Sunday, September 10, 2017

Waning Days of Summer



"There is a midsummer. There is a midwinter.  But there is no midspring or midautumn. These are the seasons of constant change. Like dawn and dusk they are periods of transition. But like night and day and day and night they merge slowly, gradually.  As Richard Jefferies once wrote, broken bits of summer can be found scattered far into the shortening days of fall. Only on calendars and in almanacs are the lines of division sharply defined." Edwin Way Teale: Autumn Across America




We came to Kentucky in the early spring of 2010, thus our 8th summer here is sliding inexorably into another autumn. Each season we have experienced has shown variables--we can't state with any surety how March should feel, whether drought or rain should usher in July, when to expect the 'killing frost' that will tip us into 'winter.'
There was rain this July and August which kept the garden growing; lawns stayed green rather than turning brown and crisp.
There were surprisingly cool evenings when Jim laughed at me for bringing along a sweater  when we headed for the porch rocking chairs at dusk.


Mornings are cool now with mist wrapping the valley, seeping up in white drifts from the creek beyond the fields. Wet grass shimmers in the early sun.  The boy cats rush out to greet the day, returning with legs and bellies soaked.  The outside cats step daintily along the concrete walk, waiting for the sun to reach the edge of the porch.


My flower gardens so arduously tended in the spring, have been inundated with weeds of every sort. Where do they come from?  Cosmos rise above the  untidiness, airy, delicate, tenacious.


This wasn't a good year for nasturtiums. They straggled limply from their pots, bloomed fitfully, went to seed.  A few tendrils have revived, offering brilliant blossoms which tempt the hummingbirds.


In mid August we drove to a local nursery hoping to buy broccoli and cabbage plants.  Most years a fall planting gives us  yields well into November or early December. The nursery owner hadn't grown any and felt sure that another local grower a few miles away hadn't opened for the fall season.
I drove to that nursery on Wednesday and learned that they had indeed been open since August 15.  The remaining plants were past prime in their tiny plastic cubes and were languishing for lack of water. They were half price.  I found two packs of broccoli, one each of red and green cabbage which I felt could be salvaged. When I brought them to the check-out counter, the young man in charge scooped them up, watered them and tucked them into plastic carrier bags.
I watered them all again that evening and by morning they looked quite promising.


We have found that small plants need protection from the enthusiastic rootling of cats.
A rickety baby crib was left here by the former owners--the spring makes a tidy planting grid.
The rails are laid down over newly seeded rows of beets and kale. 
The plants have settled well. I would have preferred setting them out two to three weeks earlier; if we have a long mild autumn we may have a harvest.


Early in August I clipped the spent blooms from the buddleia. [So much less pretentious to call it 'butterfly bush!']


The butterflies are enjoying the profusion of late blooms.


The rugosas by the steps have produced clean fresh blossoms.  The scourge of Japanese beetles has run its course for this year. 
The rugosas are dreadfully invasive--sending runners throughout the herb planting, forcing their way up against the concrete of the walk. The one nearest the steps needs to be removed, but it would be a formidable task. Jim helped me dig out the one that had grown into the porch steps, but it has taken two years of yanking out runners to be free of it. Relocated to the gravelly bank beyond the retaining wall, its thorny branches no longer pull at skin and clothing when we go down the steps.


The brilliant deep red cockscomb [celosia] is also a legacy of the former residents. I tweaked out literally hundreds of seedlings during the spring and early summer--there is a plantation of cockscomb and even now fresh seedlings erupting. 


Lavender, trimmed last month, has produced a second crop of fragrant bloom. The butterflies appreciate the sweetness; yesterday I noted a juvenile hummer swaying on a stem, before deciding that the hanging nectar feeder provided an easier meal.

Along the lane Joe Pye weed has faded into shaggy mop-heads, weighting the stalks; goldenrod is more bronze than gold; Queen Anne's lace wears brown cups of seeds.  Ironweed is still blazingly purple and wild coreopsis /tickseed billows along the roadsides.
I miss the New England asters which don't seem to thrive in Kentucky.
As summer mellows into autumn, I cherish the final weeks of color and bloom, of morning mist and afternoon warmth.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Country Store Traditions


Nearly two months ago, Jim returned from an errand with the news that Alfred and Melissa Ellis were planning to reopen the Mustard Seed Country Store and Cafe. Slowing for the turn onto Sanders Ridge Road, Jim noted vehicles in the parking lot and  a welter of tools, paint buckets and step ladders visible beyond the open doors. Closed for two years, the building was now under-going a through scrubbing, fresh interior paint, attractive landscaping.

