She was young and quietly attractive in her soft, pink, polyester dress. She stood alone looking down into the casket at the old man. He was neatly dressed in the new shirt she had bought for him, and his familiar sport coat had been freshly cleaned and pressed for the occasion. His lanky frame and soft, wavy, silver hair presented an image of reserved dignity. Mourners came and went in quiet reverence; but she lingered around the fringes of the gathering, returning now and then to look again upon his lifeless face.
She had only known him five years—five memorable, difficult years intermingled with happy days of young love and marital bliss. When she married his youngest son, she did not know she would be tried and tested then strengthened and molded by this aged man, feeble and spent, his years used up. How could she have known he would gently and unwittingly teach her priceless life lessons?
“Better lay claim to that little strawberry roan,” he had said to her on a hot, sultry, summer day. “When I’m gone, he’s yours.”
The southern sun was bearing down, and he was sitting on the old front porch of the home place. She slipped down out of the saddle. Buddy nuzzled her hand as she reached for the bridle. The little horse would likely soon be hers; for his owner had cancer, and advanced age did not bode well for recovery.
She was a young bride in her twenties, and this unlikely bequest blew her mind! After all, she was new in the family, and Buddy was the old man’s most prized possession.
He likes me! she thought, pleased by the realization.
The old man was old enough to be her husband’s grandfather, having sired his two sons in his fifties. Everyone assumed that death would surely take him first, ahead of his much younger wife, the mother of his boys. With cancer now ravaging his body, this assumption seemed a near certainty.
With no warning, the young woman learned Life Lesson #1: Never call anything a certainty.
In a quick moment, not many days after Buddy was verbally willed to her, the unthinkable happened. This weakened yet self-willed patriarch was behind the wheel of their little yellow 1970-model automobile when it rolled backwards, knocking his wife to the pavement, breaking her hip. The broken hip resulted in a blood clot—which resulted in a stroke—which resulted in paralysis—which eventually resulted in her death.
Life Lesson #2 quickly followed: Intrusion is not necessarily a bad thing.
The young couple moved from their newlywed home back to the old home place. For months, they cared for the invalid mother and the aging father until finally, mercifully, the mother passed away.
The family was bowed down in sorrow, but the old man predictably shed no tears. In the dark midnight hour, the young woman stared at the bedroom ceiling thinking she, alone, was still awake; then she heard low, mournful groans coming from the old man’s room. An indelible image of sorrow was forever etched on her heart.
She wept. She wept for herself, for her husband’s profound sorrow, and for the empty place left in the home. But mostly she wept for the old man, bearing his pain alone.
Soon thereafter, the young couple returned to their first home—a used, single-wide mobile home decorated with gauzy, red curtains and a hodgepodge of second-hand furniture. The old man came to live out his remaining days with them; and for the next four years, his presence—an intrusion of sorts—gave the young woman invaluable insight into his life.
He was born in 1896—nearly a century removed from the modern-day conveniences of the seventies. She could hardly imagine the world as he had seen it, a world that changed rapidly, decade to decade. Those changes were mind-boggling, going from plowing fields with a team of mules to tilling the soil in thirty-foot swipes with massive automated equipment. Automobiles (like the one that struck the death-blow to his wife) were non-existent, a world away from horse-drawn wagons and carriages he had used as a child. Jet airplanes that daily streaked across the skies were mere fantasies when he was a boy.
Still, the changes had come, swiftly and surely, and he had changed with the times, letting go of the old and embracing the new. Through it all, he remained strong and tough like the scrubby cedar that grew along the overgrown fence rows of his little piece of land.
The months inched along and became years. The young woman worked and watched and listened but not always with enjoyment. At times she was impatient with his feeble hands and repeated stories; and sometimes her tears fell out of desperation and desire to be alone with her husband. Still, caring for the old man was a bittersweet privilege, proof that he had instilled responsibility and goodness in his son, the man she loved.
Gradually, with the passing of time, she learned Life Lesson #3: Strength and courage are conscious decisions.
Conversation by conversation, story by story, the old man told of his eighty-plus years. He told of good times and happy times. He told of sad times and hard, grueling times that would have broken a weaker man. He told them factually and straightforward, as a part of who he was.
