed east and a bit north, back toward the house. About 300 yards shy of the turn to go to the house via the kennels, I turned Bess down a small path, passing the comical "two-seater" outhouse in the woods that Dad built. We slid down the hard-clay path, a coating of white making it all but impassable by dry lubrication.

     Back on the road around the lake, we walked sedately, listening to the riot of life alive in the woods when a storm has well and truly passed us by. Woodpeckers pounded, crows cawed, Dad's Beagles tried to raise the roof because an opinionated squirrel hung over them on a dangling branch, scolding the foolish creatures for merely existing. Bess's feet echoed my heartbeat on the snow. A one and a two and a one and a two... as if we were made to think and move as one. The bit jingled and occasionally a steely shoe hit on an exposed stone. I was no longer cold. Neither of us had broken a sweat, but we were warm and happy and calm at soul and in the flesh.

      Perfect. It was a beautiful day in Kentucky. A day I will not forget. A day like none the children of today are likely to experience in their lifetimes. A priceless memory to me, a curiosity to someone else.  When I think back, I remember a fine old mare who was also my friend. 



~R.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Springtime in Kentucky, rambling for memories.

The forests are blushing a beautiful green, the color of new life almost humming against rainy skies. Dogwood "winter" has risen on the hills of eastern Kentucky, and we await the chill to follow the blackberry thickets' show of white. Though the nights may be stormy, playful breezes tickle the ridge tops by day, running invisible fingers through forgotten growths of daffodil and iris. Old homes fade away, but the earth and her children always remember.


                                                                           ~*~

My mother's old home-place on Spaus Creek, near the Red River Gorge of eastern Kentucky.
It was burned down by firebug vandals several years ago.

Copyright 1995 by R. Lee Tipton, author/artist.
                            


Behind where we're camping, there's an old house site. Not a board remains of the original structure, just a few stones used for the foundations. The main signs of a once-beloved human habitation are the wide green blades of someone's spring flower patch. Iris, daffodil, and other blooming beauties have held the faith, though the hands that planted them have long gone to dust beneath cold stone markers.

It's not unusual to find things like these in Kentucky's woodlands. Sometimes it's a pink Seven Sisters climbing rose gone wild among low-growing redbud or similar trees, other times, a rainstorm will wash the soil away from the base stones of a chimney, revealing the carefully laid hearth. I've found them while out riding horses along rough hillside trails, and never fail to step out of the saddle and offer a moment of quiet reverence for memories I don't share with the founders. I will wander and visit the surviving flower patches, seek out the spring or well, treading carefully so as not to fall into a hole no longer guarded by a wooden box.

These sites are the ultimate museums. Anthropologists hum and sparkle over a bit of rusty knife blade or a hand-axe made of stone by native hands. There are no treasures of gold and silver, and one is extremely lucky if some bright bead can be located; those who lived on these hills either moved on or passed on, and the result is the same.

Empty dooryards, a scattering of bright flowers, and time make for a quilt of patches on a patch of earth that has endured glacial formation, the changing of immigrant life since long before European influence.

I stand leaning on my walking stick, the good sense to keep watch for wakening serpents in a remote portion of my mind, and wonder at all the stories time has filed away for the earth to store. Children. Born, raised, married, and the cycle re-beginning, some simply moving away in the name of change. The urge for bright things after a long winter sending someone to grub in the soil, planting, like as not, some flower with a history all its own. All of it for the forest to re-enfold, transform, and give peace to in the way of nature's own patience.

Yesterdays are still tomorrows. We should all learn to plant flowers. The beauty of today is the ability to dream. The ability to look forward through hardship and sorrow sends us into worlds we alone can and do create.

Every old house-site makes me want to take off the cap I wear to shade my eyes, lift up a handful of living forest soil, sniff it carefully, and run it through my fingers as if it were some holy relic to count prayers on. These hills are green cathedrals, every leaf of its living guardian green recording truth and endurance.


Friday, April 14, 2017

Adventures come in all sizes. (A nonfiction story.)


Living off-grid can be an adventure. The wildlife can be large or small, but conflicts occur regardless of size. Or so I found...

