The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Autumn Grief

By LaBerta Strawn © 1986

Issue: September, 1986

Roena stopped stock still. She had been methodically scattering shelled corn to a dozen Rhode Island Red Hens and one swaggering rooster. She gazed across the creek to the hillside covered with oak, chestnut and poplar trees, their leaves a blend of scarlet, gold and tan, and at the path where she longed to be. She could scarcely believe that she wouldn't get to go to school anymore. Pap had said that she must stay home and take care of the family now that Mother was gone! How could she, when she was only ten and a half years old?

She recalled her first day of school. Uncle Jace had come by for her and she had gotten to ride behind him on the horse on that very path, all the way to Pine Branch School. How proud she had been, especially when Uncle Jace, who was the teacher, gave her, her very own book, a primer! She already knew her ABC's, which she recognized at once in the primer, and could count to a hundred.

There had been only fifteen scholars in that school, all of them older and larger than Roena. She recognized two of her cousins and went at once to sit beside Sally. Her excitement had lasted all day. She had been able to walk to school most of the days that winter. If the weather was very bad, every one stayed home.

Roena learned later that Uncle Jace taught a subscription school. And that all the scholars except her brothers and his children and herself paid five dollars each for the term, or $1.50 for each month he was able to attend. Some of the older boys could attend only a month or two after the crops were in and the winter's wood was cut. Some paid with corn, or apple brandy.

The school room looked large to Roena. A huge fireplace was in one end. There were split log benches for the boys and girls and a teacher's desk with drawers. There was a floor of rough boards and a window on each side of the room. To Roena it was perfect, no matter that the fire didn't heat the entire room and that some times the corn bread and milk which they brought for dinner froze hard in its pail. Apples fared better for one could keep them in her apron packet, if only she didn't forget and eat one during books.

Roena loved school from her very first day and was an apt scholar. Before the first term ended she could read, print and spell many words. She listened as the older pupils recited and learned from them something of geography and history. Sometimes Uncle Jace would tell them stories about the War Between the States. He had fought in that war, been taken prisoner at Gettysburg and spent nearly two years in a prison at Elmira, NY. Mostly he wanted to forget the war.

Last year Roena had finished the McGuffey third reader. She loved the stories in her reader and had learned most of the poems by heart. Could she be as good as Little Fran who had helped her mother all day while her brother and sister went to play? She had helped nurse her mother, and she could cook some things, but to be all alone all day!

She recalled the last day of school last year - the school breaking. Roena had spelled down every pupil in the school. The big boys were so ashamed. She had recited "The Little Toy Dog," and not missed one word.

How she would enjoy a game at school today if she could only be there - a game of town ball, stealing bases, or best of all Rush Captain! Everybody enjoyed Rush Captain. Two of the older pupils chose up. Color codes were secretly planned by each team. One team went to hide while the other hid their eyes. The captain came back to home base and would yell the color he thought would be best help his team to not be seen and to reach home base before the searching team got there. The team that won would get to hide next time if playtime lasted long enough. If not today, it would be their turn the next day. Their woods were just perfect for Rush Captain and Uncle Tom Scott didn't care how many paths they made in the woods. Sometimes Uncle Jace played with them, though he couldn't run very fast. He liked the singing games which they played on rainy days, Skip To My Lou or General Scott. If he came outside, playtime might go on and on before he knocked on the school house with his knife and called them all in to books.

"Maybe Pap will let me go to school some of the days," Roena mused. The boys all had pants, shirts, and underwear woven and sewed by Grandma Branley. She and Liza had been outfitted with two linsey-woolsey dresses and four aprons, which covered the dresses and could be changed and washed each week, by Grandmother Roberts who had also knitted stockings for them all.

The day was October 20, 1890. Roena had looked at the calendar that morning when Van remarked that school opened that very day. She couldn't go that day for sure. It was already ten o'clock and lots of the work still to be done. She had been up for hours. Pap had kindled the fire for her, but she had made bread and gravy for breakfast, washed the dishes after heating the water in a tea kettle at the fireplace, brought more water from the spring and helped her brothers and Liza get ready for school, even helped Liza get dressed. Liza was such a baby. She couldn't even comb her own hair. Would her first day at school be as fine as Roena's had been? Liza wouldn't be six until December, but the boys had all promised to take care of her. Roena still had to milk the cow, strain the milk, put it in the spring box, make up the beds and sweep the floor. Then she must cook something for Pap's dinner.