A bench on the porch is an attractive place for a traveler to rest with a mug of coffee or a cold soft drink.

An assortment of tables and booths furnish an eating area conducive to friendly chat.



The menu board suggests plenty of options for breakfast, lunch or a quick snack.

Jim places his breakfast order on opening day.

Coolers and shelves are newly stocked with pantry staples.



Local scrimshaw artist, Jay Rose, has aranged a display of his work.

Handmade items for sale are the work of Kentucky crafters.

During the few minutes wait for your food to be prepared,  you may discover the perfect gift for a friend--or you may decide to treat yourself to something special.

The Mustard Seed was a frequent destination several years ago when we were busy with the lengthy progress of converting our Amish-built house to modern standards. Jim labored to install wiring and plumbing while I painted, substituting warm color for endless walls of shiny blue.  At some point in our work day, grubby and tired, one of us would suggest lunch at the Mustard Seed.  The store/cafe a few minutes away from the mess of work, provided an interval of neighborhood camaraderie served up with our sandwiches and drinks.
In sharing our pleasure at the recent reopening of the store, Jim and I recalled the country stores of our respective rural childhoods.

In my rural Vermont hometown it wasn't possible during the 1950's to buy a cup of coffee, let alone a sandwich or a slice of pie. Men like my Dad, heading out for a day's work, funneled the last of the breakfast coffee into a quart thermos, pushed in the cork and screwed on the handled drinking cup. With luck, the cork stayed in place, the glass liner didn't break and the coffee was still hot hours later.  
Although not equipped to serve lunch or a hot drink, the little village stores of the era could provide most of the items necessary for daily living. 
Smith's IGA was located at the west end of the village main street, conveniently next door to the First National Bank. The front door opened onto an expanse of dark well-oiled flooring, uneven and scuffed with wear. To the left stood a wooden stand divided into bins for potatoes, cabbages and onions. It wasn't an expansive produce display.
Four aisles of shelving were stocked with canned fruit, canned vegetables, several varieties of Campbell's soup, Franco-American spaghetti [a nearly tasteless wodge of pasta in an orange-red sauce, much beloved by my Dad] Van Camps' Pork and Beans. There were tins of tuna, salmon, corned beef, 'deviled ham' and Spam to keep on hand for hearty lunchbox sandwiches to sustain the working man; jars of peanut butter, jelly and marshmallow fluff were the delight of school children. 

The selection in any category wasn't large enough to create a dilemma of choice.  Baking supplies were basic: flour, sugar, cocoa, a few familiar spices in sturdy tins. Packaged snacks were limited to Fig Newtons, Oreos, Cracker Jacks, candy bars. Glass bottles of soda pop could be fished from the watery depths of a 'cooler'--Coca Cola, Nehi Orange, Grape. 
The grocery aisles converged at the back of the store near the meat counter with a 'meat-cutter' in attendance. The display case held pork chops, bulk and link sausage, hamburger, rolls of bologna.  Steak was a luxury that few could afford.  The Sunday pot roast would be cut to order while one waited.

Most families made the run once or twice per month to the bigger town nearly 20 miles away where a Grand Union and an A & P offered the novelty of greater choice. Grocery shopping finished, there was the treat of an ice cream cone or a milk shake from the soda fountain that occupied one wall of the drug store located around the street corner.
The limited selection at our small country store may not have been exciting,  but the most urgent daily needs of a rural farming community were supplied. The dry goods section of the store stocked nails, nuts and bolts, ax handles, stove pipe, the bits and pieces needed for emergency repairs in house or barn.
A glass fronted case held bottles of cough syrup, aspirin, Band Aids, iodine, Vicks Vapo-Rub. 
If a farm wife needed a new 'house dress' there were a few to consider, though most women made their own or sent off an order to 'Monkey Ward.'  The farmer could rummage around the stock of tall black rubber boots and likely find a pair in his size. 
The dry goods counter offered a utilitarian selection of socks and underwear. Nothing in the store was exotic, special or distinctive. 
When all necessary items had been collected, one trundled the grocery cart to a plain wooden counter near the front door where Mrs. Smith rang up the total on a heavy hand-operated cash register.  It was known that she extended credit to those families who were unable to pay on the spot, quietly entering the 'tab' in a small receipt book, discreetly handing over a  carbon copy of the charges as she bagged boxes of cereal, a tin of coffee, cans of tomato soup.
Most families paid up when the 'milk check' made its bi-monthly appearance in their mailbox, or when a culled cow was sent to auction, but there were inevitably those short-term residents of the town who moved on, the store bill owing.

