(Note: A tanka is a form of Japanese poetry made up of 5 lines containing 31 syllables. The 1st line has 5 syllables; 2nd, 7 syllables; 3rd , 5 syllables; 4th , 7 syllables; 5th, 7 syllables. It can have any theme.)
I don’t remember seeing my Grandma Workman laugh, or even smile, until after Grandpa Workman passed away. I was around eleven when he died, but I barely remember his death—or him. But I recall that to me, he was a scary, cranky old man who didn’t seem to like children. Funny considering the fact that he and Grandma had nineteen children.
My daddy was the eldest. He was a good daddy, a kind, gentle man who didn’t have a mean bone in his body. I suppose he must have gotten his goodness from Grandma because to hear him tell it, Grandpa had a terrible temper. I recall my daddy telling a story once about Grandpa, something about him getting so mad at a horse that he practically beat it to death. But if Grandpa treated his children and wife like he treated that horse, Daddy never spoke of it—at least not that I know about.
Grandpa died in his seventies. My grandma lived into her eighties. And it was somewhere in that time when she lived alone, when she was free to be herself, that I really got to know her.
When we were in our early teens, too young to date but not too young to like boys, my cousins, sisters Lesa and Jennifer, (You have previously become acquainted with them if you’ve read “The Root House”) and I spent many Saturday nights at Grandma’s home. She’d sit cross-legged on the bed with us and talk about school, makeup, boys, whatever subject our featherbrained minds flitted upon. And even with her gray hair and wrinkles, she fit right in with us giggly girls. She took delight in our silly talk, her blue eyes sparkling like she was right in the thick of it with us—girls on the verge of becoming women. It was easy to forget she was our grandma.
Grandma’s house had two bedrooms, so we slept two to a bed, and we girls took turns on who had the honor of sleeping with Grandma—after we had talked ourselves out, which sometimes didn’t happen until the wee hours of the morning. No matter when we fell asleep, though, Grandma was an early riser, and we were up at the crack of dawn helping her fix breakfast. It was always the same: homemade biscuits, fried eggs, white gravy, and coffee. Grandma took her strong brew black, but Lesa, Jennifer, and I liberally laced ours with cream and sugar. Then, we tidied up the house and talked more.
I never thought about it at the time, but Grandma never had the chance to be a teenager, to be frivolous and lighthearted. She married Grandpa when she was thirteen. Child to wife, nothing in between. I don’t know how they managed it, but my daddy wasn’t born until Grandma was eighteen. Then it was one child after another. Nineteen children! I can’t even begin to imagine what that was like, always pregnant, always a baby at her breast. For over thirty years.
But you don’t ponder such things when you’re a fledging. You don’t think about your parents or grandparents as ever being young, walking the same path, thinking the same thoughts, having the same dreams as you. That comes after you are no longer young, after life has beat you down, and you realize that most of what you dreamed about, most of what you planted in the garden of your life is never going to bear fruit.
Then you wonder: Did Daddy’s life go the way he wanted it to? Did Mama ever dream of doing big things? Was Grandma happy with the hand fate had dealt her?
I don’t have the answer to any of those questions, and I never will. But I do know that for a couple of years, before Lesa, Jennifer and I moved on from just talking about boys to dating them, before we traded our Saturday nights with Grandma to Saturday nights with our boyfriends, we made her life exciting in a way she’d never experienced: we made her young again.
And it wasn’t all one-sided; she shared some of her experiences also: She and Grandpa fleeing West Virginia after Grandpa had beaten a man so severely that the man died. Their trip by covered wagon to Montana, where my daddy was born. The time she threatened to walk out on Grandpa, leaving him with the kids, if he didn’t stop drinking. (And it worked!)
Mostly though, she preferred talking about what was going on in my cousins and my lives. Through us, she lived the carefree, and sometimes heartbreaking, teenage years she never had.
But there are two things she told us girls that have stayed fresh in my mind for all these years. One was her telling us that Grandpa had never seen her in the altogether. Lord, did we ever wonder how they’d produced nineteen children, and he’d never seen her without clothes. And the one I still laugh about today. I can still hear her saying: “Girls, there’s nothing uglier on the face of this earth than a naked man.”
