It took two hours to drive from Albertville to Ashland in Clay county.
Every Sunday we hitched the wagon and off we would go. (Well, at least that’s what it felt like.) It was a given and the thought of it made me nauseous. A small child’s love-hate of something that had to be done: curvy roads, travel away from home, but knowing that love and good food was at the end.
Highway 77 is a two-lane road, running through rural countryside and small towns. We stopped in Rainbow City religiously for a soft swirl ice cream. We passed church after church with billboards professing the second coming and often hilarious quotes like, “Gossip is like an old shoe, everything wears out except for the tongue”, and “America needs a faith lift.” We passed large land holdings with cattle and played cow poker. Coca-cola was my drink du jour and kept the carsickness at bay. So did listening to country music and gospel on the radio.
I knew we were more than halfway when we hit Talledega, home to Helen Keller’s Home for the Deaf and Blind, old antebellum houses with columns and screened-in porches. At least an aesthetic glimpse of the old south for a few miles. Even as a small child, I could feel the history hanging in the rafters. Something proud, forgotten, perhaps misunderstood.
All that was left before we hit Ashland was a windy road through the Talledega National Forest. It took us past an old covered bridge and wooden shacks that had been there since the 40s. By the time we arrived in Ashland, another old southern town with a central square and a domed court house, my appetite was waking up. In the summer, old men in overalls sat on the tail gates of their trucks full of green–striped watermelons with bright red centers, chewing tobacco, hoping someone would come along and lighten their load.
The original farmers market.
At that point, my breath would relax as my excitement built. It was key to pay attention to the bends and curves on Lineville road. We passed Aunt Siddy’s house, Maudine‘s, the old Carpenter place, then the road would open up onto the Macedonia Crossroads, Dison’s pond, and then the first one to see the house come into view would yell, “I see Bee’s house!”
The cream colored country house with the brick chimney smoking away beyond the corn patch was our destination. The old home place.
Surrounded by huge oak trees, the 100 year-old house was standing as if waiting for us to visit.
We hopped out of the car and Bee would already be at the door. Papa would come around saying things like, “Well look at the little Jones girls.” We were not Jones girls at all. My sisters and I were Burroughs, just like him.
The screen door would slam and off into the kitchen we would go with smells of turkey and dressing, sweet potato casserole, cornbread, black-eyed peas, turnip greens, pear relish and fried apple pies. Everything was from the garden. It was a country house where you had to keep the door to the kitchen shut to keep the heat in from the small fireplace. Every consequent room had a chill. Even the bathroom. But it didn’t keep me from wanting to sit there and gaze awhile out the window upon the heirloom pear tree and old brown smoke house, we used as a playhouse, or bang on the piano in the living room where the desserts were kept.
My grandfather was a farmer/gardener who grew watermelons, corn, beans, tomatoes and popcorn. He kept an old refrigerator on its side full of composted earth. He sold earthworms for fishing, for anyone that wanted to stick a pole in the lake up the road. Up the road lived other relatives. Uncle Bryan and Aunt Mazzee. Uncle Earl and Hazel. Uncle Don and Aunt Julia. Kinfolk as they say, who would sooner or later drop in and sit on the porch for a spell if it wasn’t too cold and tell stories of the old days in those long, drawn out accents that put you to sleep.
My aunt Sarah, the oldest and unmarried was the breakfast biscuit and cornbread maker. She would sift the southern bleached self–rising flour out of the cupboard in the old way, mix it with buttermilkand a little butter and a pinch of salt and knead lightly. Then she would roll it out on a well-used piece of floured canvas cloth and cut biscuit rounds from the rim of a glass. The touch was light and it reminded me of the skin hanging from my grandmother’s arm. Soft and pliable. The biscuits cooked quick and we children would watch my grandfather cut them in half, mash some butter and sorghum syrup together and slather it on those puffy little clouds of goodness. He would say things like, “You know what this tastes like?” And we would say, “Biscuits with sorghum syrup!” And he would say, “No.. they taste like more.“ As if to say, let’s eat more. As he got older we had to give him a plain white plate to eat from. Otherwise, he would poke at the flower design in the middle thinking there was “more” to eat.