Although larger towns offered the choice of a few modest restaurants or diners, eating establishments were few and located far apart in rural areas.  By the early 1960's ice cream stands had appeared [open Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend]  and a few entrepreneurs were sufficiently encouraged by a brisk summer trade to build on a tiny cafe, open year round to offer hotdogs, hamburgers and French fries. 
Hand painted signs announced 'Home Cooking' at the small cafes that sprang up along well traveled routes.  Formica-topped tables were flanked by benches or chairs cushioned in bright orange vinyl. If the establishment was really uptown there might be a jukebox, a few shelves of inexpensive trinkets and souvenirs for sale.

Like the best of its 20th century forerunners the  Mustard Seed Store and Cafe offers the convenience of a small country store and eating place.  It is a personal family establishment, not part of an anonymous chain.
The coolers and shelves provide those items we are prone to 'run out of' [milk, eggs, toilet paper]  as well as the resources for preparing a decent meal on short notice.  
The gifts and crafts attractively displayed for sale are made by Kentucky artisans, many of them local. Best of all, to our minds, The Mustard Seed is a neighborhood gathering place. 

This morning, in my own kitchen, I sat in Grampa Mac's rocking chair, a mug of creamy coffee beside me, a purring cat on my lap.  I surveyed the counters and cooktop which I had wiped down late on Sunday evening after a session of canning tomatoes. I was loathe to pull out skillets and dishes, unmotivated to cook and clear up.
"This would be a good morning for breakfast at the Mustard Seed, " I ventured.  Jim, intent on craigslist, didn't reply. Ten minutes later he strode to the kitchen sink, rinsed his coffee mug. I continued to rock peacefully, stroking my cat.
"Let's go to breakfast at the Mustard Seed," announced Jim.

The double doors stood wide to the gloomy morning.  Smells of cooking drifted into the parking lot. We smiled at a couple just exiting--folks we had met there a week before.
Our neighbor was finishing breakfast, others we recognized were seated at a corner table. People dashed in through the rain, jostling to fill styrofoam cups with 'coffee to go.'  A man we'd not met before brought his plate of eggs and gravy, settled at the end of our table. After inquiring where we lived, he began to share stories of his own days growing up on Spruce Pine Creek. Others joined in--tales of grandparents, of family farms, of weather, crops, years of hard work.

Most of us who can spare the hour for a leisurely breakfast are retired or self-employed, having flexible schedules.  We have time to talk of where our travels have taken us, to compare the places we have lived and worked and raised families.
We learn that some of our neighbors were 'born and raised right here.'  Others went away, sometimes for decades, but have returned to the place that nurtured them, the place were they trace their generations. 
Then there are those like us who made the choice to move in retirement to Kentucky and discovered a welcoming community tucked among the ridges and 'hollers' of this rural county.
We will continue to enjoy the option of 'going out for breakfast' just around the corner, or to stop in for a cold drink or the occasional lunch break.  
It is good to once again have a country store in the neighborhood.




Sunday, August 20, 2017

Dog Days, August 2017


I have never noted the presence of Sirius, the Dog Star, the harbinger of sunrise during the hot days of waning summer.  Our farmhouse, situated at the end of a winding gravel lane, is tucked into a narrow valley between steep ridges.  Oak, maple and ash crowd the slopes, blocking the earliest view of morning sun.  Mist hovers above Spruce Pine Creek and drifts across a neighbor's field, shredding and dissolving as it reaches the comparatively open spaces surrounding the lower house and barn at the bottom of the lane.



The 'dog days' have been identified from antiquity as a 'period of stagnation or inactivity' arriving yearly to stifle inhabitants of the Northern Hemisphere.
 Greek and Roman astronomers reviewing the notes of their predecessors, added their own observations of August weather, linking excessive heat, drought, or violent thunderstorms to all manner of ills--lethargy, fever, human passions run amok, maddened dogs. Any vague malevolence or domestic uproar occurring in August might prompt a sage waging of the head and the rhetorical question, 'What would you expect?  Look at the weather!'


This summer has spared us the usual weeks of heavy heat and turgid humidity that can begin in late May and linger into September.
Fresh July mornings drew us to our south-facing porch to welcome the day, admiring the hummingbirds who dart and swoop around the feeders, enjoying the company of the outdoor cats as they [ignoring the birds] pounce on grasshoppers or poke cautiously at the bees whirring through clumps of lavender.
Cool dusky evenings found me again in one of our new Amish-made rocking chairs, book in hand, tea beside me on the table--and often with a sweater around my shoulders.  We have chuckled over the necessity of turning down the A/C and bundling an old comforter onto the bed--in July!
Country folks are in tune with the seasons, and as day followed clear and sunny mid-summer day, we often heard the pessimistic warning, 'We'll pay yet for this weather!