On a side note—the reason I used the image of an old woman’s bare feet is because I rarely saw Grandma Workman in shoes. One of my sharpest memories of her, second only to her grin that was so like my daddy’s, are her feet.
(Note: A Shakespearean (English) sonnet consists of 14 lines written in iambic pentameter, and usually has 10 syllables per line. It has three quatrains and a couplet. Rhyme scheme: a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g.)
I still hear
your soft, sweet voice
in my memories
of a long-ago time.
I was small, you a giant,
quiet and gentle of nature.
You were homemade bread, killer of snakes,
dressmaker extraordinaire, cow milker,
gardener, canner, factory worker,
herder of children, a comfy lap,
the scent of vanilla, honest sweat,
a good example, warm heart,
rough-workened hands, bent body.
You were many things—
Mama to me,
home, sweet home,
(Note: an etheree poem consists of 10 lines of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 syllables. The lines can be reversed in order—10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1. And you can do a double etheree, like my poem here, which is 20 lines of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1. Or can be written in reverse order.)
(Note: A Terzanelle is a combination of the villanelle and terza rima poetic forms. It consists of 19 lines containing 5 interlocking tercets, plus a concluding quatrain, in which the 1st and 3rd lines of the 1st tercet appear as refrains. The middle line of each tercet is repeated, reappearing as the last line of the succeeding tercet, with the exception of the center line of the next-to-last stanza, which appears in the quatrain. Each line has the same metrical length.
Rhyme and refrain scheme: A-B-A, b-C-B, c-D-C, d-e-D, e-F-E, f-A-F-A [or f-F-A-A].) Definition taken from: Shadow Poetry website.)
The summer I turned nine, The Root House ate my cousin Lesa’s foot.
Bad things happened to Lesa. I don’t remember if she was on the clumsy side or just suffered from plain old bad luck, but whatever the reason, she was always getting hurt. That’s just how it was.
When we were catching crawdads in the branch, she often slid on the moss-covered rocks, fell, and got her butt wet. (Then would want me, sister Linda and her sister, Jennifer, to get wet as well so she wouldn’t be the only one getting in trouble.). Thorny briars snagged her clothes and skin in the blackberry patches. She tripped over fallen tree limbs in the woods. There were four of us girls, two sets of cousins, but most of the bad stuff, accidents and what-nots, happened to Lesa—such as The Root House eating her foot.
Lesa and her little sister, Jennifer, had spent the night with me and Linda, who was twelve at the time. Lesa, Jennifer, and I had gotten up early the following day and had gone out to play, leaving Linda in bed sleeping. Linda had gotten her period a couple of months ago and thought she was all grown up now. She didn’t play much with our cousins and me anymore, and on top of that, had gotten downright cranky at times.
One of our favorite places to play was on and around a towering sycamore perched precariously on a steep section of a crumbling creek bank. The tree’s roots snaked over and under the ground, and an equal amount spoked the air over the stream that cut into the earth beneath it.
No sooner had the three of us arrived at what we referred to as “The Root House” than Lesa’s bare little foot sank up past the ankle into the soft dirt between two roots and became trapped there. I tried several times to pull her foot free, but it was wedged tight. No luck.
“Go get Linda,” I told Jennifer. We all knew that Linda, older, wiser Linda, could get Lesa’s foot unstuck. With a nod of her head, Jennifer was gone.
After a bit, Lesa wiggled her foot a little, and lo and behold, out it came. Then we heard voices: Linda and Jennifer’s.
Her eyes as big as saucers, Lesa looked at me and said, “She’s gonna be real mad we woke her up for nothing.” She glanced over her shoulder at our approaching sisters. Then she did the darndest thing: she stuck her foot back between the roots.
I thought it was a crazy thing to do, but I didn’t really blame her. Neither of my cousins would cross Linda back then; I didn’t care so much if she got irritated but knew my cousins were somewhat in awe of my older sister. And if Lesa wanted it to be Linda who rescued her from The Root House’s clutches, who was I to argue?