Note: We now use mint oil and bay leaves to repel mice. I've never liked having to kill anything without good reason. At the time this was written, the woodland rodent population had decided to overtake our residence. They were making havoc in everything, even the big packrats finding a way in (I'm still missing some socks!) to carry things off, especially soft or shiny items. The cat, poor little girlie, was delighted with all the live toys; she was raised in-town, and had no idea about killing anything. She learned fast. From me.

                                                             B-Movie Mouse




Tossing and turning all night, dreaming repetitive dreams of visiting and helping to cook a huge meal in someone else's kitchen, waking up sweaty over and over, the air not moving at all. Nothing making a move except with the whine of a hunting mosquito.


Finally the alarm clock went off, just the buzzer on my cell phone (I'm almost always awake before the ringing actually starts) vibrating the headboard of the bed. I turn it off fast, lie still in the tangled, damp summer sheets, and pray for strength to rise and at least fake shining.

A trip to the bathroom. I hear a mousy squeak on the other side of the wall, and think, "Yeah, Lucy Jo finally got that damned mouse again! Finally." She'd played with it about a week ago, and I hadn't seen or heard it since then, though I knew she'd been watching it off and on.

I stump stiff-footed back to get dressed by the light of my clip-on flashlight. Just the basics. Fill my pockets with phone, a tiny spare flashlight, a small pocketknife, and clip my watch onto a belt loop. A pair of soft, comfortable cushion-y shoes made of foam-plastic of some sort.

Back to the bathroom to wash up a bit prior to making coffee and breakfast, a wet washcloth to clear the sweaty-face and the sandman's leavings from the corners of my eyes. I bite back a cracking yawn; bugs like to flit about under the flashlight, and I don't care for the taste of adventurous bug much.

I start to turn away from my tiny mirror, and then I hear it, realizing at last that the squeaking is a lot closer than it had been. When I look down as I turn, I see why: Lucy Jo is at my feet, looking up at me with big, joyous eyes.

"Look, Mom! I found that great toy again. Wanna play?" She seemed to indicate, looking happily from me to the mouse.

The mouse. Ah, the mouse. It was sitting less than the width of my hand, perhaps three inches, from the cat's nose, squeaking at the top of its lungs. Obviously, it was giving a mouse-to-cat cussin' that went beyond the average rodential rant. It ignored me totally. 


It hopped at the cat, seeming to rave madly in its tiny, tinny voice. "Put up your dukes, you damned feline! I swear by the Great Cheese, I'll tan your hide to nest in! Go on, y' great fool! You couldn't keep me caught last time, so why should I be afraid now? COME AND GET ME, CAT!"

I shook my head. I wasn't hearing the words, I swore to myself, I wasn't. It was merely an early morning, before the first cup of my beloved, acid-strength coffee.

Just then, Lucy Jo peeked at me again, and did a small, delicate cat-squeak of delight. "Oooh, look, Mommy! It wants to play. Play with us, please-please-please!"

The deer-footed field mouse never let up once. It was giving the cat pure hell and hopping around in a purely pugilistic manner.

I squeezed my eyes shut and reopened them, hoping the illusions would go away and I'd wake up to see that it was too early for the alarm to go off after all... but when I opened my eyes, they were still there, and I could clearly hear Ronnie snoring from his prone position on the big, soft bed.

"Lucy, please tell me you're going to go ahead and kill that thing. It's way past time." I mumbled aloud.

Inwardly snarling, I considered: foam-plastic shoes. What were the odds...? Oh, well. Here goes.

The mouse had maneuvered to between me and the cat, back to me. Ignoring me still. Lucy Jo was starting to look puzzled, wondering no doubt why I wasn't playing with her wonderful mouse, er, toy.

So I stomped the mouse. Foam-plastic shoes and all.
Sometimes one just has to stand up and protect the resident cat.

When I stepped back, by the light of the clip-on, I saw the mouse standing still. Stunned, at least. I waited. It slowly slumped forward, sneezed out a tiny blast of blood, and spasmed once.

Ahhhhh, no more mouse dancing a challenge to the resident cat. Or me.

Lucy looked first confused, then insulted. I quickly pulled over a box half full of clean litter and propped it over the little carcass. No way I was going to let her eat it after it acted so crazy!

