They all come home eventually—all those citified people with their roots in the hillside fields that alternate green and gold in strips—darker where the plow has more recently touched the earth. They come winding back to West Virginia along interstates and twisting country roads. Some come out of obligation to family they left behind; others wonder if they made the right choice.
Granny Benton has held her family together through five generations. So long as she lives many of her children, grandchildren and their young ones will come home to visit. Mother’s Day is the day they come from all the places the family has scattered: northern West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and even as far away as Michigan or Illinois.
Granny lives with her third son, Willard, and his wife, Mavis. Granny’s old, over ninety. She’s seen three of her children pass on before her but she’s still strong. Didn’t she bear ten children of her own and raise two or three abandoned grandchildren? Some of her children became farmers, some factory workers. Among her other descendants are housewives, general laborers, teachers, a doctor, welfare mothers and general lay-abouts. Now they’ve come to see her, all that could possibly get there.
Young cousins, many times removed, stand shyly regarding each other, twisting shirt tails or picking their noses, until Mommy nudges them forward. “Go on, honey. Go play with her. She’s your cousin.”
They’ve come to Willard’s place. It was once a working farm with a dairy herd and chickens scratching around the yard, but for many years now Willard hasn’t bothered with more than a kitchen garden for Mavis and himself. Most of the produce in the supermarket in Crossville is shipped in from big farms that are part of the agri-industry. After he gave up farming, Willard worked on the state road to make ends meet until he retired. He and Mavis get the Social Security, and with Granny’s little welfare check they have a passable living.
Willard’s house is white with green trim and sits on a rise looking out at hills beyond and over valleys below. It is built on some acres his father gave him on his wedding day in exchange for the promise that the old folks would be seen after until they died. So Granny has lived here in Timber County nearly all her life, and when she dies, she’ll be buried next to Grandpa, just down the road in the little churchyard.
The families coming into the county from Ohio passed the place. Some did not know or remember that Grandpa was lying right over there just inside the gate. Many of them never knew the old man whose seed is in all of them. He died forty years or so ago leaving Granny on her own in the old house where she’d lived every day of her married life and borne her children. She lived on in the house until she was well into her eighties, then the arthritis and her eyesight got too bad for her to stay alone. She still speaks of Grandpa as if he’d just taken a walk down the road to puff on his pipe like he did in the old days. Grandpa had ruled the family, but Granny wouldn’t have smoking in her home.
The family knows how she feels about smoking and drinking. They respect that, so the beer is iced down in a washtub in the backyard. It’s a good place to light up, too, though fewer are smoking these days.
Granny has a new dress for the occasion. It’s blue cotton with little white flowers “aimed every which way” as Mavis told her daughter, Sandra, on the phone last week.
Mavis and Willard had six children. Four are still living. Beverly, their oldest, and her husband, Herb, came Friday night so they could help set up for the big day. Mavis and Bev have worked and talked, peeled potatoes and washed Granny’s white wispy hair. Granny joined in on some of their conversations, telling the stories of her younger days while Mavis and Bev gave each other that “here we go again” look. Once when Granny left the room, Bev waited until she heard the thump, click sound of Granny’s walker—she has had to use the walker since the broken hip eighteen months ago—retreat to the living room, then she sympathized with her mother. “Doesn’t it just drive you crazy? She tells the same tales all the time. Do you think she’s senile?”
“No, I don’t think she’s senile. Her mind is as clear or clearer than mine is sometimes. It used to bother me when she first came to stay. Then I tuned it out. Now, I’m just thankful she’s got one more day, and I try to remember all the stories ‘cause there are young ones still comin” on that may want to know someday.”
Mother’s Day comes on warm and sunshiny. Granny makes herself comfortable in her favorite arm chair that has been placed under a shade tree. The family arrives, bringing all their favorite country foods from recipes that have been handed down. Sandra brings fried chicken. Diane brings baked beans. Liz and Charles bring a coconut cake. Others bring more chicken, beans, cakes, pies, salads, but Denver brings the beer. He’s selling it icy cold in the back yard. He’ll recover his costs in no time and make a little profit besides, some of which he’ll give to Mavis to use for Granny. It would never do for Granny to know where the money came from; she’d refuse it.
Willard has cleaned and whitewashed the ancient out-house for the occasion. It only gets used once a year since he put plumbing in the house in the early sixties. He’s even planted some flowers nearby to make it attractive to his citified relatives. Willard shakes his head when he thinks of the young ones from town. They’ll have to go inside to the bathroom; they’re afraid of falling in the deep stinky hole.
