|Vol. V, No. 4, Spring 1992|
By Donald R. Holliday
Don Holliday is Head of the Department of English at Southwest Missouri State University.
My father is dying. In this hour I wish I could throw off the granite mantle he with his stone mason's hands has set upon my senses and my voice. I wish I could like my mother gather up all passion and fury, set teeth and nails, and rip out the heart of fate, that heart that in too perfect rhythm pulsates human life. I have a redhaired brother who would fly in the face of the devil with a peach-tree switch. But, my father, you made me. I remember the time we gathered, one of the rare times your family--my family--gathered, when you and my uncles carried your father to the grave. My wife was crying, and flint-browed Uncle Loy patted her shoulder and said, "It'll be alright. It'll be alright." I remember us all there--aunts, uncles, cousins--how we each stood separate and grim, dry-eyed, stoic. "Poor old fellow," someone said, and we slipped Grandpa back into the earth.
I remember the time we drove down into the loamy sands and soft pine woods of eastern Missouri to bury my mother's hundred-and-one year old mother. I remember how those aunts and uncles and their children, and my mother, clung to each other and how they absorbed through each other the deep sobs that racked them.
I had always known my mother and her family were not like my father and his, nor like most people on the ridges around us. The difference was most obvious in her family's sociability. They are a society, a culture centered always in the supremacy of the individual and in close relationships. They have communication networks and formal history. They even express a lyric sense of their own mythic origins.
From somewhere beyond the White River Hills, beyond where the last rim of the Ozarks lapped over into some Old South, through myth-shrouded thickets and prairies of time my mother came, in her mouth the airs and laments of all the joys and all the sorrows of all the old people before her and all her children who would come after.
Drane was her maiden name, and Looney was her mother's. The first had once been O'Drane, and the second had echoed through the winds of the Irish Sea as MacGio!la Dhomhnaigh and MacGillewney and O'Lunigh and across the Virginia and Tennessee and Arkansas-Missouri frontier as Luna and Lewney. Absalom Looney, it was said, found Abb's Valley in southwestern Virginia while hunting, living in caves to avoid Indians and, after settling there, was killed by Indians while drawing a bucket of water from a well, near Pocahontas, Virginia. Samuel Looney, they whispered, married a granddaughter of Pocahontas. William Looney, they said, was the first white man to settle on the Eleven Point River in Arkansas, near what was to become the town of Pocahontas, in the county of Randolph, from which he traveled overland 135 miles to Cape Girardeau for supplies.
From Eleven Point they went to Bardley and Pine, Naylor and Doniphan, Saint Louis, Rockford, Pontiac, Trafalgar, Barstow and Fresno, and Pinetop. And every woman of them had a baker's dozen of brothers and sisters and married a man with the same. And every woman and man of them had an uneven dozen children who had twelve more. They all sang in joy on days of births and weddings and whenever they found any cause to be together, and they keened their agony on occasions of parting and death. In my mother's song I heard all the accumulated joys and sorrows of all her people forever. My mother's greatest song was a constant song for her children, her husband, her children's children, and all the others.
Upon the foreign isles, and the Potomac, and the Shenandoah, through the knobs of Tennessee and the Eleven Point River, they lived their instants and asked no more of the earth than it give them early gardens in the spring and food for the winter and a time and place to gather.
In annual pilgrimages they travel back to Alton or Thayer or Conway, or they gather in Hanford in California to reunite and feast and renew memories and photograph anew, to fish and hunt and sew again together. They solicit news and mail a quarterly family newsletter around the globe to announce the names of newborns, daughters' new names, and family gatherings for which they need no occasion more special than themselves.
They congregate in churches and sing to a father-god who will care lot them beyond this life. If there be mysteries, they can be explained in the next life. As for this life, they talk and laugh and sing and eat together. They beg each other never to go gently into that final goodnight. They beseech their God for a few more years for the old. They wail and keen at the closing of day.