Ronnie, hearing the noises, managed to ask me what was going on. I told him to go back to sleep, that it was all a bad dream, and any rate I hadn't had my coffee yet. He was snoring again before I got through speaking.

Oh, but that coffee tasted so good. I sat and sipped it quietly in the dark of morning, by the usual candle-light, while watching Lucy Jo wander about the house. She kept calling to the mouse as if it were a kitten: "B'ahw? B'ahw?" But her search was in vain.

Ahh, coffee... maybe it was all a bad dream, after all.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

This Appalachia, this Kentucky, is not the rest of the world. (FREE STORY.)

A country funeral
-- "adopted" family.


...

    This is a little piece of the hills I love.
It's not really a story, more of a journal entry,
a memory noted down in detail.
It's a tale, yes, of a single aspect of our Appalachian,
if you will so label it, lives here,
and the way we're all so much like people from other places ... and the way we're infinitely different
.


...



    It's hot today, but raining periodically, thunderstorms rumbling in and out of the neighborhood.

    The reason for this is that I wanted to tell you all a little something about my little corner of the world before I take off for No Internet Connection Land, and this seemed to be the best, most vivid and recent option. I hope to post it before the storms swing back into this direction, and from there... well, I'm back to packing up the last bits.

    Weather permitting, we'll haul some stuff in and set it up tonight. By the truckload if we can (only two wheel drive), and by the much smaller Jeep load if we can't. I still need more clean, strong boxes, too, and will have to get some this evening.

    Yesterday was also busy....

    Ronnie took the entire day off from work yesterday; he was designated as honorary pall bearer for a funeral. He'd have been a pall bearer, but the family was unable to find him in time to get it into the newspaper in time. Our telephone number is unlisted, our cell phones are prepaid. He was upset about the way the arrangements had to work out, and a little confused, but also very heartbroken.

    Many years ago, Ronnie lived with a local family. They not only took him in and kept a roof over his head and food for him, but they also took him into their family completely. Not on paper, not in any computer, but in a place that matters far more: in their hearts. Monroe and Darleen treated Ronnie like their own children of the flesh, making room for a fourth with no discrimination between them.

    As in most families, there was a certain amount of "sibling" conflict, and in the end, to keep the peace, Ronnie left the family and moved back in with his maternal grandmother. She was happy to have him, as was his grandfather.

    I have been lucky enough to know all of these people from Ronnie's past. Of them, only my Ronnie, Darleen (who has fought various forms of cancer for many years now) and her three blood children remain alive. Ronnie's grandfather died first, eaten alive by cancer. His grandmother died many years later, several years ago, the 'Old Timer's disease' combined with arthritis, a worn-out heart, and numerous other problems associated with old age. Monroe (pronounced "MON-roe") died on Monday, of cancer he hadn't fought for more than a few months.

    We didn't sleep well the night before, which is normal for us. But that we both were tired when we got up was unusual. Ronnie usually hits the floor in full charge, all steam ahead and damn the torpedos! I, ahem, am far more ... decorous (limpy, drabbled in leftover sleep, and more than a shade grumpy prior to strong coffee). I checked the forecast on the radio, and was surprised to hear that the long-awaited rains had been taken out of the listings for the day. Odd. The humidity was heavy enough to float your hat on, and the tree leaves were all turned upside down on the water-trees across the driveway, each leaf quivering independently with the changes in the atmosphere.

    When the fog burned off, the day turned seriously hot. By 10:00 am, it was already in the mid-80s F., and the humidity was if anything stronger. Yet the sun was brassy-hot in the sky, the sky itself faded from a pleasant blue to a washy white.

    The funeral was at 11:00 am, in a small-town chapel in Clay City, a neighboring town in the same county we live in. We went in a shade late -- the ceremonies had already begun -- so we snuck down the hallway of the old converted house and into a seat in the back of the family section, as we'd been instructed to do. Several smiles met us along the way, some faces that we knew, some that we didn't. More than one face was surprised to see us there at all, as we were of them in turn.