“Spoiled kids,” he mutters, fearing all the flushing will drain his well. He worries the same every year and it hasn’t happened yet. “But it could,” he’s complained to Mavis many times, “Or at least burn out the pump.”
In the side yard, Herb and Ramsey have driven the iron stakes for the horseshoe pitch. Herb doesn’t say much when he’s pitching, he just pulls his cap down to keep out the sun, picks up his horseshoe, brings it up to his chest, jukes his head side to side, takes careful aim and CLANG! A ringer! Ramsey is good at horseshoes, too. A crowd has gathered to watch. There’s money on this game. All the spectators have divided up on sides, cheering on their favorites. Harley is waiting to take on the winner. Harley is, as everyone admits, the best. Willard used to be, but he has a touch of bursitis in his shoulder these days and, anyhow, somebody has to be free to make sure everything runs smoothly.
Besides, Willard needs to make repeated trips to the fruit cellar to check on the electric pump. He shakes his head. The pump is running way too much for his comfort. He’ll be glad when all the Kool-Aid is gone and hopes Mavis hasn’t bought extra. City kids must have weak bladders he decides.
“There comes Willard out of the cellar again,” Mavis whispers to Granny.
Granny knows all about Willard’s worries. “At least these young’uns aren’t flushing ‘cause they’ve found a new toy,” she laughs. “They’ve seen indoor toilets afore. Not like Willard when he was a little one.” She laughs again.
“What are you laughing about?” Darla asks, then says to a chubby toddler. “Stop tugging at my skirt, Willie,” She slaps away his hand. He’s been staring at the old woman in the chair from the safety behind his mother’s skirt. He’s not sure about this woman that he’s never seen before.
“Well sir,” Granny begins to explain her laughter, “when Willard was about ten or so we went to visit my sister, Delphie. She lived over at Crossville. She had a bathroom in her house. Willard discovered it right off. He’d never seen one. I’s never so embarrassed in all my life. He kept flushin’ and aflushin’.” Granny fans herself with a paper fan that advertises Dawson’s Funeral Parlor. It has a picture of Jesus in the garden on the other side. “His pa finally had to sit him on a chair for the rest of the visit. He kept sayin’ how he had to go again, but I jist thought his little hand was itchin’ to get on that knob. So I made him sit and by and by I was even more embarrassed.”
“What happened, Granny?” Mavis prompts.
“He wet his britches,” Granny says with finality. All her hearers laugh, except Willard, who has wandered to the edge of the group and makes a hasty retreat.
Ramsey has beat Herb at horseshoes, the bets are settled. That’s all right with Herb. He was getting thirsty and he figured the beer had been on ice long enough. Harley has taken his place.
Herb stops to pick a stray twig out of his brown canvas loafer and straightens his white socks on the way around to the back yard. Over in the empty lot that used to be a corn field a softball game is starting up. Maybe he’ll go watch after he downs a cool one or two maybe three if the company’s good around the tub, and Bev isn’t anywhere she can see him.
In years past it was only the men who gathered at the tub. While the women swapped recipes and talked about their past labor pains in the front yard, the men swapped on the latest stories they had heard on the job. Herb had heard some good ones here. “It seems there was this travelin’ salesman who…” or “Did you hear about Old Blue?” always promised to be the beginning of some tale worth remembering. Herb wished he could remember and be able to tell some of the stories to his bowling team on Thursday nights. He had trouble remembering what the farmer’s daughter said or what the man was using for a tote board.
There aren’t as many good stories these days around the tub because some of the younger women have taken to gathering there, too. “Libbers,” Herb mutters, “Their mothers wouldn’t a been caught dead with a beer can in their hand. That’s when women knew how to be women.”
“Ah shit!” Just as he is about to reach for his first can, Herb hears the dinner bell that hangs by the kitchen door. When the bell rings, everyone is obliged to drop whatever he is doing and go to the front yard to eat, hear people talk and vote in the next year’s officers and give out prizes to the youngest and the one who came the farthest. Everyone knows who will get the prize for being the oldest—Granny. It is always the same prize, horehound drops, because Granny likes them.
By the time Herb gets to the front yard the lines are formed. Now he will have to wait in line. He is dry after pitching horseshoes. All he’ll get here is iced tea or Kool-Aid.
Folks are remarking about the food: “Look at all that.”
“I don’t know where to start.”
“Here goes my diet.”
“I hope Wilma made her potato salad.”
Ramsey bangs on a pot lid with a serving spoon. “May I have your attention, please,” he calls over the crowd noises. All the people in the line stop and look his way. “Granny has reminded me that we should ask the blessing on the food before we scatter to eat it.”
