Illuminating Summers of Long Ago

Every year about this time, my mind returns to summers of long ago when lightning bugs flitted and danced in the dark. I would chase them while carrying a container with holes punched in the top and screech with delight when I would trap them. I would watch them illuminate the jar for a minute or two, but then I would feel sorry for the little critters and let them go.

I recall staying with my Grandpa (my grandmother) every summer for two weeks. The smell of her hot biscuits baking in the morning while country ham sizzled on the old stove always started my day with a smile. Many a soul have tried to duplicate Grandpa’s biscuits, but no human being has ever come close. Her soul took those ingredients and skill to heaven to gift God a bit of glory every morning.

Outside my bedroom windows, white gladiolas bloomed in Grandpa’s garden along with watermelons, green beans, and the best corn one could slather butter on. For two weeks, I could string a bean like a pro, but couldn’t spit a watermelon seed like my talented Granddaddy.

Something about these memories fills me with gratitude for the glorious gift of these wonderful folks.

Picnics were a mainstay in Grandpa’s world. Many times, my cousins and I would gather with the family for Sunday afternoon picnics at a nearby state park in Tennessee. We would swim in the lake, frolic on the playgrounds, and eat southern goodness all day.

One such afternoon while at the park, Grandpa’s mama, Great Grandmother Sparks, decided at the age of 88 to climb on the new merry-go-round to ride with the rest of the young’uns. She fell off, broke her hip, and as she left in the ambulance declared, “I am just spittin’ mad I didn’t get to try out that new slide!”

Something about that picnic in the park made me decide never to grow too old not to desire to ride a merry-go-round or slide down a slide.

Fishing with Grandpa was always an adventure. I was never afraid because Grandpa taught me that no matter what, Listerine would cure any hurt or ills. This included any bites, any fishhooks catching flesh instead of fish, and the common cold.

One year Grandpa was admitted to Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville with kidney stones. After a few days, the doctors told us they may need to operate. However, to their amazement, Grandpa finally passed that kidney boulder and was dismissed with instructions to take a boatload of pills. A few weeks later, my older brother went for a visit and noticed her stash of prescribed medications were untouched.

“Grandpa, why aren’t you taking your medicine?!” He was horrified!

“Oh shoot, if I gargle with my Listerine, it’ll cure what ails me! Don’t you worry!”

He did worry, but when she lived to be 97-years-old without experiencing another kidney stone, he began to worry she was right!

Something about that little story made me believe if you believe in something you might just get healed.

Every Saturday was spent getting ready for Sunday. Grandpa would wash her hair and I would roll it with tiny curlers. By the time I was ten, I could put those rollers in perfectly straight rows in her silver hair, and her “do” would turn out “plum gorgeous” every time. At least, that is what she said. To this day, I can close my eyes and see the strands of silver tresses slide through my fingers as I once made my grandmother more beautiful than she already was.

Something about those Saturdays made me certain that beauty so fine is not so much what you see, but something you don’t.

Before one summer visit, Snowball, Grandpa’s cherished white dog bore six puppies. The pups were given away except for a special one Grandpa just couldn’t let go. Grandpa named her Junebug and she was as priceless as Snowball.

One morning, I was walking down the hall to the kitchen when I heard a sound I had never heard before… my Grandpa was crying. I quickly ran to her side to learn precious Junebug was killed by a car in the wee hours of that summer morning.

Something about that memory still makes me shed a tear, not only because little Junebug died, but because my precious grandmother wept.

There is something about those summers of long ago when the crickets chirped in harmony with the bullfrog who lived by the pond. Summers when the family members were abundant and all were giddy with excitement because the watermelons were ripe.

Just like the lightning bugs who lit up my jar, those who helped make my summer days perfect illuminated my life. I hated to let them go, but to this day, they still light my heart and take me back home.

Dolly, Me and the Southland

Several years ago, when my granddaughter was seven, I decided to take her to Dollywood in Tennessee during her summer visit with me.

We drove from Atlanta through the Great Smoky Mountains winding our way to Pigeon Forge. Once there, we checked into our rooms and then off to the theme park.

The sunny day began to turn dark with clouds. Once the rain started to pour, we quickly made our way to the Dolly Parton Museum, where a trio of women warmly greeted us.

“Hello, young lady, what is your name?” One of the women asked as she leaned over a counter.

“Well, honey do you watch Hannah Montana on the TV?”,asked another.

“Yes, ma’am, I do!” Avery responded as her eyes lit up.

“Well, honey child, I am gonna’ take you upstairs and show you the room where they did some of the filmin’. Sweetheart, you know Miss Dolly played her Grandma on the show, don’t you?”

Avery absolutely knew that fun fact since she had spent a few years watching Miley Cyrus play Hannah Montana.

During our drive, I had told my grandchild all I knew about the life of Dolly Parton and that she and I were born with 50 miles of one another in the Tennessee hills. I explained how young Dolly lived happily with many brothers and sisters in a tiny house in the mountains. I described how her mother made her a coat from scraps of fabric in various colors because her family could not afford a store bought one.

As the kind woman showed us the way to the Hannah Montana room, Avery pointed to a glass case, “Grandma! Look! There it is!”

The little coat made of cut pieces of worn fabric was displayed and lit as if it were a diamond encrusted tiara at a Royal Museum. Around the bottom of the jacket were sheets of paper where Dolly first scribbled the lyrics to the song which catapulted her to fame.