For me, the greatest difference between her family and my father's I had heard in her voice, singing sad laments of lost children, of misguided love, of trials and of jubilation. When she sang or when she talked, she could no more have hidden that thrill of human emotion than she could have leveled the hills into sandy places. There was no distance in her voice, not even a place, no need for place, no need for an east or west, just the moment, the paramount human moment.
Maybe the lowlands made my mother that way. "In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines," she sang. Unable to see the sun, maybe she pointed her own compass. Unable to see forever across the world, maybe she made her own lyric mountains and valleys and deserts and forever in a moment. Her mother sounded the same until she died and was buried amid her intense children who carried away from that place a funeral flower. I know they have those flowers yet.
Unlike my mother's, my father's family did not live on the earth and use it. They lived in the earth, earth's votaries.
Unlike my mother, my father was never intense. His earth, his place was intense. There the sun reannounces the east every morning, then the north and south, and uncovers a world that shimmers until it welds onto blue space, mountains whose agelessness is so palpable through the stillness that men live in awe and speak careful, careful in this place. There the sun ascends like a brass disk at noon. There the sun drops in the west into a bed of red and gold and teases men into believing they can, even in death, leave this place, or ever cast off their bonds and scream in anger--or even in pain. When I look over the space and human history I could see from the house where I grew up, I sometimes think men accepted death easily, or sought it. Here in this hard place, with its illusions of softness, I grew like my father.
In all directions, from the house atop the high ridge I was born on, the horizon appeared to be flat and round like a pie pan's rim. Between the house and the rim lay networks of hollows. To the west, the White River watershed ran north; to the east, it ran south. The house stood high between.
From the house, north I could see down our Spring Hollow, across Coon Creek Hollow and Hunt Point to the John Booth place and his son Matt's atop their ridge. At the foot of our ridge, Old Matt Booth now mutters in his long sleep, after having settled land there, after escaping Civil War bushwhackers by swimming his ox-drawn wagon containing his young wife and all their possessions across flooded Yocum Creek, after escaping to Greene County to enlist in the Union Army, long after the War itself. He mutters not of War scenes but of the sound of ax on human neck meat, the thunk of severed head on wooden floor, the sight of his grim and triumphant wife behind the door, ax still in hand, on the floor in front of her the two-parted body of Baldknobber and bankrobber Alf Bolin, wanted dead or alive, mostly dead.
South I looked over Bee Creek, over the Old Matt Booth place, which by Sam's marriage to Old Matt's daughter Annie became the Old Sam France place. After Annie died and after Old Sam jumped a long freight headed west and later was found dead beside the track, the ground around their barns and sheds and burned-out house became pockmarked with holes left by someone or some thing with cause enough to believe something was buried there to dig through whole nights with pick and shovel. Beyond the Old Sam France place stood the home of his brother, Pete, and his wife Cynthia, Old Matt's other daughter, and their sons John's and Jim's places and their son's places. Beyond them lay Journegan and Parrish family lands in Boone County, Arkansas.
A half mile east of the house, at the east end of the orchard fields, our plows turned up pieces of broken crockery, bed casters, harness buckles--left from old Hamm White's life after he was knifed to death in Hollister. Beyond, we could see into Ozark County, Missouri and Marion County, Arkansas, where spring branches and creeks named Fox, Cricket, Bear, Beaver, Cedar, Shoal, North Fork, Sugarloaf and Little Sugarloaf, formed the White River watershed flowing into Arkansas. In a hundred million years, it had etched a valley forty miles wide.
That was my world. Rim to hill rim, all tinted in blue haze, it lay so quiet men strained to hear, to see, to feel. It echoed only the near and far hi stories of me, my father, Old Matt and his kin and neighbors and whoever preceded us, nothing more.
