I mainly remember it as being really hot.
I was thirsty there beside my grandmother as we fished for bass, crappie, or perch. Which didn’t really matter, but Grandma knew the fish bed’s like the palm of her hand. She and Papa had seeded their new pond with fish from the hatchery outside of Heath Springs long, long ago. I would inch closer to the water in order to watch with perplexity the haze of motions, flits and darts which seemed to propel the little black things in and out of the reality of where they just were, towards where they now are. They were at times faster than my eye could absorb.
We absorb motion, you know.
Sometimes that motion is taken in to become part of ourselves. This is a subtle thing, the intake of motion about us. Then there is that motion that causes other senses to spring into action. These are also subtle but less so, for our fight or flight responses are being alerted. Then there are motions, like water, which draw us into play with things in Nature as they are, our place of being within the scheme of all things. When you stop to think about it, motion becomes infinitely profound, and our location within it increasingly small, to tiny, to cellular and ultimately molecular, until we get there—then is when we may find we are as large as the sun for all the infinity of smallness around us in that moment.
We are speeding through the universe on an orb of unimaginable size at unimaginable speeds. The size and motion of both we can’t fathom. We can’t comprehend the speed at which we are traveling. But here on Earth we become like a venturi and invert our sense of sight to what is smaller and visible to our eyes. Yet without motion, what resides within a still pond, perhaps smaller than we’d usually notice, lie things hidden by the camouflage of stillness which can not be seen without scrutiny.
“What are they, Grandma?”
“They’re tadpoles. Little baby frogs.” Then she added, “Just like you.” She then chuckled at the expression I was affording her that moment. “Frogs don’t start out the way most animals do. First they’re little clear eggs. If you look around down there long enough, you’ll see ’em.” Her focus had returned to her cane pole, the little red and white plastic bobber and that part of the business end of the entire rig which was submerged. Like the tadpoles. Just like us.
By this time, I was looking for something like small and clear chicken eggs, which in my imagination were about the size of a peanut but clear, for she had just said so. The prevailing thought though, was how will I see them if they’re clear? I stuck my hand into the water’s edge and poked around with my fingers, stirring up a maelstrom of fine golden-brown sediment, and stirring Grandma into movement, for any good fisher knows not to disturb the water’s edge when the end of day feeding time is nigh.
Grandchildren? Not so much.
“Come on Tommy, we need to move on up a little.” She didn’t say why. That wasn’t Grandma’s way. I said it for her. “Why, Grandma?” I’d just spied what looked to be clear blackberry like things with little specks of blue-black inside and was about to ask her about them. But she was already heading up the bank away from the neck towards the larger , swollen part of the pond, where the deeper water was. My eyes followed her walking away, noticing her gait, which was always a swaying motion of sorts, but steady. Her’s was rarely a hurried movement, unless something had boiled over, or had spilt in her kitchen, or, the fastest I would ever see her move, was in catching a chicken in the coop before it knew the hand of God was coming at it’s throat, second only to her artfully wringing that same luckless bird’s neck in a deft outward to inward S-shaped motion. All with a few seconds of motion.
“Are there blackberries growing in the pond, Grandma?”
She dipped her chin down to give me a backwards glance, and said, “Do what?” She then began to chuckle as I explained the thing I’d just found before being oustered from my observational point, on my belly, fully accomplishing what I was becoming known for in the Adams family, which was excelling at getting covered in grass stains, dirt, and mud.
Whether is was due to Grandma’s love of blackberries and the consideration that perhaps a new but small bush had indeed dropped a few berries, or just the broad curiosity that seemed always to be part of her nature, she stopped, put down her gear and sidled back over to where I was lying at the edge, staring into the water and trying to connect all the dots, both literally and figuratively. “Tommy.” She emphasized the T-first syllable with a bare hint of the second which usually indicated a whiff of exasperation, but then chuckled and explained I was looking right at the frog eggs. “Oh!” I said, mimicking her quick syllable lingo. So they weren’t like chicken eggs at all. My concept of what eggs were was ruptured in that moment, with quiet stillness in the settling flecks of golden silt nearly settled back into place. As if a door had opened, I began to see eggs everywhere after that day. In the yard, on the trees. In the house, which would lead to my learning spider egg sacks weren’t really a welcome proposition in our home, or at Grandma’s, or especially in our Sunday school room at the Methodist church which seemed to favor a good crop of spiders, which now that I had started looking for eggs of every sort, of course did what discovery always does and allowed me to spy them at every turn of my head.
“As I aged, I wondered if it was some peculiar form of Sandhills voo-doo, for it always seemed to be only the chickens he was christening”
We drove home later that day in her car, she driving interminably slowly, which was not the norm for the crew she was the Matriarch of, for each and every one of all other Adams family adults with driver’s licenses drove like demons fleeing holy water showers. Like our dogs who loved to ride with the heads out the window, ears and tongues flapping in the rushing air, I had taken to doing the same. It was before seat belts had taken hold of us; the pre-seat belt age of watch-doggery.
On arriving back at her home in town, there was Papa with his cane beating a dandelion out of the ground, waging war on weeds which galled him by having the temerity to enter his lawn, his field—even their chicken coop, although they rarely lasted in that zone, for the chickens seemed to find them a delicacy and often would brawl over the sight of one. Papa would always laugh at the chickens, and he had the tendency to name them after people in town that he was perturbed with for a time. “Duck! I want you to go out to the coop and wring Mush Jones’ neck for dinner tonight!” They would both chuckle inside the smells of food cooking, his becoming more of a soft belly-laugh as he explained to me that Mush Jones was our town mayor.
