Today begin early for me, it was not quiet daylight and I suddenly knocked over my water bottle; damn, it would not have been a problem if the top had been on! The darkness turned to gray and refuses to change; it is raining here in Wisconsin with a temperature reading of 50 degrees. The snow came in October, left quickly and has not returned, this makes for a shorter winter season and I am certain that some love it, I do. Who does not love it, those who ski, snowboard, snowshoe, or the children who just want to play in it? My thoughts, I live within the walls of my very own sanctuary where I write, paint, watch movies and those other normal living characteristic that make up the remainder of who I am. Who am I? I am still in search of the answer to that question, one would think that after living eight decades that one would have it all figured out, no!
My great-grandmother told me when she was in her nineties that we must know where we have been before we will know where we are going, others believe to forget the past and move forward into their future. I persist on returning to the past and I continue to wonder about where I am going. This could be a good thing or bad, I return often as I am continually writing about the past, and these days I try to live more in the moment, and as for the future, planning is done but with limited time constraints.
Speaking of the past, I woke this morning thinking of the day that my first four-legged companion passed away, she was twelve years old, the same age as I then. My daddy found her on the side of the road the day I was born; she had been thrown in a ditch. He said that she was so tiny that she fit in the palm of his hand. He kept her in a old shed at the edge of the woods, as my mother did not like domestic animals of any kind, dog or cat, or otherwise. When the little dog was big enough to survive on her own daddy brought her to the old house we live in and begin his battle with my mother. Finally, she agreed to have her live outside. This would have been difficult accept Alabama in those days did not have winters, the weather was never a concern and daddy made her a bed in a wood crate under the front porch.
I can recall as far back to when I was four years old slipping Little Bit into my bed. Yes, daddy called her Little Bit saying that she must have been the runt of the litter. During those twelve years, I had other dogs in my life, a big yellow bulldog named Buddy and two Chinese Chows, King and Queen; but the love of my life as a child was Little Bit.
When I was twelve we left the country moving to Decatur, Alabama and during all those years, Little Bit had never had puppies. Still, mother would not allow any animals in her house…we lived in a bi-plex and daddy was allowed to build her a small pen in what was our back yard. I came home from school one day and someone had broke the lock on her pen and let her out, I found her under a bush bloody from what I imagine was a fight with a cat or dog. A short time later her little belly begins to become, round and daddy said that she was pregnant; being a country kid, I did not have to have the facts of life explained to me. A few weeks later, she lay in her pen crying, when I rushed her in the house daddy said he needed to take her to a Vet, and I had to go to school or my mother would “kill” us both, not literally.
I arrived home mid-afternoon and daddy was sitting on the front porch steps waiting for me, I could tell by the look on his face that something was wrong. My first question was if something was wrong with my mother. His eyes filled with tears as he told me the Vet had to put Little Bit to sleep; she was hurt bad and would never have recovered. I cried for the first time I could ever remember, the only thing I thought truly loved me was gone.
Throughout the years I have played in my dreams many times with Little Bit, we are both young rolling in the fresh grass of spring, or I am wading in the near-by shallow brook while holding her in my arms like a baby. In this winter of my life, I have not dreamed of her in years, but I woke with her on my mind on this gray morning. I sat with my coffee thinking of my long ago friend, and for me, she will always be just a thought away.
Author’s Note: When a writer has a story to flow, no, spill out of him or her where they cannot stop writing, it may be one that makes them proud. This is such a story, a southern story as most of mine are, and one that I believe fits into the holiday season. One of desperation, fear, sadness, and finally hope. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone. E.
The Unbroken Circle…
Mark Mooney lifted himself from a stained lumpy mattress; rubbed his head with one hand while reaching for the half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels. As the last of the amber liquid slid down his troth, he knew that there was not enough left in the bottle to dull his troubled mind. It was Christmas Eve; all he could think of was his wife and daughter, they would be alone this Christmas. He messed up; he should be home with his family instead of living in a cold dingy room above McGentry’s General Store.
The alarm clock leap to life once again jerking him back to reality, jumping out of bed he stood over the open floor vent to catch what little heat that rose from the store below. Rumbling through a cardboard box he shook out the cleanest looking uniform, washed his face, dressed and walked out the door.
Crawling into his old pickup Mark looked down at the doll he had bought at a Dollar store wrapped in used Christmas paper that he had pulled out of the office party trash. His plans were to drop it off for his daughter after work, before he went to Townsend’s bowling alley. The bowling alley was where a few other single parents he knew, mostly men gathered, they would all be there on Christmas Eve to get drunk and forget their mistakes in life.