Then there was the time Brother Mike made a misstep when perched on the roots that stuck out over the branch. I was even younger than in the previous incident, and on this occasion, The Root House’s inhabitants were me, Mike, and Linda. My memory is sketchy, and I don’t recall if Mike slid all the way down to the few inches of water that ran over the flat rocks below or saved himself by grabbing onto some passing tree roots. I do remember, though, his scratched-up chest and hearing that he’d told his friends at school that Daddy had cut him with a chain saw.
The last time I remembered to look for The Tree House, which is visible from the road leading to my parents’ old home, it didn’t look nearly as impressive as when I was a kid. I suppose memories are that way, stored away as larger than they actually were. And I’ve read that our memory of an event changes down through the years, that each time it is recalled, it morphs slightly from the previous recollection. All I can say with certainty about The Root House is that it was a grand place to play, and it did eat Lesa’s foot.
My Granny Tucker was the kindest, gentlest soul I’ve ever known. And patient, lord above, did that woman have patience.
She came to live with my family when I was about three years old, following Grandpa’s death. I don’t remember Grandpa—probably just as well that I didn’t since according to my mama, he was a mean drunk—but I do remember Granny. I was still young, twelve or so, when she died, but many wonderful memories were crammed into those seven years, memories I’ll carry with me to my grave. And a few bad ones as well.
But I’ll get to the good ones first.
Granny read to me when I was a wee one. All my siblings were in school, and it fell to her to entertain me. But I don’t think she did it out of any sense of duty, but out of love. After I became a grandmother myself, I realized just how special grandchildren are. As a parent, one is often too busy to appreciate the company of a child, to experience the joy one feels in seeing their joy, to savor the love that fills one’s heart to bursting with love for that special little person.
But I digress.
In my mind, I see little me scrunched beside Granny in the old wooden rocking chair she favored. I hear her soft voice, feel the warmth of her thin, bony body against mine as she reads.
According to my siblings, Granny and I played teacher and student, with me insistent on being the teacher. I don’t remember this, but since my sister says I was a stubborn little thing, I’ll take it as fact. Being the spoiled baby of the family, I’m sure I was used to getting my way. I’ve mellowed since then. (“Yeah, right,” I can hear my siblings saying.)
When Granny’s sons (my uncles) visited, one of them—I think it was the uncle who always wanted money from her—invariably brought her a box of chocolate covered cherries. I don’t think Granny ate a single one; instead, she doled them out to her grandchildren. We seldom got candy, so the sweet, gooey chocolate mounds were pure delicacies to us. And to this day, my sister who is three years my senior, and I love chocolate-covered cherries with a passion.
The only mean thing I recall Granny doing was tattling on said sister and me. And looking back, I know it wasn’t really mean of her; it just seemed that way at the time.
One weekday morning, Sister and I decided we didn’t want to go to school so we pretended to be sick. Well, as soon as Mama headed out to the barn to milk the cow, Sister and I got out of bed, and if memory serves me correctly, went outside and played on the teeter-totter. Granny came out of the house and told us she was going to tell Mama as soon as she came back from milking. I suppose we got in trouble, and I suppose I was a little mad at Granny for a bit.
But I got over it. She was way too good to us kids for me to carry a grudge.
She got thinner over the years she lived with us, and frailer as well, but she told no one that she hurt or felt bad. The first clue we had that something was wrong was when I found her outside after she’d fallen. Mama took her to the doctor. I think exploratory surgery was done, and it was discovered she had colon cancer, was in fact so eat up with it that the doctors sewed her back up and sent her home to die.
And it wasn’t a pretty death; it was ugly and horrible, the way cancer most often is—at least that how it was in those times.
She had pain medication, but it could only do so much. I remember Granny telling Mama that rats were eating on her, and her taking my mama’s hand and placing it over her pubic hair to show her the rat.
Now, and even when I was just a kid, I wondered why such a good woman had to suffer so. And how could a loving God allow it?
