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 6 of 8

By William J. Sowder © 1992

Issue: May, 1992

"Through The Eyes Of A Young Boy and The Heart Of An Old Man"

Nannie Lee Hawks Day was the life blood, the dynamo at the heart of the Day family, the one who every day brought the Place on Peter's Creek to life. She was a small woman, about five feet four or five, with raven black hair, a sun tanned complexion, classic high cheek bones encasing sparkling brown eyes that turned black when she was provoked.

She was quick but not jerky. She never sat in a stuffed chair, if a straight back was available. More often than not, she sat on the edge, just as she slept on the edge of the bed, barely making a dent. Her favorite expression was "Make Haste!" Warm, demonstrative, comforting Nannie had an inbred and unquenchable confidence that she could do anything she wanted to do. She was open, generous to a fault, the champion of the underdog. She learned life by the heart.

Nannie and I shared at least one trait; we went to bed with the chickens and were up at the crack of dawn, sometimes earlier. The first sounds I heard in the morning were Nannie clattering down the staircase. If it was summer I would dress in a couple of minutes and follow her; if it was winter I would take a few minutes to gather my clothes and in my long underwear burst in the warm kitchen to dress. My hustle was richly rewarded. Nannie had the instincts of a fine short order cook. She never wasted a minute. The oatmeal, eggs, ham, grits, biscuits all seemed to take on lives of their own - all finding their places in and out and on the plates, cups, and saucers - all taking their places on the table, first for Grandpa and then for me. During this time his lunch box filled; the rounded top clipped in the coffee flask and the compartmented bottom held bread, butter, beans, fried chicken, pie - the fat of the land. Now straggling to the kitchen were Bobby, Uncle George, and the girls who fixed their breakfasts and packed their school lunches. In the meantime Nannie milked Bessie (to be repeated in the evening) and I fed Old Nell and gathered eggs from the hen house and the nests of maverick hens in the barn, all the while being careful to put the brown eggs in one compartment of the basket and the white in the other.

I deliver them to Nannie who has sat down to churn. To watch her perform was to watch perpetual motion - a clean, pure stroke that in no time brought yellow specks to the top, the miracle of butter and then in no time she was patting it into another miracle; an old timey acorn mold. Then I would take the butter and skim milk to the springhouse, one of my favorite places. The small attractive A-shaped structure sheltered a cement box through which flowed a never-ending stream of crystal-clear limestone water. This water tasted different from the well water at the house. Well water seemed to taste tinny, especially when it stayed in the bucket a while. The spring water seemed to have a purity, even a spiritual flavor, a continuous baptism of all that it touched.

Nannie had a green thumb, the secret of which lay in her love of the earth and its endless bounty. When she was no older than eight or nine, when other girls her age were playing with dolls, Nannie, the oldest of the children, asked Grandpa Hawks for a small space to plant some vegetables. It produced so well that the following year Grandpa doubled the space. Nannie might very well have thought about this when, after the churning, she went to her garden.

Several years earlier she had tried to make a gardener out of Uncle George. It was a disaster. First he was continually late; then when he did show up, he couldn't plow a straight row, and even if he could, he wouldn't have been able to sow it. Nannie herself making a little too much haste turned the pea seeds over to him to plant. A week went by and another with no indication of plants coming up. More days and still no peas. Then one day in the middle of the patch grew sprouts as dense as a tropical rain forest. He had planted all of them in one big hole. Nannie fired him and hired Mr. Martin, a neighborhood handyman, to work shares.

Nannie and her generation of gardeners would have received much praise from this generation of environmentalists. They made things grow without the help of pesticides, which came in use in the middle 1940s. They were organic gardeners long before the term was used; a manure pile, wagon loads of mulch, and Nannie's loving care were all that was needed. For Nannie gardening was more than a splendid source for the table. It was an ever fulfilling spiritual experience. She was forever leaving her household chores undone to get a breath of fresh air, as she put it. There in the rows she would wield her flat-head all purpose hoe (the greatest hoe ever made, Grandpa said) digging weeds from the corn rows, hilling the cabbage, grubbing for potatoes. Sometimes she would bend over taking in her hands the rich bottom land soil and sprinkle it over the earth as if she were giving a benediction. Adding to the service was her sweet alto voice. First you would hear her humming and then flowing through came the words, "He came to the garden alone, with the dew still on..."

It's no wonder the harvest moon shone with so much benevolence on Nannie and her garden; sweet corn, beets, tomatoes, squash, peas, turnips, sweet and Irish potatoes, cabbage, carrots, onions, all kinds of greens, and Nannie's favorite, the Franklin pole bean. The pods were long and flat and provided a nice-sized bean. The vine ran up wooden tripods arranged in long rows looking like teepees in an Indian encampment.

Next to the garden was a good sized strawberry patch and a long arbor bearing purple and white grapes and a third with a rosy color and sweeter then the other two. There was also a large plot bearing pumpkins, cantaloupe, watermelon. Scattered over the farm were fruit trees; apple, peach, apricot, plum. There were also pawpaws and persimmon that were delicious after the first hard frost had hit them. But dwarfing them all was a huge blackheart cherry tree that out produced all of the others put together. Last but not least were the gourds. They were hardy, feisty plants that fought it out with morning glories for space on fences, fence posts and thriving on the rich soil around the pig pen. Nannie and the girls made them into drinking cups that were placed in the springhouse and on the back porch near the pump. Gourds also acted as scoops for bran and corn and oats in the barn.

God's plenty and more. All you had to do was look in the over-flowing root cellar at the bins full of Irish and sweet potatoes and the shelves crammed with all sizes of mason jars filled with jams, juices, pickles, soups, puddings. Then the pie fillings on display: cherry, apple, peach, raspberry, blackberries, huckleberries, on, on and on.

Nannie loved flowers. She had the same deeply personal kinship with them as she had with her own offspring; love, protection, nurturing. Near the back door of the kitchen stood two large lilacs - the old fashioned kind with small blossoms with the indescribably sweet odor. Near them were azalea and mock orange. Scattered over the yard were settings of daffodils looking as if they had dropped from the sky. Wisteria clung to the porch columns and lattice. There were beds of poppy, red and white peony - the forsythia springing across the front yard, the wild running rose and the honeysuckle taking over the side fence. On a hot humid day, the air just right, the yard became a gorgeous hothouse, the fragrance and beauty inseparable and all encompassing; together with Nannie they graced the land.

Nannie was blessed with a deep well of energy that is often found in small women, especially with women brought up on a farm. Unlike the male of this description who continually tries to prove he is five inches taller, these women, without trying, continually prove that fine jewels do come in small packages. Nannie was such a gem. She was always there when you needed her.

Once when I was seven or eight, I needed her. Up until this illness, I had avoided most of the childhood diseases - mumps, measles, diphtheria - but one winter I came down with strep throat, the most dreaded of all. At that time, the early twenties, medicine had begun to make progress in the treatment of serious diseases. In 1923 Banting discovered insulin, and in 1926 the drug I needed most was discovered by Fleming, penicillin. Unfortunately, it came two or three years too late for me. I joined all the others who had strep. I would live or die without much help from medicine. Mama was frantic. Then Nannie came. She and Mama took turns night an day nursing me, and then on the fifth or sixth day, along about the time Nannie and I would be getting up, the abscess in my throat burst, and Nannie held the emesis basin while I spat out death. Nannie told me I would be all right now and took the first street car back home. I admired Nannie's courage and compassion; in fact, I admired her more than any other person I ever knew.