The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Crossing The Jordan

By E. M. Thomas © 1987

Issue: December, 1987

"That railroad line is gonna be a real blessing," Grandma announced, rasping her work–roughened hands over the silky material of the crazy–quilt she was making. She reared back in the old hand–pegged rocker, squinting her eyes for a far–sighted look at her work. I shivered as I heard her hands catch on the satins and taffetas; bits of somebody's ties and fancy vests, all going into the kaleidoscopic pattern.

"My land," she went on, "I remember the times when a body needed to get out in the winter, and it was no way possible. It'll be real nice now if someone needs to go down to the specialist, or get some glasses, or," she marveled at the thought, "get an ache in the tooth fixed."

I threw another chunk on the fire, causing sparks to snap and spew up the chimney. It was painful to think back to the past, when my own mother had to die because there was no way to get a message to a doctor and then get him back into these hills in time...too late, always a day late and a pound short – well, maybe this WOULD be a good thing.

Grandma had lived in her mountain home, high on the plateau, for a good many years. Those poor, old, wrinkled and puckered hands knew what work was; there was no such thing as "woman's work." Whenever her man was sick, or hurt, Grandma knew who was going to slop those hogs, and milk that cow; who would chop the wood, and lop the head off the chicken chosen to grace the Sabbath table. Now, life was a bit easier for Grandma. Widowed, she might be, but she still took a fierce pride in providing for herself and me; and I was going to help her, just as soon as I got growed enough to be counted a man. I didn't realize, that night, I didn't, how soon I'd have to prove just how grown–up I was.

It seemed that time went along pretty much the same; me not noticin' much difference, busy with my schoolin' and all, until the day I met one of Grandma's old–time friends, Miz 'Winey. Miz 'Winey was a real lady; she might not look like much now, bent over and hunch–shouldered but she had gone off when she was young and studied to be a nurse. Then she'd got this sickness that's twisted her all up, so's she looked like she was walking against a stout wind.

"Good day, Rufus," she peered at me out of watery eyes. "How's your dear Grandmother?" Her lower lids sagged, exposing the red mucous membrane inside, and I looked away.

"She's fine, I guess, Ma'am," I drew a pattern in the sand to avoid looking at her again.

"Fine, you say?" her sharp tone drew my head up. "She didn't look so fine to me last time I saw her. She'd better get to a doctor directly, I'd say."

Alarmed now, I muttered my excuses and scurried away. I must hurry home to Grandma and see for myself. I burst through the door, fairly shrieking.

"Grandma, Grandma, where are you?"

"Goodness sakes, Rufus, lower your voice. What on earth is the matter with you?" Grandma DID look different. Strange I'd never noticed how her clothes hung on her... kinda like the old scarecrow out back in the garden patch.

"Grandma, what's the matter with you?' I cried in agony. "You're sick... you're gonna die."

Grandma regarded me severely.

"You've been talking to Edwina," she remarked. "I'm NOT going to die, not if I can help it. But I must get down to the doctor...and I'm afraid you and I are going to have to ride that new contraption."

It took time, but Grandma and I made our plans. She sent word down and confirmed the times we'd seen the locomotive snaking its way through the valley. There was such a session of bathing and haircutting as you never did see; I'll bet I got soaked two or three times that week. The next morning we started out.

It was still dark when we rose, washed, and dressed by kerosene light, but Grandma soon had the mush a–bubbling. We hurried through breakfast, not neglectin' to say our 'thanks' to a gracious God for providin', but keeping an anxious eye on the clock, high on the mantel. It tocked, tocked a warning; that we still had a twenty minute walk ahead of us. As soon as Grandma'd readied up, we hurried outside, warmly wrapped against the frigid morning. We walked rapidly down the hill, our boots crunching the frozen stubble, and our breath coming in tiny, white puffs, our lungs stinging from the bitter cold.

The depot was dark and quiet for the stationmaster had not opened up for the day. The door was unlocked, but it was so cold inside I could see my breath. We set our grip on the floor and I went outside and got the lantern off the side of the station wall. After listening intently for a minute, sure enough, the train could be heard a–comin'. Soon the rails began to hum and I knew it was time to light the lantern. Grandma dug a couple of precious matches from the big bag she carried, and I pressed down the lever at the side of the chimney, causing the globe to tilt to one side. I struck the match and lit the cloth wick, careful to stomp on the match with my foot, just in case. The globe swung back into place and I lifted the lantern as high as I was able, swinging it in a high arc first to one side, then to the other...the engineer sounded the whistle. It was thrilling to realize that he'd seen my signal and answered me! I was quick to press the lever, tilt the globe, and extinguish the light. In a second, I had the lantern back on the station wall, just as the train slid to a stop. The conductor jumped down, his little iron step in his hand.

"Good morning, Ma'am," he said, "Watch your step." He helped us up into the coach and we seated ourselves, facing forwards. We'd been told this was important if we didn't want to get sick from riding backwards. We could hear the gush of air as the brakes were released.

"Tickets, please," the conductor called as he pulled himself down the aisle, grasping the back of first one seat and then another, balancing himself against the lurch of the train. We explained why we had none, so the conductor provided two, which Grandma paid for, and he punched them with a shiny little object which dangled from his belt.

We sank back with a gasp of relief and loosened our wraps. It was beginning to get light and we could observe objects whizzing past as we followed along the side of the Jordan, at what I felt was an alarming speed. The river meandered, now close by, then again, off in the fields; we'd have to cross over before reaching the city.

The clanging bell and flashing lights indicated we were pulling into a station. The few passengers again bundled themselves against the awful cold, and when the train skidded to a standstill, we went into the tiny station. It was very cold inside, despite the heat coming from a tiny, round stove, which did nothing to dispel the wicked chill. Boxes and crates were piled close by in a vain attempt to prevent freezing and the passengers contested for space while they chaffed their hands, waiting for additional cars to be coupled on with the engine.

After what seemed like an eternity, the genial conductor announced that all was ready and called his 'bo–o–ord'. We climbed back into the coach, and the train sped over the trestle, carrying us into the city.

The city straddled the Jordan River and huge concrete chutes led away from the depot, itself a hub of a giant spider web of commerce. We found our way down the proper street and left our bag at the hotel. The rest of the day we spent in eye–poppin' wandering. Grandma and me gawked and rubber–necked 'til she declared her head wouldn't turn on the 'morrow. We sampled the wares in an emporium that squashed up oranges and shot them up in an eternal fountain under a glass cover, o–o–e–E! And one store had the prettiest little birds rocking back on their heels and then leaning to dip their beaks into a bowl of colored liquid – back and forth, back and forth; I expect they're still goin' on – well, we retired to our beds plain tuckered out, I want to tell you. We closed our eyes, thanking the Almighty for an eventful day.

The rest of our time sped like sand through a glass and before you could spell 'Mississippi', Grandma'd seen the doctor and we were flying back home, seasoned travelers. Why, Grandma even advised a young lady about seeing the sights in the city.

It was soon over and we clumped our way back up the mountain, Grandma clutchin' her new thyroid pills and me older and wiser. It had not turned out to be an instant cure for Grandma, she would have a long spell getting used to her medicine and adjusting the dose, and all, but with proper care, she would live a long time yet, and who knows – now we'd got the hang of it, there might be more adventures waiting for us just beyond the depot.