Where the Dirt Road Leads

The Front Porch

Laura LoweMy dad and I had a special relationship. He and my mom had been married for 17 years before she was able to carry a baby to full term. Today their ages – 37 for mom and 44 for dad – when their first child was born would not seem odd, but in the 1940s it was. Momma told the story of her deep yearning to have children. She probably felt a personal kinship with the women of the Bible who had barren wombs.  She identified with Abraham’s wife, Sarah, and Elkannah’s wife, Hannah. Hannah prayed for God to bless her with a child. She later gave birth to Samuel. Sarah gave birth at the age of 90 to Isaiah. Momma also prayed for children.

I knew my brother and I were much beloved. Sometime Daddy and I would sit on the front porch after supper in the summer. He would talk to me about the huge family he sprung from. His father had been born in slavery in 1850 to a white father and black mother. His father was named Isaiah. He married a woman by the name of Emma. Together they raised 14 children on farm acreage given to him by his father. Daddy was the baby and was probably spoiled. In my adult life when I'm stressed and faced with challenges, my mind harkens back to that simpler time and a devoted father’s love. I wrote the poem below during one of those times …

Front Porch 

The Front Porch, ©2003
by Laura Lowe

Upon a place and upon a time,
I slip into a front porch swing.
With each gentle ride back and forth
Urban superficiality fades away.
In a world just out of reach,
Familiar melodic sounds fill a breach
between modern stress –
and much needed time to rest.
In the gloaming birds are singing
As they find a place to roost.
Tucked in snugly, they await a new day’s birth.
Oh, how peaceful – their sounds of mirth.
By some unseen cosmic signal
the cool dark curtain of night softly, silently descends.
Soon a mid summer’s night scene unfolds
in non-orchestrated splendor.
Heat lightning flashes in the northern sky;
while hundreds of fireflies flash in grassy
hillocks and leafy knolls.
Heaven will not be out done by the show on earth.
In the unlimited blackness of space millions of twinkling, sparkling stars
appear like heavenly fireflies in galaxies far, far away.
The amazing visual delight is augmented by such a cacophonous noise.
My soul, my spirit is calmed by creatures unseen –
no matter how I peer into the darkening green.
Dozens of frogs residing in the nearby creek
utter throaty croaking sounds, slightly off key.
Joined with the hind leg rubbings of cicadas and crickets,
it is a delightful symphony whose unseen maestro
has always been here.
Immersed in such a place, one is so near the beginning of time.
It is frightening.
A slight rebellion in our rational brain
nags us to return to the present time.
Alas! We must relinquish the mood.
For we cannot stay in a Unitive Experience forever.
Not in this life.
You see it is just a glimpse of heaven’s reward.
Once upon a place and a time far, far away.

Brother and the Martin Birds

Laura LoweHomes for Martin Birds

They were back. What a delightful sight and sound as the martin birds returned to the southeastern part of the United States in the spring. The martin birds are dependent on humans for their home. My daddy had already raised the poles with the gourds he had raised on it for the return. It was an annual ritual for him.

My younger brother would spend hours observing the birds. I have memories of him running around with a big leaf in his hand imitating the birds and their sounds. Years after we had grown up, I often thought that brother should have become an ornithologist.

Brother joined the Air Force directly out of high school. He was shipped off to Texas for basic training. He changed after joining the service. He and I were over-protected in our youth so perhaps it was inevitable that the world outside our family farm would hold an attraction and a desire to embrace a faster way of living.

The anniversary of Brother’s death has just passed. He died 12 years ago. He had developed prostate cancer and waited too late to accept the treatment offered. I still grieve for my only sibling. I still retain some of the anger I felt towards him for not doing better with his life. It was a life that held such promise.

During his tenure with the Air Force, he was stationed on one of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. It was an experience he did not wish to repeat so he departed the Air Force as soon as he could. He settled in Denver, Colorado. It was a state he loved. I grew to love the state too upon numerous visits out there. We would go dancing at some of the discotheques, drive up to the higher elevations, go hiking in the state parks and just have fun hanging out. On one excursion up to Estes Park he patiently waited while my sister-in-law and I went horseback riding for an hour.

Nothing reminds me of my brother more than the martin birds returning to the same nests they occupied the year before. How thrilled I was when I purchased a house in 2009 and the elderly neighbor’s yard boasted a couple of poles with gourds for martin birds. Every year the birds come back. I can observe them from my lounger in my back yard as they swoop around catching insects.

