Pig-tailed, freckle-faced Marie-France, big round eyes could look straight into your insides, she dudn’t look at all like her name, all hotsy totsy-like. Bein she’s closest to me in age amongst all the cousins in these parts, and smarter’n all of us by half, I count my blessin’s near ever day we’re kin. Reckon we’ve got us some family all over the cre-ation, cross the county line and even met me some from clear to Tennessee and Colorado but here in Wilray County, it’s just us Goodwells and the Mickelwaits from Mama’s side, from whom harkens Marie-Frances. They been farmin’ land down to the river bottoms the other side o’town fer as long as anyone can remember.
Just a breath beyond brothers and sisters to me and mine, the Michelwait clan been raisin’ clover down in them ever-wet fields for nigh on 50-60 years, plum more’n a century or so. Mama, she was born there, right on the front stoop, purtin’ near under the porch swing, hear her tell it. Dependin’ on the day, that is. One re-citation, Grandfather Mickelwait did the honors in the back of the haywagon, all prickly and smellin’ o’sunshine and warm wood. Another’n, she hollered her first holler back o’ the henhouse, whilst Grandmama Mickelwait was a’pluckin’ headless chickens fer the stewpot, readyin’ the family for her bein’ bedfast.
Other’n the hollerin’ part, her recantations sort of ebbs and flows with time and tellin’, and so do we. Us kids’re purty sure she’s actually seein’ in her mind’s eye first time she seen daylight, livin it like it was yesterday. Each story, however dif’urnt, gets narrated as true and movin’ as the one tol’ before. Sometimes for joy and laughter, sometimes for the heart-rendin’ sorrow of it all, one of us or t’other near always ended up cloudin’ up, dependin’ on how it was told this time.
Well, never me.
Now, I love my mama, through and through and to eternity and Heaven’s gates, but the tale does get heftier with ever tellin’. Still, all of us leans in to listen, however long it takes this time, eyeballs on Mama, ’cause when she gets rollin’, I tell you what, she lets ‘er rip! Always good fer a di-version, my mama!
Daddy, he come from money. His kin lived high on the hog, early days, ownin’ their own land, fertile, no clay, sweet black betty soil, near to 500 acres worth perched way up on the bluffs overlookin’ them river bottoms where Mama growed up.
Lost it all, though, when The Great War took hold. Grandpap was too old to enlist and Daddy had flat feet. Rest of the Goodwell boys went and served, all over the world. Couple didn’t come back, couple didn’t come back right. Grandpap and Daddy, they worked awful hard, but even two hardy men (Grandmama done passed over) hardly had the manpower nor the temperment needed to maintain a place that size. Piecemeal, trades and barter and greenback sales led to the end of their landownin’ days. Grandpap went to work for the Government, Daddy went to the rodeo.
Met Mama,though, one o’ them dolled up girls leanin’ again’t the railin’, wavin’ they hankies at the rodeo cowboys. That’s Daddy’s tale. Mama, she lay claim to her dyin’ day ’twas Daddy waved her way first. This animated discourse made for fine and firey dinner conversation. We brung it up as often as we felt prudent.
They don’t like to talk about the bad times much, Grandpap and Daddy. Figure them days don’t come to mind that often. Come down some true. But life is fer livin’ and you’d best get after it, whatever it lays before you. It’s what I been told, and what I’m believin’. And sure as shootin’, that’s what they gone and done, no complainin’ nor lookin’ behind, unless to learn a lesson. Fact is, we Goodwells’r known fer our bounce, like the Holy Spirit done lay ‘hold o’us and won’t let go. Sometime’s we just cain’t keep still nor our voices low, nor our hands from wavin’ high, no matter how much effort we give. Don’t no one ’round here hold us in low esteem for what trials we may have endured. It’s the endurin’, that’s what it is. Ain’t no choice in this life, you fish’r cut bait.
I’ll say that again, “Best fish ‘er cut bait.” ‘Ts’all there is too it.
We Goodwells, we’re fishermen, through and through. Our situation, it ain’t half bad, considerin’ we’re all together, got plunty to eat, and are purty healthy, all told. Not countin’ Luce whose deficiency was bein’ born with no common sense in her head nor anywheres else.
Do not tell her I said that. I’ll deny it all day long and you’d be hardpressed to prove it.
And. I’d find you.
