I was born in the wrong century.
I want to be a pioneer. I want to migrate west into a wild land with a caravan of Conestoga wagons and sleep under the stars at night. I want to sit around a campfire, get lulled to sleep by the smell of woodsmoke, the sound of the blaze crackling, and the light and shadows thrown about by fingers of flames.
I want a horse. I want to ride my horse over rocky trails and kick up dust, through creeks, up and down hills, pushing against the wind, alongside covered wagons, going to new land. I pretend my bike is a horse when I ride down Deering and then on the dirt and rocky edge of blacktop Third Avenue. My seat is whiskey colored leather, like a saddle, and I think I feel it shifting side to side between my sweaty legs, and I move with it much like I remember doing on the bare back of Dixie, Grandpa’s mare.
I check out every biography in the public library about pioneer women—Abigail Adams, Betsy Ross, Louisa May Alcott, Clara Barton, Nancy Todd Lincoln. The books have hardback blue covers and a yellow swirl around the title. I like how the older ones have softened with use and are easy to hold wide open, their pages bookmarked and worn at the edges. I am hungry for stories about women who take a stand, women who ride horses and cook over an open fire, women who make life better.
I should be one of those women. I should be a pioneer. After all, I am in the family of the most famous pioneer in the world. I’m a Boone.
I’m kin to Daniel Boone.
My grandmother was Anna Bell Boone, and she was born and raised in Kentucky, where Daniel Boone blazed trails through the wilderness and fought Indians and created new settlements. She was born in Maysville, in 1886, exactly one hundred years after Daniel Boone helped establish it.
She played a harmonica and sang “My Old Kentucky Home.” She ate rhubarb and dandelion leaves. She was a sharpshooter. She could stand in her living room, shoot a rabbit out the front door, and cook it for supper.
Daniel had a favorite cousin in Pennsylvania named Jacob Boone. Jacob had served in the Revolutionary War. He was the son of Joseph Boone, Jr., who was a brother of Squire Boone, Daniel’s father.
It just so happens that Jacob Boone is my fourth great grandfather.
When Jacob’s father died, Daniel went to Pennsylvania from Kentucky and talked Jacob’s widow and some of her children into moving to Kentucky. So in the fall of 1785, the Boone family wintered on the Monongahela River at the mouth of the Sewickley, built a flatboat, and floated down the Ohio River in the spring of 1786 to Limestone, Kentucky, so named before it became Maysville.
One night, when I was full of the migrating spirit of my ancestors, I put a candle on the floor beside my bed. I asked Mama if I could do it, and she said no, but I did it anyway because I wanted to. My bed was twelve inches from the wall, and I put the candle back there so Mama couldn’t see it from the doorway. I struck a match to it, then went to sleep, staring at the flicker. Mama said “something” woke her in the middle of the night and reminded her that I’d asked about a candle. She wouldn’t do it, Mama thought. Would she? Yes, she would. Mama found the candle flaming two inches from a ruffle on my tiered blue bedspread.
“You could’ve burned your whole bed up with you in it,” Mama said. “And burned your sister up, too.”
“I just wanted to be a pioneer,” I said, thinking that should get her off my back. Besides, Mama was the one who encouraged me to read all those pioneer books, and she was the one born Boone. But she just shook her head like she was disgusted and curled up one side of her mouth and shot frowns over at me. She told me how stubborn I was, and how much like my father.
Anyway, I got to sleep by firelight, like a pioneer, and it didn’t take much imagination to pretend I was out in the wilderness under a starlit sky, especially since Mama had stuck luminous stars to the ceiling in my bedroom.
My fourth great grandfather Jacob Boone helped Daniel Boone survey the town of Maysville and was one of its first trustees. He ran a tavern and ferry. He was the interpreter between the colonel of the Army and the Indian chiefs and warriors. He built a house on Front Street and lived there till he died.
Jacob Boone is buried in the Old Pioneer Cemetery behind the Maysville Historical Museum.
I really am in a real pioneer family.
Jillie and Hardy at Waveland beach on the Mississippi Gulf Coast
Don’t let me linger, he always told me. If I’m irreversibly ill, if I cannot be whole again, let me go, let me die. No heroics. I don’t want to be less than what I am.
You need to know, I’d answer, that if I think there’s a chance for you to survive, I will take it. I will let them hold on to you for a while. I will give you every opportunity to live.
I don’t want to linger, he’d repeat. And if I do, you find a way to let me go. There are ways and there are places to go to find out how.
I could never do that, I’d say.
I would want you to, he’d say.