Perhaps in the other world there are many, many, homes for these birds and Brother is having a great time observing and interacting in some way with these beautiful little creatures. I know he is happy there …

Momma Hattie and Country Living

Laura Lowe Momma Hattie's Country House

My maternal grandmother would qualify as one of my most unforgettable characters. The earliest memories I have of her are of my brother and me visiting her in her little house near our farm. Her kitchen always smelled of ground coffee beans. She had one of those wooden coffee grinders on the wall near the wood burning stove. She loved a good strong cup of black coffee in the morning. The regret I still have is not having time to get to know her better. She died when I was 13.

Brother and I called her Momma Hattie. Her name was Hattie Mastin Mark. She was descended from Native Americans. By all accounts she was indeed a character. I remember her unabashed joy in life, her stinging criticism of anything with which she did not agree, and the last months of her life.

Momma was often mortified at something her mother would say to folks. We were visiting a neighbor once when Momma Hattie decided to voice her opinion on the woman’s housekeeping skills or lack thereof. “Uh huh, honey you need to call dem chillums in here and make em clean up this dirty house.” The woman often made people mad, but more often than not people would seem to forgive her for her cutting remarks.

Momma Hattie would come to visit us sometime. She spent most of her time quilting. Brother and I knew better than to bother her when she was in the process of creating those beautiful quilts meant to keep us warm in winter months. I know now that she was an artist who took great pride in her work.

One day Momma Hattie up and moved to the city of Montgomery some 40 miles north of our farm. Momma said she was tired of country living and wanted to party and have a good time. I didn’t understand then why a woman her age would want to leave the country with its beauty to move to the crowded city.

When I was 13 she came to live with us. She did not want to leave the city, but she had suffered a debilitating stroke and could no longer take care of herself. She moved into my room with me. I was devastated. All of a sudden my room was a sick room. I thought of my room as my sanctuary and private place. It was autumn and school was in session so I would bring books home from the library and spend hours in my room in front of the fire reading.

School actually turned out to be a haven from the sickness and my grandmother’s cantankerousness. Nothing Momma did pleased her. It was her illness and the loss of her independence that made her that way.

I was home in bed sick with the chicken pox when Momma Hattie died in the bed next to mine. She had been with us six months. The undertaker had to come from Montgomery to pick up her body. The next day Momma scoured the room. That night I slept in my room alone for the first time in months. I never forgot that night. There was a fierce storm that I noted before I fell asleep. I saw the numerous trees surrounding the house bowing in the wind, but I was not afraid.

Some of the neighbors were superstitious and were amazed that I slept in a room where someone had died. Many years later I realized that the experience was one of life’s lessons. The chicken pox had left pitted scars on my body, but the loss of my sanctuary left emotional scars. The lesson was that sanctuary is not a place, but a state of mind.

They are all gone now. My grief for them recurs when least expected — a snatch of a song, the smell of a spring flowering shrub or freshly spaded soil in the garden, the feel of the molten sunshine on my back. It brings back an acute pang of longing so intense it defies expression. It often brings back memories of the grandmother I hardly knew and her little house in the country filled with her beautiful quilts and the smell of ground coffee beans.

 Momma Hattie

Summer Musings

Laura LoweHigh flying cumulus clouds

In the past, how did country folks survive the long hot days of summer without central air conditioning? One of the things that helped my family tremendously was not having ever been exposed to air conditioning except in some department stores in the nearby town. Another help was being surrounded by trees. Trees are nature’s air conditioners. Even now I don’t particularly like a super cool house and will sometimes turn the unit off and open windows.

Looking back on that time I spent growing up in south central Alabama, I can still recall summers with warm — very warm — memories. Our farm house had a huge front porch covered as the whole house was with a tin roof. Rain falling on tin roofs is often a racket, but a soothing racket. One fond memory I can dredge up is of me stretched out near the porch swing on the floor gazing at the sky full of high flying cumulus clouds off to the north. My active imagination gave each one an animal title. Momma and I had done the weekly wash and there were sheets flapping on the line. I knew that the sheets would smell of sunshine later on the beds. Even now so many years later I can hear the sound of the dirt dauber building a nest in the top of the porch ceiling. Maybe I will knock it down later or maybe not. A black bug was flying slowly around the porch. Momma said that sometimes that was a sign someone was going to die. That was an old superstition, I thought, but what if Momma was right?

Another memory associated with those sheets drying in the sunshine feature my momma’s penchant for cleaning. The woman truly seemed tireless. In those days many houses in the country did not have insulation in the walls. Momma would heat a huge black cast iron pot of water outside and have the menfolk — Daddy and our cousin M.C. — bring the hot water inside and she would scald down the walls. On this Saturday she had cleared out my room and scalded the walls and the floor early so we could move all the furniture back in before night.

