Starlings and Minnows

It is starling season again. Not my favorite birds as individuals or, come to think of it, when roosting, but I love them in flight. They whirl and swirl and it is like the wind made visible. Feathers, leaves, wind in the oat grass like wavelets on streams. Like minnows flashing black and silver as they weave and turn and turn back on themselves.
I learned to swim in a creek not far from my grandmother’s house in Dickson County. Yellow Creek at the time was crystal clear and icy cold, and the place we swam was just deep enough for diving on one side. The other side was a limestone shelf. That’s where we would drag ourselves out, blue and wrinkled, to thaw and bake until we were ready to go back in and start over again. There was a bridge there. When no one was swimming, you could sit up there, high above the water and watch the minnows.


The end supposes the beginning. The dog wags the tail or the tail wags the dog. There was a trail down the hollow when I was a little girl, but the trail went under the barbed wire fence that was rusted so badly it was about to fall apart and sagging so low that even a little girl could wind up with snagged pants if she tried to slip underneath it. I know, because I did try, and lost it in the end. It is hard to extricate oneself from barbed wire when all alone in a ditch. I wondered what would have happened. Could I wind up stuck there forever? Would snakes come and tickle my ankles. Would spiders build webs in my hair? Would the birds laugh at my problem? Would the squirrels swear at my being in their back yard? Would the foxes come at night and bark at me.

The foxes in the hills around my grandmother’s did bark. I heard them before, in the nights when I crawled out of my nest of four quilts, so heavy I could hardly breathe beneath them, much less move, having to pee, hating the little chamber pot under the bed because it was so easy to miss. I would pad barefoot out of the cold front bedroom through the living room where my grandmother slept in her rocker beside the banked stove. She could not sleep lying down; asthma, she said. Open the door, open the screen, creaking but quiet, onto the smooth concrete front porch.

Outside the smell of hickory woodsmoke filled the air. The air was still and frigid, cracking. There was no sound nearby, no birds, the dogs all in their house curled in a warm ball together, the chickens in their coop all puffed (no baby chicks yet beneath light bulbs, in a month or two the mail order peepers will come). No one about but me and the moon, making hard shadows, and off in the distance up the hill past the hollow with the tiny creek and the barbed wire, the foxes, not like dogs at all, calling out the cold night. Then I went to the moon, shaking scared of the foxes and chilled and pulled down my pants to pee steam off the edge of the porch.


Sunday, September 04, 2005
Labor Day Weekend–Dickson, Tennessee

There are some times more than others when I miss family. Labor Day weekend is one. Funny that it’s not the Forth. They were both big Yates family get-together days, probably still are, just I haven’t been to anything since Daddy died. I got asked to Uncle Tom and Aunt Dot’s anniversary a few years back but I was in one of my intend-well, do nothing modes and not only didn’t do the gift thing I had planned, I didn’t even RSVP when I realized there was no way I could manage it all. I know why I am all family fractured. Don’t know why Glenn doesn’t keep up with anybody but Aunt Harriet.

Still, I miss them all now, or maybe miss the people we used to be.

We would run around acting crazy and generally making nuisances of ourselves. We’d chase each other around and over the loose hay and baled in the barn loft and sit there with daring, dangling our feet out the wide loft window. There were tadpoles in the pond to catch and kittens to scratch the daylights out of us when we tried. Green persimmons were for shoving onto the end of sticks and flinging as far as we could.

After we ate, in the long afternoon’s heat, there was Yellow Creek to go to. Clear as pale green glass, sparkling with minnows, and fed by springs said to be 52 degrees the year round. I couldn’t swear to the temperature, only know that the first dip in would take your breath and there wasn’t anyone, man, woman or child who didn’t have to climb, blue-lipped and shivering, out onto the rock to thaw in the hot sun. And repeat until exhaustion made us cross and we were hauled back up to the house to shuck out of wet bathing suits in the hot, tin-roofed attic with its blue-black dirt daubers. We would collapse up there. I could still feel the movement of the water around me in my sleep.

My Grandparents. I’m not sure of the date, but believe the building behind them was the “old house”. When my father and his brothers came back from WWII, they built them a new one. James and Mary. To me they were Mamaw and Papaw Yates, and if he looks less than cheerful to you, that’s the only way I ever saw him. By the time I was old enough to notice, he rarely spoke, ate little more than cornbread soaked in buttermilk, and had violent spells. Truth to tell, no one seemed heartbroken when he passed, least of all my grandmother, who had been putting up with it for too long.
My grandmother was very short and round with thin hair she never cut
yates-cake-sm.jpg because “hair is woman’s crown and glory”. She always said she was Dutch, but even excluding the wars with the Deutsch folk, there is a lot of variation among the people labeled Dutch. She worked. Hard. Liked to read when she could. There were always farm magazines around, and Reader’s Digests and the Digest joke books, but she stashed novels in her little bedroom off the back porch. Named her two daughters Carmen and Harriet Arlena Maria. She milked by hand, churned, cooked on a wood stove, drew all her water from a well in the front yard, gardened and canned, raised and killed and plucked her own chickens, and would make a special jam cake for me in a little heart-shaped pan–no icing. The cake in her lap is probably coconut.

Uncle Will, Wilburn, was a batchelor, which was a shame because he was better with kids than any of his brothers (and among them they had plenty). He took care of the farm for my grandparents. He had hound dogs: fox hounds and coon hounds, and he and his neighbors went out on clear fall nights and listened to the dogs run. They’d have a fire and tell lies and (I have reason to suspect) pass around a Mason jar. The only thing I knew him to bring back from one of those evenings was a fox kit in a burlap sack. He brought it into the living room and tipped it out onto the floor. It was small and scared and I wanted to make a pet of it. Uncle Will used his pen knife to cut a chew of tobacco off a plug and with the same knife whittled bits of twig to fit in spools for me to use as twirling tops or dolls. He died after he got caught in the rain riding my mare Gypsy to McEwen to be bred, and my grandmother blamed the horse, not being the sort to blame the child. During his wake the men sat out all night in folding chairs in the front yard and the women in the front room. It was all a quiet buzz. Upstairs, I couldn’t sleep. I’d look out the front window and watch the cigarettes flare and burn, go out, and start up again.