There were 4 of us, ages 11-13. I was eldest, there for the summer. The younger kids were my two uncles and my aunt. (I know – hill people.) We had climbed onto the roof of the wagon shed. The corrugated tin was hot under our feet. There had been a dance down at the hall the night before. It was too wonderful to let go, so we were putting on a show. We had sneaked out the potato masher and a wooden spoon for microphones. I was singing, “South of the border, down Mexico way’. Evelyn was backup because, honestly, she couldn’t carry a tune. Ted was on air guitar, twanging away and Percy was battering the roof with 2 sticks. I got to the sad part, “The mission bells told me that I could not stay.”
Hereford Mountain hunched over behind the corn field and the Old Place.
I was happy, really happy.
“Whaaat?” my grandmother screeched as she came around the corner. “Get down from there before you break your necks. And give me the masher. I need it. The men will be back for dinner.”
Mountains don’t move, not even for Mohammed. Hills don’t give up farming to find work in a steel mill. Hereford Mountain is still there, although it has a bike trail up from the East Hereford side. There’s a new vacation house out back of Bungee, snugged up under the mountain’s shoulder. The road to this dead-end has been improved. There is a pond.
But Hereford is gone.
The 10 farms that climbed up from river valley are turned into tree plantations or rental properties. The sunny hay fields are now mostly dark and foreboding, thick with tall spruce. Perhaps some dairy farmer out from the prosperous wide valley is still taking hay from the old Owen place.
Those hills were great for farming stone. They yielded an excellent crop every spring, but never more than one crop of hay. The top soil was thin having been scraped off and washed into the valley. The Owens who came to Plymouth on the Hopewell, 3 ships after the Mayflower, had too many surviving sons. My great great (about 1825) migrated north to these bony hills and set to work chopping down trees and hefting stones, starving and working themselves to death.
I joined them in 1936, arriving in a tiny backwoods house -out around the Horn- with no electricity, running water or telephone. No horse but shanks’ mare. A woodstove in the kitchen. The good news was that my father had worked at pulp logging all winter and saved up $18 for the doctor to deliver me. He brought ‘twilight sleep’ for my hysterical 19-year-old mother. My Aunt Mae, perfectly capable of delivering a baby and possibly more adept than the doctor and his bag, stood by. All she had by way of anesthetic was raspberry tea, laughter and Jesus.
The last time I went back was 8 years ago, a birthday treat for my younger sister, Georgia, on her 70th. We stayed at the Ayres Cliff Inn as if we were rich people. On the way home to Toronto, we realized we could not go back. One of us had a back spasm and both of us never wanted to get behind the wheel of a car again.
Last weekend, Georgia, thanks to DNA testing and Facebook found Julie, whose mother Rose grew up on the hill. Thus I learned that the only survivor of the people I knew is Rose’s 97-year-old father. One or two of my Aunt Mae’s grandsons may still be there, but I didn’t know them. All my mother’s 6 siblings are gone. Most had died in Ontario where she had, and of cancer as she had. They had all worked in steel or aluminum. Evelyn and Ted had crossed the border to work in the U.S. They had been born there in 1937 in a hospital because of the risk with twins. I had felt Ted was gone, but not Evelyn, yet she had in 2013. The last of the old people, the previous generation, Julie’s aunt, her husband and his brother, Ron, another Owen uncle, had died since 2019. These were the people I had last contacted. I had learned then that our favourite, Ron had dementia and was in a home.
I left there almost 80 years ago. Or rather, we escaped. Afterwards, we sometimes were hungry but never starved. I wish I could say we left the worst of hill life behind, but I can’t because we still had Dad. Hereford Hill breathed a sigh of relief that he was gone no doubt. Gradually uncles and other folk followed in our tracks and tried to create the good old days, plus readily available booze and the odd mob contract to supplement income.
So this week, as well as facing democracy’s destruction and rising Covid figures, I bade farewell to the beauty and joy and awfulness of hill life. Ave atque vale!
See also https://115journals.com/2018/03/01/hillbilly-elegy-a-personal-reflection/