My room smelled of the soap Momma had used to scrub the walls. My bed had been made with the sun-dried sheets. One of the things Momma did that I also did for years was iron the sheets before making the bed. That evening I had my bedside lamp on when Daddy came in to sit and talk with me for a while. He had the newspaper with him and he began reading because I was reading my novel. I must have fallen asleep for a few minutes. When I woke up Daddy was still reading the paper and I heard the sounds of night insects hitting the window screens trying to get in the house. This was an encapsulated happy moment in time that still resonates with me. Every little girl, every child should be able to remember such moments.

I have not hung clothes on an outdoor clothes line in many years, but somehow I do believe that sheets dried in the sunshine magically bring sunshine into our air conditioned homes and into our lives.

Sheets drying on line.

Season unto Season

Laura LoweTomatoes are easy to grow and hot summers are perfect for growing.

Southern summers leave us breathless – seductively luring us into dark green lushness on the wings of bees and birds. Each day the fertile paradise of the garden brings forth an abundance of exquisite offerings so prolific that surely a magic genie has been at work overnight. Crepe myrtle trees offer their abundant flower clusters to teeming bee populations. White crepe myrtle flowers carpet lawns with snowy flower flakes. Summer sunshine is intoxicating and yet soothing in a warmth no other intoxicant can offer. And the colors – brilliant, resplendent, searing, titillating, hot to the touch – are perhaps the defining stamps of summer, whether worn by nature or nature worshipers.

Meat offerings are immolated on man-made charcoal altars, the scent wafts heavenward.  At dusk pyrotechnics dazzle the people gathered round – waiting for the awesome spectacle. Summer ripens into maturity.

Season leads unto season …

The woods are on

Autumn – full-bodied, mature, dressed in rust, gold, yellow, red, orange – presents her time of harvest and in gathering. Elevated to religious significance, thanksgiving is offered in various religious festivals. A pilgrimage to the mountains is in order to appreciate the leafy splendor igniting the hillsides with nature’s brush and palette. Moderating temperatures invigorate, dispelling summer’s languor.

Adults put away childish things. Citadels of learning beckon and chide the frolickers to repent, to atone for the pleasures of a season. The people bow and offer thanks for the land and what it has brought forth. It is such a good land that flows with milk and honey.

Season leads unto season …

 The naked trees show winter's bleakness.

Winter creaks and groans onto the landscape, ferried on bitter winds and frigid temperatures. Some of our friends abandon us. Sorely missed is their cheerful chirping and winged ballet flights. Nature reveals secrets we have missed before. Is the texture of tree bark noticeable at any other time? Winter offers a brown field to gaze upon without distractions of other times. Bare tree branches touch each other in a bony embrace, and the sound is vaguely disturbing. Disturbing and resignedly peaceful, is a melancholy sound that echoes across barren fields from tall pines at their edge. The lone crow calls out, but no one answers.

People light fires on stone hearths. Redolent smells of roasting meat and fowl mingle with evergreen boughs, cloves, scented candles, permeating cloistered domains. The celebrations bring light and joy to a dark world.

Season leads unto season …

Wisteria is such a pretty enchantress.

Now the wee ones are back, awakening us with joyous serenades. Spring is a pretty miss adorned in frothy pinks, greens, and yellows. Her beauty is astonishing. Monster bumblebees invade azalea blossoms, forsythia becomes a burning bush. Wisteria blossoms drape over fences, climb trees, and cling to wrought iron balconies, such a charming enchantress.

How does the garden grow? Daffodils, irises, roses, tulips, snapdragons, all an amazing show in the garden. Inside an encore performance arranged in cut glass vases and wicker baskets – mute sentinels to softly scented evening breezes, gently stirring delicate lace curtains at open windows. The mood of the moment is fleeting, yet tinged with profound nostalgia.

We celebrate the triumph of life over death and a liberation of slaves in an ancient land. Spirits, weary of winter’s introspection, begin to soar. The people are uplifted, renewed, reborn.

Season leads unto season …

Field Work or House Work

Laura LoweLand that was farmed by my family.

Most farming is done with machines nowadays but in earlier times the work was back breaking labor. On our farm Daddy raised cotton and a variety of vegetable crops. Cotton had to be chopped to thin it out. This was done with a sharp hoe and good concentration. Corn crops furnished food for the table and food for some of the farm animals and the chickens. Some of it was taken to a grist mill to be ground for meal for corn bread. Tilling up the fields was done by a plow pulled by our two mules Della and Frank. Daddy walked behind the plow and barked out orders to the mules to haw or gee. In the fall Daddy harvested sweet potatoes and peanuts.

