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Authors: Bobbie Ann Mason

clear springs

Copyright © 1999 by Bobbie Ann Mason

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

R
ANDOM
H
OUSE
and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc
.

Portions of this work were originally published in
The New Yorker.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Mason, Bobbie Ann
.
Clear Springs : a memoir / Bobbie Ann Mason
.
p.   cm
.
eISBN: 978-0-307-83024-1
1. Mason, Bobbie Ann—Childhood and youth. 2. Women novelists, American—20th century—Family relationships. 3. Kentucky—Social life and customs. 4. Mason, Bobbie Ann—Family. 5. Farm life—Kentucky. 6. Family—Kentucky. I. Title. PS3563.A7877Z77  1999
813′.54—dc21

[B]      98-37173

Random House website address:
www.atrandom.com

v3.1

Preface

My grandmother baked cookies, but she didn’t believe in eating them fresh from the oven. She stored them in her cookie jar for a day or two before she would let me have any. “Wait till they come in order,” Granny would say. The crisp cookies softened in their ceramic cell—their snug humidor—acquiring more flavor, ripening both in texture and in my imagination
.

“Coming in order”—an apt phrase for writing a memoir. My life is coming in order, as memories waft out of that cookie jar. But what is the recipe for those cookies? Who knows? My grandmother is dead, and her knowledge and memories are lost
.

Like many Americans, I long to know the past. There’s a sense of loss in America today, a feeling of disconnectedness. We’re no longer quite sure who we are or how we got here. More and more of us are rummaging in the attic, trying to retrieve our history. We draw genealogical charts and hang old quilts on the wall. We seem to hope that if we can find out our family stories and trace our roots and save the old cookie jars and coal scuttles, we just might rescue ourselves and be made whole
.

I grew up on a small family farm, the kind of place people like to idealize these days. They think the old-fashioned rustic life provided what they are now seeking—independence, stability, authenticity. And we did have those on the farm—along with mind-numbing, back-breaking labor and crippling social isolation. Farm life wasn’t simple. I remember a way of life before
I Love Lucy
and credit cards and Watergate, a time when women churned butter and men plowed the fields with a team of mules and children explored the fields and creek beds. Sometimes I think I can remember the nineteenth century. When I was born in Kentucky, in 1940, farm ways had not changed much since pioneer times. No true cultural up
heaval had hit Clear Springs, the rural community my family came from, since the Civil War. We seemed to live outside of time
.

But World War II hurled us into the twentieth century. After my father came home from the Navy, we got a radio the size of a jukebox, and we started going to drive-in movies. I began dreaming of a rootless way of life, one that would knock me loose from that rock-solid homestead and catapult me into the fluid, musical motions of faraway cities. All three generations of our extended family were challenged simultaneously by news from a fast-moving outside world. My elders had to carry on with their inevitable labors, but seductive promises seemed to whirl in front of my eyes like a fireworks pinwheel. I was mesmerized, churned up by popular songs and Hollywood images that filled me with longing
.

Suddenly it was possible for the newest generation of country people in our region to go to college, travel to Europe, and even choose a life off the farm. (I had a notion to work as a secretary for a record company.) My parents encouraged even my most ill-informed ambitions, for like most Depression-era parents, they wanted their children to have easier lives than they had had; and they wanted us to rise above the shame so many country people felt. The movies and the radio insisted that country people were inferior and backward. “Put your shoes on, Lucy, don’t you know you’re in the city?” There was a fatalism in my parents’ hopes for their children, a fear that we would move on up to some highfalutin place where, cocktails in hand and spouting our book learning, we would look down on them
.

I didn’t want to spend my life canning beans and plucking chickens, so trundling my innocence before me like a shopping cart, I headed for New York—where else?—and got a job on a movie magazine. But I wasn’t a glamour-puss, I hated cocktail parties, and writing celebrity gossip soon palled. I wanted to be a real writer, which I thought meant I had to become a Greenwich Village bohemian. I didn’t know that the postwar portrait of the Village artist was already turning into a caricature. Bob Dylan—Nick Carraway’s country cousin—had arrived in the Village some time before, not as a starry-eyed tourist like me but as a revolutionary messenger from the boondocks. But it was a long time before I understood how Dylan affirmed the very resources I had left behind
.

Confused, unsure of my direction or purpose, I left the city for an upstate New York graduate school. Then the sixties exploded. In one ear I heard the Beatles singing the magic of transcendence, and in the other I heard about my grandmother’s nervous breakdown, apparently caused
by her worry over me—the innocent who had “gone off up North” to the evil big city. I teeter-tottered between two worlds. As I struggled to become sophisticated, my folks and their country culture were always present in the deepest part of my being. Yet I was estranged from them, just as I was a stranger there in the North. I was an exile in both places
.

This book is the story of a family trying to come to terms with profound change. It truly centers on my mother. If she’d had the chance, she might have busted out to the big city years before I dreamed of doing so. Many of the impulses I felt burned in her breast, too. But she remained caught in a household dominated by my cautious, worried, tight-stitched grandmother. To understand what happened to my mother and subsequently to me, I recently began to sort through the scraps of the past, looking for the patterns of our quilted-together lives
.

