APPALACHIAN DAYS WRITING CONTEST
Katura Ann Jonas drove the backroads home. It was the long and difficult way around. It had been awhile since she had traveled the familiar, winding, crooked as a snake’s hindleg entrance to her family’s mountain place. Two months and 37 days, her mamaw frequently reminded her. Too long. Maybe not long enough. In her new life, away at college, Katura Ann became Kat, the cool writer from down eastern Kentucky way. Kat would have to shed her citified airs before she made a rather late appearance to the unexpected wake of her Papaw Diamond.
The news of his passing was still too hurtful to think about. The drive, three and a half hours, gave Katura too much time to remember. She was determined to hold up, especially in front of the women folk. Crying was not in her nature, at least not in public.
But Papaw Diamond was no ordinary man and no ordinary grandfather. He was a father of 10, grandfather of 22 and by his own admission father of “many lost young’uns who cain’t find their way in this devil’s world.”
As a small child Katura worshipped him as much as any Greek sees Hercules as a power unmatched, undefeatable, ageless.
When Katura’s mother left her with her grandparents, she was only seven. Her mother, strung out on the dregs of life and the ways of the devil, left only a patchwork remembrance of the bond.
Their relationship was a quilt made of old rags and hand-me-down memories, threadbare and coming apart. Katura’s only clear recollection of the departure was the movement of her mother’s white-laced peasant skirt swishing across the worn porch planks while
Papaw Diamond’s booming preacher-voice demanded she give her family their due. She peeked between Papaw Diamond’s legs and watched the white skirt swishing back and forth as her mother paced along with flowing words that boiled down to the fact she couldn’t raise this child and had to go. The skirt stopped once and paused and then Katura watched it flow down the worn wooden steps, out past the creek-rock sidewalk, her mother’s steps calm, focused and on a clear path into eternity. There was never a face with the skirt except in pictures, faded, obscured. Never face to face. That was the first and only time Katura saw Papaw Diamond cry. His large leathered hands, stained from years of tobacco and coal, shook as he scooped her up in his powerful arms and covered her face from the scene of a mother leaving a child. He raised himself to his full measure, 6’5 and 250 pounds and delivered the ancient curse through a mixture of anger and sorrow:
“The feet of them who buried your husband will carry you out!”
Two days later she was found dead at the head of a holler near the base of Black Mountain.
Mamaw Etta had predicted it. She felt the cold chills that morning and awakened to see a raven, building a nest on the porch. “O death is coming. Yes, Lord. Have mercy on this house. Put a candle in the window and do it right quick.” Mamaw Etta always said such things with that shake in her voice that meant devotion to God. She used the same tone to let Katura know that she was “gettin’ above her raisin” since she’d put on airs from that city school so far away. Katura never saw a likeness of herself in her own grandmother.
Often she wondered if Mamaw Etta was a reflection of who her mother would have been, had she lived long enough to be holy and “covered by the blood.”
Papaw Diamond was a coal miner, part-time tobacco farmer and full-time preacher.
Katura thought all men and preachers smelled like sweat, coal dust, Old Spice and gasoline. Even now she could see him on a hazy summer evening, walking in from a long day busting coal and hoeing acres of burley. He was a silhouette against a star-flung mountain sky, singing “I’ll Fly Away” to the hoot owls and an eight year old in bare feet with lightning bugs in a mason jar. His overlarge hands could move thousand-year-old minerals and turn delicate as a fairy’s wing, able to tie loose ribbons on a fly-away ponytail. They said he was something else in his younger days. He proclaimed he was “more of something else” in his old days. Katura often heard the old men gathered at the feed mill joking that Papaw Diamond could lay track for the rail faster than any man alive, carrying two rails at a time on his back, along with the maul and the makings for 100 gallons of corn mash.
When Papaw was old, two of the Melungeon boys tried to break into the homeplace at the dark of the moon. Most old timers kept their cash money in a flour sack or tobacco tin for safekeeping and this was generally in the kitchen above the corn meal grinder.