In rural South Central Alabama children were often taken out of school to work in the fields. My parents would never have considered taking us out of school. They valued education too much and wanted my brother and me to get the best education possible. In the summer when school was out my brother and I would accompany our parents to the fields but we mostly played in the shade while they worked. As we got older I began to have a sneaking suspicion that one day I was going to have to work in the fields.

Working in the fields involved more than hard work. It involved working in the hot sun and getting dirty. I didn’t like either one. Sitting in the shade reading a book was more to my liking. By the time I was a pre-teen I admit I had become very lazy and got out of work any way I could. Momma was a very wise woman. She put up with my excuses of being sick for a time before she decided to teach me a valuable lesson. I tried pretending my stomach was hurting one time too many after dinner. By the way our mid day meal was called dinner. “Momma, my stomach is hurting,” I said. She replied, “It will feel better by the time you finish the dishes.” That was the beginning of the end of laziness for me. I soon learned to like house work.

But field work would be another issue. How in the world was I going to get out of this? I asked myself often. Finally I hit upon a plan. I figured that if I offered to do all of the housework instead of going to the fields my parents might go for it. I pitched it to them and yes, they accepted my plan. I agreed to clean the house, cook the noon day meal, do the family laundry on the wringer washing machine, do the ironing, wash dishes and anything else that needed doing.

My days were very full. I was grateful that I did not have to prepare breakfast. Everyone was usually gone by the time I got up. There was no time to rest however. I did the breakfast dishes. After that I began to prepare the noon meal. It was mostly vegetables from the garden. A typical meal might consist of field peas, fried corn, okra, greens, corn bread, iced tea and apple pie. If the seasonings were not right I got fussed at. This meal was prepared on a wood burning stove. The heat in that kitchen was almost as bad as being in the fields. Once a week I did the family’s laundry. Daddy and my cousin M.C. filled the washer with hot water. The two tubs for the rinsing were filled with cold water. We did not have running water so they had to draw the water from the well. Daddy would always admonish me to not get my hand caught in the ringer. I hung the washed clothes on a long clothesline and hoped the sunshine would last. I might do the ironing the next day.

I did this for a couple of summers before I finally gave up and went to work in a field picking butter beans for our neighbor. That is a story for another time. The summer I decided to stay home and do all the housework will always stick in my memory. I nearly worked myself silly, but I didn’t have to go to the fields. I learned a lot that summer. I learned that I have tremendous powers of persuasion. This knowledge and this ability has served me well at several points in my adult life. I certainly have no regrets about choosing house work over field work that fateful summer.

I did the family laundry on a washer like this one.

Meals were prepared on a stove like this one.

Webworms and Daddy's Determination

Laura LoweFall Webworms

My parents were married for 17 years before a child was born to them. I was the first born and my brother came approximately 16 months later. When I was old enough to ponder how married folks care about each other I admit I still did not understand it very well. I was a very innocent child. Something occurred late one summer that prompted me to believe that my father loved my mother very much.

We lived in the midst of several huge pecan trees. There was also a pecan orchard nearby. I was probably 11 or 12 years old that summer. We began to notice that many of the trees were becoming infested with webs of some sort. Inside the webs were masses of writhing worms Momma became very upset about those webs and those worms. When she would see one of those webs and worms she would have a fit. I didn’t know much about mental health back then, but I began to worry about my mom’s mental state.

Just what are web worms? The fall webworm’s scientific name is Hyphantria cunea and those worms were the result of eggs laid by a moth. I didn’t remember the worms being a problem in years past nor years later.

Daddy devised a plan to get rid of the worms. He did not use any insecticides for fear of harming the good earthworms that helped the soil around the trees. Daddy’s plan involved a very long pole with a kerosene-soaked cloth on the end and plenty of matches. Brother and I were going on the expedition with him. Daddy’s plan was to burn every web around our farm and any nearby area where there were webs.

The day of our expedition dawned bright and sunny. A Saturday was chosen so my brother and I could go. We set off right after breakfast. Brother and I helped carry Daddy’s arsenal. We watched with a great deal of fascination as Daddy lit the first kerosene soaked rag and raised the flame to the web. Within minutes the web was burning and so were the worms. We worked all day. By late afternoon there was not a web full of those awful worms anywhere to be seen. We trudged home feeling smug and happy. Perhaps the happiest person of all was my momma.

All these years later, the memory of that eradication returns sometimes when I think of my parents and the love they must have shared. They were married nine months shy of 50 years. Something else returns with the memory — the smell of those burning worms …