memorable men

My father was the oldest of five brothers. The youngest, Eddie, was my own age. Every year we made the eight-hour trip from the city up into the mountains of Kentucky to visit, and I was once again immersed in the wonderful and utterly foreign culture that was the life of a rural family with five boys.

The boys were established professionals – far better than my little sister and I – at teasing and fighting with each other. I can remember Eddie flying in a rage at John, who was older by five or six years, and John holding him comfortably at arms length and laughing, while Eddie tried in vain to land a punch. “You call that a fist?” John taunted, “Looks like a little wad of baloney on a string!”

Rarely, the boys teased me. Only once do I remember a little sing-song rhyme that Mike, the next-to-the-oldest (but the gentlest by far) made up: “I saw Lee-saw, sittin’ on a see-saw,” he sang relentlessly. For reasons no longer fathomable, I pretended to resent this rhyme, and my furious reaction only made them all smile broadly and continue the chant. I think I enjoyed my show of pique; somehow it made me one of their tribe.

Once I took the bus with Eddie and John to Bald Knob school. On the bus there were whispers and sidewise looks once we three boarded. “What are they saying?” I asked John anxiously. “They’re calling you a city slicker,” he solemnly whispered back, seeming in no way to take part. I slid closer to him on the seat, feeling protected.

In the large, warm kitchen of the big farmhouse was a sizeable round wooden table, and six old-fashioned “ice cream chairs” (so called because of their popularity in ice cream parlors). The chairs were painted metal with heavy, heart-shaped, coiled-wire backs. For many years there was also a high wooden chair. At some point it must have had a tray for feeding a baby, but I don’t ever recall seeing the tray. Eddie always sat in the high wooden chair unless I was visiting, in which case I commandeered the coveted perch. How like a princess I felt in that chair, commanding the first of the hot biscuits and all the choicest morsels from the table!

One time we were down to breakfast and I asked my grandpa – whom I patently adored and shamelessly cultivated – if I could get him anything. He surveyed the loaded table, and finally allowed that a piece of toast with his biscuits, eggs, ham, gravy, and fried apples would be the most wonderful thing in the world. I immediately put some in the oven for him, and promptly forgot about it. When the smoke and stench brought me suddenly to my senses, I shrieked and ran to snatch the newly-blackened square of charcoal from the oven. I was crushed, and great tears welled in my eyes. In defeat, I carried the toast carefully in oven mitts to the garbage. Grandpa rushed to stop me. “Oh no, Honey,” he protested, “don’t throw that away. That’s just how I like it.” And with the generous assistance of the homemade preserves, he proceeded to eat every bite, and murmur at my toast’s perfection.

My little cousin Mark had a birthday party at the farm when he was about four years old. I remember all of us gathered on the broad front porch with Mark sitting happily on Grandpa’s lap and marveling over his brand-new fishing pole. Grandpa explained how it worked, and encouraged Mark to try a few casts off the porch, aiming for a spot just past the big bushes in the yard. Little Mark made several casts, as Grandpa talked to him about how it would feel to catch something. Suddenly the line found resistance, a little tug or two, and Mark nearly lost his mind with excitement. “Gently, gently,” Grandpa coached as he helped Mark reel in his catch. It was a brand new pocketknife. I never learned which of my uncles had spent the party crouched in the bushes, waiting.

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