The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

When Mama Laughed

By Minta Sue Berry © 1996

Issue: Spring, 1996

During the long days of summer, Mama always knew where to find Deelee and me. When we weren't needed to help her, we were down at the creek, wading or scooping minnows into fruit jars or floating in an old washtub pretending to be on a voyage in the middle of the ocean.

She knew she didn't need to worry about us, for we had promised not to go far or to wade where the deep holes were. So she went about her chores in the kitchen or in the garden, and if she wanted us, she would just holler our names from the kitchen door. Sometimes she would shout a reminder about watching for snakes or being careful on the slick rocks. We teased her about telling us a million times, but we really didn't mind. We felt safe knowing she had an eye on us all the time.

On one particular day, Mama called, "Girls, come up here right now." I could see her by the back door cramming Daddy's old straw hat onto her head. Right at that moment my sister and I were on a trip to China, but I had almost put us both to sleep with my improvised account of the Orient; so we were quick to scamper out of the tub and run as fast as our bare feet would let us. I thought she needed me to help pick beans while Deelee watched the baby.

"We're going to the field to take Daddy some fresh water," she explained, picking up the jug she had already filled with cold spring water. "Put on your sandals so you can walk."

We were ready for a new diversion. To tell the truth, I was tiring of conjuring up tales of all manner of strange adventures involving beasts and heathen tribes designed to make Deelee screech with partly real fear. Of course, all of the imagined dangers fled at the first sound of Mama's calm, familiar voice.

We liked the mid afternoon treks into the fields when Daddy was working near the house. Today we were going through the woods to a tobacco patch where the men were breaking suckers in preparation for harvesting the crop. They had come for dinner and a short rest in the shade, and they had refilled their jug; but the water would be lukewarm long before quitting time. So Mama wanted to take them another jug, cold and beady from the spring.

Mama explained that we would go the long way in order to avoid two deep crossings of the creek. Mama couldn't help us across, and besides there was little Mandy, two years old and still sticky-eyed and cross after her nap. She soon tired of walking, and Mama saddled her on a hip, handing me the water jug. I swapped it from hand to hand until red grooves were worn in both palms.

It was a strange land that we walked through, like three Indians and a papoose. We were at least vaguely familiar with most of the tractor trails that wound to cultivated fields, but there were many acres of woodland that we had never seen. This route on which Mama led us might just as well have been on some other continent. I wondered how she knew which way to lead us over that pathless brown floor.

Deelee ran ahead and then back to us, making huge crackling noises as she shuffled through layers and layers of leaves. Once she hid behind a giant tree and then jumped out, with the fiercest growl that she could muster, causing Mandy to clutch Mama around the neck and whimper.

It was easy to imagine monsters and supernaturally inhabited cottages, hidden among ancient trees, not to mention the presence of huge, red hot eyes glowering at us from the depths of thick undergrowth. Every little sound was magnified as forest life became restless at our alien presence, and above our heads the cries of strange birds cut zigzags in the air. It was exciting, and little shivers of pleasure traveled over my body.

Then Mama set Mandy down and stooped to examine something on the ground. With both hands she brushed away black, damp leaves to reveal a patch of green plants clustered among protruding tree roots.

"I need to remember where this patch of ginseng is, so I can tell Daddy," she said as she picked Mandy back up. "Nobody's found these before; they're three-prongs."

I had put down the jug to rub my stinging hands together. It felt good against my bare leg as I picked it up again. I nearly dropped it when Mama came to a sudden halt directly in front of me. She peered to her left and to her right and all around, and I noticed that her eyes seemed worried. Her mouth, usually ready to smile, was stretched straight and tight. She must have given Mandy an extra squeeze, for she cried out, "Oh, Mama, 'at hurts!"

In a flash it hit me: unbelievable as it seemed, Mama didn't know where we were. For us, Mama and complete certainty were one and the same. Yet we were lost in the middle of an endless wood where nobody had ever been before - she had just said so! My heart began to pound in my ears, and I couldn't breathe, for it now seemed that all the dark in the whole woods was closing in upon us. I thought of home and the creek and of the old tire swing, sadly as if they were things of the past. For if Mama was scared and lost, where was any hope?

"Mama, where are we? Don't you know?"

Deelee heard that, and she ran back to look up into Mama's face. Mama didn't answer my question but kept looking everywhere as if she expected a way to open up in front of her.

Deelee then took action. Swallowing her sobs, she cupped her hands around her mouth and began to shout as loudly as she could. "Daddy! Daddee!"

My growing terror was almost replaced by righteous indignation.

"Deelee, be quiet. You dummy, don't you know there are millions of daddies in the world? No telling who'll hear you and answer."

At that Mama let out a big whoop which set my heart to galloping again, for I thought she was crying aloud, the way children cry. Then I saw, to my amazement, that she was laughing -apparently at me! She leaned her back against a tree, and she bent forward and laughed so hard the tears rolled. Mandy was being churned up and down; she twisted around to study Mama's face, then began tugging at her waist.

At first I was aghast, then angry, then hurt. Finally, a great relief washed over me and through me. Everything must be all right if Mama was laughing. I was ashamed of having doubted her at all.

Deelee had resumed her yelling of "Dad-dee!" Soon there came a "Hoo-hoo! Hoo-hoo!" that couldn't be just an echo. She sped through thinning trees, then stopped and looked back with triumph blazing on her face. She waved her arms and shouted, "It's the right one! It is! It's our own Daddy!"

We stepped out of the woods , and there was the black-green field, with straw hats bobbing up and down among man-high plants.

At the near end of a row Daddy met us, rubbing his straightened back with one gum-covered hand and using the other to fan with his hat. He took the jug from Mama and let the cold liquid gurgle down his throat. After each of the men and boys did the same, they left us and worked their way back into the hot green sea.

At last it was time for Mama to pick up Mandy from under a bush where she was hugging the half empty jug as if it were a baby. We re-entered the woods and, in full confidence, followed Mama along an invisible path that would assuredly take us home. Freed of the weight of the jug, I darted in and out among tree trunks, entering with Deelee into imagined worlds where we encountered foes that we knew would fly before us; for Mama was there to keep all enemies from our leaf-strewn way.