The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Place On Peters Creek and Beyond, Part 5 of 8

By William J. Sowder © 1992

Issue: April, 1992

Editor's Note: This is part of a serialized story of Mr. Sowder's family memories in the Roanoke Valley of the Virginia Blue Ridge.

"Through the eyes of a young boy and the heart of an old man."

Grandpa Day was a man that old age forgot. He was tall and thin, very erect. According to Aunt Kitty, his favorite child, he looked like General Blackjack Pershing, Commander of American forces in World War I. With a household full of children and a critical job with the Norfolk and Western, he was exempted from the war draft. He made up for it in World War II. Although he had been retired from the railroad for some years, he took a war-related job in Maryland as supervisor in a shop repairing steam locomotives. Away from home months at a time, he worked there for three years.

I don't know about Grandpa and an army career, Blackjack and all, but I do know that he was a fine representative of the Scotch-Irish who settled Southwest Virginia, a little more Irish than Scotch as we shall see. Grandpa kept things in order, be it tools, clothes, room, check book. On the job he was diligent and thorough, if a mite slow. He loved routine; a set time to go to bed, a time to get up, to walk to work, to walk back again - as constant as the seasons and like the seasons, he did what he was doing at his own pace, in his own sweet time. No one could hurry him, even Nannie.

Another thing she didn't understand about Grandpa was why he liked to take medicine. She often complained about his filling the medicine cabinet. The reason he liked grapefruit, she said, was that it tasted like medicine. Actually he only took one kind of medicine; patent - Black Drought, Swamp Root, Hadocall, Scots Emulsion - and it had nothing to do with taste. What it did have to do with was alcohol content: just enough buzz to overcome the bitter taste and the pangs of conscience.

The only legitimate excuse Grandpa could ever find to stay off from work was to kill hogs. In the late fall he would wait for two consecutive days of heavy frost and call in on the second day. Early at first light, he hooked Old Nell to a large sled he himself had made. On it he and Mr. Martin, the hired man, put a large iron kettle which they filled at the creek and placed on an outdoor fire. Next they fitted an iron tripod and hand winch on the sled. Then they killed a hog and dipped it head first in the kettle. They scraped and scoured it clean, and removed the offal, including the head and feet. Now came the beauty part: shoulders, hams, bacon, pork chops, spare ribs, on and on... all destined for the smoke house and the hickory cure.

In meeting others for the first time, Grandpa showed a kind of old-time respect and politeness that gives a good insight into his character. It is a reserve that is just the opposite to the glad-hander. Grandpa was rarely on a first-name basis with anyone except his oldest friends. He disliked the familiarity that creeps into first naming. He as well as many others who are country bred handle this by attaching Mr. Miss, and Mrs. to surnames. This immediately places the relationship on a formal plain, one that keeps the other at a distance. It wasn't that Grandpa was cold and aloof. He had a good sense of humor, especially where Nannie was concerned. One time at the dinner table, she said that for years she had "been the belle of Waugh." Grandpa said, "Yes, and the clapper hasn't stopped since."

Grandpa was an avid reader. He filled his combination desk and bookcase with such as the American Encyclopedia, the Old Farmer's Almanac, the Sayings of Benjamin Franklin, an inspirational book bound in calf's leather, The Wealth of Friendship, volumes of Catholic theology, and the main attraction - an immense Catholic Bible. It featured a large gold cross buried in a maroon cover - a perfect reflection of the elaborate ritual and ceremony of Catholicism. In the case too were important documents recording births, marriages, and deaths in the family. I have used them extensively in this memoir. Of greater interest to Bobby and me at the time, however, was a thick Medical Encyclopedia, especially the illustrations.

Grandpa came to Catholicism relatively late, just before he and Nannie were married in 1892. From then on in the family, there was fish on Friday - for Grandpa, Good Friday. One of my enduring memories of Grandpa came on a Palm Sunday. He had gone to church in Roanoke, to St. Andrews, the magnificent Gothic Cathedral that rises from a hill sheltering the city. It probably owes its being there to the beloved Father John W. Lynch. Grandpa thought the sun rose and set in him.

One of Grandpa's favorite spots on the Place was the little hill sheltering the house. To prevent erosion he had planted red clover, now a beautiful red carpet through which ran a narrow path and now down it came Grandpa, the long smooth stride of the mountain bred, with the palm leaf in one hand and in the other a stem of red clover ... A better man never lived.