He’d tell me this when there wasn’t a thing in the world wrong with him. Then on June 27-28, 2008, the situation came up.
The doctor at Williamson Medical Center told me his organs had been without oxygen too long, maybe even his brain. With the mention of brain, I closed my eyes and let my head fall hard against the stone wall of the hallway. I couldn’t bear to hear that the brain of this brilliant man had been compromised.
Fix him, I said. He’s got to be at work Monday, he has customers depending on him, he owns a business.
It was an order. I meant it. I needed him, too.
So he lived through five hours of surgery. Then the doctor said his only chance for survival was to go to Vanderbilt, and he only had a 5% chance with that. And at Vanderbilt he had seven more hours of surgery. They fixed part of him; they repaired his heart, rebuilding it after the aortic dissection ripped it to shreds. But there was the issue of the other organs that had been without oxygen because of clots formed by tissue of the inner layer of the aorta. They’d take him off the heart/lung machine and he couldn’t make it.
So the doctor came to me and said, there’s one more surgery we can do, I think the outcome will be the same, but I’ve got a team ready if you want us to go ahead with it.
With that, it was all put on me. Do I carry out his wish and say no, enough, let him go, or do I give him another chance and put him through more surgery? The doctor stepped away for a moment and let me wring my hands, look beggingly at my brother-in-law, tell my son that I cannot walk away from this place without giving him every opportunity to live. My son said okay, of course, okay, sure, we’ll tell the doctor.
I cannot walk away from this place without giving him every chance to survive, I repeated.
Okay, the doctor said, and rushed away.
It wasn’t long into that third surgery, maybe ten minutes, before it happened.
I was sitting in the waiting room, leaning back, looking up at the lights, shaking with fear. I felt a calming warmth I’d never felt before in my life slowly brush against me from the front and take hold and wrap all the way around me and soak into my being, and then I heard my husband say urgently, I’m going, I’m going.
I went home from the hospital without him and as I walked in the front door, it hit me to go read that story, the one he had written two months earlier, titled “The Will to Live,” about the Styrofoam cup tossed about in traffic on the busy street in front of his office and how it finally found a resting place on the grass beside the curb. I went immediately upstairs and pulled it up on the computer. I knew he was trying to tell me something.
In the two years that have now gone by, I’ve read it again and again and found different meanings and have now reached another conclusion.
I thought of placing the cup back in the middle of the turn lane for another go, but decided it may prefer the resting place it had chosen and worked so hard to reach.
The cup chose its resting place. Did he choose his?
Such an adventurer needs freedom and would not fare well in captivity. So I left it where it was, and carried away the memory of its struggles and the lesson of perseverance it taught.
He didn’t want to live in captivity, less than he was, unable to do the things he wanted to do. He didn’t want to be less than whole. He chose to give it a good fight, and then quickly go to the other side where he was whole once again. He chose.
“Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of joy you must have somebody to divide it with.”
I got this picture. It further illustrates the previous post “Kisses and Hugs.”
I cannot fathom what it is like to have a man that close all the time—touching, stroking, caressing, hugging, patting, holding your hand, biting, pinching, and pulling your hair, not to mention ripping out any ornament you might wish to wear in your curly locks. But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Especially after watching my 14-month-old grandchildren interact. A girl and a boy. He is always there, right on her, watching and copying, pushing and playing, laughing and dancing. Now, she’s a tough cookie and can hold her own—she bites and pinches, she’ll knock him down if he gets in her way, she’ll bodyslam him to the ground. She’ll chase him down for a toy. She’ll also hug him and slobber a big kiss on his cheek.
The sweetest thing was when, while riding in their stroller, he reached over like a teenager would in the movie theater and took her hand. Oh man, what a memorable moment.
It got me to thinking about my mom and dad. My dad couldn’t keep his hands off my mom. He was constantly touching, probing, and patting, even in front of the kids. She’d pretend she didn’t like it and say, Quit Dad. He’d laugh and keep on. My sister and I would roll our eyes and shake our heads and say something like, Gross.
And I wonder often what marriage will be like for my sweet little Jillian. She will expect closeness; she knows nothing else. She will expect to be hugged, kissed, caressed, mauled all the time. She will expect to always hear a slight breath next to her ear. She will expect to eat every meal with someone, share bites of food, have conversation and laughter over the backbewwies. She will expect to always have a shoulder to fall asleep on, a warm body on a cold night, a naked butt to pinch when she feels like it. She will always expect hands all over her.
I hope there’s a tiny boy out there somewhere right now who one day will be everything she needs him to be.