Some of the family is glad to be reminded and they guiltily withdraw from the serving utensils they hold. Others roll their eyes with a bored expression. “So I’ve asked my son-in-law, Corey, who’s newly ordained to take care of that little chore …er…, ah…matter right now.”
A tall, dark haired young man in a wild jungle print shirt steps to Ramsey’s side. He surveys the people assembled before him, then saying “Shall we pray?” he bows his head.
Some of the family can’t take their eyes off the green and red flowers and the leopard that seems to want to leap from the black background of the preacher’s” shirt. While others hear ¬¬the blessing on the food, the granting of life and happiness to the assembled family and the forgiveness of sins, Mavis” eye is on Granny who clasps her wrinkled, blue veined hands in front of her closed eyes.
When the amen is said there is again the hum of conversation and the rattle of serving utensils. Mavis fixes a plate for Granny with her favorite food—a chicken wing, potato salad, but only a spoonful of baked beans because they cause gas. Handing the plate to Granny, Mavis says, “I hope my appetite is as good when….”
“When you’re my age?” Granny interrupts.
“What else do I have to do? The old man’s been gone so long.”
“Why, Granny!” Mavis pretends to be shocked.
“I was young, gal, but I guess that was a lifetime ago.”
“A full lifetime, Granny.”
“Yeah, but I’m gettin weary. It’s about time for me to go lay by Walter again.”
Mavis thinks it’s strange to hear her call Grandpa by name. She usually says Grandpa, your pa, my husband or sometimes just says “He” and everyone know who she means.
The food is eaten. Some folks go back for seconds and even thirds and still there is plenty left for pickers all afternoon.
Lilly calls attention and begins to read the family history, “On July Fourth, 1911, Louisa Jane McElroy and Walter Adam Benton were united in marriage.”
“Do you remember that day, Granny?” one of the grandchildren asks.
“As if it were yesterday. He was late and I nearly told him no, I wouldn’t marry him.”
“Aren’t we glad you did,” Orville says with a laugh.
“Orville, is that you?”
“Did you and the others bring your music?” That is what she has always called instruments, music.
“We sure did.”
“Well, when they’re through with this foolishness you’re gonna play, ain’t you?”
“Anything you want, darling.”
“Do you know that song I heerd on the radio?”
“I don’t member exactly. Was something about sunshine.” Granny sings a snatch of words and melody in a high, old woman’s crackling voice.
“Yes, I know that.” Orville assures her by picking up the tune and humming a little of it.
“That’s it, that’s it. They got such lively music on the radio these days. Will you sing it for everyone and play your fiddle? I allus like the sunshine. I loved to wander barefoot in the new plowed fields. Got a lot of callouses on my feet that way. My ma worried so about it. I never would wear my bonnet, either. Got myself freckled. That’s how He convinced me to marry him finally that day. He said, “Louisa with that bran some pig farted all over your face you’re lucky any man’d have you. So I married him. I wanted to anyway. He didn’t know about the callouses until later.”
“Were you happy, Granny?” another of the grandchildren wants to know.
“Yes. Your grandpa was a good husband and father for the kids. The best I coulda asked for.” Granny wipes away a tear. “I kinda miss the old cuss after all these years.”
They laugh to hear their forefather spoken of as an old cuss.
The family history is finished, officers are elected, and awards are presented. “Horehound drops again?” Granny asks when she receives her prize. Orville and his brothers tune up their instruments. They have a little family band that plays at socials, square dances, and they were on the radio once. They play the afternoon away. The horseshoes clang. The bat cracks against the softball. Willard makes several more trips to check on the pump. Herb does get to the wash tub and hears one story that he keeps repeating to himself. He’s determined to remember it for his bowling team this time. He’s surprised that it came from one of the young women frequenting the tub. Well, if Granny could hear that, he thinks.
The last of the family gathers their dishes and packs the little sleepy ones under blankets in back seats. Some will never come back again due to death or disinterest. Each generation moves further from the past and creates its own way. Others, though, will come back again and again as long as Granny is living.
Granny goes to bed earlier than she usually does. She has had her hand pumped, her neck hugged, and her cheek kissed more times than she can remember. She has held at least five new babies that weren’t even a gleam in someone’s eye this time last year. She has felt the kicks of maybe two or three that will be here next year and, lord willing, she hopes she won’t be here to hold them and have them wet on her like Willard’s great-grandson did.
“Ah, Walt,” she sighs as she turns into her sleep, “what we started. My, my, my.”