—B
OBBIE
A
NN
M
ASON
, K
ENTUCKY
, 1998

Contents

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Preface

Map of Clear Springs, 1880

The Mason-Lee Family Tree

Part One • The Family Farm, 1994
Chapter 1
Part Two • Country People
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Part Three • Clearing Out
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Part Four • Clearing
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Part Five • The Pond
Chapter 27

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Other Books by the Author

About the Author

Clear Springs
1880

P
ANTHER
C
REEK
P
RECINCT
P
OP
.: 1,422

M
OST OF
B
OBBIE
A
NN
M
ASON’S NINETEENTH-CENTURY
FOREBEARS SETTLED IN
C
LEAR
S
PRINGS, A FARMING COMMUNITY
IN GRAVES COUNTY,
IN WESTERN
K
ENTUCKY
.

The Masons

T
HE MASON HOMEPLACE IS STILL LOCATED AT THE
SITE OF
J. P. M
ASON’S RESIDENCE (22),
*
ON
P
ANTHER
C
REEK, WHERE HUNGRY PIONEER
P
EYTON
W
ASHAM ATE HIS SEED CORN
.

The Arnetts

B
OB
M
ASON JOURNEYED WEEKLY FROM HIS PARENTS’
HOME
 (T. M. M
ASON, 22
)
TO THE
A
RNETTS
(W. P. A
RNETT, 32
). H
IS HORSE-AND-BUGGY TRIPS
WENT ON FOR THIRTEEN YEARS BEFORE
E
THEL
A
RNETT AGREED TO MARRY HIM
.

The Hickses

I
N
1919, R
OBERT
E. L
EE STOLE
E
UNICE’S HORSE
AND BUGGY AT THE FARM
(
NOT SHOWN,
CENTER OF BLOCK 22
)
WHERE
M
AMMY
H
ICKS
LIVED WITH HER PIG,
P
ET
.

The Less

T
HE
L
EE FAMILY ARRIVED IN THE AREA AFTER 1880, SETTLING
NEAR
D
R
. A. A. H
URT
(
9–10
). T
HE IRISES STILL
BLOOM AT THE ABANDONED
L
EE HOMEPLACE
.

*
T
HE NUMBERS DENOTE THE NUMBERED MAP SECTIONS.

1

It is late spring, and I am pulling pondweed. My mother likes to fish for bream and catfish, and the pondweed is her enemy. Her fishing line gets caught in it, and she says the fish feed on it, ignoring her bait. “That old pondweed will take the place,” Mama says. All my life I’ve heard her issue this dire warning. She says it of willow trees, spiderwort, snakes, and Bermuda grass. “That old Bermudy” won’t leave her flower beds alone.

The pondweed is lovely. If it were up to me, I’d just admire it and let the fish have it. But then, I’m spoiled and lazy and have betrayed my heritage as a farmer’s daughter by leaving the land and going off to see the world. Mama said I always had my nose in a book. I didn’t want to have to labor the way my parents did. But here I am, on a visit, wrestling with pondweed.

I’m working with a metal-toothed rake, with a yellow nylon rope tied to the handle to extend its reach. I stand on the pond bank, my Wal-Mart Wellingtons slopping and sucking mud. I fling the rake as far as I can, catch the pondweed, and then tug it loose. An island of it breaks off and comes floating toward me, snared by the rake. I haul it in and heave it onto the bank. The pondweed is a heavy mass of white, fat tendrils and a black tangle of wiry roots beneath the surface scattering of green leaves. Along with my rakeful of weed comes a treasure of snails, spiders, water striders, crawfish, worms, and insect larvae—a whole ecosystem, as in a tide pool. I haul out as much as I can lift—waterlogged, shiny leaves and masses of tendrils, some of them thick and white like skinned snakes. I rescue a crawfish. It wriggles back into its mud tunnel. As I work, the bank gets clogged with piles of weed. I am making progress. There is an unexpected satisfaction in the full range of athletic motion required for this job. I think
about hard labor and wonder whether some of my fitness-minded friends with their rigid exercise routines could be talked into helping me out.

I’ve seen water lotus covering a lake, smothering it with plate-sized pads. Water lotus are giant lilies—double-story affairs that make gigantic seedpods resembling showerheads. Water lotus are a disaster if what you want is fish. Even without any lotus, this pond has seen disasters before—three fish kills: a fuel spill from the highway, warm-water runoff from a tobacco-warehouse fire, and a flood that washed the fish out into the creek.

In the early eighties, my father hired a backhoe to create the pond so that my mother could go fishing—her favorite pastime. He cut down a black-walnut tree so she could have a view of the pond across the field behind the house.

There used to be blackberries at the site of this quarter-acre pond—banks of berry bushes so enormous that we tunneled through them and made a maze. The blackberries were what we called tame. Back in the forties, my parents planted a dozen bushes to keep the fields from washing into the creek. The blackberries spread along all the borders. The berries were large and luscious, not like the small, seedy wild ones, but we never ate them with cream and sugar—only in pies or jam. Every July we picked berries and Mama sold gallons of them to high-toned ladies in the big fine houses in town. They made jelly. We got twenty-five cents for a quart of berries, a dollar a gallon. It took an hour to pick a gallon, and I could pick up to four gallons in a morning, before the sun got too hot, before I got chiggers implanted in the skin under my waistband. My fingers were full of thorn pricks and stayed purple all summer. The blackberries haven’t disappeared, but they used to be more accessible, less weed-choked. They grew up and down all the creek banks, along the edges of all the fields, along the fencerows, along the lane. My father burned down masses of them before digging the pond.

