The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Gone Are The Days

By Frances T. Craig © 1985

Issue: January, 1985

My greatest fear is that scientists will develop some drug or machine that will erase memory. As we grow older this vast mine of the past serves us as a refuge from the bewildering changes.

I was fortunate enough to have a happy carefree childhood. We made our own amusements and were taught to love the outdoors. On my sleepless nights now, I soothe my shattered nerves by journeys back to my playhouses, always in calling distance of home.

I always love to travel back through the Time Zone to the bright, hot morning "Uncle Steven" entered out lives.

I was busy sweeping the dirt floors, rearranging the moss beds and straightening out the long sticks that divided the rooms. My brother Charles was busily destroying a huge stump with a hatchet (stolen from Papa's smoke house). Birds flew by, looked curiously but undisturbed. They were accustomed to us. A tame little chipmunk ran behind the huge oil drum that was our piano.

"You can take the meat and mix the gravy now," I told Charles. (We would pound water over the rotten wood for meat and gravy.)

"Ain't you made the pies yet?"

"Right behind you." I pointed to the array of mud pies decorated with flowers.

Suddenly I dropped my broom, listened and glanced half-fearfully at Charles. He too was frozen in shock.

"What is it?"

"I don't know. There it goes again."

Strange, half wailing music came floating down the winding, little mountain road.

"That's the funniest music I've ever heard!" I whispered.

We were familiar with the sounds of organ, piano, guitar and harmonica, but not with this strange sound. It floated on the air and suddenly came to a stop just below us.

We ran to the bank and peeked over the edge. A huge black man sat under the shade of Ian oak tree with his feet in the cool little creek. A bundle of clothes lay nearby. He picked up he odd looking box, leaned back against the tree and as the wailing sounds poured forth he sang, "There's trouble along the way, Lord, but glory at the end of our Days."

We leaned over the bank, it gave away and we rolled down almost in his lap.

"Well now, where did you fall from, Heaven?" He chuckled.

"Up there - That's our playhouse. Our real house is across the road." I answered.

"This is Papa's creek that goes behind his mill." Charles went on.

"Well now," he smiled, "any chance of me getting a job there for a little while?"

"Sure," I promised recklessly, "If you don't know how to make meal and flour, you can Work in Mama's garden."

"What is that, and where did you get it?" Charles hadn't taken his eyes off the fascinating box.

"That's what you call an accordion. I worked 3 months for it, down in New Orleans."

"Play it again," I ordered.

"What kinda music you like?"

"All kinds."

He picked up the instrument and there came forth pure magic from it. I got to my feet, and couldn't keep still. I swayed to the strange rhythm. It was totally unlike the foot-stomping mountain music. Charles arose and joined me.

"Y’all can really dance!" he approved.

"Mama says it's the Irish in us," I answered.

We proudly escorted him to the mill, and Papa was as enchanted with him as we were. He hired him immediately, and told us to help him clean out a small building back of the barn. We were enthusiastic assistants. We carried quilts and used dishes and utensils from our house. We even helped to make a fire in the small wood stove, and made yet another trip and returned with home-cured bacon, eggs, milk and left-over biscuits. We watched as he prepared a huge meal and ate the last bite of it. He arose and went straight to work in Mama's garden.

There followed days of total joy as we followed him every step with endless questions about all the places he had been and the wonderful sights he had seen.

He was always smiling and sang as he worked.

Every night as soon as we ate our supper, we would take a special treat, and rush down to Uncle Steven's little house. He taught us sad blue wailing songs and happy dancing songs. He told us of the hot steamy swamps filled with the deadly cottonmouth moccasins, and the strange screams of the "loony-birds." To this day my brother and I love the rhythm of the blues. Our favorite song was "Old Napper." He told us that we could become great singers.

Charles and I were constantly called upon to sing duets at church. Although I was two years older, we were the same size. We were always dressed in matching clothes. Sailor dresses and Sailor suits were in vogue then. We had white outfits and blue outfits. I had black patent leather slippers, while the pride of his life was his "Buster Brown" shoes.

Every Saturday night these shoes were shined by rubbing a biscuit over them. We were scrubbed from head to toe over our vigorous protests. My long hair was plaited and the next morning un-plaited, brushed and adorned with huge ribbon bows. We were very proud as we marched to the front of the church. I would swish my long hair hanging below my waist, to make certain everyone noticed.

One night as we left Uncle Steven's house, after about five angry calls from Mama, Charles asked, "What we gonna sing tomorrow?"

"I don't know. It's your turn to announce it."

"I'm sick to death of 'Jesus Loves Me' and ‘Bring Them In’."

"I ‘spect God is too." I replied.

"Can you think of anything different?"

"Yeah, one of Uncle Steven's songs!"

He gave me a long look. "Are we going to tell anybody?"

"Naw, let it be a surprise," I answered with a guile as old as Eve.

He grinned, "Yeah, I spec' that's best."

The next morning we marched down the aisle proudly, when the minister announced, "Frances and Charles have a new song. He wouldn't tell me what it was. They want to surprise you."

That's exactly what we did. Charles started stomping his foot, as I began to clap my hands. We sang:

"Ole Napper come to my house, I thought he come to see me But when I come to find out He persuaded my wife to leave me."

There was a stirring and shuffling around in the "Amen Corner,” we continued:

"If I had a trifler wife, I'd whip her shows' you born I'd take her down to New Orleans And trade her off for corn."

Suddenly we were grabbed by our sister and dragged down the aisle and out of the door.

"Turn me loose!" shrieked Charles and gave her a good kick in the shins.

"You wouldn't even let us stay to hear people say how much they liked us!" I yelled. She jerked my wrist and I hit her.

You never saw such a scene when we reached home. My mother almost fainted. My sister hysterically yelled that she would never take us there or anywhere else again. Papa laughed and laughed. He only said to never try to surprise anyone again.

The summer days sped by and the air began to chill as a few leaves turned and drifted down. We stood in Uncle Steven's door one late evening and watched the flocks of wild geese fly South. He seemed oddly quiet that night.

The next morning we hurriedly gulped our breakfast down. We were anxious to help Uncle Steven pick up walnuts.

Papa stopped us. "Uncle Steven left last night." He handed a little doll carved out of cedar to me and a knife for Charles.

"He said her name was Miranda.” We clutched our presents and burst into tears.

"Uncle Steven can't stand this mountain cold. He'll come back in the Spring."

I have no other words to express our complete desolation. He had opened up a whole new world to two lonely little children with love and warmth.

One Saturday night this past Autumn I was in my kitchen fixing Sunday dinner. As usual my husband was watching "HeeHaw" on TV. Suddenly Grandpa Jones began banging on his banjo, and singing "Ole Napper."

I went to the telephone and called Charles.

"Are you watching 'HeeHaw?" We both began to laugh. We told no one why.

I slipped upstairs and opened an old trunk.

"Miranda" was resting comfortably.