A view of the Ozarks seen through the eyes of those who lived the hardships told by the author who returned to her home after years of wandering elsewhere.
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...in April of 1972 I returned to the Ozarks for good. I recall a hint of promise in the brightness of the spring day that caused me to wonder about my growing intangible feelings. Too long I'd been away, and one of the first things I did was drive to my ancestral home, the place of my birth. No matter that the log home was long ago shoved over a bluff to make way for yet another lake to store more water for city folk living farther south. The place remained a symbol that reminded me that I was still a part of this land.
On that lovely day thirty years ago I drove south fom my new home in Winslow. Though Highway 71 had changed a lot, I had no trouble at all recognizing Old Creek Road. Back in the early days it was rutted and narrow and meandered through the remote hollow where more than a dozen families lived. I turned off with some reluctance. This would be hard, for what I had always known was gone...
I saw the great gnarly cedar that lived in the back yard of my childhood home. Scattered at its feet were masses of jonquils nearly finished blooming for another spring. Beneath the cedar once grew a climbing rose, red as blood when itr bloomed. Moving the tiny grave it marked must have killed the rose.
From the Forward of this book:
Come with me as I visit with the dwellers of these ancient Ozarks. We will share the adventures of their forefathers, many of whom settled the land before the Indian finished leaving footprints in the soil. The people you will meet are all real, they exicsted or exist, but sometimes memory and images become entangled with a touch of fantasy so that we may be left wondering whith is which.
Excerpted from WANDERING IN THE SHADOWS OF TIME: AN OZARKS ODYSSEY
There*s Gonna Be A Birthday
Occasionally I*m invited to birthday parties for people I don*t know. That is the case with Retta Neville of Brentwood. It*s October and she will soon celebrate her ninetieth birthday with two separate parties. One, in the Seventh Day Adventist Church of which she*s a lifetime member. The other, at the Winslow Community Cannery where hot meals are served daily as part of a nutritional program for the elderly.
When I learn that Retta lives in the home built by her father, Charles Talley, in 1888, I decide to visit her there before her parties. We will talk; explore the past. The family, while pleased to allow this, insists a niece be present during the visit. Often this is disruptive, for folks do like to tell their own version of family stories, but I agree.
The old log cabin home is situated along a mountain ridge on a one-hundred-sixty acre homestead, near the community of Oak Grove west of Brentwood. I arrive after fording a creek or two, but the trip itself is short. There*s a yard fence and a gate. This year*s crop of black walnuts lie in nests of thick, green grass under a gnarly tree. They are so numerous that I have to watch my step approaching a screened-in porch where the cousin waits, shouting, “Be careful of the walnuts.” Their sharp musty odor trails along with me.
The cheerful woman reminds me that she knows my mother and would*ve known me, anywhere. I*m used to that, and smile a thank you. How often I*ve heard about those beautiful redheaded Smith girls, of which my mother was the eldest. At 80, she is still beautiful.*
The main part of the cabin is square, like a box, and built of chinked, hand-hewn logs. An addition is board-sided, and the whole place rests on intermittent piles of rock. The screened-in back porch is a recent addition.
Retta sits in a rocking chair in the corner of the main room. Behind her, a bed fills one corner, and to my right, is a large, dark, old upright piano. I*m slightly disappointed to see paneling over the logs on the inside walls, and the rock fireplace blocked off by a propane heater.
I guess I actually wanted to step inside and into the world of the l8OOs when the Talleys first came to this wilderness. Through a doorway, I do catch a glimpse of a cast iron cook stove, and recognize immediately that it is wood-fueled. I feel vindicated a bit. Throughout these Ozark hills are men and women who believe food isn*t worth eating if it*s not cooked on a wood stove, and it*s not at all unusual to find folks heating with wood. It*s part of a colorful past some just won*t let go, for a variety of reasons.
Retta tells me how it began for her people: “It was all a rock pile up here and we didn*t have a whole lot, but we never starved. Poppa raised crops and worked in the timber.