Pulling into the Post Office parking lot, he popped a stick of gum in his mouth; he needed to avoid getting close to anyone; he knew that he reeked of whiskey. Mark had taken a co-worker’s shift to earn extra money, that is what he told himself and he tried to remember how late the liquor store stayed open. He could not remember the last time he was totally sober, and he worried about keeping it from his employer.
Mark reached in his jacket pocket pulling out a card to his mother, he had been going to mail it for two weeks, and he threw it into the out of state bin. He loaded his mail truck and pulled out onto Townsend’s icy main street.
He begins his day by cursing the snow and sleet that suddenly begin to stick to the winding road leading up the Old Tuckaleechee Road one of Tennessee’s most dangerous. Half way up the mountain Mark was having trouble seeing, it was a whiteout and he could feel his tire chains slipping on the ice. Suddenly through the white wall came a flash of red, it was an old pickup truck sliding toward him.
“What the hell”?
He jerked the steering wheel sliding to the side of the road; he stopped just as the old red truck toppled over a guardrail and disappeared out of site. Mark radioed Mountain Rescue before trying to run toward the bent and torn guardrail, the truck was now wedged on a ledge of jagged broken trees; below was nothing but open space ending at the valley floor several hundred feet below. Without thinking, he found himself sliding down toward the icy edge of a cliff. Mark was thankful for the brush and vines that slowed him down as he plummeted toward the rim of the mountainside. He grabbed at a straggly cedar tree growing out of a rock next to the truck; his breath bellowed a foggy mist and his heart pounded in his ears.
Through the shattered driver’s side window, Mark could see a small white-headed woman twisted beneath the steering wheel with a trail of blood running from her forehead. His next thought was selfish, even cruel…he wish that he had called in sick, dropped off the doll, bought a bottle of Jack and gone back to his grubby room. Mark looked at his bloody hands caused by grabbing at rocks and small trees on his way down, one wrong move and the truck would plummet to the valley taking them both with it.
“This is diffidently going to make me late for the party.”
Mark looked at the drop off beneath the old truck before crawling through the broken window. The truck wobbled, he stop, steadied himself and his nerves then crawled slowly to the passenger’s side, the truck wobbled again, and he held his breath while looking under the steering wheel. He was looking down at the small fragile body of a very old woman, praying as the truck shook, he pulled her gently up to the seat beside him; he thought she was dead. He realized he could not get both of them out to safety; he sat holding her close to him as he listens for sirens.
Suddenly she moved; open small round ice blue eyes, and then the dark leathery face lined with wrinkles as it spread into a toothless smile.
“Jimmy!” O.K. thought Mark she’s delirious.
A veined hand patted his face; Mark could not believe what he was seeing, she had to be ninety and who was Jimmy? He was speechless as she begins to talk in a deep mountain accent, he knew she was hurt badly but for some reason she did not know it.
“It took me a long time to get this old truck started”.
“Mam, you need to lie still and don’t talk”.
“I was going to the store; it just slid off the road”.
“Now don’t be mad at me son, I know you thinking you ma shouldn’t be out driving, but I needed stuff to make you boys you favorite spice cake.”
An aggravated sound rolled out of Mark, the old woman thought he was her son; he did not have time for this, he had mail to deliver, to see his daughter and get to a party where he could drown himself in a bottle! Where was Rescue?
“Oh, what the hell.”
Upset at his own life and the current situation Mark slammed his fist down on the old ragged dashboard; he did not care if both of them went over cliff, the truck trembled and then, he stopped to think, this could be his mother.
“Please lay still help is coming.”
He knew she was hurt badly and he hoped she would not die in his arms; he just looked at her in amazement when she opened her eyes and started talking again as if nothing was wrong with her. Mark now confused with his own feelings tried to tune her out; both compassionate and angry he did not want to hear a story from some old woman that was causing him to miss a party, or seeing his daughter.
He tried drifting away into his own self-centered world, but the story she was telling pulled him slowly back into her world. This tiny crushed woman was so old she had to have lived through hard times, the Depression and Wars this country had fought, she would not give up talking to him.
She told about her marriage to a poor man the town called a “Cherokee half-breed”, she said that her ma disapproved of him, but they were in love and had three children, war took two of her children and her baby, a Nave pilot was now coming home for Christmas. Mark’s feeling of frustration abruptly turned into one of humbleness, her hardships had begun to make him see that he should be grateful that he had a family even though he was not with them.
