Hillbilly Elegy: reflection #2

In my last post, ‘Hillbilly Elegy: a personal reflection’, I related J.D. Vance’s experience in a family from a Kentucky holler transplanted to an Ohio steel town, to my own. We left the Hill in the Eastern Townships of Quebec to come to a steel town in Ontario.

I pointed out that an elegy is a lament for the dead. But, honestly, who could lament the passing of a class of such people, prone to violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, lack of ambition, despair and, finally, sloth?

The short answer is me.

After I posted the article, I began to feel very sad. Was it just the mountain I missed, the sunny open hay fields, the granite and the slate, the noisy trout streams and the deep, sighing woods? Surely it could not be the macho male culture.

My young uncles, younger than me were my playmates initially. There was a young aunt too. Together we four, armed with sandwiches and a wire handled bottle of spring water, would hike off to the nearest brook to cool off. We jumped in the hay mow together, played ‘Kick the Can’ and held country music fests on the roof of the garage. Their father, my maternal grandfather, would sit with us on the porch as evening gathered, and point out Venus. He called the porch the ‘piazza’ to make us laugh.

Ostensibly, it was a teetotal society. Beer and booze in general were spoken of in whispers.

Because, at the time, I was my father’s only child, I got a glimpse into the hidden side of our community, quite unlike the church yard where the ladies stooped as the minister arrived in case their dresses were too short.

In this other world, the backwoods camps, there was plenty of hooch made by my great grandfather and served in bean cans. Rinsed at least once. The latest kill, in or out of season, would be on display. There would be much laughter at jokes I couldn’t really understand, and bad language.

Eventually, my young uncles’ voices got deeper and rougher. They left school at the end of grade seven and began hard labor in their early teens.

When my husband and I, with professional careers and two children, went back to the hill for Christmas, the ‘boys’ took my citified husband off to such a camp on snow mobiles. They didn’t come back that night. I was, of course, frantic. They had got him roaring drunk, a familiar and manageable state for them. In the morning out hunting, they handed my husband a rifle and dared him to shoot a ground hog sitting on a stump. He shot it through the eye and never forgave himself. (Either that or Hitler turned him into a really annoying pacifist.)

What’s not to love?

On the other hand, there was the Guild. The women met in the church hall, a splendid structure with an art noveau interior, a curtained stage and a kitchen. The dances that were held there were a kind of bacchanalia for us kids. The Guild meetings were more sedate. Perhaps we played with the crayons and paper from the Sunday School room in the church. The women sat in a circle and conducted business, usually about projects they were undertaking. Then they got on with the quilt they were piecing together to raffle off, or they  took up their knitting, grey wool socks for the soldiers after 1939.

There was tea and home baking – cookies, squares, even a frosted cake. Not the luxurious spread of the oyster suppers or chicken dinners that ended with a glut of pie, but sugar nonetheless. Or some syrup substitute as rationing came in.

At the dances, the men would filter outside while the fiddle and the piano played South of the Border, Down Mexico Way. What went on out there, besides laughing and smoking was ignored, although female noses turned up at some of the returnees.

Guild meetings were altogether safer. For a year, I was the only baby on the Hill. I would have been adored by all those baby-loving women even if I were ugly. They led me to believe I was not. I remember lying on the edge of the stage being fitted into my snowsuit, while Maude, my mother’s cousin, or Mae, a great aunt on one side and step great grandma on the other, dressed me while singing Bye Baby Bunting. They called a snow suit a bunting bag. According to the song my daddy was out killing a rabbit to make me one.

In short, at Guild meetings, I floated in a sea of love, and this, Aunt Mae and Maude would teach me in Sunday School, was the love of God, ‘which passeth understanding’.

Still float there! I know, I know. Just hard to remember in the face of old age, distance from loved ones and even alienation. But that early grounding enabled me to continue the creation of something beautiful, not just my family, my extended family, my beautiful newly published book, but my own self.

So thank God for hillbillies!

Hour of the Hawkjoycehowe.com

 

 

 

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Septuagenarians on the Road #4

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASee Septuagenarians on the Road #3 for the first part. (https://115journals.com/2013/09/11/septuagenarians-on-the-road-3/)

We wake up on the third floor of Auberge Ayres Cliff on the third day of our road trip. I go downstairs to see if the restaurant is open. It is not. Back up that wooden Everest!

