The girls and I watched the ball roll to a stop against the trunk of a tall shady crepe myrtle.
As kids, we were mesmerized by most anything. Seconds earlier, from the bottom step of the back porch, one of my sisters had given our well-worn kickball a final punt towards the shrub before we ran inside to wash up for supper.
From somewhere we heard Mama’s voice. “Don’t leave that ball laying out there in the yard.”
We pretended not to hear. Our game wasn’t over. It could restart at a moment’s notice and we must be prepared! Put away a bike yes, a skateboard maybe, a kickball never. Unwritten rule.
My sisters and I, along with various cousins, played together in our backyard constantly. Most any time we could be found in the throes of Hide and Seek or Simon Says, but our pick-up kickball games made memories. Some of the best lasted from just after supper to just before lightning bugs. It was a fun, exciting, laugh-filled summer routine we knew would never end.
But it did.
Somewhere along the way, kickball took a backseat to other activities. Maybe a cousin “got too big” for it. Maybe summer vacations took up more time. Or maybe it was a childhood ritual that had simply served its purpose teaching us how to follow rules, be good sports, and recognize the value of family fun. While it lasted, it was our world. Surely, none of us realized the last time we played would be the last time we’d play.
But it was.
My sisters and I, cousins too, eventually moved on and away, but stories of kickball glories resurfaced whenever we regathered at Mama’s. We’d laugh over who was the best kicker, fastest runner, or loudest screamer. Mama would roll her eyes and remember we always made such a terrible racket. We reminded her she must have enjoyed it since she always watched from the kitchen. She’d grin and say she was just making sure somebody put away the ball. We liked Mama watching us. We knew she always would.
But she won’t.
Mama passed away last month. After the funeral and on my way back out of town, I rode by our old house. It had been sold months prior just after my mother moved in with one of my sisters. She wasn’t thrilled to leave the home she’d been in for sixty years, but she was happy knowing the new owners were a couple with children. Young children who would enjoy the yard the way we had.
I thought about that as I eased slowly up the driveway like a stranger. The same old driveway I’d pulled into my entire life, but now it wasn’t Mama’s. I sat behind the wheel and stared first at the house, then out across the yard where so many memories were made.
Images flashed before me of games we played, laughs we had, and suppers we bolted down so we could get back outside for more. While in thought, from the corner of my eye I noticed movement in the direction of the back porch. Two little girls stood on the bottom step, mesmerized by something they saw in the yard. I leaned forward on the steering wheel to see.
From somewhere I heard Mama’s voice. “Don’t leave that ball laying out there in the yard.”
The girls and I watched the ball roll to a stop against the stump of a long gone crepe myrtle.
There it was, covered in salty spray from the waves of the Chesapeake Bay. A tiny pine tree so fragile and insubstantial, enveloped by a formidable mass of vines and branches. It was nothing, dominated by everything.
Just that day the sprout pushed upwards through leaf litter. Its tiny taproot pushed down into sandy loam, gripping rocks as it sought firmer soil. For the next few decades or so the growing pine fought to stake a claim in the thick tangle, finally reaching an opening where it held its own. On that craggy bit of land where forest met beach, the struggling pine withstood seasons of hot, cold, drought, and flood.
Soon enough it merged with the surrounding thicket to become just another part of that coastal snarl of growth. Day after day, year after year, the pine held on in the bad and grew in the good. Raucous seagulls and breezes through needles were the only sounds it knew.
Until the chainsaw.
It was likely my grandfather, chainsaw in hand, who first pushed his way into dense undergrowth there on the edge of the bay. In the late 1950s, his purchase of a beachfront lot covered in gums, pines, and briary vines was one he was proud of despite its wildness. Surely it took a lot of hard work and hope to get through that first summer of clearing. Eventually he, along with my grandmother and extended family, managed to clear the land and build a summer cottage.
Who can know the decision making employed as they chose which trees to leave, but when all was said and done a handful remained on the mostly cleared plot. Somehow, through chainsaw, truck, and tractor, that scrawny pine at the edge of the beach was left among the standing. Ripped clean of brambles and surrounding scrub, it now stood alone in the open. Watching all.
