I lift an apple from the grass and look up at the dying tree. It is one of the last seasons for this tree. Most of Daddy’s orchard is already gone.
I bite into the old-fashioned sweet but firm apple the explosion of taste transports me:
I walk into the barn where Mother milks Pet. First she milks some into bowls for the cats. The smell of foamy cow-warmed milk fills the barn, along with molasses sweetened grain and aged manure.
I hear the splang splang in the metal bucket; Pet turns to look at Mother’s head on her side, turns back to her grain, switches at a fly with her tail; the cats lick foamy milk from whiskers; I hear them purr, see them rub against her leg.
I walk past the corncrib where Daddy bends to shell corn. I hear him rub two hard ears together to get the kernels loosened, see him twist them off the ear with his hard hands. Over his quiet whistle, I hear the kernels stream softly into the bushel basket.
I see him pull his time-piece from his watch-pocket and shake his head; he’s due out tonight, brakeman on a coal train.
I walk past the flower row where Mother hoes with her worn hoe. I hear it whisper through the soil, scrape on an occasional pebble. And then, that sweet voice I could never forget, singing songs of Heaven’s rewards.
I am turned by the sound of a small boy talking to himself over by the orchard; I see myself playing between two small peach trees. It is damp and cool on my legs, and musty; the cats have visited. Honeybees buzz. Bobby makes up stories about the people who live in Deepwater, the imaginary town he forms in the sand. Coarse sand on tender hands. Small voice under memory trees.
Mother and Daddy are gone now and that boy not so young anymore. But, under a hazy August sun I eat a juicy tart apple and dream, and we are as before.
One of my hopes for our trip was to revisit old friends and relatives in Appalachia. To return to the place where the child and young man I once was, roamed and grew and learned about life. To see through others eyes my vaguely remembered youth. To confront the image of the dim figure I knew to be myself, but seemed almost to be another. Much had come between that young man and the mature man, including a continent. I hoped that spinning America under our bicycle wheels would make the old images more real, more vivid, more immediate. I hoped to more fully understand the lives of those who stayed there, and my relationship to them. And it was just as I had hoped.
Cousin Billy Wayne and his wife Daisy give us dinner. They live in uncle Robert’s farmhouse, now that he and Cleo are gone. Billy Wayne still chews tobacco, but he has given up the smoking. The family always raised tobacco. It was uncle Robert’s excuse to keep a draft-horse, and he did love his Purcherons.
I look out the kitchen window to the old tobacco patch and imagine him there urging his mare between the rows of young tobacco; hear his gee and haw, the slap of reigns on damp horseflesh, the creak of leather harness and the scrape of cultivator through the soil.
We are at the kitchen table with my high school buddy Linda. She is smoking another cigarette. She takes a drag and grinds out the filter in the ashtray, exhaling away from us. Then she reaches into her purse and pulls out a hypodermic needle and vial of something. She sticks the needle in and draws it full, carefully. She hands it to her father, John who sits beside her. Fifty-one years old and an insulin dependent, adult-onset diabetic. She is supposed to be controlling her weight and exercising, but can’t find the time. She has taken on the responsibility of caring for others to the detriment of her own health; something of a workaholic, neither controlling her weight nor exercising, and she knows she should stop smoking.
She is perhaps too much a fatalist, like so many Appalachians, expecting the worst and thankful as long as it holds off. I love Linda, as does Claire now that she knows her. She is too young for this. I am strong and healthy and I feel somehow guilty for it.
Anna Laura Wood died. Sunday-school teacher and friend to Linda and me, and so many other teenagers; she was a listener. I learn that she got my letter as she was dying. I never knew she was sick until after she was gone. I had felt a strong need to write her, and tell her how much she meant to me. I put it off for awhile, but finally could put it off no more. I wrote the letter, and I mailed the letter, just in time. I am so thankful.
Dick Thompson, retired bank president and friend, is still bright eyed and involved in his 70’s. We sit on his porch in the cool and he reminds me of the advertising we created together for his bank. I tell him how much his trust in me meant. How I credit much of my later success to the self-confidence he helped build in a much younger me. Our eyes fill just a little, and our handshake is prolonged and firm when we say good-by.
Helen Ours calls to her husband in the farm yard. “Larkin, look who’s here. Look who’s come to see us.” Larkin moves his 82 year-old legs better than might be expected toward the screened porch, but I can see he’s lost a lot of weight. He pushes back his hat and wipes his forehead. “Nother hot one,” he says, as he sits on the glider. He shifts his tobacco to the other cheek and says, “How long’s it been Bobby, since you lived over here on Spring Run?” I tell him it’s been close to 20 years.
We talk about the wild turkeys that still visit his hollow, and the trout in the run, and his corn crop. We talk about Larkin’s by-pass surgery and his new heart valve that came from a pig. “Oh, we’ve had a time of it last couple years.” Shifts his tobacco again. Then there was the hip-replacement and the aneurysm. When he insists that we feel the holes they drilled in his head to let the blood out, Helen says, “Now Larkin, maybe they don’t want to feel your head.” But we do.
Helen wants to feed us something, and we move to the kitchen for iced tea to cool us in the heat of the day and a bite to eat. Larkin tells me he believes that I was the boy Helen never had. I tell her I never knew that, and I swear she blushes. For a moment I am sorry I ever moved away and I don’t want to go now.
They show us their garden and Larkin gives Claire some gardening tips. “You put a little vegetable oil on the corn-silks just as soon as they show and you won’t have no trouble with worms.” I tell them what good neighbors they were to me and that I think about them often. We accept a few of those hard-to-find yellow tomatoes and ride across the run and up the hill, leaving them waving to us from the cool shade of a maple tree.
Others: Alice Welton, newspaper publisher, mentor and friend; Pat Farmer, flower artist, duck lover and friend; Sul McCartney, fellow trout-slayer who once was charged with scattering my ashes should I die on an Alpine mountain that climbing summer in France.
You don’t have to bicycle thousands of miles to take a sentimental journey. Just tell someone how important they are to you. You won’t be sorry.
The day we left, Pat made us deer meat sandwiches for the road. We will miss Pat, all of them.
From Petersburg we cycled to Moorefield, West Virginia and stopped for a visit with old friends Jerry and Alma Cowherd who, like Helen and Larkin Ours, I had sort of expected to be gone. Not so. Both are frail, suffering from emphysema but still sharp as tacks with a great sense of humor and zest for life and people.