We lost Joseph Harlan Burroughs Sr. at 84 and my grandmother, Velma lou Holman Burroughs, at 74. She was a sweet soul and the epitome of old-fashioned grace. A Home Ec teacher in her day, she sewed her own clothes, knew how to cook and kept a fine home. She read the bible to her children by lantern light, grew flowers for the church and wore hats on Sundays.
So did my grandfather. The church, Olive Branch, was just up the country road, a 5 minute walk, but we always drove it in the old Plymouth. My grandparents dressed to the nines. The preacher would give lofty sermons while my sisters and I occupied ourselves with Jesus fans, trying to sit still. Funerals were the most passionate. People cried and sang hymnals like “Rock of Ages” and “The old Rugged Cross.” Then we would eat fried chicken and a multitude of pies and cakes, forgetting a little too quickly who had just passed on.
Thanksgiving Day was a gathering day of familywithin a 100-mile range. Uncle James, Lib, Rusty and Jana would come from Anniston. Uncle Grant and Aunt Julia, Patricia and Katherine (Patsy and Kathy) would come from Alex City. My sisters, Cindy Lou (the oldest, and the first grandchild and protector of the past), myself and my younger sisJoanna, came with our parents Joseph Harlan Burroughs, Jr and our mother Clara. We ate at the old table, told stories and some of us took naps afterwards. My, I could sleep forever down there. Was it the whippoorwills? Too much food? A deep relaxation of being held? My grandmothers quilt? Our ancestry was part Cherokee and Choctaw. My great, great grandmother was 1/2 Cherokee and my great, great grandfather was 1/2 Choctaw. That says something about the high cheekbones and sensitivity of our family.
We were southern, but not bigoted or racist. We were people of the earth. Sensitive and kind. There was a sense of humor in the family that was wicked. My uncle Don passed my aunt Sarah in the yard one day with her cane and yelled out as he passed by, “Hey old woman!” She yelled back, “What old woman?” Waving her stick at him like she would wop him if she could.
The Burroughs are a stubborn lot, my grandmother would say. “You can’t push ’em, but you can lead ’em.” And that is what she did. After she left, my aunt Sarah had the reign over her three younger brothers. They were adults mind you, but she was boss. She outlived them all, my father included who died in 2009 at 90. Sarah might live to be an heirloom herself. At 98, she only has two years to go.
The old place lies dormant today. The table is empty. The fires no longer burn. It’s cold there. It’s a place of old things left to linger in time and slowly antique. Memories of a simpler life, where the Reverend would stop by if someone was sick, and neighbors popped in to offer a mess of beans. Corn to shuck. Or take a look at the photo album on the porch when everyone was younger, even me. A place to call home for the ancestors, the ones who came before us. It holds a lineage of spirited people of whom I am proud to have descended. When I walk quietly in the woods, I think of the Indians and how they could walk invisibly, undetected even by deer. They soon integrated, became farmers and brought their wisdom to town, holding tightly to what they knew to be true and good.
Sitting in the ancestral graveyard of Olive Branch, I once gazed upon the headstones of those greats who came before me and my heart went soft when my eyes fell upon my mother Clara, who died at 61. I felt sad looking down on her place of rest, cold and grey. When all of a sudden, a thousand chirping swallows lifted from the bare forest all at once and swarm over my head. Hundreds of small black birds in a morphing cloud, swept and swooped in a sky dance, all movement, no sound, for a phenomenal display that seems to last for as long as I needed to understand that this is where the loved ones go. They are not dead and inanimate in the copper–colored ground, but alive in the birds, the trees, the atmosphere of the place. The ever-present unseen, spirited world. I smiled through tears, kind of laughed and thought...one day I will be invisible too.