In those early years the pine watched my grandfather bait hooks. So near the beach, its scant shade probably served as a reasonable place to clean fish. Being a useless pine, it might have been a good place to prop old oars or temporarily tie a small boat. As my grandfather stacked crab pots against its trunk maybe my grandmother handed him the lunch she made, even squinting one eye as she looked up to watch the pine’s boughs wave in the bay breeze.
Taller and a thicker with time, the pine blocked scorching sun from a deck built by the beach. My grandparents sat nonchalantly swatting mosquitoes as their grown children, and by then a few grandchildren, enjoyed the calm bay water. The shading pine watched over splashing cousins as more than one looked up in time to watch an osprey land among its cone laden branches.
But seasons change and later that winter, like every one before, the pine held on through months of biting cold. Blasted by frozen mist and bitter wind, it waited for us. We were oblivious. Last summer was just a memory and next summer was just a dream, so no one thought about the solitary pine. With needles covered in ice and roots holding against squalls, the tree endured the cold.
But summers reappear, and in the warmth, the pine watched familiar faces return. For over sixty years it has witnessed the customs of our extended family as we parade beneath. Many have come and gone, but in their time each walked, sat, or laughed beneath that tree. It has shaded in summer and waited in winter. It has watched old faces no longer return, young faces become older, and little faces join the traditions.
Amidst years of transformations that tree has remained a constant. The people, the surroundings, and the cottage itself have changed. The pine is the same. For years we watched ospreys in its branches and wind in its boughs. We have always watched the pine. Or has it always watched us?
When I last visited the bay it crossed my mind that the pine may not always be there. What if it had already fallen? I parked the car and almost ran past the cottage to look towards the beach. No need to have worried.
There it was, covered in salty spray from the waves of the Chesapeake Bay. A towering pine tree so robust and sturdy, enveloped by blue skies and balmy breezes. It was everything, dominated by nothing.
This is a repost of a piece from a few years ago. I don’t know what it is that causes someone to be on your mind several times throughout several days, but she’s been on mine quite a bit lately. I wanted her to be on yours too.
Signaling us to quiet down, my ninth grade English teacher rapped a pencil against the top of her desk. She then gave us our next assignment. We were to write a paper about someone we respected. Someone influential to our thinking and whose character we admired. The paper was due the next week and should be three pages long.
She rapped the pencil several more times to silence the groans.
We had the rest of class time to discuss the assignment and choose who we would write about. After deciding, we were to write our choices on the blackboard. Since the person could be anyone, from any point in time, many chose religious, historical, or political figures. After the last student went to the blackboard, the teacher read all of the choices aloud.
She went slowly down the list reading off names of famous figures like George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, and Neil Armstrong. She paused when she got to my chalk-written choice.
“Margaret Nelson Perkins Lankey?” she frowned and turned to the class, puzzled.
I raised my hand. “That’s Noody.” I said. “She’s my aunt.”
I was never sure why we called her Noody. It didn’t matter. I come from a large family and almost everyone had a nickname. That’s how it was done. Extended family lived all around me but I was lucky having Noody right next door. She and my uncle were as much a part of everyday life as my parents and sisters.
Noody had an old picnic table under her tree where she did everything from shelling butter beans to cleaning fish to cutting watermelon. When I saw her sitting there I’d walk over to visit. If she said “Let’s go sit in the swing.” I knew I was in for a treat. I loved hearing old family stories and she loved telling them. She taught me to remember where I came from while never forgetting where I wanted to go.
She could drive a pickup, haul firewood, or cut grass all while holding a handful of cookies to snack on. Once, using a hoe, Noody cornered a snake near her shed. Feeling she was perfectly lined up for a quick decapitation, she raised the hoe over her head and came down full force. She missed, leaving a hole in the ground so deep it took a shovel-full of dirt to fill it. She giggled. Do your best and if it doesn’t go as you hoped, laugh it off.
Many snowy winters we cousins took sleds to a nearby hill and Noody would come along for the fun. She took us roller skating on occasion, showing us up by strapping on skates and heading into the rink like a pro. At the family place on the Chesapeake Bay, while other adults sat in the shade, Noody joined us kids in the water. She taught me how to float on my back, and that working hard may be necessary, but playing hard is just as important.