While we gazed at the “Coat of Many Colors,” I was reminded of everything from my grandmother’s quilts with their tiny hand sewn stitches, to how with a dream rags can become riches.

As we walked through the museum, I continued to tell Avery Dolly tales in hopes that the stories about this amazing, intelligent woman had made a lasting impression on her.

When we exited the building, I asked her what she thought of her experience.

“Did you like the museum, Avery?”

Yes, I did, but you know what Grandma?”

“What, Avery?”

“Do you know all those people in there talk just like you?!”

I laughed till I cried.

Once you are born and raised in the mountains, the Tennessee accent stays with you unless you attend a specialized school to lose it. I never desired to because the way I speak is a significant part of who I am. When I moved to Georgia as a teen, I remember trying to pick up a bit of the genteel southern accent of my Georgia friends. I ended with possibly a Chattanooga speech. My interpretation of words never entirely made it across the Georgia line.

I am proud of my Southern roots because I love the Southland. I love its people and its diversity plus its endearing charm and charity. I love the way my South Carolinian neighbor says “a hosepipe” instead of a hose or says “a billfold” instead of a wallet, just like I do. And, yes, “Bless your heart” is a sentence staple. I also love grits, God, and goin’ fishin’.

I love that this country is composed of differences. It makes America a lot more fun. If we all sounded or looked the same, life would be downright dull.

Just like the different scraps of material made a tapestry of warmth and love for a little girl from the hills, the diversity, and sounds of our various cultures make up the fabric we call “America.”

Yes, Dolly Parton’s life has changed since she wore the coat of many colors. Her home is now an impressive mansion in Tennessee. Her intelligence and talents are enormous, yet her accent is still the same.

Thank goodness.


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Between the Outhouse and the Cherry Tree

Her house sat on a large lot three concrete steps up from the street and looked as if it belonged in the country instead near downtown.  Granted the town was small, but this old house with its weathered brown boards, sagging front porch, and a much-needed new roof would look to some as an eyesore.

The front porch was usually filled with a variety of wooden chairs where she and her daughters would sit to shell beans, shuck corn, and escape the summer heat swelling inside.   They watched as folks passed by to exchange a wave and shout a “howdy do.” Once the neighbors saw those smiling faces, the house wasn’t in as bad a shape as they thought.

Funny how our eyes are fooled by acts of kindness.

Inside the tidy house was a parlor which opened to a large kitchen equipped with a wood burning stove, stacks of iron skillets, and a cabinet that held everything from baking soda to castor oil.  On the large table anchored in the center was a wooden dough bowl where fresh biscuits were kneaded every morning, and a cup of coffee was poured from an old dented enamel pot.

Out the kitchen door was a smaller porch which was near the well that supplied fresh water.  Hoes, rakes, and buckets surrounded a small wobbly chair that could still hold a weary soul after a long day.  The garden in its summer splendor rested on the back edge of the property just beyond the cherry tree, and the outhouse with its half-moon carved door.

I loved to play between the outhouse and the cherry tree behind my great grandmother’s house in the summer.  The old tree teemed with ripe berries. I would climb to get as many cherries as possible before I got caught by the mighty hands of my tiny, fierce Great Grandmother Sparks. 

“How many times have I told you, young’un, to not eat too many cherries because you gonna’ spend the rest of your day in that outhouse!”, she would yell. 

I knew I was immune to the side effects of too many cherries and when she turned to walk back in the house, I kept on climbing the tree to retrieve more of delicious red goodies. 

One day, however, I got a case of the “bug,” and she swore it was those cherries, but I knew it was just a bug.  The castor oil came out of the cabinet, and even though my mother was present, she knew she could not hold a candle to her grandmother’s will.  I took the dreaded castor oil, and to my surprise, it wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be plus, it sure made the bug fly away.  

Funny thing about facing fear, once you do, it usually flies away.

Uncle Casto lived with his mother in their later years after plumbing was installed on the insistence of Mollie Sparks’ children. 

“What do I need plumbing for?”, she asked her son and son-in-law.  “I have been doin’ just fine all these years.  That’s just a waste of a dollar!”

They built it anyway, and of course, she stubbornly refused to use the new bathroom until one night it got so cold in the mountain’s she gave in. Afterward, she gathered the boys and humbly said, “I know I sometimes have a stubborn will, but I do thank you.”

Funny thing about misplaced stubborn will, humility will usually stop it.

Well into her 80’s, Great Grandmother Sparks and Casto got into an argument on who grew the best garden.  So, they built two to see which one would reap the best produce.   Casto noticed his mother’s rows were crooked, but he also knew cataracts blurred her vision.  During many nights when his mother was fast asleep, he took his hoe and with a flashlight in hand, straightened her rows and cleared the weeds she missed.

Both gardens bloomed beautifully that summer with Grandmother Sparks declaring, “See, mine is the best! I won because I have fewer weeds!” She laughed with glee. She never knew or ever was told just why her garden was ripe with beauty.  

Funny thing about unselfish love, it does make our spiritual gardens grow.

I went by the old property the last time I visited the Tennessee town where I was born.  Mollie’s home is long gone, and now there are brick steps that lead up to a fine brick house with no front porch.  It’s pleasing to the eye but not as beautiful as the old run-down house that was filled with smiling faces, and joyful giving hearts.

Funny thing about my life, I learned an awful lot from those fantastic folks who once walked between the outhouse and the cherry tree.