“I remember my daddy dying,” he said one day, lying back in his tattered recliner. “I couldn’t have been much more than four or five. I remember him calling me and my brother to his bedside and telling us, ‘Now, you be good boys and mind your mama.’”
Her heart broke as he related this story. His face remained stoic and unmoved.
“I put my first corn crop out by myself when I was ten,” he stated matter-of-factly. He laughed and continued, “I remember sitting down in the field and crying when I got the plow hung under a root and couldn’t get it out.”
She was without words, painfully aware of the easy, carefree childhood she had enjoyed.
He told of his mother’s early death. “Cancer, I guess…just like me,” he said with no emotion. “She had a lump come up on her side that never went away.”
He later told about his first wife, about her dying in childbirth and how he helplessly watched as the unborn child writhed within her as life ebbed away.
Still…not a tear.
Then came the day his allotted time was used up. Cancer won the battle. As the young woman stood over the old man’s casket and bade him goodbye, she recalled their time together and their many conversations. She thought about his staunch ability to conceal emotions, remembering the night he grieved alone in his bedroom. Now she understood. His grieving had been for more, far more, than the death of his wife. It embodied sorrows he had borne throughout life. He was grieving for his long-departed father and mother; for having to become a man while he was still a boy; for his first-love and for their unborn child; and for all the other unnamed sorrows that had passed without tears. Survival had never allowed him the luxury of grieving.
His courage in facing life’s obstacles rose to the top of his admirable traits, and Life Lesson #4 came to her: All gifts are not tangible.
She looks in the mirror and smooths back her gray hair. The years have been a blur, filled with good days and hard times; yet she has met them all with determination, just like he did. She straightens the family photo on the wall and smiles at the grandchildren huddled around; then from an old eight-by-ten portrait, faded with age, she sees a dapper old gentleman smiling at her. She sighs, for she is only ten years younger than he was when they first met; yet his memory is so clear, and he lives on, ever smiling in the shadows.
Buddy, the little strawberry roan, was long ago put out to pasture in the meadow of her memory. Still, when she recalls that summer day he was bequeathed to her, she knows with certainty that the little horse was not the only gift she received from this dear, old friend. Strength and perseverance were also bequeathed to her, though they were never named.
The Parisian roast duckling practically moistened the TV screen as the narrator, with heavy French accent, described each delectable ingredient. The final touches of parsley sprig and scallion flowerets were placed on the platter as she said, “And thou you have ze poifect meal.”
“The perfect meal,” my mind repeated. From the haze of my yesteryears came soft memories of perfect meals that I, too, had enjoyed. I ate the perfect breakfast at Grandma Garrett’s house, high on a ridge above the lake waters in Tennessee. The early autumn morning was wrapped in a thick white fog that had silently crept up the hollow throughout the night. The “banty” rooster’s shrill crow pierced the quietness and the dampness. Not one man-made sound contaminated the peace that hovered over Grandma’s little green-shingled house. I sat at the tall, oilcloth-covered table and ate biscuits that had been cut out with a Bruton Snuff tin. I ate round, jack-ball shaped sausages that had been canned the previous winter. I ate eggs, gathered fresh from the hen house; and this perfect breakfast was topped off with homemade strawberry jam and newly churned butter brought from the coolness of the outside cellar. What a breakfast!
I reach back in my mind and retrieve the memory of a perfect dinner I also enjoyed. In my childhood world, ‘dinner’ was the noon meal, now called ‘lunch’ by those who have never waded mud puddles or swung on grapevines. Grandma Martin served this perfect dinner at her humble log home on a warm Sunday. Her log house was not like the currently fashionable ones erected from pressure-treated pine. No, it was a true log house built from trees felled and hewn, laid and chinked. It consisted of a large main room, a side-room, and a kitchen built onto the back. I lay on Grandma’s straw-filled bed as the Sunday sun streamed through the open wood door. The wallpaper around my Sunday-bed was pretty pages torn from magazines and newspapers and pasted to the walls with flour-paste. I read the walls and listened to the bees hum around the hollyhocks outside the one, tiny window. I could hear Grandma and Mama talking in the kitchen while they cooked on the woodstove. They discussed family matters, gardens, sicknesses, flowers, and more. I listened, too, as Grandpa and Daddy discussed fine points of the Bible while they waited for dinner. Finally, I heard those joyful words from Grandma, “Come to dinner!” I raced to the hand-hewn table and ate golden-laced hoecakes, boiled potatoes, thick-sliced cured side-pork that had been dredged in cornmeal and fried to a crunchy crisp. I drank fresh milk and ate honey taken from a huge stone jar in the kitchen corner. I was happy. I was full. I was content.