(And somebody needs to tell her when that time comes, she needs to meet him at the end of the aisle in a Baptist church with her wedding hankie in her hand and the Hardy Veil on her head and not elope like others we all know and love.)
Guest Blog by Winston Rand
“Trudging through life, coping with the day-to-day challenges and turmoil, we sometimes need a reminder that we too can survive, even beyond all odds. Those little reminders come in various packages. Sometimes it’s a child with a serious affliction who is happy and smiling; other times, a warm, frisky puppy that has not a care in the world except to please you; and occasionally, it will be the totally unexpected. Such was the case one day last week.
Arriving back at the office in late afternoon, something caught my eye as I walked from the car to the office entrance. It took a few seconds for it to register that I was seeing an empty styrofoam cup in the center turn lane of the busy street out front. There was a push of air from heavy traffic in both directions, causing the little truncated cone to roll in an arc first one way, then the other. The occasional draft of a larger vehicle would move it up and down its chosen lane a few feet. Then more rolling in arcs around its new pivot point until another large draft moved it a few feet forward or backward.
Becoming quickly mesmerized, I stood for perhaps fifteen minutes watching the struggle, the close misses, the movement to and fro. At some point I realized I was cheering the little cup onward in its quest to survive against the impossible odds of the multi-ton monsters bearing down on it from every side. And then it occurred to me how much like life that is. Wishing the dancing traveler well, I went on into the office. Half an hour later after checking email, washing up, and shutting down for the evening, I emerged to find the cup still at it. It had moved about 20 or 30 feet down the turn lane and seemed to be slightly damaged, but not enough to keep it from rolling and arcing, performing its death defying dance. After watching a few more minutes, I had to leave the cup to its unique brand of madness, knowing full well that it would be flattened or completely gone come morning.
Imagine my surprise and delight to arrive back at the office the following morning to find the cup, not squashed by one of the many behemoths that passed this way during the night, but intact, resting gently on the grass a few feet from the street. It had a nick, but was otherwise alive and well. I thought of placing the cup back in the middle of the turn lane for another go, but decided it may prefer the resting place it had chosen and worked so hard to reach. Then I was tempted to take it in and leave it sitting on my credenza as a reminder. But such an adventurer needs freedom and would not fare well in captivity. So I left it where it was, and carried away the memory of its struggles and the lesson of perseverance it taught.”
I’m borrowing this term from Denise Hildreth Jones. Flying solo refers to those who are never-married, divorced, widowed. I lost a spouse to death.
June comes hot and crushingly hard and its first 26 days bring anticipation of the 27th and 28th when it all happened, two years ago. Two years. Lick finger, make a checkmark in the air. I’ve made it two years.
After 730 days and nights of flying solo, I feel I know a thing or two. I have experienced the gamut of emotions, from “I don’t have to live with this pain, I know how to end it” to “Hmm, I sort of like being able to eat a quickly thrown-together salad on the couch in front of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ without having to fool with anyone else.”
Nonetheless, I’ve had the time to assess these first two years of my life, and I’ll share some observations for those of you who will be going through this shortly. Yes, you will go through this. You will lose a spouse—one year, five years, ten years from now. Death happens; one is stripped away. Your only option to avoid being left behind is to die first. Period. Other than that, you don’t have a choice.
Some things I have learned about flying solo:
First thing, I can do it. I can fly solo. I can do just about anything. I just about damn well have. I may have to get my 30-pound ax out and chop my way through hell, but I’ll get there. [Note to self: Toot your own horn, dear, and while you’re at it, buy a bottle of Kendall Jackson and toast yourself. Yeah, do it!]
Solo means alone, without a companion or a partner. The day after my husband died, when someone told me I’d have to build a new life, I wanted to slap them. It was not my choice to live solitary within four walls constantly closing in, but I have adapted. And I have made my way. [Note to self: Straighten that backbone, girl; you’ve grown accustomed to this!]
In reality, I am of no value to anyone, except to myself. In other words, nobody gives a damn how I feel or how hard it gets. They all have their own lives and their own stuff. That is the bitterest pill to swallow, but that’s the very nature of flying solo, and you gotta get this in order to go on. The one who valued me as a person is no longer present; nor are certain key others, like my mama and my dad. When I loosen up and don’t look out for myself, I’m often left standing in the cold. I forget this sometimes and find myself slapped in the face with that proverbial snowball. [Note to self: Learn to manage this better during the third year. And remember—you are enough. No matter how they make you feel. And while you are convincing yourself of that, go buy yourself some flowers. You are worth it.]
It helps to have a friend who understands. I have one. [Note to self: Let this friend know that you value her. And show her with your actions. Be there for her above all others.]
