The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Uncle Charlie

By Grace Cash © 1988

Issue: January-February, 1988

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

By the year of 1925, all my uncles on the Deaton side had Model-T Fords. But none drove as fearlessly as Uncle Charlie did. Papa didn't own a car - he hadn't touched a steering wheel since his first driving lesson back in 1920 - but Uncle Charlie was his favorite brother-in-law, maybe because he was as fearless as Papa was cautious. Papa grumbled about his reckless driving, but he would go to town with him in his Model-T.

Uncle Charlie lived in the Deaton settlement, three miles southwest of our house on the hill. Our halves-farm was on his way to town, and he stopped by every time he made the ten-mile trip to Gainesville, Georgia. Papa would go with him if not otherwise engaged, glad of the free transportation. It beat driving a wagon team for household items not sold at the Chestnut Mountain country store. But when they reached the Blackshear Place, ready to leave the Winder highway and enter the busy Atlanta highway, Papa would clutch the right door, ready to jump out, if indeed he wasn't thrown out the windshield.

There was no stop sign, but the motorist cautiously stopped when leaving one road and going into another. Not Uncle Charlie! He shot right out into the highway, linking Atlanta to Gainesville. Talking, stuttering, sharing his gusto for life with Papa, he managed to let a little of that rub off, as manifested when Papa would tell it, a half-grin on his face.

Uncle Charlie had a special place in Mama's heart, too for all Uncle Charlie's laughter, and his stuttering, trying to get a sentence across, words tumbling over each other, then receding, and needing to be said over again, he had known grief as not many men had. His first wife, Minnie, a tall laughing young woman (as Mama described her) died when her fourth child was nine days old. Later on the two middle children died, leaving only the eldest son named Aaron, who grew up a strong and cheerful boy, able to make a long log swing that accommodated Mama and five shrieking children, himself standing on the ground, pushing the chain-enforced log up as far as it would go in the air - up to the tips of the oak tree branches, upon which the swing depended. Uncle Charlie's second wife was named Ida, and several children had been born to the union by the time we moved to the hill.

Mama's chief joy, where Uncle Charlie was concerned, was his ability to be all things to all people. When he was in Papa's company, he presented himself as a fine cotton farmer, and gifted in all crops that grew. He was a voting-man, like Papa, and he could talk politics. He had nothing "womanish" about him - not when Papa was around. But when he would stop from a trip from town - on those journeys when Papa was elsewhere - he usually had dress lengths to show Mama, and a pattern that would fit all sizes of his "gals" and Mama's "gals."

Mama would bring out a pack of neatly folded newspapers - old copies of The Tri-Weekly Eagle coming out from the county seat. She brought him the scissors she started out keeping house with, after she married in 1909 - scissors sharpened several times by itinerant knife-and-scissors sharpeners, passing by in a one-horse wagon on the narrow red road running by our house at Papa's Place, and at the two other places Papa rented before we moved to the hill. Together they laid the tissue-paper, marking with a dubbed-off penny pencil and instructions from the pattern-pieces, along with Uncle Charlie's suggestions of what the pattern needed for a better fit.

We wore many dresses that fitted well because of Uncle Charlie sharing with Mama his dress patterns, and his special gift for designing and sewing. When we saw Doreen - the eldest daughter of his second marriage - wearing a dress like our own, we had enough of Uncle Charlie's "feel" for style and design to know that what he had prescribed for Mama, he had prescribed for Aunt Ida, if indeed he hadn't stitched up the dress himself on the pedal sewing machine as any of the women in the Deaton family, which had a high quota of fine seamstresses.

But sewing was only one of Uncle Charlie's gifts. He kept high-stepping mules, and he wasn't afraid of anything that walked on four feet. For him, corn, syrup cane, peanuts, potatoes, vegetable gardens, milking cows, laying-hens, chickens and eggs, were all equal in importance to cotton. Yet if he was to win Papa's approval as a good farmer, he had to "talk cotton" and he was truly an excellent cotton farmer.

We hired out picking cotton for Uncle Charlie the fall of 1926. We chose a time to work in his fields when our own were blackened, and needed a few days to whiten for the second picking. We would empty our picking sacks into holding-sacks, or home-woven hamper baskets made from white-oak strips, at the end of the row. At the end of the work day, each worker, whatever the age, was paid for the amount of pounds designated on the steelyards, the cotton weighed up in the field, before it was loaded on the wagon. We averaged one-cent per pound payment, and a young child might earn fifty or seventy-five cents in a day's work.

Yet part of the payment in hiring-out in the fields of other farmers was in the fun we had, and just being away from home for a day was as much of a share-cropper's holiday as a farm child could expect in the 1920's. Aunt Ida sent a market basket of biscuits filled with ham slices, and great jugs of water, and big pones of sweetbread to the cotton field. The mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks were a treat, but a far cry from the noonday meal. The dinner my aunt cooked was for farm hands and evidently she assumed we all were, including her own robust children. She fried an outsized iron skillet full of fat sausages, which produced deep sizzling grease for a dozen scrambled eggs. There was a platter of baked sweet potatoes, a bowl of fried chicken and a still bigger bowl of thick milk gravy.

She lifted a blackberry cobbler, crusted with sugar and butter, to the center of the table. Thick brown biscuits and cornpone filled several platters. Dishes of yellow homemade butter set at easily reached places. The blackest coffee that could be boiled in the huge galvanized pot, and a churn of fresh buttermilk provided glass after glass for the children.

Nobody left the table hungry, and the afternoon cotton-picking proceeded at a somewhat lazier gait. Uncle Charlie didn't seem to notice. It was as though he believed there would be a tomorrow to get things done that were left undone at sundown, he inherited his easy-going ways from his maternal grandfather - Andrew Miller - who returned from the 1849 Gold Rush empty-handed, but unperturbed, his good-humored manner implying there was all the time in the world to get gold. Uncle Charlie didn't ever stake a claim to much gold, but he made a pleasant-kind of name for himself.