And what about the perfect supper? Yes, indeed—I have also enjoyed the perfect supper at my own childhood home. Five siblings, stair-stepped in size, would gather around the table to be served from a platter of boiled hen and a huge bowl of rich, yellow dumplings. In today’s heart-healthy world, that bowl of dumplings would be considered a lethal weapon; but to a little round-faced, barefooted girl it was delicious beyond words! The warm dumplings filled more than my empty tummy—it filled my heart and my memories with love straight from Mama’s hands.
The perfect meal? Yes, I have dined upon many. The perfect meal is the one served by loving hands in the company of those who care. Surely, Solomon’s wisdom was never more apparent than when he said that it is better to eat turnip greens with a friend than a T-bone steak with an enemy. Actually, he said “herbs” and “a stalled ox”—but I know what he meant.
He never showed emotion. He never said the words “I love you.” Outwardly he was hard as nails—unbending as the oak—a towering figure of sternness over his five children.
But on warm, sunny Sunday mornings, dressed in a clean, white cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled above his elbows, he would reach in his shirt pocket and miraculously pull out a pack of Juicy Fruit gum and place a half-stick into each eager outstretched hand. Then we’d all pile in the old Hudson and go to church. Even a child knows this equates to “love.”
His arms were muscled and brown and hard from hammering the nails and sawing the wood. Carpentry was more than his occupation—it was his joy, his creative outlet. He would inspect the raw wood, choose the flawless pieces of lumber, and skillfully turn them into a house, a barn, kitchen cabinets, or perhaps a fine piece of furniture. Sometimes the final piece of art would be a table lamp fashioned in the shape of an old hand-cranked well pump or perhaps a detailed wall decoration, many of these given as gifts to his family. His talented hands were busy building useful things for some and beautiful things for others.
He smelled of sweat and Prince Albert tobacco each evening when he came home—and he always came home. Throughout all the many nights of childhood, we never knew the emptiness of a home without a father. As night fell around us, we were all inside, safe and sound, the family intact; and we ate suppers of dried beans and cornbread and cucumber relish. Before bedtime, he would sit in his chair by the corner lamp, silently reading his Bible, sometimes talking to Mama. Yet he never said the words, “I love you.”
The years slipped away. We children reached adulthood—strong, able and willing to work and make our way in the world. And I watched as this hard and emotionless man—our father—grew old and feeble. And he fought every step of the way, holding on with fierce determination to his right to rule over his domain. “Victory at all costs!” seemed to be his battle cry as his eyes dimmed, his hearing dulled, his body weakened, and his health declined until finally he was the Fearless Leader of the family in title only.
Still he warred on against advanced age with grim determination to overcome! When others would have accepted defeat, he took up yet another sword and wielded it fiercely until finally…mercifully…his mind began to walk back into the past, letting him see Mama again, letting him hear the factory whistles blow in Michigan, letting him drive the nails with power and precision, and letting him sand the aromatic cedar to a smooth and perfect finish. Again he hunted the hills of Barnes Ridge with his brothers. Again he saw his Papa and Mama, long since gone from our vision.
Then, and only then, did he find rest for his battle-weary body. Then he laid down the sword, oblivious to Death’s approaching footsteps. As he lay on his deathbed, he would sometimes rub my hand with a gentleness and tenderness I had not before seen. He would sometimes sing sweetly to himself, “When the roll is called up yonder”, or maybe even the lively lyrics of “Old Joe Clark”.