Mark sadly thought, “I threw away my family to drink and party.” He listened to the strange but believable stories. He thought her ability to keep talking in such a traumatic state was unbelievable too!
“I do rightly R‘member another day this cold Jimmy. You were born that day. I kin tell you don’t want to hear it agin but I spec we ain’t going’ no where right now.”
Mark just looked at her.
“Mam, please, you need to lay still, don’t talk!”
“You pa left for work with nothin’ but weak watery coffee in his stomach. I wished that I could make him some biscuits and sweet milk gravy but there was no food in the house. I fussed over his being hungry as I helped tie bailing wire round his old boots to keep the soles on while he worked. You R’member Jimmy, you pa was a logger and the boys went with him.”
She coughed and Mark dabbed at the blood gathering in the corner of her cracked lips. His only thought, please God do not let her die, her son is coming home.
“My pa didn’t hold no grudges. But, one time he promised if you daddy helps kill hogs we could have some meat. We never got no meat. I decided after your pa and the boys left to find work that day I would go ask for that meat. I was eight months with you, but I walked them five miles down the mountain to my daddy’s farm.”
Mark continued to wipe blood, hold her tight, and pray that Rescue would be there soon, and listened.
“We lived in a three room farm shanty off Tuckaleechee Road, down a bit from that old Baptist Church that burnt down when you was just a boy, it were free cause we worked on the farm, sharecropped; the older boys were big enough to help, we wanted to buy it, took us twenty years to get that place.
Her hand went to Mark’s cheek patting it with gnarled fingers.
“My ma, she came from the wealthy Whitfield family over in Rock County, got pregnant I spec, and pa, a handsome thing, he was from a poor family. But, I hear that it was a shotgun wedding. That day Pa opened the door sayin’, come in out of the cold Sister Girl; he always called me Sister Girl. When I told him I come for the meat he promised, ma ran over and shut the door right’ my face. Well, I guess she never forgave me for leaving’ her with a passel of young un’s, I had eight sisters and brothers.”
Mark felt like an intruder eavesdropping into her past, even worse she thought he was her son. The life she had lived was beyond anything he could imagine.
“I left and I walked up the mountain road to old Preacher Stone’s. He were not any preacher, we just called him that cause he talked so much. Mattie, his wife was boilin’ pork, onions, and taters together. I was so hungry I thought my knees would buckle under me. Mattie asked if I had been to my ma’s and had I seen she was carryin’ another baby. She said that my ma did not need any more babies. I recon’ maybe God thought the same way cause that little baby boy died shortly after he were born. Matter fetched me out a big tater from the pot and told me to eat, she told me to help her peel apples and she would give me a pie to take home.”
The old woman started coughing, bringing blood that Mark could not stop, and he could not get her to stop talking either!
“We baked pies and cornbread and I had been painin’ for hours. I didn’t tell Mattie, just said I had to go home. She packed up a pie, some pork, and other stuff for me. I thought I’d never get up that mountain. I unpacked what she gave me puttin’ it in a pot over the fire and the rest on the hearth; I smiled, my family would eat good that night, it was Christmas Eve.”
Suddenly she went limp; Mark held his breath until she began to talk again, he had stopped trying to silence her, she had to tell her story to her Jimmy.
“I knew you were going to be born, ready or not; I put a kettle of water on to boil. I knew what to do. I’d helped my ma birth many a young un’.”
Mark just looked down, this frail little woman thinking of the courage she had then, and still possessed.
“I was alone and it was gettin’ dark when you pa and the boys come home. He had this tiny cedar tree and four ears of dried corn, guess he planned on poppin it over the fire and we’d spend Christmas Eve eatin’ it and stringin’ it to put on that puny tree. Then he said to me, what’s that good smell Girl, a miracle? He were laughing when I said, old Cherokee come see you miracle. When he looked you pa’s face just broke up. We both sat cryin’ and thanked God for our Christmas boy. The boys came in quietly looking at you, and then left us alone. The fire got low, but we didn’t care and we weren’t even hungry. We were warm and full of love, the kind of love only a child can bring; it was you Jimmy.” She looked up patting Mark’s cheek with trembling hands.
Mark was choking back his own tears when she told him to look in her front shirt pocket and get her billfold. She pulled a picture out of it.