Inevitably, August has reverted to form. 
The needle on the thermometer moved into the 90's F. 
The air has felt weighted with moisture released in mid-morning torrents or gentler nocturnal rainfalls.


Tomato and pepper plants, heavy with ripening fruit, sprawled onto the drenched soil of the garden.


The delicately feathered stalks of cosmos prostrated by onslaughts of heavy rain have continued to bloom, their petals a bright splash in the tangle of wet grass and weeds.


The perennial borders, so carefully tended in the milder weather of spring, are now choked with weeds.  It is too hot to crawl about digging and twitching at what seems to be an endless proliferation of unwanted greenery.
Still, in the untidy shade of the over-arching oaks, deep pink Spanish foxglove and a white variety have bloomed.  Butterflies enjoy the leaning spires of phlox and cleome. The scent of Joe Pye weed and goldenrod mingles with the smell of rain-pummeled garden soil and damp grass.



Jim picks tomatoes daily, delivering them to the kitchen by the basketful.
I sort them onto the newspaper covered shelves in the washroom, bringing the ripe ones in to be canned, trying to cull out those that are collapsing into vile smelling lumps.
The last chore of the evening is swabbing the sections of kitchen floor and counters that have been spattered with tomato juice and scalding water.


The cats who have house privileges scoot out when the rain stops, then hurl themselves, bedraggled and wet-pawed, at the door when a new deluge begins. 
Willis makes his rounds early each morning, keeping to the graveled circuit of the dooryard or clambering onto the retaining wall at the front of the house where he can keep tabs on our comings and goings.  His patrol finished, he retreats to an old folding chair on the side porch.


When approached he stretches, opens a baleful eye, and with a yawn, resettles himself to sleep through the heat of the day.
Jim and I, though exchanging mild complaints re the heat and humidity, have not succumbed to lethargy or weather induced madness.
I will admit to sleeping poorly,  to feeling beset by inconsequential irritations and the need to keep a firm rein on my temper; still, I tackle a number of interesting projects when not hovering over the tomato harvest.
Jim concedes no such moody fluctuations, but I note that he abandons his shop work mid-afternoon in favor of a cool shower, clean shirt and iced tea, followed by a rest in his leather recliner.


We are a cossetted generation: ceiling fans, portable fans, A/C units with remote controls; we do our errands and outings in vehicles with temperature selections for both driver and passenger, shop in air-conditioned stores. 
If, in spite of these domestic niceties, we are reprimanded for being 'tetchy' or unreasonable, dull-witted or [heaven forbid!] lethargic--we can point out that we are behaving as untold generations have done while wallowing through the dog days of another August.






Tuesday, August 8, 2017

An Unlikely August


In the cool dusk of Sunday evening we sat late in our rocking chairs on the side porch. 
The afterglow of a subdued pastel sunset cast a hint of apricot over the white walls of the lower farmhouse; fireflies flickered through the rough grass at the edges of the lane.

As darkness fell, cicadas began their rasping tunes from the trees beyond the retaining wall.  Lightning flashed in the southern sky, but there was no sound of thunder. 
"That storm is halfway to the Tennessee line," announced Jim, 'but the rain is headed this way."

A breeze stirred, the hummingbirds made a last visit to the feeders hanging at the edge of the porch.
Charlie-cat plodded up the steps, his shaggy coat a pale blur; he jumped into my lap, trod about, plumped down for a moment, bounced to the floor, complaining.  Willis crouched on the walk, a grey shape in the pool of yellow light spilling through a living room window.

The high pitched bleating of goat kidlets reached us and we noted B's headlamp moving about near the stable as she settled the goats for the night.
A small wind stirred restlessly, sending an empty plastic flower pot skittering across the porch floor.  The air cooled sharply and there was the scent of distant rain.



A few spatters of rain fell as Jim headed upstairs at 10. By the time I followed him nearly an hour later, rain was pounding on the roof.
I lay in bed, watching the occasional flash of lightning through the parted window curtains.  A particularly heavy burst of rain brought me out of bed to investigate whether Jim had closed the west windows on either side of the hallway.  He hadn't--and as I padded toward them I felt the fine mist of rain driven past billowing curtains.
Several cats followed anxiously at my heels as I made my round of inspection, trudged back with me to the big bed where the warmth of a shabby duvet offered comfort.

We woke Monday morning to a heavy grey dawn and the realization that we had overslept.
 Sidewalk and steps were slick with water; so much rain had accumulated in the pot of zinnias that I had to tip it out to rescue them from drowning.