    As usual in such a place, the folding seats had cushions that were as hard as the wood itself, and would have done the Spanish Inquisition for torture instruments. The whole place was done up in an insipid, slightly off-key shade of fleshy pink, even the carpet. Every curtain at the numerous windows was drawn tight shut, the bright daylight filtered through this sickly rose and promptly gave me a headache, something I almost never get. Every incandescent lightbulb in the place was lit, obviously by someone who had the inclinations of an anemic Anne Rice vampire.

    Honestly, I don't like pink. It's a personal thing. I think the headache was the pressure of a sheer desire to get up and paint the place a nice soothing blue-gray or something, just to get rid of the wide pinkish pinstripes and fluttery flower patterned wallpaper. Some of the local florists had tried to combat the sickly color by sending large, bright yellow and white flowers. The effect was worse than ever.

    There were three preachers. I was in hell.

    After a bit, I dropped into a meditative state, getting rid of the headache, the pukey pink decor, and the droning voices crying out in loud enthusiasm periodically. "PRAISE the LORD!" The occasional bout of music, not live as many of these occasions bring out, poured crackling from inadequate speakers thankfully located in the hallway we'd come in through, and thus was less than direct in damage to my ears. Ronnie curled an arm around me, and I eased over against his side. He patted my shoulder, more to comfort himself than to comfort me, though I'm sure he knew I wasn't comfortable with things.

    Through this meditative filter, I was able to listen objectively to the men who spoke (no women at all spoke) about the deceased. They told little stories about Monroe's skill as a carpenter, his joy in helping friends, his unspoken kindnesses, and his unflagging spirit.

    They spoke of his sneaky, harmless sense of humor and the pranks he loved to play on those he cared most about. One man, a brother-in-law told of a mule that Monroe worked for a long time, a mule belonging to a good neighbor.

    It seems that Darleen had noticed that Monroe would sometimes ride the mule home for 'dinner' (lunch), and sometimes Monroe would arrive on foot, leading the mule instead. So she asked him about it one day. He told her, "Well, you know when I go back out after dinner, and bend one o' them ears of that mule down?" She hadn't seen him do this, but nodded, thinking she'd only missed something. "I ask that mule if I can ride. Sometimes he'll let me, sometimes he won't." So after he ate lunch that day, and every day thereafter while he worked the mule, he would go out and bend down one of those long, expressive ears, and pretend to whisper into it, then listen for a reply. After that, as often as not, he rode the mule away. The rest of the time, he led it.

    Monroe had let the brother-in-law, also a good friend, into the secret joke. The punchline of this was that Darleen had never caught on to the gag.

    The hard-working mule was a "telegrapher" -- he would tell on himself by certain repeated actions if he was in a mood to act up and misbehave. In this case, the mule communicated his displeasure by lowering both ears. If those ears went down, Monroe stayed safely on the ground. The mule would work in harness, but not tolerate being ridden on those days.

    This story brought every person in the funeral home to a smile, and most of us to outright laughter. There was, in the crowd, an accumulation of horse and mule enthusiasts that outnumbered the others by a huge margin. Every one of us in the majority got the joke, because we'd all been in his place: most horses or mules have a tell-tale like that. My old Bess was a classic, which was why I could ride her when I was only sixten, when grown men couldn't stay on her for any amount of time. This story brought kinship, it brought understanding of the person, Monroe, who was gone from this life.

    After an hour of laughter and tears, of hearing countless "PRAISE the LORD!" outbreaks, and of pink miseries, the funeral broke up and the mourners were allowed to view the deceased for one last time.

    "He looks good."

    "They did a good job on him, didn't they?"

    "Ay, Gods. I'm a-gonna miss him."

    "He was a good soul, and a good carpenter. Why, he built my barn! Did I ever tell you...."

    "Bless you, sister. Bless you, child. He's watching you, and he knows your love is dear."

    The smell of flowers in the close place, with the air conditioning laboring to catch up with the day, was overpowering. Ronnie patted Monroe's hand one last time, I had a look (and said my piece under my breath so as not to offend anyone with my own beliefs). We dodged through the throng on the wide, long porch to a location light on colognes and perfumes and body heat. Ronnie hopped off the edge of the porch after a while to go see Darleen and her (adult) children for a few minutes. I stood my ground on sore feet -- not having a good day with the pain -- and watched the crowd for signs of the pall bearers carrying the coffin.

