Vol. VIII, No. 3, 1995


Poppy

by Jerri Palmer



Occasionally by happy coincidence apiece such as the following comes to OzarksWatch. Jerri Palmer was a student in a class taught by Dr. Duane Addleman, former Dean of the College of Health and Applied Sciences. He asked if OzarksWatch might be interested. We were. In the simplicity of its language and unassuming style, "Poppy" is a tribute to its immediate subject, but it is also an ethnographic tribute to a way of life, a culture which shaped Poppy, and many, many other Ozarks men and women.

A little over a year ago, my poppy did not even look like he was 83 years of age. There were not many wrinkles even though he had some laugh lines around his mouth. He also had small crow's-feet in the comers of his bright eyes. He had lost some of his hair. He kept his hair short on the sides and a few long strands combed straight back on the top. His complexion was smooth, warm and rosy. He had an ornery little boy smile, and he jiggled when he laughed. He was stocky but not fat. He was very well proportioned. Because he loved to eat, he had a little bit of a belly. He also had big, strong, weathered hands.

When Poppy smiled, I could see a couple of shiny gold teeth. He'd say, "These gold teeth are pretty, but I'm proud I still have most of my own teeth."

Poppy had a good sense of humor. When my sister and I were small, Granny and Poppy took us to the zoo on a Sunday afternoon. Poppy commented on the big, red and blue hind ends of the baboons. He pointed, laughed and shook all over. Granny tried to hush him. My sister and I just chuckled.

Poppy used to play the fiddle. He made up comical stories to go with his lively little songs. He had one story about hitting a hound in the jaw, and he wobbled out a tune called "Turkey in the Straw." Sometimes he would dance a jig to the music. He moved with springy rhythm, up, down, back and forth, tapping his feet on the floor.

Poppy is not what I would call worldly. He keeps his money in the bank now, but I remember when he used to bury it in fruit jars in the backyard. He lives on the same land as his father. He has built and added onto the old farmhouse.

Poppy's a private person and doesn't reflect much on the past. I know he was raised during the Depression. He also survived World War II. In the top of his closet, he kept a box of medals he received in the war. My mother said, "Poppy used to have bad dreams when he got back from the war, but he never wanted to talk about it."

Through Poppy's black frame glasses, he read the newspaper. I listened intently as he sounded out the words. He only went to the sixth grade in school. I used to sit next to Poppy on the couch, and he would show me how to "cipher" out math problems. He called zeros "otts."

Poppy had a lazy, good nature about him most of the time. He didn't have much of a temper and wasn't very aggressive. He didn't take much lip off of people, though. I have heard of some wild boxing matches he's had. The latest one was not very many years back. Poppy drove down to the end of the lane to get his mail. When he was turning around to head back to the house, his truck got stuck in the snow. In trying to get it going, he got crossed up in the road. About that time a young couple in another track had come up on Poppy. Poppy was trying to get out of the road when the young fellow jumped out of his truck and gave Poppy a cussin'. Poppy boxed the guy around till the guy fell on the ground. The young lady asked Poppy if he would help her get him back into their truck. Poppy replied, "I didn't help him get out." I guess that young feller got a lesson in respecting your elders.




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Sometimes Granny would push the wrong buttons by nagging and yelling at Poppy, mostly about his drinking. He'd get the gun after her, but he always shot well above her head. It was more of a scare tactic, I suppose.

Poppy wasn't critical of others, and I don't remember him ever judging anyone.

Poppy enjoyed the outdoors and being out in the fresh air. He was a land surveyor when I was small. He liked hunting too. I always thought this, with all of the walking involved, was what kept him in good shape.

When hunting, Poppy took careful aim and was an excellent shot. Though he was a bigger man, he hardly made any noise as he walked through the woody forest. He floated on top of the ground when he walked, barely touching the earth. He was good at slipping up on his game. I looked forward to Poppy's getting back from his hunt, so I could watch his skill in skinning the squirrels.

Poppy used to drink a lot of water out of his spring, which came out of the bluff and made up the branch in the hollow. He'd talk about what good, cold water it was.

Poppy also drank quite a bit of moonshine and rot gut whiskey. The family joked about it petrifying him all these years. He held his liquor well. Sometimes, though, he hid his bottles and forgot where he put them. Poppy and his father were believed to have had their own still during Prohibition.

Poppy didn't go to town much, only to the sale barn on Mondays. The old fellows around the hills would gather there to swap hunting dogs, tell each other tall tales and do a little drinking.

Last year, Poppy was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. It's spreading all throughout his body. It's hard seeing the way Poppy has changed. He looks older now. He rarely laughs or smiles. He has lost a lot of his weight and looks weaker every day. He stays in bed most of the time now. A great number of his friends are dead or dying themselves. He only has a few visitors now and then. He has become withdrawn recently and barely talks to anyone.

Poppy's hound, Sadie, sits on the front porch, quietly waiting for him to grab his rifle and take her hunting. He says she's a real good tree dog. Poppy's afraid to go to the hollow now. He says he probably wouldn't make it there and back.

We have to pressure Poppy to get him to drink water or eat anything. He says, "Nothing sounds or tastes good anymore."

Poppy takes morphine now and never hits the alcohol.

Poppy only glances at today's newspaper. He says, "There doesn't seem to be anything in it of interest."

As I sit here watching Poppy stare at the ceiling fan, I can see the color of his face draining. I can see the color of his eyes fading; the twinkle is almost gone. As his eyes water, I can see the glassy, gray clouds take over. I wonder what kind of pain he is enduring. I know he doesn't want to be a burden. I watch as he tolerates each day, hoping he won't have too much longer.

I think softly to myself, "Dear Lord, I realize Poppy's been no angel, but don't you think you could use him in heaven?!"

Photos courtesy of Jerri Palmer.

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