And when the day came that we told him goodbye, it occurred to me that I had listened all through the years for him to say, “I love you;” but I had been listening with my ears instead of my heart. It was then that I finally came to know that things like Juicy Fruit chewing gum, hand-made lamps and bedroom suites, being taught right from wrong, learning to be loyal to my family, to work hard for a living—all these things translate into “I love you.”
Daddy could never say those words; instead he showed us…the only way he knew how.
*Happy Father’s Day to my father, Garland Garrett (1/5/1916 – 12/28/1998)
The sun shines so brightly. Leaves stir gently in the late spring breeze. Birds trill sweetly to each other. A crow caws in the nearby woods.
My husband on his old tractor hooked to the disk comes clang-clanging down our graveled driveway. Our son (who is now grown and expecting a son of his own) is riding along behind him, on their way to the newly plowed field. Visions of tall, green stalks of corn are undoubtedly filling their dreams. I know with certainty that they are in their “highest heaven,” for farming is in their blood. Daily hard work, grease from the equipment, dust from the field, and sweat from their brow all equate to “joy” for them.
Our life is simple. Our needs are few. Our wants are negligible. And the important things–love, faith, and compassion–are plentiful. Even our health in these, our waning years, is reasonably intact.
With grateful heart, I look up into the clear blue sky. A jet zooms over our little farm, taking others to white, sandy beaches or to cities with a million lights. But the bees hovering around my lilac bush hum a song of peace to me. Yellow butterflies dance a silent dance among the wildflowers. And the droning of the tractor in the distant field blends with the breeze that whispers in my ear, saying, “You are, indeed, truly blessed.”
Linda Garrett Hicks
My pen and paper have always been my faithful friends, there to see me through times of joy or sorrow. Like a magic wand, they unlock my innermost thoughts and allow words to pour forth from my very soul. I read those words, contemplate them, dissect them, and thus manage a myriad of emotions that shape my being. Three years ago, however, my pen and paper failed me; for it was then I faced a reality unlike any before—the death of a sibling.
Our family circle, strong and solid, held five children together through many years and many circumstances, good and bad. Then came the sad day when our oldest sister, after having fought so hard to stay with us, lost her battle and had to leave. The circle was broken, and so were we.
I grieved the best I could, hoping to fill the void with sweet memories; but the hole in my heart remained, and the emptiness gnawed at my soul. My acceptance of her leaving was not complete. She frequently visited my thoughts, and I often saw her face in my dreams.
In previous times of grief, I had always (with no forethought) turned to my writing for solace. This time, however, my pen lay unused. Why? I wondered; but I found no answer. My paper remained blank, void of feelings buried deep in my psyche.
What determines when or why a heart opens to allow grief to be comforted, I cannot say. I only know that recently, as I sat at my dining table in far-away thought, I picked up my ever-present pen and paper and wrote the following line: “She took the song out of our hearts and carried it up to heaven with her.” And just like that, my old friends returned, failing me no more. The key clicked, and my heart unlocked. The flood-gates opened; and from my pen flowed the following tribute to our dear Frances, who left our circle far too soon:
Sing with the Angels
She took the song out of our hearts
and carried it up to heaven with her—
the oldest sister, lovely and fair
with eyes so blue and golden hair,
a smile that brightened the room,
and laughter, easy and free!
The cares of life she chose to bear
alone, not asking for a hand
to lighten her load—just a list’ning ear
when she wearily fell to her knees.
Still she arose, brushed off the hurt,
picked up her blessings, and trudged on.
Her heart was tender, her faith strong,
her resolve unequaled! But her
body weakened from the daily grind
of work and worry, ‘til it crumbled,
little by little, and descended into
the dark depths of sickness and pain.
I watched her wither away and die
never knowing how much she was loved.
I think she would scoff to see these
words upon this page that proclaim
her death to have sucked the joy out of
our lives and the song out of our hearts.
How we miss her beautiful smile! And
yet there’s one single truth to which
we cling—that death exchanged her pain
for eternal peace and sweet rest.
So sing, dear Sister, sing our song!
Sing it with the angels forevermore!