    Children romped in the small yard, parents and grandparents of every description chasing after them while all wore their Sunday best. There were more smiles and tears all around. I felt like an outside observer, leaning on a porch post alone, wondering at the unique combinations of interaction.

    When the pall bearers came out, loud wails also split the air. My headache hit apex, and I quickly shut it down again. The humidity was more pressing than any personal preferences, and contributed a lot to my discomfort. I wasn't the only one in distress; I saw many people fade off the edges of the crowd immediately.

    When the vehicles (all kinds, from beat-up old farm trucks and SUVs to a glossy BMW and both a new and a Classic Corvette) were all lined up to the funeral director's satisfaction, the procession began. All through town they took Monroe on his last ride, swinging onto a main side road just inside the other edge of the town's limits. We rolled slowly along, looking down on Red River, where wild cane grew in blotches among other tall weeds. Houses on the other side of the stream had beautiful, rich gardens all along the way. The soil is strong where the river feeds the land. A patch of dried thistle stalks stood tall, strung out on a narrow steep bank alongside the road for most of a mile. I saw birds take flight after a hawk who had intruded on their territory.

    Ronnie wiped the sweat from his face, letting the open windows do the work of our long-forgotten (to recharge) air conditioning system in the Jeep Cherokee. He too was watching the land along the road. A rock bluff on our left, the river on the right. The road lay just above flood level, a main artery to the next county.

    Just a couple of miles out, the procession of mourners turned into a hidden driveway entrance surrounded by weeds and neighbored by cluttery little houses perched on what passes for high ground along that stretch. Every vehicle, regardless of make and model, drove along the gravel road and through a cowpasture. Where the creek crossing had to be made, we all lurched across a water-fissured slab of solid stone, splashing the water flowing over it into little fountains, rooster-tails of sunlit liquid spraying and squirting up to sparkle and fall back, passing along on its way to the distant sea.

    The graveyard, when we arrived, sat perched on a little knoll, a brief island that the floodwaters probably never touch. It wasn't much to look at; the whole area enclosed by the woven wire farm fencing was smaller than what an average sized brick veneer ranch house would occupy.

    Every low-slung car in front of us was searching for a place to park, and I indicated to Ronnie that he take our Jeep up on the bank beside the road proper, nosing it into the fence near the gate. He concurred with my assessment: not too far to walk, and it would let others have better places to park cars that had their limits in efficiency.

    We got out and stepped carefully around the Jeep, dress shoes not being the weapon of choice for combatting fresh cow pies. Someone had already stepped in one, I pointed out the slick smear to Ronnie and he grinned. We swung wide and arrived at the open gate with clean footwear. Others weren't so lucky -- or careful. Several people took time to stop at the gate post to prop up and check their shoes, then some wandered away from the crowd into the thicker grass, hoping to wipe away some of the evidence on the pasture itself.

    Dresses. Jeans. Suits. Jewelry. Tattooes. Hats, caps. Bib overalls. All clean, all respectful, all quiet. It was a swirl of hot faces, hot tears, hot sun, and it all centered on one green canvas canopy over a neatly dug hole, covered with plywood and a piece of green indoor-outdoor carpet. One large metal box, tightly sealed.

    In a short while, the service was over. All goodbyes had been said ceremoniously, and the mass of mourners began to talk in little clumps, some of the family carrying away a rose from the spray atop the coffin for a souvenir of love and memories.

    Darleen came to Ronnie like a moth to flame, patting him on the arm, hugging him, teasing him about her "poor" cooking and how he was the "only-est one who ever liked it!" Ronnie gave her a hug and responded in kind.

    After the hugging session, Darleen reared back and looked at Ronnie with suddenly ancient eyes. "Do you think he'd have been proud of me, Ronnie? This is the first funeral I ever sat the whole way through. Sick or not. Whether I loved the person or not -- family, friends, all of them. I went, said my piece of goodbye, and left. Not this time." She swallowed hard. "This time, I wanted to be here through it all. I'd... I'd follered him for so long, I reckon I just wanted to foller him as far as I could go right now."

