One selection from a memoir, Wild Irish Ties.
Believing for Spring
I’ll never forget the winter of 1971. Glee club tryouts had been postponed for the third time because snow had cancelled school for over a week, we were almost out of firewood, and the cold wind was relentless. Every winter, we moved the living room furniture into the kitchen closer to the fireplace and the stove. After hanging blankets on the doors, we snuggled under Nonie’s quilts. I loved those quilts because they reminded me of Nonie and how much she had embraced prayer. I remember sitting under her quilting frame. The more fervent her prayer, the more passionate her stitching had become, so it was a blessing to have the “prayer quilts” as she called them, with us, now, even if she couldn’t be with us.
At night, the fire would glow and cinders would pop out onto the hearth. While everyone watched the flames, I watched Mama. Every night, without fail, she’d sit at the kitchen table and read passages from the Bible: She would say: “If we have faith as a grain of mustard seed, we can move mountains, you know. Don’t fret none, ‘cause God will provide. He is our shepherd, we shall not want, it says right here in Psalm 23.” I often wondered how she could be so positive that God would take care of us, because all she had to do was look around and see that we were falling into a deep pit. It didn’t seem like God remembered us, or that he wanted what was best for us; nevertheless, Mama, always trusted God to make a way.
With the help of Mr. Johnson, our landlord, the Lord did provide us with all the fallen limbs that we could gather from his pine grove that grew dense beyond the cornfield. There was only one problem. In order to get the wood, we had to drag our wagon through the mud. Our wagon groaned under the heavy burden of firewood. Mom wasn’t physically able to walk through the fields, so she waited in the yard to chop the limbs into smaller pieces. Each journey down the corn rows required dogged determination, but we were cold and that settled it–we gathered every stray twig that we could find.
We tied army blankets to left over tobacco sticks, and fashioned a harness from worn belts so that we could carry the load on our backs. That solved the problem of weight on the wagon wheels, but after a few days of being human beasts of burden, our backs ached from the constant assault, and the limbs became scarce. When Daddy hauled a load of sawdust and scrap wood from work, and unloaded it near the back porch, we were in heaven. All we had to do, was pick through the wood. It didn’t last. The pile grew smaller, and my greatest fear was the weather forecast that said we’d have yet another snowstorm. It was only a matter of time before there wouldn’t be anything else left to sacrifice but the quilts, but for now, we still had old clothes to burn. In spite of the cold, burning clothes required opened doors. By the end of February, every available item was ashes in the fireplace, and we were still cold. Being a mature teenager, I offered my tire swing and rope to burn. At first, daddy hesitated, but he later consented when his glass of water turned to ice after he left it on the counter for a while. “If construction workers can burn tires in big barrels to keep warm, why can’t we burn tires in the fireplace?” he reasoned. After taking a lingering swig of whiskey, daddy retrieved the tire swing, broke up the ice, and stopped long enough to compose himself, fighting back his tears and the icy winds.
The tire swing stuck out on the hearth about a crescent moon, and its rope twisted as the flames touched the frayed ends. The boiling glob of rubber bellowed up the chimney. We sprayed water on the treads to keep the flames down, and the stench of smoldering rubber bubbled and blopped puffs of black smoke and flames that scorched the paint underneath the mantle. We were all grateful that we hadn’t lost the mantle to the tire, and for a while we forgot all about being cold.
Mama asked Daddy, “Dan, what are you doing?”
“I’m gettin’ somethin’ to burn, I’m cold!”
“There’s nothing left to burn but sheets and wearing clothes.”
“Well, that’s somethin’. I’m cold.”
Mama knew that if Daddy got his mind off of being cold, he might go to sleep.
“Dan, why don’t you come to bed, we’ll save what’s left to burn for in the morning.”
“Got some thinkin’ to do yet.”
Daddy found a ragged shirt on the couch and put it on the cinders; it flamed up for a short time then quickly died down again. “Got to get some wood.”
“Maybe it will dry up a little by tomorrow so we can get through the field,” Mom offered, trying to ease his mind. Reluctantly, mama told us that it was time for bed. We did have a big day at school. She looked at Daddy and said, “Try not to stay up too late.” I saw Mama’s concerned look. She was a beautiful woman, but lately the worry lines and gray hair had really become more noticeable.
Daddy slurred “I won’t; I’ll keep the fires goin’.” How could she sleep knowin’ that he could end up burning the house down like he almost did the day before with the tire?
I heard Daddy opening each dresser drawer one by one. He dumped the contents out on the floor. Daddy always said two sets of clothes was all we needed anyway–one set for washing, and one set for wearing. It was late when I finally dozed off to sleep.
The next morning, the weather had cleared enough so we could go to school, and it was also the day for Glee Club tryouts. I was confident that if I felt good about myself, it would help me to sing better, so with some of money that I made working last summer, I had bought a new poor-boy jumper and saved it for this special occasion. It was time to get ready. Things don’t always turn out as we plan, but I still remember the sick feeling in my stomach, when I looked into my bare closet, that day. “Where is it?” I could feel my heart beating in my throat as panic washed over me. Every closet I searched gave me the same results. I didn’t want to know, but when I saw Mama’s eyes, I knew. They were puffy and red, as if she had been crying all night.
“Daddy was cold, and he burned some old clothes. I’m so sorry, but he threw it into the fire before I could stop him. I’m sorry.”
I felt lost, as if some mere piece of cloth could have solved all the world’s problems, and now, it was gone. Nothing that I could do or say would change the sorrow that I felt, but I was used to disappointment, and I didn’t know why I expected today to be any different from all of the other days that left me abandoned emotionally. All I could do was stand in front of the fireplace and stare into it, as if staring into it might miraculously change the past. I was mesmerized with the fire all through breakfast, and nothing was left in it but embers—slowly smoldering embers that seemed to keep holding on to vibrant life. In that moment, I had an epiphany: nothing has any true value, because in an instant it can become ashes in a fireplace and be lost forever. Showing any display of open disappointment, would serve no other purpose than to hurt my mother, who already felt bad enough over the situation. Besides, it wouldn’t bring back the beloved poor-boy. I helped Mama clear the table.
“Mama, it was brand new.”
She took my hand and said, “I know sweetheart, I know.”
Soot covered the yellow wall of our kitchen, and mom sat down one last time at the wobbly kitchen table to read. She found the verse, John 3:16, which says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” “We believe,” mama said, and with a heavy sigh, she started to unscrew the table legs, and knew what to burn next.
I had a choice, to wallow in defeat or to get up and do my best to keep moving forward. I was reminded of the scripture that says, “All things work together for the good to them who are the called according to his purpose.” All things, even the loss of a dear poor-boy jumper, could work for my good. God is still on the throne, and all I really needed to do was follow his plan for my life. When I came home that day, I was part of the Glee Club. It was a monumental victory for me, and I was able to purchase the navy blue skirt and white blouse required to participate.
I am constantly reminded of how faithful God is to us, when I watched my mother make the best out of difficult circumstances. Were we poor? No, a thousand times, no, not by God’s standards. What we lacked in the physical world around us, God provided in the love that went into each stitch of a quilt, or the hands that prepared a pot of beans for our evening meal.
If our electricity was shut off, we made shadow rabbits on the ceiling and wall. If too much snow caused us to grow weary, we would make snow creme. But my favorite memories are the times that we were together as a family. Even Daddy could bring laughter into our lives, when he wasn’t drinking moonshine. I am a better person, today, because I know that my only hope is in Jesus Christ, and nothing will ever separate me from his love.