Linda Garrett Hicks – 2015
The older I get, the surer I am that Mother Nature will arouse me each night from sweet slumber to answer her call. I stumble through the darkness, irritated that I have been forced from my cozy bed. I mentally grumble until, bathroom call answered, I once again snuggle deeply into my pillow.
Last night was no different–with one exception. Last night I did not grumble that I had been awakened. Why? Because the night was unspeakably beautiful and alive with the sweet, continuous song of a mockingbird! The moon, full and bright, shined through my window and lay a silver patch of moonbeam across my bed. Outside, the peaceful country landscape was wrapped in a soft glow. The nearby pond glistened in the moonlight. There were no sounds of danger or distress–no dogs barking, no coyotes howling, no sirens screaming down the distant, dark highway. All was quiet except for the song of a single mockingbird. Loudly and melodically he serenaded me from high in the maple tree in my front yard. No other bird joined him in song. He was alone, determined, it seemed, to fill the night with his music.
For a long while, I lay and listened to his singing. He quickly switched from the call of one bird to the call of another, then yet another. I tried to count the many different species he imitated, but I easily lost count as he zigzagged through his repertoire with speed and perfection.
The peace I felt cannot be measured. It was a gift–a temporary gift–and I wished that everyone, everywhere, could have felt the gentle comfort of this lovely night. Yet, I knew it could not be, for we live in a world of woe. I knew that when night was over and the darkness had been pushed away by the morning sun, the hectic clamor of life would return. I would arise from my bed, turn on the morning news and listen while I cooked breakfast. I would likely hear of robberies, of killings in our streets, of riots in our Nation, and of wars and beheading in the world–all having occurred while my little Tennessee mountain was steeped in peace and tranquility.
Yet, it has not always been so. To the contrary, my mountain home has weathered times of trouble and looked squarely into the face of tragedy. The hills have echoed my cries of despair, and the deep woods have heard my groaning with grief. Still, they pass, and peace always returns.
Perhaps this is the take-away message to be gleaned from this lovely night, that when “wars and rumors of wars” come to visit your corner of the world, you must not lose hope. Remember it is not universal, neither is it unending. Somewhere, the cries of death cannot be heard. Somewhere, peace covers the land like a blanket of silvery moonlight. Somewhere, yes, somewhere a mockingbird sings at midnight.
I think there is nothing quite so peaceful as a secluded, rural cemetery.
Recently, on a lazy, sunny, spring afternoon, my husband and I decided (on a whim) to take a drive through the country-side to a remote cemetery where some of his ancestors are buried. This Sunday leisure trip was very pleasant and relaxing. Trees were budding. Wildflowers were sprinkling bits of color along the roadside. The late evening sun was warm through our windshield.
Leaving the main highway, we turned onto a gravel road that leads to the cemetery. Soon, the gravel road became a dirt road, winding through green fields, farm silos, fences and gates, until at last we came to the old cemetery nestled peacefully on a knoll far away from any homestead.
Stepping down from the truck cab, I became instantly aware of an aura of unequaled peace and tranquility. The only sounds were the chirping of songbirds and the soft sweep of a gentle breeze blowing through the tombstones. The sacredness of this place was apparent, and my husband and I talked in hushed tones as we opened the old wire-woven gate and walked among the graves.
So many years! I thought to myself. So many years since the first grave was dug on this little hill! I looked at the blue mountains in the distance as I read the markers, one by one, noting names and ages and sweet sentiments, such as “Beloved Mother,” “Rest in Peace,” and “In the Arms of Jesus.”
The earliest engraved markers were dated in the early-to-mid 1800’s; but there were many unmarked ones that were obviously much older. Huge sandstone slabs, likely hewn from the nearby mountains and hauled by teams of mules or oxen, had been placed tent-like over the graves. Head- and foot-stones were chiseled to a spire. Most were without names or dates; and I wondered about those buried beneath these slabs. What kind of life did they live? Did they know laughter and smiles? Or was their life so burdened with hardship and grief that this grave was a welcomed relief? Some graves indicated a long life lived, while others were the tiny graves of babies and small children, denied the gift of life at an early age.