The sun broke through mid-morning, although banks of grey clouds loomed in the north.


This is a strange beginning to August in Kentucky.  The stifling heat of other summers has visited us in short spells through July, rarely unbearable, though we've been grateful for the A/C units which keep the downstairs cool by day and the bedroom pleasant at night.
The garden has been unusually productive as there has been no prolonged time of intense heat or drought.
Along the lane and in the pastures late summer wildflowers are already in bloom.

Brown seedheads of Queen Anne's Lace tower above the yellow glow of goldenrod.


Short stems of Queen Anne's Lace have revived along the fence in the wake of Jim's lawn mower.


Goldenrod sprawls above a leaning pasture gate.


Joe Pye weed looms in the shade along the wooded hillside.


In a moist corner of the upper pasture--beyond the goats' browsing range--a mad tangle of Joe Pye weed, Queen Anne's lace, goldenrod.


Boneset stands tall against the dark treeline of the ridge.


Jewelweed glows from deep in the afternoon shadows.


Beneath the tulip poplar at the edge of the lane fallen leaves are an early harbinger of autumn.


 Tomato plants have responded to the kindly balance of sun and rain, thus far resistant to the blight that usually spoils the crop.
It is the season for sharing and for 'putting up' the bounty of the garden, a time of kitchen counters laden with baskets and buckets of tomatoes, jars, kettles, all the satisfying untidiness of canning.
Life is busy--and I am content that it should be so.



Monday, July 31, 2017

A Porridge Sort of Morning


June and early July were kind to us weather-wise--temperatures sometimes approaching 90 F , but stopping short of the sweltering heat experienced in other summers.
Suddenly the humidity and heat increased, making any outside work unpleasant within a few minutes.
Jim was away all last week, assisting our son with renovations.
I had an unreasonable mental list of things I hoped to tackle--after all, a woman on her own for a few days doesn't need to give much thought to meals--a salad, a tub of yogurt, crackers, good cheese--that sort of thing will suffice. 
I had plans to finish a small research project prompted by a school group photo which my sister had shared; I needed to make some summer skirts for myself;  I might sand and refinish two quilt racks, cover some small cushions to add to the porch rocking chairs; I fully intended to write letters and a blog post or two. 

I have been resolutely ignoring the garden which became dishearteningly weedy after my herculean efforts during the spring.
I went out on two successive mornings and pitted myself against clumps of grass which came through the landscape barrier fabric under the brick walk;  I yanked yards of wild morning glory off the fence, unwound its clinging tendrils from the clematis and coneflowers.  I drove my garden fork into dry soil along the walk, hauled up a fresh crop of that unidentified weed with the roots that rampage in all directions like hanks of string thrown down.

At the lower garden I uprooted cucumber vines that had gone tired and yellow, snipped the latest round of suckers off the tomato plants. I trudged up and down the lane carrying containers of ripe and nearly ripe tomatoes.
On both days a mere hour of outdoor work left me hot, dirty and rather cross, with a sense of having accomplished little in the way of tidying the mess.


The research project went well.  On a whim I forwarded the school photo to an acquaintance who was able to contribute positive identification to two of the pictured children. Our correspondence expanded my area of search; we began discussing the people we recalled in our mutual home town [he and his late wife were a few years older than my sisters and I.]  I went into census data and vital event stats in order to confirm that certain families were--or were not--in the neighborhood in 1941 when the photo was taken. 
By midweek I had edited and typed my notes, mailed the finished document to my sister.
I was content to stay inside other than the necessary chores of watering a few plants on the porch, refilling the hummingbird feeders, cleaning litter boxes.

I abandoned any thought of refinishing the quilt racks--the garage [formerly the Amish washroom] where I planned to work was stifling. 
I brought out fabric, patterns, sewing tools, set up the ironing board.
I used to do a great deal of garment construction--for myself and for others.  I do that infrequently now and have to sometimes stop and review the sequence of steps.
I finished the first skirt--complete with lining--and decided it was totally unflattering!
The second one, in a vibrantly printed challis, went together quickly and is pleasing--soft and flowing.
At ten o'clock on Thursday evening I decided to attempt a third skirt.  I had more of the linen-like fabric from which I made the first one--fabric bought some years ago as a remnant. By 2 a.m. when I wobbled upstairs to bed I had only hem and buttonholes/buttons to complete.  I am pleased with skirt number three!