Since we are booked into the Auberge Ripplecove, we have to pack up our things yet again, and Georgia has a plan for getting them downstairs.

We take turns using the shower and my cereal bowl. Georgia’s nosh is All Bran and mine is gluten-free granola. Our ice packs have melted and so has the ice and in keeping with its historic charm, the old auberge has neither ice machine, vending machine or coffee maker. No problem, we know a great little place to have breakfast in Coaticook.

I heard people working in the second floor office while I was reconnoitering, but saw no one. Georgia goes to top of the stairs and pushes her bag off the top step.  I hear it thump, thump, bump and crash. Silence. She heaves down the second one. It is not until I start to bump my wheeled suitcase down the top step, that a man shows up on the second floor and gallantly sweeps her bags up. Another sprints up the stairs to carry mine down. See, all we had to do was ask.

The guy carrying mine is likely the proprietor, whereas hers has been working outside on the deck. He speaks English well and by the time, I have carried down the remaining odds and sods, Georgia and he are deep in conversation about the town. Communication is proving to be a challenge, so this is welcome.

We debate about who will drive. As usual, Georgia wants to drive early when she is fresh.

“Which way do you intend to go,?” I ask. She points back the way we came.

“I’m driving,” I announce.

I pull a u-turn right there on Main St. and head around the corner on 141. I have these maps in my head or so I believe, and indeed, they fail me only once and then for only 6 miles. As we drive, I explain that basically there is a wide fertile valley where dairy farms flourish and on either side there is a two lane black top. When we were young our father took the left hand road to get to Sawyerville where we had moved in 1941, but the mail van took the right hand route. I travelled in the mail van with my mother that winter and noted the ‘exotically different towns’, St. Isadore, St. Malo, Paquetteville. We were on a mission to reveal to my Nanny that a baby was “expected”. My 5 year-old self made little sense of this, but I was very glad to go back to Hereford. I stubbornly refused to understand what was “expected” until that fateful first day of school when Georgia inconveniently arrived. (See https://115journals.com/2013/08/31/labour-day-weekend-reflections/)

In less than half an hour we are Coaticook. (This is an Abenaki word as is Massawippi, which means big, deep water.)

Coaticook is an agricultural town, the centre for production of milk products, especially butter, but it also boasts an industrial park largely devoted to farm and construction equipment. And it boasts a covered bridge as well as a round barn. It seems that every time we go there, a major road is under construction. This time it is Child St. In trying to park on the opposite side of the street I came in on, I get entangled in the detour, which kindly offers us a tour of parts of the town we have never seen before. Finally, we disembark at that parking spot we have been aiming for for 20 minutes, walk half a block and arrive at the Croissant Chaude.

I order my usual gluten/ milk/ bacon- free breakfast – ham and home fries, while Georgia enjoys a fresh-from-the-oven muffin with butter and jam. There is one French couple, clutching a map and looking for advice and two women speaking English, very loudly, with interesting personal detail. Then in comes a couple in their early 50s, speaking with an Australian accent. It is not long before Georgia has struck up a cross-the-room conversation and we have learned that they have ridden motor bikes from Las Vegas up through Colorado and on to Chicago. There they switched to a car and, like us, they are siblings. Georgia reminds them that the longest relationship most people have is with a sibling.

Hey, two conversations in one day!

After breakfast, we turn south on 147 and begin the final leg of our journey home. Since I am still driving, Georgia has the leisure to observe that the infrequent houses we are passing have the largest, greenest, weed-free lawns she has ever seen. Prosperity and ride-em lawnmowers, I suspect. Our grandfather’s dooryard stayed short and smelled of what I learned much later was camomile. Even later, I learned that camomile lawns were all the rage in Elizabethan England. As you walk over them, crushing the little yellow flower balls, the perfume rises. Surely my harried grandparents did not actually plant it.

We skirt what we called Wallace Pond with its cottages and youth camp, pass a haulage company bearing my last name, catch sight of the Line -the wide treeless cut up through the woods that marks the dividing line between Canada and the United States, round a corner and find ourselves in front of the church.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAHere there will be silent conversations.

I park the car south of the church where the church hall used to be and the wagon sheds where the horses sheltered and munched from their bag of oats while we children skidded the wax onto the hardwood floor and the fiddles tuned up and the women hauled chicken pies out of the oven. I suppose this liveliness vanished long before the hall did. I was in it last in the mid 80s, having brought my father down from Ontario for his cousin’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. When it was pulled down, its lovely wood panelling sold for scrap, I do not know.