We walked from grave to grave, commenting on family names and summoning our knowledge and remembrances of kinfolk, neighbors, and acquaintances. We eventually found the graves of my husband’s great-great-relatives and paused to reflect upon the blessing of family. We were pleased to see that their grave sites and stones were intact and well-kept, the apparent work of some good soul in the immediate area. We voiced an unheard “thank you” to the one (or many) who work to keep this little cemetery in reasonably good repair.
As we turned to exit the cemetery, I passed a very old grave that had sunk away with the passing of time. The stone, dated in the 1930’s, had fallen over and lay upon the sunken grave. I stopped, saddened by the scene, and read the name and dates and the following words: “Gone, but not Forgotten.” At first, I signed sorrowfully at the irony of the phrase chiseled on this abandoned and unkempt stone. Then I pondered the situation and came to understand that, even though I am unfamiliar with this family name and could not have personally known this lady, she is still, indeed, not forgotten. She and all the other dear souls resting in this little isolated cemetery are remembered when people–such as I–pass by and reflect upon lives previously lived. More importantly, they will be remembered when this world ceases to be and when we all, “great and small,” shall stand before the mighty throne of God Almighty.
We left the little graveyard, driving back down the soft, dirt road, hearing the tires crunch on the gravel road then whine upon the paved highway; and I thought to myself, ‘Gone but not Forgotten’ is a befitting epitaph; it is, indeed, a truth well-spoken.
I learned of her death as I made my daily walk through Facebook postings. I knew she had earlier been hospitalized and remained in ICU; so her condition was obviously serious. Still, I was unprepared for her death, and I gasped when I read the words, “passed away.”
Many years ago, she had touched my life. We were not best friends; neither were we mere acquaintances. We were somewhere in-between. We smiled a friendly smile each time we met. We exchanged pleasantries and assured each other that we were so glad we’d crossed paths one more time. Her gentle demeanor was always comforting.
There was a time, though, when I desperately needed encouragement in my efforts to become a bona fide writer, and Yvonne quietly gave it to me as she stood behind the counter of a local drugstore. “Have you written anything lately?” she asked. “Don’t give it up!” This conversation gave me the confidence I needed to continue writing, hoping to inspire others and bring a measure of peace through my words.
There’s an old song entitled “Brighten the Corner Where You Are” that says:
Do not wait until some deed of greatness you may do. Do not wait to shed your light afar. To the many duties ever near you, now be true: Brighten the corner where you are.
That’s what Yvonne did. She lit up my path and helped me walk on toward my goal. Eventually, I published a book of poetry (Through the Storms), and in it I allude to her kind, encouraging words that bolstered my desire to write.
As I think of her, now passed from this earth, I’m sure her good influence also motivated many others. Still, it is the encouragement she gave me of which I speak; and I hope when, in eternity, her life is read, there will at least be a note in the margin that says, “Through a soft-spoken phrase, she encouraged a writer. That writer’s words encouraged a reader. That reader encouraged yet another… and on…and on…and on.”
May we always be mindful of the power of words, spoken or written; and may my words serve to enlighten (and never dim) the paths of others.
Rest in peace, Yvonne. Thank you for brightening my corner.
To receive a daily gift–Nature’s beauty–I need only to look out my window. Following weeks of ice and snow here in the hills of Tennessee, today offers bright sunshine, warmer breezes, and early signs of spring. The chickens are milling about, seeing what they can find beneath the melted snow. The calves, likewise, are searching for a hint of green grass; the pond is no longer frozen, making the ducks very happy, and Gullett Mountain in the distance is promising that the trees will soon be green again.
How often do we frown at our circumstances? The sun is too bright. The wind is too cold. We need rain. We don’t need rain. And on and on it goes. Let us, instead, practice looking out our window and seeing a gift, just for us, just for today. The recent snow was beautiful, covering the ground and every twig with garments of white; and today is equally beautiful, only in a different way.
What gift has Nature given you today? Look out your window…and smile!
Welcome. My name is Linda Garrett Hicks, author of Through the Storms: A Collection of Poems and Vignettes. I’m so happy to have you as a visitor to my blog about my new book. This project is very special to me, and I hope to share some of that excitement with you here.