Late on Thursday afternoon the sky grew dark, thunder rumbled. 
Bobby Mac, who is afraid of storms, bolted inside when I opened the back door.
His choice of refuge is beside the laundry basket in the downstairs bathroom. 
Rain continued in sharp bursts through much of Friday. The air was thick with heat and moisture.
Suddenly, at dusk, there was a change.  The temperature dropped, the air freshened.



 We've now had three of the loveliest days imaginable--puffy white clouds sailing lazily in a clear blue sky, gentle breezes, temps in the high 80's by mid afternoon, but dropping quickly at night. 

Jim returned home late on Saturday and was down to check on the garden during the cool of Sunday morning. 
We have tomatoes to eat and to share.  It is best to bring them in before they are dead ripe. 
Last night with our tasks finished and Jim making an early bedtime, I sat  late with a book, pulling my rocking chair close to the open window in the kitchen alcove. When I put the book aside to head upstairs I realized that my feet were cold!  The thermometer outside the kitchen window registered 60 degrees--unheard of in a Kentucky July.
Moving quietly in the dark bedroom I located a comforter to spread over the icy 
smoothness of sheets. 
A cool Monday morning inspired us to replace summer's usual breakfast of 'dry cereal' with something more substantial. Jim made himself a 'stodge' of cream of wheat liberally laced with maple syrup and a dollop of butter.  I opted for oatmeal porridge with dried cranberries and brown sugar. 
We wish this lovely weather might continue, but there are surely many days yet when heat and humidity will triumph.

Still, the inevitable turning of the season is noticeable--darkness had fallen by 8:30.
Now at 11:15 it is 65 degrees--a good night for sleeping with the puffy old comforter ready to pull  around our shoulders against the chill of the wee hours. 

With the man of the house again in residence proper meals must be prepared and I must revert to reasonable hours.
Tomorrow I will revise my mental list of 'things to do' and decide what to tackle next.




Friday, July 14, 2017

Grampa Didn't Have a Blog


July  9, 1941: showery. drew milk to Bristol, logs to mill.
July 10, 1941: "nice day. showers. got tires for truck. Hall's funeral.
July 11, 1941: "nice day. hoeing and bugging potatoes."
August 1, 1941: " nice clear day, Beulah and Lawrence married, gone north. Finished north haying. "

[Thus was the mention of my parents' wedding and honeymoon trip to Ausable Chasm in upstate New York noted along with the weather of the day and the fact that the hay crop from the north meadow was in.]

Grampa Mac didn't spill emotions onto the pages of his diaries. The facts and happenings of each day were recorded briefly, as he perceived them, with scant commentary.
For a farmer and country-dweller, weather was important and the 'weather report' served as the heading of each entry.

Many of the tasks of a dairy farmer are repeated--daily, seasonally, yearly. 
The cycles of planting, tending, harvesting, varied only slightly, crops planted on time--or not--as springtime arrived to warm the soil and the air.  A dry year, or a wet one, late frost, early frost--the blessings or difficulties of a particular season could only be taken into account, dealt with.

The Diary for 1941 is the earliest in my possession.
In July, 1941 Mac was within weeks of his 55th birthday, a widower since 1929, enumerated in the 1940 census as Head of Household, a roll assumed with the death of his father-in-law and farm partner  in the spring of 1934.

I suspect that my Grandmother Helen had been the first keeper of the diaries and that Grampa Mac assumed the roll after her death.
The entries above are typical: weather, chores, errands and the doings of the small rural community.
A bit of research turned up the details of the funeral--that of a farmer's wife living a few miles away.
Whether Grampa attended the funeral is debatable--he wasn't one for formal occasions.  

The marriage of my parents wasn't a grand occasion; she was deeply involved from girlhood in the village Congregational Church, he was a Catholic of French Canadian lineage. Their vows were pledged at the Catholic Rectory and they came home from their brief wedding trip to set up housekeeping in three rooms of the farmhouse.

Of interest is the fact that Mac always recorded the run to the milk plant, trips to town for groceries or machinery repairs as though he drove there;  Mac calmly refused to drive a vehicle--whether one of the farm tractors, the old truck or the Plymouth automobile that resided in the garage between the horse barn and the woodshed.  
He kept a team of work horses until 1963. 

In earlier years he was driven about by his father-in-law [my great grandfather] later by my mother who learned to drive in her teens.  He was often a passenger when the hired man drove 'to town'--for banking, haircuts, to the feed store. Many years later my younger sister took on the duty of chauffeur. 

Grampa Mac's penmanship was a loose scrawl, his spelling erratic and punctuation minimal Over the decades he noted when family members were 'sick'--though no details of their ailments. The progress of recovery was labeled 'not too good' or 'better.'