The pond feeds into Kess Creek, which cuts across this farm—the place where I grew up, and where my mother still lives. The farm is fifty-three acres, cut into six fields, with two houses along the frontage. We are within sight of the railroad, which parallels U.S. Highway 45. We’re on Sunnyside Road, a mile from downtown Mayfield, somewhere between Fancy Farm and Clear Springs, in Graves County. We are in far-western Kentucky, that toe tip of the state shaped by the curve of the great rivers—the Ohio meets the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois, about thirty-five miles northwest of Mayfield. To the east, the Tennessee
and the Cumberland Rivers (now swelled into TVA lakes) run parallel courses. Water forms this twenty-five-hundred-square-mile region into a peninsula. It’s attached to the continent along the border with Tennessee. Historically and temperamentally, it looks to the South.

There aren’t any big cities around, unless you count Paducah (pop. 26,853), twenty-six miles to the north. The farm is typical of this agricultural region. A lane cuts through the middle, from front to back, and two creeks divide it crosswise. The ground is rich, but it washes down the creeks. The creeks are clogged with trash, dumped there to prevent hard rains—gully-washers—from carrying the place away. At one time this was a thriving dairy farm that sustained our growing family. It was home to my paternal grandparents, my parents, my two sisters, my brother, and me. There were at least eleven buildings along the front part of the farm, near the road: two houses, a barn, a stable, a corncrib, a smokehouse, two henhouses, a wash-house, a milk house, an outhouse. I even had a playhouse.

The gravel-and-mud county road ran in front. Sometimes the school bus couldn’t get through the mud. Before the road was paved and fast cars started killing our dogs and cats, we would sit on my grandparents’ porch and say “Who’s that?” whenever anybody passed. My grandparents’ house was a large, one-story building with a high gabled roof—a typical farmhouse. The other house, a small white wood-frame structure that my parents built when I was four, stood on a hill in the woods. When the road was paved, the roadbed was built up, so the house seemed to settle down to the level of the road. We still say the house is on a hill.

The farm is one field to the east of the railroad track that used to connect New Orleans with Chicago. The track runs beside Highway 45, an old U.S. route that unites Chicago with Mobile, Alabama. Highway 45 goes past Camp Beauregard, a Civil War encampment and cemetery, and leads toward Shiloh, a Civil War battlefield, and continues to Tupelo, Mississippi, where Elvis Presley was born. On this highway when I was about ten, my dog Rags was killed, smashed flat, and nobody bothered to remove his body. For a long time, it was still there when we went to town—a hank of hair and a piece of bone. It became a rag, then a wisp, then a spot. It’s hard to explain the indifference of the family in this matter, for my heart ached for Rags. It had something to do with the immutability of fate. To my parents’ way of thinking, there was nothing that could be done to bring Rags back to
life, and besides they were behind on the spring planting or perhaps the fall corn-gathering. There was always something.

When I was in junior high, a motel opened up on the highway. It was the first motel in Mayfield. I could see it from my house. Marlene lived at the motel. I envied her. The allure of rootlessness—strangers passing through, stopping there to sleep—is a cliché, but if you live within sight of trains and a highway, the cliché holds power. Marlene’s father built her a frozen-custard stand—to my mind the definition of bliss. It was a cozy playhouse on the side of the open road: a safe thrill. But Marlene was popular at school and grew too busy for any sidelines. Her father put an ad in the paper: “
FOR SALE
: Marlene’s Frozen-Custard Stand. Marlene’s tired.”

Long before this, back in 1896, across the field in front of our houses, an amazing thing happened. Mrs. Elizabeth Lyon gave birth to quintuplets. For a brief time they were world-famous, until curiosity-seekers handled the babies to death. The quintuplets’ house stood right beside the railroad track, and passengers from the train stopped to ogle. They were five boys—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul. The names had come to Mrs. Lyon in a dream. President Grover Cleveland and Queen Victoria sent congratulations on the babies.

I am a product of this ground. This region is called the Jackson Purchase. In 1818, Andrew Jackson signed a deal with Chinubby, king of the Chickasaw Nation, and soon white settlers swarmed in, snatching up sweeps of prairie. Most of them came from Middle Tennessee, where the Cumberland Settlements had led to the founding of Nashville. One of the Cumberland pioneers was my great-great-great-grandfather, Samuel Mason. Several of his ten children headed for the Jackson Purchase, and four of them settled on Panther Creek, at Clear Springs, from whence all the relatives I have ever known sprang. In 1920, a century after my ancestors settled in Clear Springs, my grandparents boldly moved away from there, from the bosom of generations. The land had been divided up so many times that sons had to leave and find their own land. For Granddaddy, it was a long journey of eight miles. In 1920, he bought the fifty-three and one-tenth acres by the highway for five thousand dollars. The house, only six years old, was sturdy and attractive. The land was cleared and fertile, and it was only a mile from town, so trading at the town square or the feed mill would be an easy journey by buggy or wagon.