Her mother Elizabeth had ten children, but then her Poppa, Charles, died when Retta was only eight. “There wasn*t any help for widows then, no aid or anything, but we got along anyway. Momma had a $12 a month pension from Poppa serving in the Civil War.”Retta tells a wonderful story about how the family ended up in Arkansas. It seems Charles served in the Union Army and he and his first wife had four children. Later, he married nineteen-year-old Elizabeth, and decided to take her to Texas. They traveled by covered wagon, and Elizabeth became the victim of congestive chills. She told Charles that even if she had to pack her stuff up in a hanky and walk out, she was leaving Texas.Charles had no intention of seeing the mother of his children hike out of his life, so he loaded up his family once again and this time, headed for the wilds of the Ozarks.
Retta shows me some pictures, and her niece helps her out with identification of some of the faded images. For a while they argue gently over dates and who died when, even have a brief set-to over how long Retta was married.
I remark about the piano, and the yellowing pages of sheet music with their ancient illustrations of bow-bedecked ladies and top hatted gentlemen.
“I learned to play in exchange for helping a woman make rag rugs, Retta tells me softly, massaging knotty fingers. But I don*t play anymore--I can*t see the music too good.*
It seems the Talley family was quite musical. ‘When we would gather it always meant music,” says Rena. ‘Uncles would come from Oklahoma and bring their banjos, two of my brothers played the violin, and we girls would sing till we couldn*t sing no more.
“We had party lines, you know, and these old crank phones. When we*d have musicals we*d turn the crank and everyone would pick up and leave their phone off the hook so they could listen.”
She rocks her chair a little faster, setting up a beat in the nodding of her head and the tapping of palms on the wooden arms.
For an instant, I hear what she hears: The plucking of strings, the clear tones of childish voices raised in song, the rhythmic thunk of shabby work boots on the pineboard floors. It must have been glorious, those rare times when back-breaking toil could be forgotten for a few hours. I wonder what else there was to do back in those days--besides haul rock and split wood, till the soil, tote water, scrub clothes on a rub board, and bear children.
Retta slows the movement of the chair. Wrinkled skin puckers around her eyes and mouth while she studies on my question. “Oh, the boys could go to dances, but we girls weren*t allowed to.”
Some girls must have gone, though. I can*t imagine the boys dancing with each other. What separated the classes that dictated what was allowed and what wasn*t? Perhaps religion. Each denomination had their own set of rules, I suppose. The Talleys must have been a very proper family, thus the distinction. The Talley girls did not attend public dances but the boys did.
Her firm voice interrupts my rumination. “We girls went to singings and church doin*s and there were the literaries.”
A term I*ve never heard used in that way. Literaries?
“Oh, yes,” Retta says, beaming with memories. ‘Anyone could get up a literary. You just entertained with little short plays, dialogttes, poetry, songs. I remember one of the dialogues my sister Hazel was in was called ‘Love and Lather.* Sometimes we would practice all week for a presentation. We had them at the Oak Grove Community Building.”
Retta tells me she didn*t marry until she was forty-two. “I stayed home to take care of Momma. We had a little Branch Sabbath School here in our house, and that*s where I met Orba. He came down from Missouri, and three weeks later we were married. I*d been asked before, but mostly by men who*d already been married. I liked Orba cause he was young and had never been married. And when I told him I would not leave Momma, why we just got married and he moved right in so I could take care of her until the poor soul passed on.”
Orba died six years ago, and now Retta** lives alone in a house overflowing with more than a hundred years of warmth and love. People help out. The family comes in, a visiting nurse stops by. Still, Retta is content to dwell in the company of the spirits of a young, boisterous, and weel-loved family. Perhaps she experiences over and over all those simple good times that have kept a twinkle in her eye and music in her heart.
Author’s Note: *My mother passed away four years later, in 1996.
** Retta, known to everyone as Retty, lived to celebrate her 96th birthday, a celebration which regretfully I was unable to attend. She died in the home she loved so well, with all her memories gathered round her like a soothing patchwork quilt.
Excerpt from: WANDERING IN THE SHADOWS OF TIME: AN OZARKS ODYSSEY
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