“R‘member, you first soldier picture.” Showing Mark the picture as he looked out the back window of the pickup, he could see the red lights of an ambulance and those of Mountain Rescue
“Thank God.” Mark breathed a sigh of relief.
He started to put the picture back in the billfold when he saw a yellowed newspaper clipping stuck to it. It was an obituary.
[Military services will be held for Captain James Earl Dunlap of Townsend, Tennessee in Moss Cemetery on January 24, 1964. Born December 24, 1933, Captain Dunlap a Navy pilot was killed in Vietnam on December 24, 1963; he was the son of Emma Jean Dunlap and was preceded in death by his father James Earl “Cherokee” Dunlap in December 1960, twin brothers Matthew and Mark Dunlap both Navy pilots killed in Vietnam in December 1962.]
Mark held her close to him, no longer able to stop his tears. She opened her eyes they were now veiled with the shadow of approaching death. He somehow knew that James Earl and the boys were waiting on their mother to come home. Mark brushed the tears from his face looked down to find her smiling.
“Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday Jimmy Earl I’m ready to go home now.”
Her face relaxed, the wrinkles seem to fade from her dark leathery face, the only thing showing was a smile. As her breath became shallow, Mark leaned over and kissed her cheek.
“Bye mama, I love you.”
When Mark returned to Townsend, he knocked on the door of the house that was so very familiar to him; he had painted it yellow his wife’s favorite color and the white picket fence a few years back. In trembling hands, he held a doll wrapped in used Christmas paper and hope in his heart that all was not lost. Suddenly his heart melted and he knew that the New Year would bring him joy; a lesson well learned when he heard his little girl scream.
Author’s Note: This small piece was written for the Christmas season in the beginning it was to be a personal piece for my journal, then I decided to share it with those people I follow and care for each and every day. Time does not erase the pain and sadness of the loss of a child no matter the age. This letter is dedicated to all parents who have and are grieving for their child(ren). We must remember all of the happiness of those long ago days when magic was still in the air and hope was but a thought away.
Bits and Pieces of Love…
The box of Christmas ornaments hidden away for so long spilled onto the floor; memories flooded back of a child taken from me. Frozen in time, I picked up the handmade treasures; paper, ribbon, bits and pieces of love formed into special ornaments that this child had made for me.
Tonight I sit, a wounded soul and I write a letter that I have not written since I myself was a child.
Dear Santa Clause,
There are just a few wishes this year on my list. Leave me a sign that my child knows how much she is missed. Leave me a box of magic needles and thread to mend my heart so that I may find a reason to get out of bed. Maybe a bag of Christmas Spirit filled with love that eases the pain of what I lost to Heaven above. Do you still remember me Santa after all of these years; do you remember how your gifts could take away my tears? I know that I have ask for a lot, but can I have a reason to live tied up in a shiny new box; almost ten years…a long time to grieve, please Santa with all my heart I want to believe.
Author’s Note: “Dedicated to Mrs. Elizabeth Speaks Grades 1-5 Priceville Elementary School, Priceville, Alabama”, Mrs. Speaks, my teacher from the 1st to 5th grades. Did I go to a one-room school, no, I am not that old, but close. It was an elementary school in the south during the 1940’s, and the south was still a very poor state and this was a rural school. This teacher took me under her wing so to speak and was influential in my loving to paint. I have children who are educators and I am very proud of them as well, the field of education is very important to me. So, let me introduce “My Mrs. Speaks” and living in rural Alabama after the depression.
The Wisdom of Teachers
I remember early mornings tossing off mounds of handmade quilts running across bare linoleum floors to put on shoes with holes in the soles; then pulling on a ragged coat to keep away the cold. Life was innocent and sweet, the ringing of a school bell, big yellow buses, sharing secrets with friends in your favorite bus seat. Big rolling wheels gave bumps and giggles hitting every pothole on winding country roads stopping at each mailbox one by one; it was a time of wholesomeness.
Some children carried their lunch in paper sacks or ate in the cafeteria at school, but for most of us, a tin bucket filled with nothing more than a piece of bacon hidden in a biscuit. It was just a little country school where children were lucky to have clothes on their backs and shoes on their feet, where teachers with motherly faces brought the poor children a sandwich or piece of homemade bread.