Mayor Jones had been telling Papa for years they couldn’t keep farm animals in town limits. On some days one of the town police officers would come over, knock on the door sheepishly and ask to speak to Papa about continually breaking town ordinances. The officer would have his hands in his pocket, no matter which fellow was visiting, then leave without changes offered or promised. Except for Horace Williams, the town Police Chief, who would pull up a porch chair when Papa came out and they would swap tales about Mush’s doings that week with Papa. Horace would always say, “Mr. Adams, Mush wanted me to come over this time.” Horace would then extend a pregnant pause and they’d look at each other for a second or two, very theatrically while often making mock faces of shock or surprise…then invariably break into guffaws before 30 seconds could be counted, both men slap worn out by such an effort to contain their hilarity from the other.
Horace, you see, was close friends with Mom and Dad, Mom being the Town Clerk that decade, and not a fan of Mayor Mush Jones. This is not unusual for small towns, for the smaller the town, the more virulent the opposition in local politics. I could go on with the borrowed names of the christened chickens, but that would belabor the true gist of this story. Let’s just say that Papa loved bending the rules, and was quite artful at it. He was an enigmatic man, but usually quite stealthy in his manner of displaying such things.
Over a very long time, many doomed chickens, or ones which to Papa’s eye looked particularly promising for dinner, would be christened Mush Jones for a few days, or if he really toiled around with Mush that week on any given topic while warming one of the pharmacy benches where men of his generation held forth from 11am till roughly 2pm on weekdays. He’d skillfully prolong the anticipation a little longer, long enough to enjoy the knowledge of that particular chicken’s demise and often motioning me over to the coop to admire Grandma’s role in the ritual play of displaced power.
As I aged, I wondered if it was some peculiar form of Sandhills voo-doo, for it always seemed to be only the chickens he was christening. I was glad for that selection process only applying to chickens. But my concern grew to a fever pitch for Chip the pony, who had taken a crescent-shaped piece of flesh out of Papa’s right arm one day in a fit of Shetland pique. But animals in the horse family were obviously more easily absolved of sins, whether the original or copied variety, whereas chickens were evidently just born unlucky.
The ultimate salvation of many of the Adams family chickens occurred during an election year, for Mr. Hutchinson was voted the winner, and for a time the eerie and little bit macabre partnership between Grandma and Papa in christening chickens subsided. Change knows no boundaries however, for in time, Mayor Hutchinson finally succeeded in convincing his close friend Dobe to close the Adam’s family’s in-town farm. Fresh eggs ended. The chickens attritioned down quickly, one by one until only one was left. This had to have been a very special chicken. A solemn ceremony was held christening that one Lyndon Baines Johnson (I never heard the reason why) but Papa mentioned at dinner it was a shame they didn’t have a flagpole or he’d have lowered it to half-staff for those parts of LBJ we were about to enjoy for that evening’s supper. That may well have been a blessing for the both that last chicken, and the final home-grown meal on Matson Street.
In a few days, the last cow, a venerable and retired milker, and the horse, a piebald mare of over ten years, were hauled to the pond on Flint Ridge Road in back of Dad’s 1961 Willys Jeep. Chip the man-eating Shetland pony was sold at the Pageland auction a few months later, closer to Christmas, to an unsuspecting owner. I remember the splendid form Chip cut that day in the pit, for he was a palomino Shetland, and bidding took off immediately, sealing Chip’s destination to another family, perhaps another farm in another county. Papa and I drove home in silence that afternoon, and supper was a rather quiet meal as well.
Everyone seemed happy for the animal exodus save for Papa and me, for gone were the lightning strikes of Grandma’s death grip on the christened chickens. Gone were the bareback pony rides. Gone the odd smell of a rolled up newspaper set aflame to singe the remaining feathers off the freshly plucked chicken carcass. Their home, at last, was a town home. The fences were torn down; the wood saved under Papa’s old store, which he had moved behind the garage apartment from just up the road a decade or so earlier. The chicken coop came down within the month. A couple of years later the barn burned down in an electrical storm, and Papa had the entire back yard plowed under, then harrowed. He planted fescue, which proved to be a misstep in a way, a blessing in another, for in time, the entire “field,” as we now had taken to calling the empty back yard, began to fill with wildflowers the Adams family called Ragged Robins, which I learned later are actually Cornflowers. They are a deep blue with shades of violet in the petals, which turn a pinkish white just before they die. If ever a flower was a portent to the human condition of life and death, Cornflowers have got this. They know their role in the greater scheme of things.
I have planted these flowers in the Santa Fe area a few times. They will often take root, if watered enough, but seem unable to flourish in the arid zone in which I now live. I still persist in planting them, and this is nearly all the gardening I have ever done with any true and sincere intent to succeed at that art.
After the farm animal exodus, eggs never tasted the same, the richer taste of the chicken coop eggs being supplanted by cartons from Small and Hagins Grocers. Pet milk was bland. But the trips to the pond increased, for not only was Grandma still going up to fish two or three days a week, but now Papa would crank the Ford pickup and motion me inside the cab for more frequent excursions up that way. Not to fish, but instead to go to the barn, where he would sit for what sometimes seemed hours watching the aging milk cow and the mare feed at the trough, and then we’d put the hay out for the small herd he still maintained up there. With that, our tasks would be done, and the old blue Ford, the old man driving and the young boy hanging his head out the window, his mind slowly realizing the air had slowed noticeably from the slower pace the truck was making. For Papa never again would speed back home from the farm at the pond.
We absorb motion, you know. And Nature detests a vacuum.