Cousins

The first personal essays I ever wrote were about going to my grandparents’ farm when I was a child. One was published in a nationally distributed magazine, and a few were published in a local literary anthology. It dawned on me one day that my experiences in the country were all I was writing about, yet I’d only been there maybe twice a year during my growing up era. There was much more to my life than those summer and holiday trips to Kemper County. But the farm had so much to write about and was decidedly the source of my voice.

After reading Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth [post of 3/15], I decided to try my hand at a segmented essay about time spent on the farm atop Hardy Hill: an introduction and a few stand-out memories.

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Two brothers, dressed in gray pleated trousers and ironed white shirts with cuff links, mill about and kick the dirt around the patchy grass of the front yard of the farmhouse. It is Sunday, and you dress up on Sunday even if you don’t go to Sunday School. They are salt and pepper. Ray: light hair, pink skin, short and stocky like the Neal side of the family. Roland: black curly hair, olive skin, tall like the Abercrombies. A film of yellow dust settles on their shiny Wingtips. When they were just boys and lining up to take a picture, Roland made sure Dad stood in a low spot, so he’d appear even shorter, and it set Dad off. He used to beat Roland up because Roland was lazy and wouldn’t do any of the farm chores. They they’d go stand at the edge of the gully and see who could pee the furthest and laugh about it.

No one can get the kids — Roland’s three and Dad’s two — to line up and stand still so a picture can be taken. Dad is waving his arms, like he is directing traffic, motioning us to come and scrooch together in front of the rose bush. We younguns need to stop running around like a bunch of wild Indians, and I need to stop that high-pitched squealing.

I am at my grandma’s house for the drop-off. Dad drove four hours to get me here so I could spend a week in the country with my cousins and my grandparents. Barbara Ann and Michael have already been here all summer because Uncle Roland and Aunt Joyce work all day. He drives a laundry truck and she fixes hair. I am wearing shorts because it is expected that I will get dirty the minute I hop out of the car and start playing with Barbara Ann. We are like stair steps. Barbara Ann is fourteen months older than I am, and I am four months older than Michael. Judi and Theresa Lynn came along four and six years later. There are four girl grandchildren and one boy. The boy is the favored one, and the girls don’t like it one bit.

As soon as the camera snaps, Dad says, Behave, and gets in the car. I watch the tail-end of his Ford Fairlane 500 disappear in a cloud of yellow, long fins swimming in the dust. A catch in my chest tells me I’m all alone. Here. Way out in the country. Far from home. For a week. I couldn’t wait for this. Now I’m not so sure.

Let’s go pick some flowers to put on our dresser, Barbara Ann says, and I skip behind her to the yard. She knows everything about the country. I will copy her when she says dadburnit and Get your butt outta here, which she yells to Michael when he comes in our room. These are not appropriate things to say in town.

We get to stay in the front bedroom, which has a door to the porch. It’s got five big windows that stay open, an antique dresser, an old train trunk, a foot-pedal Singer, a quilting frame on the ceiling, and two double beds with white Chenille spreads. In the mornings when we wake, we will jump up and down on the white tufts of the spreads and recite the verse our grandma has framed on the wall: Every Good and Perfect Gift is from Above. Then we will drag homemade lard biscuits through Blackburn’s molasses. Mornings, we will sit on the front porch with our grandma and shell peas for dinner. After dinner, we will watch our grandpa turn a straight chair upside down on the porch, lean against it, and nap, and we will tickle his nose with a piece of straw. We will fix ourselves cups of Maxwell House with four teaspoons of sugar and four ounces of milk and take them to our treehouse, and we will not bother our grandma while she is watching her show, “The Edge of Night.” Before supper, we will walk with our grandpa to bring the cows in from the pasture. After supper, we will play Rook on the dimly lit porch. Tucked in between all these things we will romp and roam the woods and do whatever we please, and it will be a wonder we don’t get ourselves killed.

___

Then I will write about the cottonmouth moccasin coiled up two inches from my calf, the murky-bottomed pond we swam in, the thirty-foot-deep gully we played in when we weren’t supposed to, the time we ran away, the time we tried to dig up a grave, the bad fights we had and the fingers that got cut off my doll’s hand, the old well covered up with boards…yes, it’s a wonder I’m here to write these things down.

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4 Comments on “Cousins”

  1. sarahemc2 says:

    This is really lovely. One of my favorite things about Beard is that her writing is the kind that makes you itch to pick up the pen or sit in front of the keyboard.

    I’m really glad you enjoyed the book.

  2. Sherry says:

    Dadburnit, this is wonderful, so evocative. There is so much rich detail here, tags of characterization, snips of dialogue worked in as narrative. Takes me back to a day with my cousins at my grandpa’s Kansas farm. We made “cambric tea” instead of Maxwell House, and Grandpa napped in the old oak rocker in the front room after a long day in the field while we played dominoes with Grandma and the aunts. Looking forward to more.

  3. John says:

    Kathy-

    Really nice work. Beautiful and capturing. I felt like I was transported to “the farm atop Hardy Hill” with you. If this is the kind of thing you’re hoping to do with your new writing, I say bravo! This is excellent. I always feel like getting lost in a piece of writing like this is like getting lost in a piece of rich chocolate cake or something akin to that.

    Thanks.

    John

  4. Eric says:

    …. beautiful….. just beautiful….


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