This is a musing about memories of a childhood by an old lady on a old sailboat…MEMORIES are the treasures that we keep locked within the storehouse of our souls, to keep our hearts warm when we are lonely.
My mother had died when I was a baby and a few years later my daddy packed me a little suitcase and put me in a car with strangers to go south to live with his brother and wife. I have very little memory of that first trip south but have been told I cried for three days and three nights for my daddy and my brother, Johnny, and kept saying I wanted to go home. I never did go home again though I visited my daddy and my brother on trips back in the summers throughout my childhood.
It was never the same and it would be many years later that I sat and cried and asked him why.
I remember many of these trips traveling back to Kentucky and visiting family. This was before interstate highways were built and it would take several days to make the trip on the back roads of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky. I sat and watched the countryside roll by mile after mile.
South Louisiana is very flat. In fact the highest point in the entire state is Driskill Mountain up in the northern part of the state and it is only about 500 feet.
I have the mountains in my soul and I used to love it when we got relief from the monotonous flat land and the terrain began to slope and we started traveling in hilly country. In Mississippi we would pass through miles of cotton being picked by black hands in the fields. We didn’t have an air conditioned car back then and so the windows were often down and I could hear people as they called to one another.
I noticed the soil as it changed color. After passing through the Cotton Belt we would start seeing the red hills and it seemed people were really poor, barely scratching out a living from the infertile soil. Back in those days there were roadside picnic tables where you could stretch your legs. They were marked on the map with a small drawing of a picnic table and were often along a scenic stretch. We often stopped to stretch our legs at these spots and eat a snack.
Back in the fifties the roads were made to connect towns, not avoid them, and so we passed through many towns, stopping to eat lunch at a small town diner and dinner at a restaurant and to spend the night at a “Motor Inn”.
Once we entered Tennessee and the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains we started driving along creeks and forests and seeing poor small farms in the valleys. Women would hang handmade quilts on their clothes line to sell and hams that had been slowly cured in old smoke houses.
There would be signs painted on the roofs of barns advertising, “See Rock City”, and ”See Ruby Falls”. I did indeed see Rock City and Ruby Falls, and in truth I think it was Ruby Falls that first showed me there was a world underground that could amaze and enthrall. It is an underground waterfall in a cave. It was discovered in 1928 and is over 1,120 feet below the surface. It is strange that I would like caves because I have always been a bit claustrophobic , but if you have ever been in one of the huge underground caverns with rivers and waterfalls and stalactites and stalagmites you know how it can spark the imagination. Back then most caves were lit with soft artificial lights and the guides would often turn them out so you could experience total darkness. That I did not like. It is a strange and scary feeling for no matter how dark we think it is there is always some light getting in, but when there is no light at all the space around you feels, not like a void, but like something solid and oppressive.
I remember once we took this train up to Lookout Mountain. It was called The Incline Railway because it went straight up the side of the mountain about a mile at an incline of over 70 degrees. We stayed at a motor Inn on top of the mountain and family lore has it I fell off Lookout Mountain. My Daddy Lewis would tell the story that he was explaining to me one minute about how you could see seven states from there and the next minute he turned and I was gone. Obviously I simply slide down a short distance and skinned up my knees and elbows. Those of you who know me well know I am still doing that and it is not uncommon for me to always have some booboo or the other.
As we left Tennessee and entered Kentucky the tobacco farms became numerous, with their large black barns for curing. My Daddy Ashby was a tobacco farmer, among many other things. It was a hard life I am told. I liked seeing the fields of tobacco on the hillsides though.
Oh and how could I forget the Burma Shave rhymes on the side of the road! They were an advertising plan to sell shaving cream and they worked. Typically, six consecutive small signs would be posted on the side of the highway, spaced for sequential reading by passing motorists. The last sign was almost always the name of the product. Here is an example.
Within this vale
Your head grows bald
But not your chin – use
I started this story because I was reminded of all the wildflowers blooming on the sides of the roads. That was before Roundup and 2-4-D. I especially loved the lacy delicate blossoms of Queen Anne’s Lace. It was the most beautiful flower I had ever seen. When I grew up I wanted to grow it in Louisiana but it does not thrive there. Once I broadcast a packet of assorted wildflowers out along a fence line and one came up. I tended it so carefully and it actually had some blossoms. I loved that plant, perhaps because it triggered some feelings I associated with it from my childhood of pleasant days and fun fantasies of fairies and magic.
Queen Anne’s Lace is blooming everywhere up here now and it still brings me joy to watch its delicate white blossoms sway on long stalks in the breeze and lie down and look up at it silhouetted against the blue sky and watch the clouds pass overhead. To watch it develop from a bud to full bloom is as close to wonderment as it gets. I watch people passing by, oblivious to the miracle and want to shout at them to stop and look, really look, but I am slowly learning that is not how it works. People will see what they see through their own eyes in their own time. It was enough that one car stopped and an elderly man rolled down his window and exclaimed, “That’s Queen Anne’s Lace. Isn’t it beautiful”? Another man on a Harley stopped and watched me photograph and said he thought they were just wildflowers and I told him that nothing was “just” anything. He smiled and said he could see that now and went on down the road.
May each of us look beyond ourselves because that is the only way to truly see ourselves. We are all works in progress and we are changed by what we see and experience, so be open and unafraid. I have a difficult time with that sometimes. The fear creeps into my heart and it beats fast and I get so scared. That is all right because fear too is just part of the journey and we mustn’t turn away from it, but instead walk through it.