Friday, October 28, 2005

Ozark Mountain Jubilee

"If I can't be a favorite son, I'll be the prodigal one, 'cause I've been gone too long."

I received an email from family back home in the Ozarks. If you recall the story of the tornado, you'll remember this aunt and uncle and their family.

My aunt is writing this:

"Hello to all the family and you. Been a while since we heard from you. Guess all are busy as we are."

City folk imagine that country people take life easy, but farm work keeps one busy, and the animals don't take weekends off. Still, there are good times:

"Summer visitors all gone home. Fore Reunion and Stephens Reunion over and cousins back in place."

Every summer, family scattered across the States return to their Ozark roots. Sometimes, they just come on vacation. Other times, they plan family reunions. At those times, you might have thirty people in a small house. My brother Shannon once counted 27 kids sleeping on beds, sofas, and floors. My father had 12 siblings, so imagine their return with their large families in tow! These days, some of the far-flung relatives bring tents or campers.

I remember the Fore family. Like my mother's family, they had Cherokee blood, and my aunt -- born a Fore -- knew a lot more about wild herbs and edible plants than anyone else I knew.

My paternal grandmother came from the Stephens clan. I knew her brother, Horace, but for years didn't realize that we shared the same name because people pronounced it "Harse." He had a problem with his eyes -- could only distinguish dark from light, and once in a great while could see people as if looking at them though a long, narrow tube. I've always wondered what sort of blindness he suffered from. I spent time with him as a kid. He liked to have me read the Bible to him, and in turn, because he had a feel for wood, he made little wooden toys for me to play with. On his deathbed, he asked if "Horace Hodges" had come, and some thought he meant me, but I wonder if he meant my grandpa, from whom I got my name.

My aunt keeps a garden and loves to can the produce:

"I am still canning the last minute things like Green Tomatoe Pickles and Pumpkin and squash. Takes Woodrow and me both lately. Hey, we are getting old."

They are getting old -- in their seventies, I reckon -- and canning takes a lot of effort. I just hope that they're still healthy when we visit next year to show the kids my home. Sa-Rah and En-Uk have never seen the States, let alone the Ozarks.

Much of the family still lives there:

"Tim and Donna have the old home fixed up pretty. They all been down a couple times of late. Cris likes to fish."

My brother Tim took his family and returned to our boyhood home when mom retired from her job at the hospital and moved into a smaller place. The Cris who likes fishing must be the boy that Tim and his wife adopted.

"Hear Shannon is up North. Can't ever hear from him. Seen Pat at Old Timers this year."

Two more brothers of mine, both far more successful than I.

Shannon has his Ph.D. in counseling and administration . . . I think . . . and teaches in the Department of Education at Niagara University, not far from the famous Niagara Falls.

Pat works as a senior vice-president for the Federal Home Loan Bank in Topeka, Kansas and has his own blog . . . with occasional entries.

More family:

"Your Aunt Virginia has moved near. Down from Martha's. Velna still teaching. Martha retired from her job and keeps her Grandson Drew a couple days a week."

That Aunt Virginia would be my father's youngest sibling. Velna (yes, the spelling's correct) and Martha are siblings and the daughters of the aunt who sent the email.

More on Velna:

"Velna takes two of her grandkids to school. Rifle age three and Shiney age nine."

Rifle? I have a first cousin twice-removed named "Rifle"? Is that politically correct? Probably not, but he has no inkling of that yet, and he's already into 'hunting':

"Rifle went rabbit hunting last week with three beagle pups. Unknown to all, pulling a wagon. About half a mile away he walked up on the porch. They finally heard his name and called us, they thought they had heard that name. When they found him on the deck, he said 'Whats for supper? I'm hungry.' Had old Velna and Curren, Beth and Shinney running and calling until all were hoarse."

Beth would be Velna's daughter. I guess that Curren would be Velna's husband. But what's the correct spelling for the name of Rifle's sister: Shiney or Shinney? (Are these nicknames?)

Anyway, I can imagine the scene. Three-year-old Rifle took his little red wagon and three beagle puppies in it and headed off to 'hunt' rabbits. Half a mile down the road -- the equivalent of several miles in adult steps -- he's tired, thirsty, and hungry from pulling that wagon, so he stops at the first house and asks for food. The folks there don't know him and ask him his name.

"Rifle," he replies.

"Rifle?" they repeat, puzzled. "Okay, but what's your name?"

"Rifle," he replies.

"Yes, but what's your name?"


"Oh . . . your name is Rifle."

At that, I guess they recalled having heard of a little kid named "Rifle." I can't imagine anybody forgetting such a name. I'll certainly remember it, and look forward to meeting this boy with a famous name.

In his teenage years someday, he'll probably get drunk with his friends, who'll joke that "Rifle is loaded."

On to Martha and her grandson:

"Martha done Drews hair up with butchwax and had him look in mirror and he cried out 'I can't like this, I can't like this,' so she had to redo that job."

Butch Wax. I remember that stuff. The barbers used it to make our crewcut haircuts stiff. You probably know this haircut style as the "flat-top." In Drew's case, Martha probably just applied the thick wax to his uncut hair to make it stand up like a Mohawk. I imagine that I can't like that neither.

On that note, my aunt closes this letter:

"Hope this goes through. We think of you often. Love from Woody and me. Aunt Pauline"

There it is, a letter from home.


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