It helps to observe which people throw snowballs and which people bake chocolate chip cookies and to make wise decisions regarding such. [Note to self: Life is short, eat chocolate!]
“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.” Winston Churchill. [Note to self: Always respect and live by quotes of men named Winston. They know integrity and honor, and they think of the well-being of others rather than just themselves.]
I drove east into the mountains of western North Carolina and spent one afternoon on a mountain and one on a river. There’s probably no other place I’d rather be. Hiking to the top of Craggy Pinnacle through blooming pink rhododendron — cool in June — was inspirational, along with a 360-degree panorama at the top. Mountains all around! The trail was abundant with rare plants, as well as ferns and yarrow.
Paddling down the French Broad, wide and fast-moving with riffles, behind the Biltmore mansion — horses running on a trail beside the river — was energizing. The sky was blue, the sun was hot, and I forgot protection, ending up with bright red legs and arms.
Most country people dip snuff. My Great Uncle Rufus does, and so does his wife Aunt Ella. When she sits on her porch swing, she spits it into the yard and the chickens run up and eat it. Their house is on the Big Road down the hill from my grandpa’s. I know they are poor because their house has no paint on it. Even the inside walls are just boards with no paint or wallpaper on them, and there’s no ceiling, just a roof with rafters. They have a white pan and a dipper in the kitchen that they drink well water out of. It is dark in their house and it stinks, like raw wood and overripe vegetables and snuff juice.
My grandma does not dip snuff like other country women. She is more dignified. My grandpa does dip. Snuff comes in tiny round silver cans that fit in your shirt pocket. Barbara, Mike, and I are in cahoots to try our grandpa’s snuff. Mike, because he is the favored one and gets to follow our grandpa around, knows where it is. There are some benefits to having one grandchild with the inside scoop.
There’s a tumbledown tool shed just north of the barn beside the yellow dirt lane, which is part of an old Indian road that keeps on going to the old home site by the plum tree. In the shed are ancient things, some that belonged to my great grandpappy George Thomas Hardy and maybe my great great grandpappy Beaman Barnes Hardy—rusty shoe forms, shovels, old chains and bridles and blinders, cow bells, plows, hoes. And on a little shelf inside the door to the right, high up, sits Grandpa’s cache.
Mike reaches up and gets a tiny tin. He opens it and is the first to get a pinch of the brown powder. It looks like chili powder. It’s not hot, though. It’s just bitter and sharp. We’re not sure what to do with it once it is inside our mouths, so we end up swallowing some. We sit in the dark shed among the rust and sharpness of tools and blades and rattles of chains. We talk and use, Mike dipping the most.
Suddenly, we are not feeling well. We hold our stomachs and walk doubled over to the house. We let the back screen door slam behind us, alerting our grandma to look up from her doughboard. She watches us walk through the kitchen. We make it as far as the dining room, where Mike collapses on the floor, and Barbara and I ease onto ladderback chairs.
Our grandma stands in the doorway and puts her hands on her hips. She laughs that throaty laugh of hers.
“Mm-hm. I know exactly what y’all younguns have been doin’. You’ve been into your granddaddy’s snuff, that’s what.” She wipes her hands on her apron, her dimples cutting long lines down her cheeks. “Mm-hm, you’ve been out to that shed, you got into your granddaddy’s dip, and you been eatin’ it.” Soft chuckles continue to bubble out of her throat. “You deserve what you get.”
She stands there in her light blue pedal pushers, her silver hair glowing in a blue rinse Aunt Joyce put on it. She has short legs and muscular calves, and as I look at them in my sickened condition, they blur and I think they are my own.
Mike turns green. He is moaning and writhing on the floor. He pulls his knees up to his chest, then kicks his legs in the air, one at a time. Our grandma leans against the doorway and continues to laugh.
“Doncha know you’re not supposed to eat it?”
Mike groans and thrusts his chin up and his head back.
“Can’t you do something for him?” I ask.
“Nope, it’ll wear off, and I bet he’s learned hisself a good lesson.”
The smell of her chicken and dumplings and homemade biscuits doesn’t make any of us feel better.
Later, our grandma decides to do something to help us out. She retrieves three empty snuff cans from the smokehouse and washes them thoroughly with her pink detergent. Then she mixes up Hershey’s cocoa and sugar and puts it into the tins. We each get our own “snuff” and we carry the cans around with us and take occasional pinches of the sweet powder. We can live with this.
(Excerpt from “Cousins,” a memoir essay)
Mike Hardy — January 9, 1950-May 30, 2010