Visits from family or neighbors were meticulously recorded, even the to and fro treks of my sisters and I from the small house built next door. in 1949.  If one of us stayed to eat supper with him, we later created the diary entry of the day in careful schoolgirl cursive, taking dictation from Grampa, but allowed to add any small detail we felt was important.

July 8, 1957: "good bright day, hayed here and Downey's, got all was ready, showers in eve."

[The Downey family were neighbors from up Knox Hill. The three 'boys' farmed for their aging father and were usually referred to collectively as 'the Downey boys.'  The oldest of them served as Grampa Mac's hired man for many years.]

July 10, 1957: "showers, cooler, no hay, to Middlebury for mower repairs. Stopped in Brandon for supplies and boy a haircut"---[later recorded as costing 90 cents!]
"Frank [Phelps] over for a chat.  cow barn 3/4 full."

[I'm assuming he meant the area over the milking barn was now 3/4 full of baled hay.
For a few summers Mac and neighboring farmers participated in a program sponsored by the agriculture extension department whereby teenage boys from 'the city' [usually New York or New Jersey] arrived for a 2 month stay as farm help. They received room and board and a small wage.]

Not often did Grampa Mac miss an evening of jotting down the day's events. When he did, the diary pages show the printed date at the top crossed out or written over, with perhaps a bit of confusion in sorting recent happenings, one day being so similar to another.

The page headed July 9, 1957 is blank. Tues.--9--is scrawled at the top of the page for July 11. 
"Nice day, cool, hay slow, got load in eve, more drying.  mistake."
Beneath is firmly written: "Thursday July 11__1957. Showery no hay, tractor to Middlebury, 
valve trouble.
Got black heffer home--bulled." 

So much for cattle breeding records!  Mac would not have recited that bit of earthy detail for one of his granddaughters to enter.
It appears from other entries that one or more 'heffers' had been marched up the hill to the farm of "Lambert" to be serviced. 
Another arrangement was made on July 17th--"turned bull north with heffers." 

The diary for the current year was kept on the square walnut table in the farmhouse living room along with a red can of Prince Albert tobacco, an ashtray and a pipe. An assortment of ball point pens and stumpy pencils rolled about on the tablecloth. A tipple of farm magazines and Montgomery Ward catalogs flanked the wall. Grampa Mac's rocking chair was slotted alongside the window, with the table and the shelf that held the radio handy by.
Behind the rocking chair a heavy curtain covered a rank of built in shelves. The diaries for former years were stacked there in orderly fashion. 
If by chance I complained that springtime was tardy, July too hot, or the first snow falling afore-time, Grampa Mac's remedy was to take down a random sampling of diaries and suggest that I look up relevant dates for comparison.  We usually concluded that 'on average' weather and seasons were occurring within  an acceptably 'normal' range.

I page through Grampa Mac's diaries from time to time, always besieged by the tumble of memories stirred by his pithy entries. Reading the fragmented sentences, deciphering his scrawls, dredging up a sequence of events, I inhabit his familiar landscape, walk again through the rooms of the farmhouse, follow him across the pasture brook and up the rutted track that led to the blackberry thicket behind the old sugar house. 
I am reminded afresh of the part that my sisters and I played in his life. 

Sunday, December, 15, 1957
"Sharon and MC went for evergreens for wreaths." 
[He often referred to himself in the third person abbreviating his first name, 'McKenzie.'

His notes on my wedding day filled the entire page of the diary.
Saturday, June 22, 1963
"nice cool day, light shower,
James got car, fixed fence, got cows in Larry's field,
mowed thistles.
Sharon and Jimmy married tonight in church. resepshion in hall, Hague folks over,
big crowd.
2205 #'s of milk."

Grampa Mac's sister, Julia Lewis Ross, died 8 July, 1971.
His entry simply states, "Juley Ross died July 8 in Ti Hospital.'

The last diary I have is for 1973, five years before Mac's death in January, 1978. 
My next younger sister and her family were living with him in the farmhouse, my youngest sister and her husband were across the road.
Grampa Mac gardened, noted the weather, recorded the visits and doings of the family and neighbors.  His entry for June 30, 1973 poignantly records what was likely his last trip 'home' to Hague, NY.  He doesn't mention who drove him there, bumping up the grass-grown track to the old Davis Homestead.

"Went back where I was raised, Hague, NY, all grown to timber, buildings all gone. Maple tree was nice shade.  Struck by lightning, still leaning. 
Hardly [k]new place."
He noted when the swallows gathered to leave on their early autumn flight, remarked on the potato crop [good] recorded the first heavy frost on October 1st. 
In December the end of an era came when the WWII veteran who had come round twice weekly with a grocery van, retired.
Saturday, December, 22, 1973
"M. Broughton got done delivering bread and baking. Been here better than 25 years.
Good Service."