At one time, much of the land of the Jackson Purchase was covered
with tall grass. The Chickasaws had apparently burned it periodically to create grassland for buffalo. When my father plowed in the spring, he turned up arrowheads. The land is not delta-flat, but it’s not at all hilly either. It resembles rolling English farmland, both in the natural lay of the land and in the farming habits the farmers imposed upon it. It has small fields, and the fencerows are thick with weeds, vines, oaks, wild cherries, sumac, and cedars.

The landscape is still changing. On the highway, not far from our farm, are a tobacco-rehandling outfit, a John Deere business, and a chicken hatchery. The little frozen-custard stand, fallen to other uses and then to ruin, stood there until fairly recently, but the motel disappeared long ago. In its place is a collection of grim little buildings, including the House of Prayer. With the Purchase Parkway close by, industries have located near the interchange. My birthplace is now at the hub of industrial growth in the county, and the road in front of the houses is now a busy connector to highways and factories. When the cars rush by (ignoring the speed limit of thirty-five) on their way to work, or when a shift lets out, my mother sometimes stands at the kitchen window and counts them. “That’s sixty-eight that have gone by in five minutes,” she announces.

The farm now lies entirely within the Mayfield city limits. To the east, the subdivisions are headed our way. Behind the farm, to the south, we can glimpse an air-compressor factory. Just across the railroad, to the west, the four-lane bypass leads around town and to the parkway and to everywhere on the continent. Across the road, in a thirty-acre cornfield, which is like an extension of our front yard, is the landmark of the town.

I call it the chicken tower. It is the feed mill that processes feed for all the chickens that fuel Seaboard Farms, whose chicken-processing plant is on the other side of town. Construction workers came in 1989 and put up the tower in continuous twelve-hour shifts, while my father watched in fascination. The thing rose faster than hybrid corn shooting up. A chain-link fence girds the field. A deer was caught on the fence almost as soon as it went up.

The tower is a tall, gray concrete structure, without windows. It’s a hundred and fifty-six feet high. If you see it at dawn, it’s hard not to think about a space-shuttle launch. Adjoining the chicken tower are six cylindrical towers, attached like booster rockets. The architecture is unrelievedly functional. The word “Soviet” comes to mind. The tower has a framework of pipes crawling over it, and the six cylinders have
earned the nickname “the concrete six-pack.” These silos are a hundred and ten feet high. The mill hums, and big trucks come and go. It’s like a huge refrigerator running. The chicken feed smells a bit like the mash of a whiskey distillery. The chicken industry, proliferating throughout the South, extravagantly promises prosperity, and many local farmers have grabbed the chance to raise chickens for Seaboard. The plant hatches the eggs and makes the feed, and the farmers raise the chicks in houses built at their own expense. Then low-wage workers cut up and package “poultry products” when the birds are six weeks old and sporting their first full plumage.

Beyond the chicken tower is the site where the Lyon quintuplets were born in 1896, and beyond that there’s the feed mill where my mother’s soybeans go, and beyond that is town. And then there’s the wide world I eventually left home to see.

It’s summer now. I am back again. With Oscar, the family dog, I’m visiting the pond on a warm evening, feeding fish. I’m flinging pellets of fish food out onto the water, trying to get it beyond the pondweed, which extends out all around the banks of the pond, except for the clearings I’ve made. When I pick up the empty fish-chow bucket—a plastic ice-cream tub—I find three crickets caught in it. They can’t jump more than two or three inches straight up. There are two small ones and one large one. The smalls have striped backs like lightning bugs. They have feathery arms and legs and feathery feet. The large one has a long antenna it loops toward itself, then extends out tentatively, searching. The other antenna is grossly shortened—cut off by some vicious fighter-bug? Or did it come like that? Suddenly I realize that looking at crickets this way is the essence of what it was like to be a child here, immersed in the strange particulars of nature.

From the pond, in the green lushness of early summer, in three directions you see only fields of soybeans and corn, with thick fencerows and washed skies. A movie could be filmed here, a historical drama set in 1825, and it would seem authentic—except for the soundtrack: the noises of the highway, the air, the feed mill; the blare and thud of music from cars whizzing past. If you turned the camera in the other direction, toward the road, you’d get all the visual cues of the present day—the wires and poles, the asphalt, the Detroit metal, the discarded junk-food wrappers and beer cans thrown from cars that have “twentieth century” written all over them. You would also see a
brown farmhouse with two rickety outbuildings, a red stable, and a small white house in a lovely woods that is mowed and trimmed like a park. And you would see the chicken tower, lord of the landscape.

Late September. The soybeans aren’t quite ready to harvest. Some of the leaves are still green, but the pods are fuzzy and brown. The crop this year is full of weeds from outer space because the strongest herbicides have been banned. Something short of Agent Orange has been used this year, and the path to the pond is bordered with weeds, some a good ten feet tall.

Mama and I walk down this path to the pond. She uses her fishing rod to fight the weeds and snakes. Oscar trots along, thrilled to go with us. Miraculously, he never goes near the road.

“That’s Johnsongrass,” Mama says, pointing her rod at a clump of what looks like a trendy ornamental grass. “You can’t ever get rid of that. Your Daddy used to cut it off and dig it up and dump it in the creek.”

“What’s that one?”

“Hogweed? Horseweed? I can’t remember. But at the joint sometimes there’s a big knot and inside is a worm that’s good to fish with.”