There I grew, one of five children of our parents, learned to nurture and butcher to live, a small society unto ourselves. Like our neighbors, we dwelt isolated by distance and terrain and by a cultural penchant for absolute independence both/'rom neighbors and from family not immediate. For society we had the earth, cloaked in gothic woodlands that soared to the sky and whispered in the wind. Sometimes a lone leaf rattled as if beset by spirits. We had hollows as still as sepulchres. We had the hosts above and below and the hosts from the past within. For religion we had the earth and its tetradite directions and seasons which permitted no exercise of free will. As for human society, we occupied the world alone from rim to rim, except tor that sinuous tie to brother and sister and parent whose ties to brothers' and sisters' and parents' bound us all to everyone and to their dust, which rose about our ankles and powdered our hair and settled back to earth as we tilled it. There we grew until we outgrew the center and the rim itself beckoned.
I don't know why we left I just know we did, had to, didn't wait until our adult shirt tails settled on our backs until we had gone, like our father, his father, and his father. I think all any of us ever found was where we started and the same old questions our intense old world commanded.
Our great grandfather came from Pennsylvania to Taney County, Missouri, by way of a Union artillery company in the Civil War. His was a northern road, and a western one, all clearly marked by Union records. His was a road beginning at no center, only at some distant rim, for he never talked about his origins. He carried west with him only a few clothes, a handful of cast-iron cannon shot, some woodworking tools, a fiddle, and reverend joy in all land and woods. Out of these and himself he made the Old Sam Holliday place, and we traced our past and our character only from the callouses-and sweat he shed in hewing a house and fields from hardwood and stone at the new settlement of Oasis in Long Creek bottoms in the, then, new Taney County, Missouri. Long after his death in 1911, we learned he did have a past. His Civil War papers showed Hollidaysburg in Pennsylvania to have been his home. We later learned that the Hollidays were a pre-Revolutionary American family with a proud and patriotic record, but he never told it and we never sensed it. The road he took west he apparently forgot. His legacy to us did not include a usable past, not even a mythic one. Though he died intestate, he gave to all his children the full character of his social self, a character adapted to ably living among men--the skills and love of building with wood and stone, a devotion to tending the soil, and his social doctrine: an unbendable law that obligations of work or money be paid in full and with interest.
But Sam Holliday also entailed to all the full measure of his dominant self, his private and animistic kinship to all that made and filled the earth and air and that caused him to peer into and to listen to unseen voices more intently than to human. At night, alone amid his family, he played his fiddle and faced across Long Creek and the eastern rim, his eyes so narrowed he might have been looking either the direction he faced, or within--perhaps to the ridge where his bones would be moved when the Corps flooded Oasis forever. Perhaps he wondered if he had sojourned in nature or if nature had become flesh and tabernacled among men.
From Oasis, Sam Holliday's children, able citizens and devotees of mysteries, carried their inheritance. From Oasis to Hollister, fifteen miles distant but worlds apart, for the railroad had come to Hollister, our grandfather and great uncles took their father's social doctrine and prospered, and each took some small object, a talisman. Our grandpa took his father's fiddle and its call and his joy at the drone of a swarm of bees at the heart of a great oak and the song of a hunting hound in the night. Greatuncle Dude eventually took a road to Oklahoma where his family disappeared even from occasional family affairs, and his twin sister took one to California, and I don't remember her name. Our uncles and aunts took many roads, some very long, in many directions, but all led back to Hollister or Long Creek or White River. Our Uncle Sam took the fiddle and played it across the South Pacific, and Uncle Loy still hears it call across Long and Turkey Creeks. Our father took the road to Pinetop, ten miles east of Oasis.
Born in the house his grandfather had built, bom of a father who was born in the same farmhouse and who rode horseback to California to look at land and back, our father returned to the hills that bore him to cut timber and hew rock to build his own house.