Typically December brought snow, cold days, freezing rain, minor ailments, needed repairs to make the house ready for winter.  Most days Mac recorded his health as 'half good' or 'fare.'
He affirmed that it had been a "Good Xmas, presents for all."

Grampa Mac's long life didn't take him far: there was the Davis Farm in the shadow of Tongue Mountain--the farm which had first belonged to his maternal grandfather.  With marriage he assumed partnership in the Vermont farm where he lived out his days. His bond with the land was deep, his knowledge of the seasons a storehouse of earthy wisdom.

He left a sparse but telling record for those few of us who remember where the potato patch was located on the slope across the brook;  those who were there before the 'ellums' succumbed to beetles, those who can conjure the recollection of jolting rides with 'Dick and Babe' pulling the farm wagon.
With scrawling penmanship and imaginative spelling Grampa Mac created a legacy of his hard-working devotion to family and farm. 
 He gave us the bones of stories, his stories and our own, tightly woven together.  I read his diaries now with a greater awareness of the back-story and with the knowledge of how some stories came to their ending.  I read with a sense of stories 'to be continued' as long as any of us are dedicated to finding words.











Monday, July 10, 2017

"In the Deep Dark Hills of Eastern Kentucky"



The roads of eastern Kentucky spiral up and down the mountains, twisting past the small shabby houses, sagging barns, and vintage house trailers that cling to the steep hillsides.  Many homesteads have been abandoned; rank weeds, brush and kudzu clamber over skeletons of rusting vehicles and tap at broken windows.  There are no gas stations along the roads, no 'mom and pop' stores where one might stop to buy a candy bar, a bottled drink.


When our thoughts turned to Kentucky as a potential retirement location, the eastern counties, poorest in the state, didn't figure in our considerations.
In the late 1970's Jim worked for Lord Construction, delivering and setting up coal crushers. I traveled with him on a number of runs into the coal mining areas of Kentucky and neighboring West Virginia, bracing myself  as the truck ground around sharp curves, trying not to think what might happen should a coal truck come barreling at us.  There was no escape: sheer mountain wall on one side and on the other the plunge into deep ravine.


 Jim announced that we needed a day out on Saturday. He had a mind to drive through the Daniel Boone National Forest and tour Bell and Harlan counties.
There was little traffic on the roads as we neared our destination--with the coal industry languishing-- there were no lumbering coal trucks, few people out and about in the tiny hamlets.  Most had a post office, a church or two--Missionary Baptist or Holiness/Pentecostal. 
Harlan was busy. We didn't find a proper restaurant, only a selection of 'fast food' venues. There were several 'Dollar Stores.' 
We settled for a sandwich at Arbys, before tackling yet another mountain road. I tried to follow our route, peering at signs, comparing them to the road atlas open on my lap.
We suspected that many of the roads we encountered weren't really on the map!


Rain was spattering the windshield when a curve in the road brought us alongside the above-ground workings of the Bledsoe Mining Company.
Jim took several photos through the open car window.


Even on a day of sunshine the looming mountains block the light.
Turning, we caught up a wrecker grinding its slow way up the mountain, a disabled truck in tow.  There are no opportunities to 'pass' so we trundled along behind, relieved that at the next junction the wrecker took the opposite turning from the one we needed.

Last year when we traded cars, we took our business to a Honda dealership in Somerset, a small city on the edge of the eastern Kentucky coalfields.
The two young men who saw us through the transaction had moved to the city from coal counties.  As we waited for paperwork to be processed, one of them shared something of his family background--several generations of coal miners, struggling to make a living.  Pulling out his phone, he showed us photos of the tidy house he and his wife had just purchased in an area sub-division.  He marveled that he was the first in his family to own a 'real house--not a trailer house!'

It is too easy perhaps to think of the Appalachians in cliches--the songs and stories abound of mountain tragedies: coal mining disasters, moonshine stills, family feuds carried on through generations, general poverty, a lack of good schools, available medical services. 

Since our road trip  a ballad poignantly sung  by Patty Loveless  has echoed in my head.  There are several you tube presentations, including a live performance with Patty speaking of her father's death from 'black lung,' the great killer of coal miners.
I've chosen to share  the ballad accompanied by a collection of vintage photos that someone thoughtfully arranged. 
There is one photo of a 'snake handling' ritual at a Pentecostal church--I quickly averted my gaze from that one!
Snake handlers and moonshiners make the news just often enough in Kentucky to suggest that the old ways are still with us.