The two boys slowly raised the ancient windowsills, white paint flaking with each movement and eased down to the yellow and white linoleum floor determined to find at least a hundred dollars. Papaw pretended he was swinging the backer knife at two cut worms but it was only his bare hands against teenaged angst and reckless choice. Half-grown boys sound much like hands of burley when they fall, Papaw said.
When the two awoke the next morning, their first image was of Mamaw Etta stirring sawmill gravy and pouring jet black coffee for the man at the table whittling two brand new hoe handles. The boys found themselves tied at the legs with old leg irons that Papaw sometimes used as props in church for explaining our redemption from slavery and sin. And the morning and the evening was their first day of enlightenment. The boys hoed two acres of tobacco, tied together while Papaw supplied them with sweet tea and water and his best sermons delivered while punctuating the air between the rows with his favorite verses about the evils of riches and “where your treasure is, that’s where your heart will be son!” Between those tobacco rows, endless rows of waving green like the riches of a beckoning world, Papaw preached on:
“Amen, glory…Hallelujah to Jesus!” My treasure is in heaven, son. You’ve got to give your heart to someone, might as well give it to Him! Praise God! Give it all to Him now.. blessed Lord. Show me your heart, son. . . . Show me your heart.”
They say one of those boys went on to become a lawyer and still stops by to see Papaw when he comes to the old homeplace. The other one died in a getaway car from a deal gone bad. Papaw said his chains are real now.
Katura felt his absence as she pulled up to the house. No wood shavings scattered the porch. No workboots removed at the door. The tobacco knife stood forlornly by the swing. She could see the covered mirror through the screen door and candles were lit in the windows. Neighbors were bringing food and Mamaw Etta was standing at the old screen door waving her in and cooling herself with a wood-handled fan from the funeral home.
“They found him on top of the mountain at Lookout Rock,” Mamaw said. “Strange thing is when they found him, he was clutching this.” Mamaw Etta handed over a silver chain with a small coin cut in half and an inscription on one side.
“I think that’s a bible verse, honey. He was always thinking about his Lord. Someone in town thought they heard him hollering last night across the way to Old man Turner’s place. You know his old Mamaw got the dementia right before she died, too.”
Katura read the partial inscription faded and rubbed almost bare in places, “The Lord watch between me …” The other half was missing.
“The coin looks old, Katura, as if it were cut in half on the tracks as teenagers are wont to do. I never did see it in all my 60 years with your Papaw. He must have traded one of his hen and roosters for it.”
Katura ran her hands over the soft metal and tried not to feel the anger of loss. Papaw said he prayed for her every day and she felt the absence of those prayers now, even if she wasn’t sure she believed.
What good is it to love someone. It never lasts. Someone always leaves.
The funeral home was nearly empty. Katura sat on the front row waiting for the signal that six men she barely knew would take away the only person who made her feel loved.
She closed her eyes and heard him singing:
Everybody I met seemed to be a rank stranger
No mother or dad not a friend could I see
They knew not my name And I knew not their faces
I found they were all rank strangers to me
She was the rank stranger now.
From the back, a slight woman, wearing her white hair in a long braid down her back made her way slowly to the casket. She had been beautiful once and graceful. Now she was frail and as she closed in on Papaw Diamond’s face she pulled a white lace handkerchief from her watchband. Folded neatly inside was a silver chain with half an old worn coin and an inscription that said “and thee when we are absent one from another.”
The old woman gently wound it around those ancient clasped hands and kissed them, wiping tears away with her braid. Katura saw the glint of the metal, saw the heaving sobs trying to escape, saw her turn and face her with the pain of love. Katura’s doubts on love and the Almighty began to die, burning off like spring fog on a Kentucky mountain. The problem was not that love didn’t last. The problem was… that it did. To her astonishment she saw a reflection of herself in the eyes of the old woman. And then, the woman looked her in the eyes and spoke: “Show me your heart.”