I once stayed with out of town relatives for some summer fun. When I returned home I met Noody in the swing to tell her about it. She asked if I sent them a “bread and butter note”. I told her no but didn’t tell her I had no idea what one was. She went inside and brought back some of her stationery. There at the picnic table she helped me write a proper thank you note. She taught me that and many other lessons over the years.
Not just a mentor, she was also an ally. Before my thirteenth birthday I saw an ad in a magazine for a tiny incubator and six quail eggs. Mama, not thrilled to add to the animals I already had, gave an instant “No”. Logically, I went to see Noody. I told her I wanted to try hatching eggs. Noody read the ad, put her hand on her hip and said, “Run bring me my checkbook.” With help from Noody, my uncle built an enclosure and the quail I hatched were part of my life for the next few years. She always told me if you want something bad enough, you can find a way.
Many of my relatives are buried at the church near home. The same church most of my extended family attended, and many still do. When my kids were younger I took them for a walk around the cemetery there. As they read a name from each of the family tombstones I would say, “That’s your great grandfather.” or “That’s your great grandmother.” or “That’s your great uncle.” From a spot a little further down than some of the older tombstones, my daughter read a name.
“Margaret Nelson Perkins Lankey?” she called out.
“That’s Noody.” I said.
When I heard her name I remembered the years of good times with my fine aunt. I also remembered what my ninth grade teacher wrote in the upper right hand corner of my paper.
“No, let’s just leave it in there for now.” Mama said over her shoulder as she washed a plate and arranged it with others in the rack.
I was just a kid, so didn’t ask why I couldn’t have it. I dropped the rusty key back into the drawer and watched it disappear between a crushed matchbook and a small ball of frayed string.
When I was little, the drawer by the refrigerator was a forbidden mystery. The clanking sounds made as Mama or Daddy dug around in there were so intriguing. Finally tall enough to open it myself, I spent a few minutes running my hand through the odd assortment of things it contained. If Mama wouldn’t let me have the rusty key, I didn’t dare ask about the torn business card, the bent thumb tack, or the random assortment of colored bread ties. They must really be valuable.
Years passed before I opened the drawer again. Although it was directly beside the refrigerator, which I opened often, the drawer went mostly unnoticed. When I did open it again, I was taller and could peer even further into its mysterious depths. I fished out a cracked cigarette lighter with half a crayon stuck to it, the words “Burnt Umber” still visible on the fragile paper. Tucked behind the microwave’s yellowing owner’s manual was a pair of broken sunglasses. With a questioning look, I held them in the air as Mama came in from the grocery store.
“No, let’s just leave it in there for now.” She maneuvered around me to put milk in the refrigerator.
I looked in the drawer several times over the years, at first to ease my curiosity but later to laugh and wonder how the collection of random items spent decades in that sliding time capsule without becoming trash. I never saw anything missing and rarely saw anything added other than a corroded AAA battery, an occasional rubber band, or the cracked cap of a long-gone ballpoint pen.
I vowed never to have a drawer like that.
Years later in my own home, I hung pictures one afternoon. When done, rather than put away the extra nails, I lazily dropped them into the drawer by my own refrigerator. I giggled when I realized the number of bread ties and shoelaces already taking up space there. Sometime later I lost the key to a small lock. Thinking I’d eventually find it, I put the lock into the drawer for safekeeping. When my daughter’s doll lost a hand, I put it in the drawer along with the tiny tire from one of my son’s toy cars. I knew they’d be safe there with the dried up glue stick and a feather.
As my kids grew older and taller, they discovered my drawer. They caught me off guard the day they asked to play with a broken wristwatch dug from its contents.
“No, let’s just leave it in there for now.” I heard myself say.
I was puzzled by my parents’ junk drawer but more puzzled by my own. Why do we keep odd bits of trash? I had locks with no keys, keys to no locks, and actually struggled one day before throwing away a peppermint I found stuck to a cracked shoehorn.
