Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today:
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.
From, “A Prayer in Spring,” by Robert Frost
“Grandma, what’s a Camel Light?” It had been a hot and humid typical midsummer’s evening in the great state of Tennessee. The wood door was open with the hopes a cool breeze might find its way through. I sat on the back steps and gazed up at the night sky watching for shooting stars while I waited for my bath water to heat. In the kitchen behind me, it suddenly became deathly quiet. I glanced over my shoulder through the screen-door at my grandma. She had paused in the middle of taking the big, iron pot of boiling water off the stove, and stared at me over the top of her glasses. This was never a good sign.
“Where in the name of all that’s holy, did you hear that?”
From the living room I heard a snort of laughter. That’s where my grandpa sat listening to the radio. “Henry Lee Evans,” I replied. “He said we thought we were better than other folks and gonna be the only ones in heaven, ‘cause we were Camel Lights.”
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“Well, you have to consider the source darlin’. Them little kids haven’t had much of a chance, what with their daddy bein’ the way he is and all. Lord knows their sweet mama has tried. She shore led her ducks to pore water there.”
I had heard the stories that circulated in the community about “Ole Man Evans.” He was the personification of the Boogey Man to me. Never mind the fact he was a real flesh and blood person, and the father of some of my closest playmates. It was said he was mean and worked his older boys like mules. If they didn’t do to suit him, he would whip them with the plow lines. If their mama tried to intervene he would then turn on her. It seemed the entire neighborhood knew of the situation, but no one ever tried to do anything to help. Child abuse and domestic violence were not house-hold words back then. What a man did in his own home with his family was his business. There hadn’t been many folks around who would interfere. There was a time in small isolated areas like Johnson’s Bend, a man such as Mr. Evans, might have gotten a late night visit from a group of, concerned citizens. The other men in town would come together and mete-out a good old fashion “butt whuppin’.” People in these backwoods places liked to handle their own affairs. They didn’t take kindly to strangers snooping around in their business.
“I would bet, if I were a bettin’ woman,” Grandma said. “Course I’m not, that Henry Lee hasn’t been to church a half-a-dozen times in his life. He’s probably heard someone else say that and thought he could insult you by callin’ you a ‘Campbellite’—and there is no such thing. Only mean spirited people who don’t know any better use that word. When you’re older I’ll explain all of it to you.”
Another one of those, ‘when you’re older things,’ I had thought. Sure would be a lot of stuff I would know when I got older. I figured I might end up as smart as Grandma.
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“Anyways, Bobby Ray told him to shut-up,” I said. From the living-room I heard the Carter Family singing ‘Beautiful Home’ on the radio, but the music didn’t drown out the sound of Grandpa’s laughter.
Grandma poured the last pot of hot water into the tub. “Shuck them dirty clothes off and get in, mind you test it first with your big toe.” I peeled off my clothes and climbed into the tub and sat down. “Here, lean back and let me wash your hair, then you can do the rest,” Grandma said. “Where’d you get all this sand and mud in your hair? You been in that creek again?”
“You’re gonna get snake bit child, if you don’t stay outta there.”
“Yes mam. Grandma, what’s it like to have a baby?”
Grandma stopped scrubbing my head. I looked up at her and she looked down at me, over the top of her glasses again. “Now what brought that on?” she asked.
“Henry Lee says havin’ a baby is like a chicken shootin’ an egg out its butt, that so?”
Grandpa continued to laugh loudly from the other room. I wondered what was so funny on the radio. Grandma got up from her knees and went and closed the door between the kitchen and the living room. I didn’t understand why she had done this. Grandpa never came in while I was taking a bath. He said I was a young lady now and it wouldn’t be proper.
“It appears Henry Lee was an over-flowin’ fount of information today,” Grandma said dryly, and went back to washing my hair.
“Ow Grandma, too hard,” I yelled.
“Sorry. You know, you may have to quit playin’ with the Evans kids, if Henry Lee can’t
D. R. Bucy/THE DARK SIDE OF DIXIE 18
keep all his worldly knowledge to himself.”
“Yes mam, well, is it?”
“Is it what?”
“Grandma!” I exclaimed in exasperation. “Is havin’ a baby like a chicken shootin’ an egg out its butt?”
Grandma had thought for a moment. “I suppose there’s a similarity of sorts, but you don’t need to worry ‘bout that now. When you’re…”
“I know, I know, when I’m older.” Down in the bottom, a whip-per-will called. A few moments later from farther away, I heard another one. It had seemed like a good time to change the subject. “Grandma, why do the whip-per-wills make that sound every night ‘bout this time?” Finished with my hair, Grandma sat back in her chair watching to see that I washed everything else to her satisfaction.
“They’re talkin’ to one another,” she said. “When they get home at night they like to sit on their tree branch and tell each other about their day. Like we set on the front porch and visit with neighbors sometimes.”
I looked back at Grandma and thought she was only funning me, but she looked serious. “But they all sound alike,” I replied.
“To us maybe, but not to the other whip-per-wills.” I had guessed Grandma was right. I knew she did know everything, Grandpa had said so every day.
Final teaser before the book’s release later this summer.