    There were no tears in her eyes, only in her voice, so I made the offering for her. One of her grandchildren hugged me tight, patted Darleen on the shoulder and let me walk away alone. Ronnie followed me after a while.

    "Why'd you do that?" He asked curiously.

    "Because she couldn't. Not now, not this soon."

    "She will."

    "But not right now. She can't. She's the strong one for all of them." I indicated the family and extended family all bunched up once again around the coffin. "So I did it for her. I just know how I'd feel if it was me in her place."

    He fell silent, thinking. There was no more conversation as we dodged back among the cow pies to the Jeep. It was hot, the sun seeming to hold back all the cool for fear that it would rain on a solemn occasion.

    We'd been asked to come to the house and eat, as is our custom in this region. When we got there, we were taken in, both of us, with complete acceptance and affection, as if Ronnie had never left them and I had been there all along. Heaps of food awaited us, but my appetite had fled with the heat.

    Monroe's tiny little Chihuahua dog, a pet he'd bought for his beloved wife Darleen but ended up being claimed by himself, took up with Ronnie and I, begging for food from our plates, which she got. Poor little thing, she wandered in and out, watching every person who came in the gate, listening to every vehicle that passed on the road beyond the fenced yard, looking for someone who would never come home again.

    I claimed a thin ham sandwich, wishing for a thick, messy slab of garden tomato from the house, and followed it up with some dead-ripe slices of cantalope. A Pepsi washed it down. Ronnie gorged himself, as he usually does, cracking jokes with first this person and that. I simply sat, my left foot aching so badly that I was almost sick from it. I wanted to go lie down, but put it off, keeping to a polite joking tone with everyone who spoke to me, saying nothing about being uncomfortable in any way. They'd had enough. Monroe's daughter was so jittery and lost without "Daddy" that her grown daughter took over the hostess duties and made her mother go out on the porch for a while.

    As soon as we had eaten, and escaped the house to step outside, one of Monroe and Darleen's sons grabbed us for a tour of the menagerie. It was as always, even though they had moved house since I'd last visited with them.

    A Boer goat, a wether, naa-naaaa-naaaa'd constantly from a pen it shared with a fat nanny. Chickens and turkeys, geese, pidgeons -- many a fowl creature lurked in the narrow acreage between the house and a mobile home belonging to a neighbor. All of them healthy and clean. One caught my eye right away.

    It was a white goose with four wings! The tour guide, the oldest son, explained to us that the bird had been born that way, two normal wings and two turned upside down below the main ones. "It ain't never bothered it none. Mommy wouldn't take a farm in Georgia for that bird!" He wondered aloud if they'd have to get rid of some of the animals, or all of them. The younger son replied that she'd said to sell some, just a little while ago. I nodded, as did Ronnie. We'd been there when she told him.

    "Well, I reckon somebody's gonna get screwed when they get that noisy-assed damn goat! It ain't shut up once since Daddy brought it home." Ray snorted in disgust. The goat chimed in with a particularly long naaaaaaaaaaaa. "See what I mean?"

    We had to laugh. Flowers, critters, and children in this place met with equal care, all they had to give. These people weren't rich, just average folks with an adequate retirement, happy to make the adjustments that meant something beyond survival. They loved life, both Monroe and Darleen.

    Now Darleen is alone, Monroe having passed on this week, but for her grown-up children and a mess of grandchildren adult to still in diapers. She'll miss her dear Monroe for the rest of her life, however long she can fight the cancer. Her thin, chemical-shorn locks of gray are battle scars from a life never easy, yet always full of joy.

    It was the hardest thing I've ever done, keeping a dry eye when she held up a fluffy red teddy bear with "KISS ME!" sewn into a heart on its chest, and said, "This was my last Valentine's present from Monroe. Ain't it a pretty? Feel how soft it is. I could just hold it forever." At this juncture, her youngest grandson toddled up, grabbed the sentimental toy and jogged off to the kitchen to show it to MeMe (Mommy). Darleen laughed, watching, and said not a word. Monroe would have loved to see that baby with the bright bear, just one more time. Her face was lit with memories.

    ...

    (c.) 7-27-2007, by Rhonda L. M. Tipton