I wasn’t in the room with her when she died, but for whatever reason, wasn’t in school that day. I remember seeing my mama crying and Daddy holding her. I remember my Grandma Workman, who was there helping out any way she could, coming into the front room to tell me what my Mama’s tears had already told me. I remember Grandma asking if I wanted to tell Granny Tucker goodbye. I remember going into the small bedroom where my Granny had breathed her last and staring at her beloved face.
But I didn’t cry. I knew that at long last, her suffering was over.
My Granny Tucker had loved to read, and that love was passed to Mama, then to me. I believe whatever small talent I have as a writer originated with those two wonderful women. That is why I use the Tucker name (It is the “T” in KT.) as part of my penname: to honor them with my words, the only way I know how.
An old Conway Twitty song titled “That’s My Job” just about sums it up. We go through our younger lives depending on our parents and grandparents to be there when we need them. But there comes a point when we step up to the plate, so to speak, and be the ones “doing the job.” The final stanza of Conway’s song brings this point home.
If you care to listen to it, I’ve added a YouTube link to it below. And if you don’t at least tear up listening to it, you’ve got a pretty hard heart.
Spring was my mama’s favorite season. She loved gardening, whether it involved vegetables or ornamentals, and when one visited, spring, summer, or fall, outside among the growing thingswas where one would likely find her. Her front porch sported a multitude of wind chimes, and when I hear mine (on my backporch) “tinkling in the wind,” I think of her. This one is for you, Mama.
(Note: Originating in French lyrical poetry of the 14th century, a rondel poem is a fixed form of verse based on two rhyme sounds and consisting usually of 14 lines divided into three stanzas. The first two lines of the 1st stanza are repeated as the refrain of the 2nd and 3rd stanzas. The meter is open, but usually has eight syllables per line. Rhyme scheme: A-B-b-a, a-b-A-B, a-b-b-a-A-(B)—capital letters represent lines repeated verbatim.)
The branch runs close to the old house I grew up in. It is still there, though the house is long gone, torn down and replaced when I was around twelve or thirteen, with one having indoor plumbing. Yes, it still meanders along the base of the hill where the now old, but newer house still sits, and children are yet making memories along its twisty-twiney path, some of them my great-grand nieces and nephews, and cousins, both removed, second, thirds, and what-nots. It played a central role in my childhood, provided many hours of entertainment back in the dinosaur days of no internet, no cellphones, just a rotary phone whose line was shared between eight households.
When heavy rains came, the branch jumped its banks, sometimes spreading over the nearby fields my daddy had cleared for the cows to graze. It flooded the place where our road crossed it to the main road—both dirt—and we couldn’t get to the other side, sometimes for days. That could fit into both the Bad and Ugly, and Good. Much depended on which side of the branch you were on when it flooded, and whether you were a child or adult.
We lived near the road crossing, but there were two other families, plus my grandparents on my Daddy’s side, who lived farther down our side road. No one could get to town, no one could get to jobs, but us kids didn’t mind that the school bus couldn’t cross the branch to pick us up. And if one happened to be on the other side and it flooded, you couldn’t get home until it went down. Once, when I was in junior high, that happened to me. I remember Mama being on the other side of the branch when the bus pulled up. She yelled at me to go to my sister’s house, and Lord, did she have to scream loud for me to hear her over the water’s roar. Luckily, my recently married sister and her husband lived maybe half a mile (I’m not good judging distances, so it might have been more or less.) back along the school bus route, so the driver dropped me off there. I stayed at least one night, possibly two. The Good was I got to stay with my sister; the Bad and Ugly, I still had to go to school. Thank you, Sister, for providing clean clothes.
The worst of the Bad and Ugly happened when I was to be the second-grade princess in the school’s spring pageant. My cousin loaned me a formal dress, for I was to sit on stage with the other royalty—a sixth-grade boy and girl who were king and queen, and the princesses and princes, one boy and one girl, each chosen from grades one through five. I don’t remember who my prince was, but I do remember the joy in my shy, little heart at being picked as a princess. My sister, who was in fifth grade, was slated to sing with a group in the pageant. You ought to have seen how beautiful she looked in her bright yellow dress. Well, it rained the day of the pageant, which was being held at night, and all of us kids made it home from school okay, but between then and time to leave, the branch rose higher and higher until it was impossible to cross without risking life and limb. I was so disappointed, and most likely muttered a few choice curses under my breath, probably learned from my older brother, who was also Good and Bad, but not Ugly.