Georgia is the first to see that Uncle S. has died. His name joined his wife’s on the gravestone not long after we were here four years ago. Georgia is bitterly aggrieved that no one let us know. But, really, who is left that knows how to get in touch with us? Only our cousin R., 11 years older than me, but even he doesn’t answer my emails. Probably  an uncle and aunt my own age are still living in the States, but we don’t know each others’ addresses.

We visit each gravestone and leave flowers for our Nanny and our Aunt Mae. The wind purrs through the pines that stand at the edge of the church yard above Indian River. Nanny and I took off our shoes the last time I visited her -she was 87- and went wading in the cold mountain stream. And one of my best memories is of a church picnic a little farther up in a pine grove. After we had eaten, the women washed the dishes in the river. A well informed 4 year-old, I was aghast. “Don’t worry, Joy,” Maude sang out.” We’ll scald them off when we get home.”

We cross the bridge and point the car up the dirt road that leads to Cannon Hill. (Sometimes, we children called it McCannon.) It winds steeply up through the woods. I know that a good trout stream is dropping down through the trees beside us, for my father took me fishing there. I also know that wood spirits live there, brownies perhaps, rather malevolent little beings, quite unlike the fairies that lived in the corners of the hayfield and came in rainbow colours. Neither had the magnificence of the angels that I saw twice when I was little and once when I was 42. I don’t believe any of this really, but, on the other hand, I know it to be true.

Here on the right is the farm I remember living on, although both barn and house have long since been rebuilt. What used to be a hayfield is pasture now and there are cows there. Then we are back into woods. Soon we will come to the Swamp, the part we children didn’t care for. I want the road just to go on and on. I don’t want to sail out into open and see the house where Nanny lived alone until she was well over 90. There it is now, with a long well groomed side yard planted with small fruit trees. Much of the white siding is still missing as an insulating upgrade proceeds slowly. I prefer to remember the gleaming white siding and the neat, little screened porch. We turn right, pass in front of the house and continue on up into the wilderness that lies below the mountain. We are making a pilgrimage past Aunt Mae’s tiny house. The road is much better than it used to be because somebody with influence and money has built a house out back of beyond. A very nice house, quite a cut above Aunt Mae’s.

On the way out, we stop near where Nanny’s first house stood, the one that burned down- well, the second one burned down too actually. By ‘down’, I mean utterly, to the cellar hole. I want to walk but mine is apparently a minority opinion. We press on, waving at the men loading a pickup in Nanny’s yard. Yes, one is probably Aunt Mae’s grandson, but we don’t feel up to the explanations. Our cousin R. has just had his driveway paved. It is covered in fresh tar and roped off. No sign of his huge white SUV.. Now we are higher between open fields, past the new forest that covers our grandfather’s fields.

He  had a stone boat, a sledge into which he threw the heavy rocks he dug out of his fields. The horses would drag the contraption over to the stone pile around the big spruce tree or one of the other half dozen that he and his long dead predecessors had broken their backs building and he would heave them off. Sic transit and all that. A rich American bought the land and planted it in trees.

At the highest point, we stop to take pictures of the mountain vista.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAThen we drive down a truly scarey incline past our Uncle S’s house, one of those that make you think you vehicle will tip end over end, Then we are on the road that once changed places with the brook during a flood and we drove on the stream bed for weeks. (It was war time and we didn’t vote for the party in power,)

We cross the border at Beecher Falls, discovering that the agent on duty can fill us in about Cousin R. who seems to alive and kicking. We stop for lunch at Nanny’s favourite restaurant, the Spa in Canaan where I have fresh Maine lobster.

the SpaHereford was in Quebec and Canada, but we drew our identity from the States, from Vermont and New Hampshire and Maine, from New England. Every New Year’s Eve, we gathered in the hall for an oyster supper. We even spoke with New England accent. LIke most immigrants, I got rid of mine asap but when Nanny said “Spa”, I thought she meant “Spar”.