“It’s horseweed,” she says presently. “Not hogweed. Hogweed is what you call presley—pig presley I always called it. The hogs like it real well. It’s got real tender leaves.”

“Pig presley?”

“When we raised hogs I’d pull it up and give it to them, and Lord, they’d go crazy.”

“What does it look like?”

“It grows along on the ground on a stem and has tender leaves. It looks rubbery.”

“Purslane? Parsley?”

“I always called it pig presley.”

“Is that one of your weeds that will take the place?”

“No, pig presley’s all right. It’s good.”

We reach the pond just as a small heron escapes in a slow-motion flight over the creek. The pondweed has died back a lot, and the reflections in the pond are clear and still. The main house, inside its army of old oak and maple trees, is reflected in the pond. The chicken tower rises above the trees. The tableau is upside-down and innocently beautiful and abstract.

Mama gestures to the southeast and says, “If the wind is this way, I smell horse piss, and that way I smell cow mess, and over yonder it’s tobacco curing, and from the north it’s chicken feed.” Her rod follows her directions. She laughs: her big, loud laugh. “If that don’t beat a hen a-rootin’!” she says. Her laugh supposedly comes from her grandfather, “Jimmo” Lee, who had red hair and an Irish or Scottish burr in his voice. (Nobody remembers whether he was Irish or Scottish, but about half of the settlers were Scots-Irish, Protestants who came to America long before the Great Famine.) My mother uses idioms that are dying out with her generation, right along with the small family farms of America. Her way of talking is the most familiar thing I know, except maybe for the contours and textures of this land. Mama’s language comes from the borderlands of England and Scotland and from Ireland, with some other English dialects thrown in, and it is mingled with African-American speech patterns acquired along the way. It is much like Mark Twain’s language in
Huckleberry Finn
. It’s spoken, with variations, in a band of the upper South stretching from the mid-Atlantic states across the Appalachians to the Ozarks. In the Jackson Purchase, this old dialect rested in the farmlands and changed with the weather and the crops and the vicissitudes of history as news filtered in from other places. Today there’s a good chance you won’t hear many people under sixty say, “If that don’t beat a hen a-rootin’.” It’s an expression that comes from a deep knowledge of chicken behavior. Mama has contended with many a settin’ hen. On free-range chickens, she’s an expert.

Mama casts out a long rubber lure, a sort of Gummi Worm, and reels it in. She’s casting for bass. “I’d rather fish for bream because they bite like crazy,” she says.

The beanfields are leased out to a neighbor, and Mama frets about their proper cultivation. Dense growth from the creeks is creeping out into the fields. She hates weeds, insects, snakes, and bad weather. And she rails against the haphazard and violent methods of mechanized farming. A crop-spraying machine called a highboy straddles several rows, and the driver rides on tall wheels. One year, the combine missed so many soybeans that I imagine she was ready to go gather them up in a bucket and carry them to the mill herself. Another year, she chopped out all the pokeweed that had infiltrated a soybean field. She was afraid the pokeberries would stain the feed. “Them beans would have been purple by the time they went through the mill!” she said. “I don’t know if hogs would appreciate purple feed. And pokeberries is poison.”

Now it’s winter. A tree is down, blocking the path across the creek. It has split, rotten at the center. I remember when that little tree hollow was a good hiding place for secret messages in fantasy girl-sleuth games—forty years ago. At the creek, a jumble of memories rushes out, memories of a period in my own lifetime which links straight back to a century ago, and even further: hog killing; breaking new-ground; gathering dried corn in the fall; herding cows with a dog; churning; quilting. I have a snapshot of myself as a child, sitting on a mule. I know the textures of all of these experiences.

What happened to me and my generation? What made us leave home and abandon the old ways? Why did we lose our knowledge of nature? Why wasn’t it satisfying? Why would only rock-and-roll music do? What did we want?

With my family, the break started in 1920, when Granddaddy moved away from Clear Springs to find land, and we ended up living right on the edge of town. The stores around the courthouse square were tantalizingly near. Who wouldn’t rather go shopping than hoe peas? And the radio told us that we weren’t quite so isolated: we were in Radioland! The highway called us, too. Our ancestors had been lured over the ocean to America by false advertising—here was the promised land, literally—but once arrived, they had to clear rocks and stumps and learn to raise hogs. We inherited their gullibility. We wanted to go places, find out what was out there. My sisters and I didn’t want to marry farmers; we were more interested in the traveling salesmen. By the time my brother—the youngest of us four, born too late—came of age, a family farm seemed to require more land and machinery than it once had in order to prosper. So again it was time to move on.

We didn’t want to be slaves to nature. Maintaining the Garden of Eden was too much work—endless hoeing, fences to fix, hay to bale, and cows to milk, come rain or come shine. My mother, who knows more about wind and weather and soil and raising chickens than I ever will, approves of progress, even though she finds much of it scary and empty. The old ways were just too hard, she says wearily. She and my father expected better lives for their children. They knew we’d leave.

But I keep looking back to see where I’ve been. I am angry that my father died before I could ask him all I wanted to know about the life
of a dairy farmer, because I think he knew all about the earth and the seasons.