Bearing his full share of Old Sam's bequest, our father had crossed his own rim of hills to compare with the White River Hills whatever lay beyond, to landscape the Missouri-Pacific Railroad, and to build America's cars in Michigan and to marry our eastern-Ozarks mother in Ohio. But his mind anchored deep in the White River Valley, no matter how far or in what direction he went, he could never disinherit himself. Our father came home to carve out of his own muscle a house and fields and family. His day's work done, he sat, elbows on knees and hands clasped, alone beyond imagining, eyes fastened on something in the fire, and listened.
In our turn, we left the house our father built. Our road led us to neighbors and community and all the points beyond, connected us with our father's family and their families, their ceremonies of births and marriages and deaths, and the thrice-yearly shared work of building tobacco beds and setting and harvesting tobacco. It was a road of blue flint and dirt, not a road for dreaming, not a road to myth. That's the road we took out.
The road from the house passed the hog feed lots, ran through pastures, through untouched pine grove, passed the fork to Ollie's, passed white oak and ash trees and rotted oak stumps and logs where every spring we gathered morels or huge catspaw mushrooms, passed the old Thomison houseplace now marked only by large walnut trees and a cellar hole, on through oak and hickory to fork south and north at the old Springfield, Missouri to Harrison, Arkansas trail graded into a county road, which connected to federal highway 65 seven miles south in Arkansas or twelve miles north at Hollister.
If we turned south from our road, we passed the Pinetop Cemetery, blanketed by pine, oak, hickory, huckleberry, where the day the youngest of us was born, an old neighbor was buried. Around a bend, we passed the Pinetop School, with its kerosene reflector lamps and water keg, its books and maps and globe, then the defunct Pinetop post office and store. Six miles further, past Bob Hammons--who had Numbered in Montana, Bob Powers and Jim Berry--who had been to California and Oregon and Wash ington and back, Andy Youngblood--whose kin had moved west and returned, Homer and Jack Leatherman, Bob and Jack Comelison--whose families migrated to California and Washington annually to work and to return, the state line where Greatuncle Jim Oliver had operated a wagonroad saloon and inn with a bar he could move from Missouri to Arkansas or back by moving it across the room. Two miles further, the road met the paved federal highway.
By the north fork, a quarter mile away stood the house and barn of Uncle Jesse who like our father had gone abroad, to Oregon as a U.S. Army lumberjack during the first world war and to California, back to Missouri, to Michigan, to California. As they did our father and all the others, the White River Hills drew him back. He followed our father to Pinetop.
Twelve rock and dirt miles beyond Uncle Jesse's lay Hollister, the Elizabethan-faced village our grandfather Jim had rebuilt in chiseled stone and hewed oak to face the railroad depot after the Missouri-Pacific was built behind the back doors of all the businesses. He and our grandmother Emma had settled there after the boom times of railroad and lake building and of World War One when Grandpa bought a large river-bottom farm several miles down White River at Moore's Ferry. When the high prices of World War One ended, so did our grandfather's big-farm dreams. With several thousand dollars more in liabilities than in assets, his farm was reclaimed by the mortgage holder. Our father and Uncle Loy helped our grandfather, for three years, grow large tobacco crops and to repay the last cent of what had been owed. Old Sam's bequest was not to be ignored, not even questioned.
All this--all that was and is my father, all that was his father and his grandfather--all was my father's portion to me. With that, I have never needed, almost never, not until now. I have taken my roads, across and around a shrunken world in the last half of the twentieth century, but no place has held me or my brothers and sister. Back over the same blue flint and dirt, past uncles' and aunts' old places, past the house we were born in where now only a cellar dug deep into the soil still stands, we have come back to gaze into that old four-square world and into and through the fire and across the blue haze and the distant rim.
And now, my father, though I know your joy in my infant son's moist smile, I know too you listen, strain to see beyond where the dawn brings the earth back to life and a red sunset means rain, and rest. Poor old fellow, someone said, a long time ago. That's not much to say, is it? I wish I could say all things to you. All things you never said. But I know them. l know. I know.
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