Pap had left just after the children left for school, saying he would be back for dinner. Maybe Pap would be back today, but Roena thought tomorrow more likely. She remembered how faithfully Pap had cared for Mother while she was sick, but soon after her death, he had started leaving them alone for days at the time. Sometimes he brought his drinking buddies home with him and Roena had to scrounge for something to cook.

Once when Mr. Parson was sleeping there, Roena had yelled up to the loft, "Shall I fry the fish or some eggs for breakfast, Pap?"

"Fry the fish and the eggs, also," came the reply from Mr. Parson, to the surprise of Roena and her brothers.

Pap was loving and kind some of the time, but more and more he was gone, and Roena, her brothers and Liza would have often been hungry and ragged if it had not been for loving grandparents and a few kind neighbors.

Mrs. Williams, who lived just down the creek from them, had been so good to Mother, and after her death, to the family. She helped Roena learn to cook and often baked things for them. Roena loved going to her house to play as she did some Sunday afternoons. Mrs. Williams daughter, Lorna, was only a little older than Roena who loved and envied Lorna. Lorna was so pretty, had such pretty clothes and a mother and father who loved her and were always there. She would be at school today.

Anyway, it wasn't fair that Roena couldn't go to school. If Pap would make Lonnie who was fourteen, and Van who was twelve, help with the work, they all could go. Even eight year old James could bring in wood and go to the spring. Why couldn't Liza stand in a chair and wash dishes? Lonnie didn't give two hoots about going to school. He would rather be home today sawing on the fiddle Uncle Ben had given him, or thumping on the banjo Pap had covered with a groundhog hide. But Pap had said an education was important for boys, and all the boys should go to school every day the could. Van and James loved school.

Why wasn't book learning important for girls too? Pap said girls could learn to cook and wash and spin and weave and knit and hoe corn without going to school. He must have forgotten that he promised Mother he would keep the children together and send them all to school.

"When the boys come home this evening, I'll ask them to help me in the morning and see if I can get ready for school by nine o'clock. Maybe Pap won't care, if all the work is done."

Pap's sisters had gone to school. Both Aunt Lummie and Aunt Tensie were scholars. No one in the whole neighborhood could write so well as Pap. People came from miles around to get him to write a deed or even a letter. He had been too young for the war, though his brothers had gone. Two of them had been killed while fighting at Cloyd's Mountain, but Pap had gone to school and his uncle who had been wounded early in the war taught him at home. Pap could teach school if only he would. He could make shoes, and had made each of them a pair for the winter.

Why did God take Mother when we needed her so much? Roena remembered her mother's terrible cough. She had been so sick. Dr. Davey had said "cancer" and for the first time Roena had heard the dreadful word which became so familiar and so awful. If God loved them all as Reverend Billy said, why did he have to take Mother?

She remembered the night her mother died. Mrs. Williams had been there, both grandmothers and other neighbors. The other children were sleeping, but Roena was up bringing her mother fresh drinks of water often. It was such a beautiful starry night when she went outside. She looked up at the stars and prayed that if Mother couldn't get well she might go that very night. Had she caused her mother to die? When she went back into the house Great Aunt Jane was singing,

"Hail, yes sighing sons of sorrow
Learn from me your certain doom,
Learn from me your fate - tomorrow
Dead - perhaps laid in the tomb
What to me is autumn pleasure
Since I know no earthly joy?
Time has given me a treasure
Which nothing can destroy."

Mother's suffering ended. She breathed her last, and Roena was sent to climb the ladder to the loft to awaken her father.

The neighbors had been so good to them, bringing food and flowers and taking care of everything. Two days later Reverend Billy preached Mother's funeral as the people stood in the yard, the older ones and the family using the chairs and benches. He preached about God's love and led the singing. They had sung "The Unclouded Day," and two other songs. The coffin had been carried to a wagon in the yard and they had started to the grave yard. Roena and the rest of the family rode in another wagon. There were a few buggies and some horse back riders, but most people walked.

Across the creek the ox drawn wagons went, up the hill, down by Pine Branch Schoolhouse, on by Mayberry Store and by Uncle Jace's house. And the old house where Mother and Roena herself had been born. The grave yard was so peaceful so quiet, but the grave so deep, so dark, and Mother so young, so beautiful. How could God be so cruel?

Roena and Liza spent that night at Uncle Jace's. Cousin Sally and the boys had been so kind. Going home the next day was not so bad, but the house was so empty and lonely. How could they live there without Mother?

That was months ago. Today Roena must get on with the work. Slowly she went into the cabin, chunked up the fire and hung the pot of beans on the crane.