As we attempt to cross back into Canada at the Hereford crossing, the Canadian agent keeps questioning us closely. Georgia tells him we crossed at Beecher Falls an hour ago and ate lunch and that we are now returning to Ayres Cliff. I repeat the same story. He keeps glancing at the luggage filled hatchback. “So you are coming from New Brunswick?” he says. Well, no, we are coming from Ayres Cliff and going to Ayres Cliff. “Then why do you have your bags?” he asks in exasperation. Because we are changing hotels? I offer as if seeking his approval. “Ahhh” and he waves us through.

PLEASE CLICK ON PICTURES TO ENJOY FULL DETAIL.

to be continued -one more time

108 Moves in the Right Direction: tai chi or NOT

The Tao Te Ching begins by telling us that the Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. That is true of many things, your love for your spouse or children, for example. Try putting that into words. And it is certainly true of tai chi.

Anthony left a request on my book Never Tell‘s Facebook page asking me to write about tai chi. I replied I would think about it. I have done, for several weeks and I still don’t know where to begin. So I’ve stolen the motto of an international tai chi organization and I’ll see what I can do.

If you follow my blog, you know I am ancient of days. (not The Ancient of Days note. That’s another dude, who, presumably is a tai chi master Himself.) But, TA DA, drum roll please, I can stand on one leg and luffa the other foot, I can lie down on the floor and get back up with no help, (shut up chair), I can get out of the car without lifting the outside leg with my hands and so much more. I have survived 2 malignancies, one for 13 years and the other, completely different one, for 10. So much for the score sheet.

It is also true that I am one of those lucky people who are earning their wings through suffering. My body thinks it’s amusing to be in one kind of discomfort or the other all the time. It scrolls through a punishing list of pains and aches on a regular basis: bowel spasm, back spasm, leg spasm, indigestion, dizziness, feeling faint, feeling faint while sleeping (!), fatigue, exhaustion and, my personal favourite, diaphragm spasm and weakness.

Now Body’s objecting that much of this is caused by me or Mind that keeps shoving stuff down into flesh and muscle and organ and bone INSTEAD OF PROCESSING IT IN A MENTALLY HEALTHY WAY. OK, stop shouting. I hear you.

And so I do tai chi.

I started 20 years ago, but I began serious study only 15 years ago. As late as 10 years ago as I was recovering from major surgery in So Cal, I still couldn’t do the whole set up in Kenneth Hahn park without a plastic-covered cheat-sheet on the picnic table. When I was more or less better and back in TO, I started going to class more often and ended up instructing beginners for 8 years.

Listen, you don’t want to start tai chi. It’ll take over your life. You’ll get addicted to all those endorphins. You muscles will ache at first and you’ll have to consult your teacher about whether you need to correct something to stop it. You’ll be in trouble at home for being out so much. Just when you think you’ve got it, your teacher will let you know you haven’t. Then you’ll feel as if you can’t do it at all. There is absolutely no end to it. I’ve heard people say it will take several lifetimes just to get one move at the end, call it “Turn to Sweep Lotus” down pat. Face it -there is no “down pat”. There is no perfection. Never. You can go on learning forever.

OMG, you actually like that last idea!

Well, you wouldn’t like that feeling of calm that settles on you during the set, once you have  learned it enough to follow. You wouldn’t like the group energy that gets going when you follow each other well. You’re an individual aren’t you? You’re a North ‘Merican if not actually an ‘Merican. (No apology needed Ozzies as you know. You’re even more so. And that 1 German viewer same diff.) You don’t want some tai chi master correcting you. Good grief, all the instructors in my club are volunteers and we are supposed to maintain our own club building and run the damn place. “This is not an exercise club”, we are told. Charitable works, open hearts! Come on!

Of course, you may be able to find a tai chi club that espouses closed hearts, uncharitable works, etc. Good luck! Your club may just charge you a high fee and let you go your own way.

I have to confess that last Saturday, at the good old volunteer-based tai chi club, when 7 of us foregathered in a work party to lift and drill and clean and eat a delicious lunch that an  someone had brought unbidden, then I was carried back to my childhood and the church hall with the women setting out the chicken pie supper. I loved that group co-operation and getting things done.

Doing a tai chi set later, a group of 6 just like doing it in a group of 35 or on occasion in a group of 700, has that same feeling, many-fold.

I hesitate to recommend tai chi to you. It’s a serious decision. You’ll be frustrated at first. You don’t want that. You may hurt sometimes. You’ll never actually know whether it’s the tai chi that making you limber and strong and keeping you alive. And all that peace that comes of a moving meditation, how’s that going to jack you up?

Better not.