The winter light is heavy and stark. Dim skies, silhouettes of black trees, mud. The pondweed lies dormant; the soybeans were recently harvested, and here and there stray beans have spilled out onto the soil. The dampness deepens these brown-and-black tones of the landscape. Oscar and I cross the creek and head out through the cornfield. The corn has been harvested by a big machine that gobbled up the stalks, moiled the shucks and spit them out, then glommed the kernels off the cob and spun them into a hopper. I recall the way dried corn comes off the cob when you do it by hand. You mash two cobs together hard and loosen a few of the kernels till they pop out like teeth. Then you can rub the cobs together more lightly and pop the rest of the kernels out of their sockets. I also recall shelling corn for the chickens with a corn sheller; it had a crank handle and an iron maw with teeth. Now I can hear corn being crumbled and gnashed in the tower.

The cedar trees on the fencerow along our western border have grown thick and tall and have lost their youthful prickliness. We always had a young, scraggly cedar from one of the fencerows for our Christmas tree. Now these are full of bluish berries and conelike cocoons made by some insect that shrouds itself with a dead cedar twig.

The chicken tower has a star on top for Christmas. From up there, you would see the lay of this farm, reduced in its significance, a small piece of the earth.

It is late afternoon, and the ominous winter light accents the trees. Then the harsh electric light of the chicken tower floods the area. It is never dark at night here the way it used to be, when there were just stars and moon.

There’s a loneliness about the homeplace now. But the family straggles home each Christmas to renew itself, and the place returns to life. In the way of rural families, Mama doesn’t invite us to come, but she expects us all to be there. And we always are. The family is small, only fifteen of us. Mama cooks a dinner for her four children, their three spouses, her five grandchildren, and two more spouses. She has turkey with cornbread dressing and giblet gravy, a ham, potato salad, dressed eggs, Jell-O salad, cranberry relish, her special Sunset Salad, broccoli casserole with cheese sauce, yeast-raised rolls. And from her freezer she may offer creamed corn, green beans, shelly beans, and brown field peas—all grown in her garden. Then she loads the table with fruit salad, boiled custard, her special uncooked fruitcake, coconut
cake, German chocolate cake, peanut bars, decorated refrigerator cookies. She makes all this food herself because we don’t really know how to do it and it is her joy to feed us amply. She makes enough for about thirty-six people. The feast seems always to be prepared for some imagined larger family.

This dinner defines the family and replenishes us for another year. We get here, regardless of what it costs us in money or trouble, or whatever difficulty with weather and flight delays. We’re far-flung. We have not scattered simply to Paducah or Nashville or Louisville, places within reasonable reach. We didn’t leave the farm for Pittsburgh or Hattiesburg or Racine. My sisters and I first headed to California, Florida, and New York—the meccas. One niece worked at Disney World; one sister works in special-effects computer graphics in Hollywood. The movies, Disney World, Manhattan. Those were the fishing lures that came over the airwaves and reeled us in. I stayed in the Northeast for many years, chasing literary dreams. Even my brother, who stayed closest to home, works for the quintessential American corporation, Coca-Cola.

We’ve been free to roam, because we’ve always known where home is.

Oscar and I turn back. As we approach the pond, a heron—a great blue one this time—takes off from the water, not far ahead of us. Its flight path cuts across the face of the chicken tower, which looms beyond the house and the bare winter trees. The dying pondweed is dissolving into the muddy murk of the pond. As I look into the reflections on the surface of the pond, I think about all the death on this soil: the oaks that Mama says were “barked up and skinned” by lightning; the hogs and cows and calves and chickens we’ve slaughtered for food; all the cats and dogs smashed on the road after it was paved; my grandparents; my father. Before my grandparents moved here, a farmer died of epilepsy, in the garden. I think about what a farmer knows up there on his tractor or walking along behind his mules—the slow, enduring pace of regular toil and the habit of mind that goes with it, the habit of knowing what is lasting and of noting every nuance of soil and water and season. What my father and my ancestors knew has gone, and their idioms linger like fragile relics. Soon my memories will be loosened from any tangible connection to this land.

I don’t know what will happen to this piece of land eventually. Urbanization has hardly begun here in the Purchase. Kentucky is an agricultural
state, ranking fourth in the nation in the number of family farms. The tension between holding on to a way of life and letting in a new way—under the banners of Wal-Marts and chicken processors—is the central dynamic of this area. There are no malls, no cinema complexes, no coffee bars here. But a Wal-Mart Supercenter is looming over the horizon like a UFO. The town is poised on the edge of the future.

As a family farm, this piece of land may be doomed. The family has fragmented. I live too far away to deal with a soybean crop. I wouldn’t know how to make the ground say beans, the way Thoreau wanted it to, and would probably just prefer to read his musings on the subject. My nephew fantasizes a golf course; my brother dreams of building a minimart; someone has mentioned llamas. When land is spoken of these days, it’s usually in an opportunistic tone. Someone sees a buck to be made. But the big bucks are usually made by someone else, not the people who know the land. I do not know what industrial or technological analogue of pondweed will take over this land. What is tame and what is wild seem to go through cycles of varying perspectives. I’m sort of wishing for a comeback of the blackberries. It’s tempting to think of just holding on to the land while industries close in around. We could call the place a nature preserve. I think of those alligators and long-necked birds you see moving lazily in the foreground of a space-shuttle launch.

