On most days except for Sunday, it was ritual for Sally at break of first light, hoe in hand, bonnet on her head wearing her usual long flowing faded and threadbare dress, to make her way towards the riverbank where the garden lay. People knew this to be fact even though it was rare for anyone to be up so early as to witness it. It was part habit and part her connection to the earth that kept drawing her old bones out of a snug bed well past her prime. In earlier times her company in the more eagerly waking countryside would be the sounds of subtle rhythmic strikes of a metal hoe hitting the dirt from another adjacent garden echoing through the morning riverbank mist, or the familiar smell of leather against horseflesh as men readied their plows mingled in with the contrasting yet complimenting aromas of buttermilk biscuits baking in nearby ovens. This was the sweetness of farm life – those sounds and smells that were as much a part of the farm man or woman’s inner core as was the steady pace of dawn to dusk hard work. This sweetness lingered only faintly in memories, as those hearty individuals who rose before break of first sunlight to do such chores were no more. Sally who had outlasted her breed was an enigma in both dress and mannerisms from an era gone by. She moved and worked more slowly these days because of her age, as she dug at the soil with the sharp edge of her hoe loosening the dirt while befriending it and making it pliable for the plants. In this new age that turned its page overnight she worked with her hoe with the same diligence and contemplation of strokes as a monk counting rosary beads while chanting his mantra. In the background the houses and barns in the distance still slumbered silently.
In well-worn, ill-fitting hand me down shoes, Sally, with her distinctive walk shuffled out through the back porch screen door, past the wringer washer, past the clothes lines, making her way down the half mile hardened path to the plot of land she tended. Its black river dirt lined on each side with wet stiff morning grasses, knowing her weariness of step and as if out of respect, rose up in recognition to greet her and lighten her load at the same time. She began the cultivation season in crisp air that still smelt of winter, at first encounter biting and stinging her aged petrified dark skin through soft layers of cloth. She continued this pattern into the muggy, perspiration drenched summer mornings, and throughout the relieving coolness of autumn leaves dropping, only to end the trek when frost pinched the grains of soil tightly shut and no more harvest was to be had. It was only then that she took shelter inside through wintertime forsaking the garden, not to rest, but to spend the time on more womanly work indoors. Indoors or outdoors, it was the labor she knew from her slavery birth and the labor handed down to her from her dark skinned ancestry when freedom was just a word on paper still dripping of wet ink. Long after the ink had dried many still refused to read or acknowledge the ramifications behind the word. Whether free or not each job was a necessity and a responsibility Sally took to heart. She handled the pleasant ones and the unpleasant ones with the same determination and devotion, as both her lot in life and her blessing in life. Any yogi would have performed in the same fashion, with a loving commitment to the present moment and task at hand, not seeking reward or favor.
It would never have occurred to the two men who were like her own children, now old men themselves, to have bought her something such as a new pair of shoes to make her life a bit easier. It was not out of meanness of spirit or any such ill thought intentions. There were no intentions at all, just an ignorant negligence, or something not given any thought by two confirmed bachelors set in their ways unskilled in marital intimacy and brought up thinking with the side of the brain not really privy to a woman’s comfort. And, it would have never occurred to Sally to ask or expect such a thing. A hard life with minimal comforts was her archetype during this earthly existence. It was also just the family way and a part of the time and place to which she owed her existence. One was born understanding that money was always tight on a farm, and it was custom that farmers learned to horde what money they did have in preparation for tougher times. Money was saved and not to be squandered on luxuries. If a luxury was to be had it was more than likely some essential requirement from the man point of view rather than from the woman’s perspective. A man could easily justify a new tractor over the need for a washing machine for instance. Farm life in Appalachia was full of contradictions. A thousand kindnesses, involving hard work or time, could be paid to a neighbor or stranger with no thought of a return; but demonstrative affection towards one in the household, such as a gift of a new pair of shoes, could possibly blow the lid off a pressure cooker of well-subdued emotions. By the same token any family indiscretions were handled in like manner with a tight-lipped reserve incarcerating them within a Pandora’s box hidden away within the family catacombs. This was just the generational bequeath in families who spent lifetimes both knowing and preparing for a series of hard times.
This is not to be painted as a bleak picture with only tragic figures. It was quite the contrary. The pendulum for any family member swung in both directions as the law of physicality made it so. Any incarnation during Sally’s time period could ill afford to be dull. A rugged life could edge any dullness out of any existence. All families have their failings and matters to be hidden, as best they could be. There were many joys along the way as well – joys borne of natural human celebrations and joys eked out of the hardships. Sally, if only by perseverance, had early on earned her right in the family and shared these same joys.
While others were abandoning nature for newer ways, the earth was still the lifeblood for Sally. The soil was part of her elixir for a long life, as where the other elements that accompanied it. Fresh air gave new breath and life year after year to the land beneath her well-worn feet, while gentile rains quenched its thirst.
At a young age her feet rarely knew shoes. Shoes were a rarity for most children no matter what the tint of feet during the warmer and more tolerable temperatures of the year. Barefoot children, regardless of race, in one moment abandoned upbringing and played together with all the frivolity of lighthearted and like-minded souls with no comprehension of difference – a halo of innocence, which in a split second of a heartbeat could dissolve when triggered by some external force jolting them into prejudicial nastiness. Time clearly had no jurisdiction over such prejudices, as Sally’s grandchild Nell, while visiting Sally’s young stomping ground was embarrassed by such cruelty. While playing in the barn with hosts her same age she with playmates behind her climbed the ladder to the loft. One of her feet missing a rung landed in her white playmate Earl’s mouth, tainting him somehow for years to come. Such an accidental disaster was as if the plaque had struck. It was a story to this day, certain members of the family never forgot.
(This is a work in progress about a lady named Sally. I’m thankful to have met her, and to be able to write small pieces of her life.)