My kids are grown now and I used to wonder whether they would collect various bits of invaluable debris like the rest of us. I stopped wondering the day I rode in my son’s car. As he drove, I looked in the glove compartment for a napkin. While rifling through crumpled receipts, a lone sock, and several packs of petrified chewing gum, something fell out and hit my leg.
I reached down to pick up the eraser-less end of a broken pencil.
“Well you can definitely throw this away”. I laughed. My son wasn’t laughing, but did have a slight grin as he spoke.
Prompted by friends who insisted others might enjoy my stories from home, I began this blog. Seven years ago now! Below is the very first story I posted. Appropriate because it was this time of year when I began the blog, this time of year when the story occurred, and this particular memory which inspired the name “Storyshucker”. Blogging has been fun, has led to other writing opportunities, and most importantly has shown me how alike we are. You can blindly pick a spot on the globe and know that the people you point to have memories of home, reminisce about the old days, and love to share their stories. You have a story too. Write it down.
Years ago I reminisced with coworkers about past experiences we longed to relive. One said “I want to do Italy again! The sights and sounds!” Another said “I want to do Paris again! The shopping!” When asked what summertime excitement I wanted to have again I whispered, “I want to do corn…”
Nannie, my grandmother, had acres of garden which were summer’s focus for our huge extended family. We anticipated nothing more than corn. Excitement began the day Daddy hooked the planter to the tractor, dropping seed kernels into the many long rows. Weeks later, we pulled suckers in the hot cornfield.
“Straighten up the stalks as you go.” Daddy said, wiping his face with a handkerchief.
As weeks passed, Nannie checked the developing ears by pulling back shucks just enough to stick a fingernail into a single kernel. Others leaned in to monitor her testing…
“If we’d get some rain it would go on and make.” Mama predicted.
“You could get enough for supper now.” Aunt Noody insisted.
More weeks passed and as the entire field neared “readiness” everyone waited for word from Nannie. On pins and needles we kids anticipated an exciting proclamation, but in true Nannie-style she only casually posed the question. “Y’all want to do corn Tuesday?”
Tuesday morning aunts started early “before it got hot”. Yawning cousins gathered by the barn with lawn chairs, buckets, tubs, and knives. Out in the field we saw tops of cornstalks jerk and heard the distant “sca-runch!” of an ear being pulled.
“Lord, it’s snaky in here.” Aunt Helen declared. “Sca-runch!” we heard again.
One by one, aunts emerged from the cornfield pushing heaping-full wheelbarrows. They made it to the shade of the ancient oak by the barn, wiped sweaty faces, and sat in chairs arranged around bushel baskets to hold the shucks. Shucking style was important and if we cousins didn’t get all the silks off “we just as well not shuck”. Wormy ears were passed to experienced aunts who flicked away the wriggling offenders and cut off damaged kernels with surgical precision. As each tub filled with shucked corn, a younger cousin ran it up to Nannie’s house to be blanched in huge pots of boiling water on her old stove.
Nannie hummed hymns as she took steaming ears of corn from the pots and plopped them into ice water in her old ceramic kitchen sink. Older cousins stood at her counter and cut corn from the cobs.
Aunt Dessie asked “How many pints y’all reckon we’ll get?” as cousins packed corn into freezer cartons.
“I’ve still got some from last year so don’t count out any for me.” Aunt Jenny demanded.
We snuck mouthfuls of corn as we cut it from the cobs, but we didn’t need to. Nannie always saved out “pretty” ears for lunch. We ate on her huge porch, leaning over plates, butter dripping from chins. After lunch we did more corn until Nannie announced “It’s just too hot.”
The steamy kitchen was cleaned, sticky hands washed, and freezer cartons full of corn were divided up. Mama and the aunts stacked the filled cartons onto trays and we all walked home across the field to put them in our freezers. We had done corn.
My coworkers’ favorite summer memories may be of Paris and Italy where shopping, sights, and sounds made them happy, but not mine. A hot summer day with sticky hands and a chin covered in dripping butter is what I long for again.
I don’t need to visit foreign places to hear the sounds I loved. I want to go home and hear Nannie hum, cousins giggle, and a “sca-runch!” in the cornfield. I want to do corn…