Our two houses face the chicken tower like cats staring at a stranger. My mother lives in my grandparents’ old place, and the other house is unoccupied. It’s the higgledy-piggledy house my parents kept adding onto periodically. I grew up in that house. The picture window is empty, and the shutters sag. The overgrown forsythia bushes reach the roof, and a mock-orange tree grows right smack atop the cistern. The house seems desolate, abandoned.

I own an oil painting of that house when it was in its prime—with trim green shutters, a white picket fence (which I once had to whitewash, like Tom Sawyer), a red-white-and-blue flower bed, a blue snowball bush, a pink climbing rose, and tall leafy trees hovering above the roof. My mother painted this scene; she painted one copy for each of her children and one for herself. It has been a long journey from our little house into the wide world, and after that a long journey back home. Now I am beginning to see more clearly what I was looking for.

2

In the summer of 1949, when I was nine, my mother and I traveled to Detroit to visit Mama’s aunt Mary, her father’s sister. Mama had made the trip several years before, and she was excited about showing me the big city.

“I want you to see them big buildings,” Mama said. “They’re so tall your eyes’ll pop right out of your head.”

“Are they as tall as the trees around the house?”

“Taller than that. Heaps taller.”

“Taller than the courthouse?”

“Ten times that high.”

It was a peculiar promise, like something from the world of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” But what struck me more than the imagined height of the buildings was my mother’s joy at the prospect of showing me Detroit. She sparkled like a Coca-Cola that had just been opened, and her laughter accentuated her beauty.

Mama washed and ironed our best clothes, made me a new dress, polished my shoes. She packed everything in a heavy-cardboard suitcase snake-striped on one end. Secretly, I thought of it as a valise. In my reading of girls’ mystery series books, suitcases were called valises, which I pronounced “
vall-
is” in my mind, since I had never heard anyone say the word. The idea of packing a valise fascinated me—the notion that we could stow our necessary belongings and then just vamoose.

We were country people. We didn’t ordinarily go on vacations because there were cows to milk, chickens to feed. The dairy farm held us back with invisible fences as confining as the real barbed wire bordering our pastures. Summer was for work, not for gallivanting. Earlier in the summer, I had gathered at dawn with a bunch of kids at a small grocery in Mayfield; from there, we rode in the bed of a pickup truck out
to some strawberry fields. We picked strawberries in handies—flat wooden crates that held six quart-sized boxes. For our morning’s labor we received a nickel per quart. The fruit went to Paducah, where berries from all over western Kentucky met to travel north on the trains so that people in the fine hotels and restaurants of northern cities could enjoy farm-fresh strawberries.

During the Depression, country people from the South had begun trekking northward to find work. Farm people were actually on the move then. Many of them, after planting crops in the spring, left their families and traveled to Detroit to sweat on the auto assembly lines until fall harvest. They came home to get the crops in, then returned to Detroit for the winter. My father’s people, the Masons, were rooted on the land like gnarled old trees, but some of my mother’s paternal relations, the Lees, joined the migration north. Mama’s aunt Mary Lee had moved to Detroit in the thirties, and Mary’s brother Rudy followed during the war, finding work at U.S. Rubber.

“Mary and Rudy make good money up there,” Mama told me.

In front of the hotel in Mayfield, Mama and I boarded the flashy red-and-white Brooks bus. The Brooks Bus Line, a family operation based in Paducah, hauled people back and forth between western Kentucky and Detroit, a distance of six hundred and twenty-three miles. The company had started out as a guy with a car, an entrepreneur who realized that Kentuckians got homesick and needed to make quick trips home.

I was throbbing with excitement. As we rumbled across the bridge over the Ohio River into Illinois, I felt I was soaring into a new freedom. Mama and I were escaping, riding the bus together, leaving the farm behind, with the cows, the dog, the cats, my grandparents, my father, my little sister—the whole world known to me. Coconspirators, Mama and I were heading for a bigger and better place, one that would somehow transform us. Several black people sat in the rear of the bus, and I wondered if they were escaping too.

For the journey, I brought along
The Bobbsey Twins in a Great City
. I had read it several times, and I was under the spell of New York City, the Bobbseys’ destination. The twins chased enormous clanging fire trucks, got lost on an underground train, and became involved with an Italian organ-grinder and his monkey, who did tricks. I loved it. In a big city, any adventure might happen. Nothing ever happened at home.

“You read it too,” I begged Mama. I wanted to share it with her.

“It’s for children,” she protested. But she gave it a try. I thought she
was bored with the book because she soon fell asleep. A chatty man across from us lowered the green paper shade so that the sun wouldn’t glare in her eyes.

“Don’t you touch that emergency cord, now,” he whispered to me. “That ’ere’s liable to get the
po
-lice after us.”

We rode the red-and-white Brooks bus all night. The bus traveled catty-cornered across the bottom of southern Illinois and on up through Indiana. I woke up intermittently as we passed through strange towns. Late in the night, we tumbled from the bus into the smoky station at Fort Wayne, Indiana, for a rest stop.

“Fort Wayne,” I said to myself over and over. I had never been anywhere farther than Paducah. In the
Weekly Reader
at school I had read about Brazil and Africa and Holland. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see mountains or giraffes or people in wooden shoes there in Fort Wayne. The bus station was a stage in our journey to the unknown, where passengers demanded hot dogs and grilled-cheese sandwiches in the middle of the night. The scene was as strange as if I were dreaming it—or reading about it. A black couple from the last row of the bus, sad-eyed and shabby, walked down the sidewalk to the corner. I heard the woman say, “We never ought to have left her,” and the man said, “We couldn’t have brought her. We couldn’t have brought her.”