I forgave the branch. Like most people and things, it had its own path to follow, and its unique share of ups and downs.
The Good provided by the branch more than made up for its Bads and Uglies. My siblings, cousins—who lived just upstream—and I were in it in the spring as soon as the water warmed enough that our bare feet could comfortably wade in it. Carrying a big tin can, we searched for crawdads that often hid beneath flat rocks. Snakes sometimes hid there too. There was an art to crawdad hunting: Stand to the back of the rock you were going to raise, slowly lift it on the side farthest from you, and take a peek. Most always, a crawdad skulked there, pinchers raised in warning, but on occasion, a snake would be coiled beneath. Then it was drop the rock and run. The crawdads we caught and collected in the can containing a little water were set free after we were finished, unless a relative or neighbor had requested some to be used as fish bait. It was strictly a catch and release program, though I do recall that at least once we cooked their tails over a fire at the bluff. But the wondrous bluff is a story into itself, so I won’t go into it at this time. I don’t recall how the crawdad tails tasted—maybe like chicken?
My brother, sister, and I set out minnow jars in a deeper puddle in the branch that was fed by an underground spring. We constructed them similar to the picture above, except we used half-gallon Mason jars and screen wire for the funnel instead of a soda bottle. What we did with the captured minnows, I don’t recall, but I’ll never forget the time we hauled our jars from the water, and squiggly snakes filled the insides of the jars, and like the minnows, couldn’t escape. One of us returned to the house, fetched Mama, and she came to the rescue, breaking the jars and killing the snakes with a garden hoe.
A few times we seined the branch and caught snakes then too. I don’t know what we had set out to catch; we probably didn’t even know ourselves. It was just something fun to do that included the outdoors and water.
When the branch’s waters warmed even more, along around late May or early June, we took baths in it. We had no indoor plumbing so bathing involved heating water to a boil on the wood cook stove, pouring it and cold into a long, metal washtub, and us kids taking a bath, youngest girl to oldest, then my brother. Using the branch for this purpose was a heck of a lot easier; we grabbed a towel, wash cloth, and a bar of Ivory soap (my sister says because it floats), and waded in. I only recall us girls doing it. Either my brother stayed dirty or bathed at a different time.
When summertime’s heat and lack of rain dried up the branch, we had to result to more drastic measures on our forays to catch crawdads. They burrowed down into the mud, leaving a little hole to mark the spot. We dug a few out of their shelters, but I don’t recall often doing that. It was really more trouble than it was worth. The ones that suffered this fate at our small hands probably died. Kids can be so thoughtless and cruel.
I have a fond memory of my aunt, mother of the cousins who lived upstream, showing us how to make mud gingerbread men. At their place, the branch ran behind the house and had big slabs of flat rocks on the bank. There, we mixed dirt and water, and shaped our mud men and women. My aunt plucked the flower heads from nearby wild butter weeds, whose blooms look like black-eyed susans, but have a yellow center instead of brown, and used them to make eyes, buttons, and such for our mud people.
When fall set in, the water gradually became too cold to play in, so there was a lull in our preoccupation with it. But when winter snapped its teeth upon the water, turning it to ice, we were at it again. Wearing only our regular shoes, brother, sister, and I skated on it. We were smart enough to stay off ponds, but the branch was fair game because even if the ice gave way, at worst we would be drenched in the cold water to about our knees—maybe thighs if it were me, the smallest.
That branch, along with the woods and bluff, was our entertainment. We made our own fun, having no need of structured play time and play dates. I think we were what is now referred to as “free-range” children, no helicopter parenting for us.
Often, I think about my childhood, about the branch and how adventurous it was to explore. Seeing snakes in it, falling in it and getting hurt as well as wet, and even the leach that latched onto my leg that Mama scraped off with a knife failed to dampen its allure. After all, what kid doesn’t love playing in a branch—especially when it’s a Good branch?