Teachers focused on the children who were withdrawn and yet no child was set to one side; each encouraged to follow their dreams, to listen to their hearts. My memory is of such a teacher who now lives only in my heart; the last time I spoke to her she said that she knew I was one of those children who was withdrawn and set my own self apart from the others. It was not because of the clothes I wore or being from a poor family. I set myself apart before they had time to do so, you see not only were we poor, we were “Indians” as they called us and they were afraid of us. I don’t think the children knew that “scalping” was no longer a practice. My daddy was a Chickasaw!
I walked into the room of the nursing facility looking down at the most beautiful woman in the world. Her hair still long lay beside her on the pillow lining a gentle face. When I leaned down to give her a kiss I found that she recognized me, then in a small but firm voice she asked, “In life, what have you learned”; I leaned closer to her whispering, “You taught me well Mrs. Speaks and you have no concern”. She reached up pulling me closer to her, saying softly, “Remember life is not always what it seems; to never believe that all is lost because in the end all that we have and truly possess are our dreams.
She closed her eyes seemingly lost somewhere in the past; I left with a heavy heart knowing that this visit would be my last. I drove to the place where the old school use to be, now vacant land that I thought of as hallowed ground; I could still hear her say as she did in those long ago days; “learn all you can my children because this tiny country school is where your future can be found. What a privilege to have known such a kindred heart, the magic she created for each and every child; she taught us that life may not be what it seems, but that we should never lose the ability to dream.
A note came shortly before her death; she wrote not to the child but to the adult, she wrote that I was to remember the lessons that I had learned, and that no one could change me without my consent; and in conclusion, happiness and fulfillment did not always come from external events. She said that I must be aware that I possess the inner wisdom, strength and the creativity needed to make my dreams come true; life is what you make of it.
Who does not remember the ringing of the school bell as a child, the rushing to get on the big yellow bus grabbing that favorite seat, always the place where you and your friends could meet? The big rolling wheels stopped along the winding country road letting everyone out one by one, it was days of innocence and having fun. Yes, I lived in a shanty down by Old Flint Creek, and I owe my outlook on life to a treasured teacher who always made sure the poor children like me had love and homemade treats.
Author’s Note: “Dedicated to Big Gus, Daddy’s friend”…Big Gus was Aunt Francis son and when she moved in to take care of me, Big Gus came with her. They lived in a small clapboard one-room shanty nearby and they help raise me, I loved them both very much. Aunt Francis an elderly woman was a slave on a plantation on top of Burleson Mountain, she gave birth to Gus when she was only thirteen years old.
When days get bad within my mind, I travel back to another time. The fog
clears and memory sends to me, a gentle soul, and a man among men.
As a child his friendship I won, he a child of a slave woman, and the
Masters son. Everyone called him Big Gus, though when I knew him he had
shriveled with age, a religious man, he could recite the bible without
ever turning a page.
Big Gus looked upon life steadily, he felt alive and whole, he road an old
rusty bicycle wherever he would go. He lived in a little house on my daddy’s land; they
respected each other, man to man. We buried Big Gus one cold gloomy day; I did not
understand why my best friend had to go away. Daddy placed a marker upon his grave,
when he bought it he looked at me asking, “Besides his name baby girl, what should it
An inventive child, even in those days, of my childhood friend I knew exactly what I
wanted the marker to display.
“IN HIS LIFE HE WAS NEITHER DULL NOR WILD; HE WAS KNOWN AS BIG GUS THE MASTERS CHILD.”
Author’s Note: A bit sad, but life showers us with both happiness and sadness; my love of my own little dog who is still with me created this poem. (Picture is of my little Mason)
A little dog barked and leaped beside
His Master in a quiet little town on a quiet
Little street. He fought with the he-dogs
And sniffed at the she-dogs, life to this little
Dog was a treat.
Years went by, the Master walked with
A cane, the little dog limped along silently,
Their lives had changed. The little dog had
Lost his sight, he could no longer fight, at
The she-dogs he only had just enough strength
To wag his tail.
The town people watched as the two of them
Aged, the Master never walked again, he had
Become just another tired old man. Within
Time no one saw the Master and his little
Dog, one day a neighbor knocked at their door,
Peeked In the window, and there, they both lay on the
The Master and his little dog had watch the
Morning sky lose its cast of gray, it was to be
A very fine day. Then they watched the sun
Go down and the lamp lights lit in the quiet little
They closed their eyes, Master dreamed of
Walking along the quiet little streets, the little
Dog dreamed that he could once again bark and
Master woke to find the little dog laying at his
Feet, he thought maybe he was just asleep.
Painfully he knelt down, knowing neither
Would ever walk again through the quiet little town.