We continued into the night. Strains of “Cow-Cow Boogie” by Ella Mae Morse and “How Are Things in Glocca Morra” swirled alternately through my head, the sounds textured like a marble cake, until I finally fell asleep. The green paper shades shut out the shock of dawn, but as soon as I was awake I peeped out to see where we were. I saw flat fields of corn. I wondered what would happen if I touched the emergency cord. But I knew I wasn’t ready to stop yet.

De
-troit! Everybody said “
De
-troit.” They said “Polacks” lived there. “Don’t let the
Po
-lacks get you,” Granddaddy had told me. He didn’t explain what he meant.

Mama had visited Mary in Detroit when I was two. She stayed for two weeks, leaving me at home with Daddy and my grandparents. When she returned on the bus, the driver let her out on the highway, a quarter mile from our house. Carrying her suitcase, she headed down the road. She saw me playing in the yard, and she says that when I saw her, I ran straight to the house. My grandmother declared that Bobbie didn’t know who her mother was, she had been gone so long. But Mama said Bobbie recognized her and had run into the house to tell everybody that her mama was home.

The story was repeated all my life, how I didn’t recognize my mama when she finally showed up after traipsing off to Detroit. But Mama still insists that I
did
know her. And I’m sure she’s right.

We got off the bus in Wayne, a suburb of Detroit, where Aunt Mary lived in a neighborhood of postwar houses. The houses were all similar, as if they had been created simultaneously, like a paper-doll chain. I was amazed that they were so close together. I marveled at Mary’s house number on a post—number three-three-five. We didn’t have a number at home, except for the one I had painted on my playhouse. Mary lived with her husband and daughter; and her brother Rudy, who was lame, was staying there, too, during our visit. Mama and I slept in the attic, where the knotty-pine ceiling smelled so fresh and sweet it made me giddy. The smell was the essence of promise.

I was eager to go into downtown Detroit, where there were tall buildings and museums and theaters and magnificent stores. I had seen two souvenir postcards from Mama’s previous trip: pictures of the Detroit Institute of Arts. It wasn’t taller than the courthouse, but it was grand—a stone building with arched doorways and a splendid row of 1940 and 1941 cars out front. The other postcard, an interior view, showed the Court, a room two stories high, with tropical foliage and a fountain and immense paintings on the walls—and what appeared to be a statue of a donkey on a pedestal.

“I’ll show you that,” Mama had promised.

But our hopes collapsed on our first morning in Michigan.

“Bad news,” said Uncle Rudy, brandishing the newspaper at the breakfast table. “The buses are going on strike.”

We couldn’t go into the city because the buses weren’t running. I had never heard of a strike. It sounded like something to do with clocks. Or baseball. I imagined a ball bat poised to make a loud crack. Even though Aunt Mary explained the meaning to me, I envisioned the buses disabled by violent crashes.

Mama moaned. “Just our luck,” she said. “Of all times for us to pick to come up here.”

“They may settle it before y’all head home,” Aunt Mary said. “You never know. Or they might drag it out till Christmas.”

“Don’t worry, littlun,” Uncle Rudy said, patting my head.

Mama gave me a little squeeze. “I got your hopes up for nothing,” she said.

Every day the news was the same—the strike continued. A neighbor gave us a ride to downtown Wayne. But it wasn’t a big city. I was surprised to see the familiar Woolworth’s sign on a store. Woolworth’s was in Mayfield—it was odd to see it here too. We went in, and I bought souvenirs—two dainty little ceramic pots with
MADE IN JAPAN
labels stuck on the bottom.

“Dust catchers for whatnots,” Aunt Mary said.

“We beat them Japs and put ’em to work making pots and things,” said Uncle Rudy. “That keeps ’em busy so they won’t be a-making guns.”

There was no Detroit. It was disappointing. A dim image of a promised city formed in my head, like the pearly gates and golden streets of heaven. I did not know how to readjust my desires to the ambiguities I was discovering in my early travels. It would be absurd to find Woolworth’s everywhere I went.

But what I remember from that trip more than my disappointment was my mother in this new setting. She was comfortable with her kinfolks, and she let loose with them in a way she didn’t always manage to do at home. She seemed happy just to be somewhere different. Although she was always spirited and full of gaiety, she seemed to burn even brighter up here in the North. I remember how pretty she looked, with her black curls piled on top of her head and the rest of her hair hanging down around her neck like a curtain. Her hairdo was like one of Joan Crawford’s, but Mama was prettier, I thought. If she was so pretty, why wasn’t she a movie star? I wondered.

I loved the North. There were sidewalks to skate on—if only one had skates. I played jacks and Old Maid with a neighbor girl, but she made fun of the way I said “fire.” I said “far.” And I said “tard” for “tired.” Her family had a television set—the first I’d ever seen. We watched a blurry picture of Howdy Doody. At home we had a splendid console radio with wonderful programs—
Jack Benny
and
Fred Allen
and shows that played records. Listening to our radio, I had to imagine the faces behind the voices. Now I hoped they didn’t look like Howdy Doody.