So let’s leave that there alone for the time bein’.
This day I’m talkin’ about, Marie-France’n her own Mama, Aint U-Lee, been spendin’ a few days at our place, sleepin’ nights on blanket pallets on the front room floor. They was workin’ and plannin’ and fussin’ and bakin’ and stitchin’ and shooin’, gettin’ ready for the big annual Fellowship Festival and Reception down to the church come early next week. Ladies and girls and grandmas been usin’ our house as a repository of potholders, canned peaches, and googaws fer decoratin’ the lawn back of the cemetery.
Church fellowships and fairs, all which include the required potluck spreads laid out on old board tables on sawhorses piled with any sort of delectable edible specialties, been part of my livelihood since Daddy’d hoist me up on his shoulders as a tot and tote me about, high and mighty. This particular occasion, Mama and Aint U-Lee done took over from rickety old Miss Volgelsong since she was turnin’ 90 in a couple months and couldn’t hardly see no more.
Couldn’t stand up neither, nor hear, nor do much more than list her grievances, regular. I steered clear. More like Mama and Aint U-Lee wrassled control out o’her stringy, stingy, bony, clutchin’ cold hands, but wrassle they did, and they come up bruised but winners. Meanin’ our house this week was a madhouse of frilly women and giggly girls.
Not my cup o’ tea.
I was makin’ myself scarce, within earshot only to complete my chores. I’d learned my lesson early on ’bout a house full of women. “Liam, fetch us some sugar for our tea.” “Liam, stand here and block the light whilst I hem this tablecloth.” “Liam, tell the ladies ’bout the time we caught you dressin’ up Daddy’s huntin’ dogs in Grandpap’s neckties.”
Like I done said, lesson learned early. Til the potluck, that is. I’d be right there, bells on. Never miss me a potluck, even if I was a’dyin’ on my deathbed, just this side of cold and blue. “Put me on a stretcher, boys, I got me some ingestation ahead o’me! Casseroles and Cobblers and assorted Fried Chicken Recipes be the last thing on my horizon! If I’m headin’ to the Promised Land, I’m going with a full belly! Heave ho, boys! Look sharp! Ol’ Liam is on his way!”
Lord, I am salivatin’ and a’slobberin’ just picturin’ it! Yep, I reckon potlucks down to the church do get me a’goin’.
But I digress. (That’s a phrase I just leart from literature class, old time authors use it with regularity. Me, I just like the way it tastes.)
But I digress. Again. For good measure.
Here’s the deal. Marie-France,besides bein’ born with more’n her share of brains, is near fastest, next to me’n Luce, in the whole extended family. Gets her some points in my book. We formed a little alliance, us three, when we was barely outta diapers.
Well, until Luce up and got all goofy ‘when she turned teenager. She’s a wildcard, some days.
Still, we’d formed a blood pact, swearin’ (never once lettin’ on to Mama we used that word. Swearin’ s a sin, no matter how you choose to define it.) us three was one fer all and all fer each other, come hell’r high water, and if one was needin’ assistance or aid, why, the other’s was obliged to hightail it to the rescue. So when Marie-France slid quiet-like into the barn where I was brushin’ the horses come evenin’, I got me a shiver. Them buggy blue eye’s o’hers was slow to meet mine, meanin’ she’d a heavy burden she was strugglin’ to bare, and might need share.
‘Nother lesson learned early? Don’t push a female to speak ‘fore she’s set. Jest don’t. Like they mouths been sealed with ce-ment, they will not let one word slip, nohow. So I bided my time, let her edge ’round the barn, stick her fingers ‘tween the missin’ chinks in the wood, scratch an equine ear or two or three, scratch behind her own ear once or twice. Mary-France swatted a bothersome fly, rebuckled her shoes for good measure, but it was when she smoothed down them crazy, wiry whisps of excaped hair from them twists on the side of her head, I knew she cudn’t hold it in no more.
Durned right, I was, too.
“Liam, look here,” she twisted the toe of her scuffed up buckle shoe into the red dust of the barn floor. “I got me a situation.”
Oh, please,no, have mercy on me, let it not be girly stuff! I don’t WANT to know about no girl stuff, not ribbons, nor boy troubles, nor “teach me how to dance before Jimmy or Joe or Shelton asks me to a shindig.” Nope, better to nip this in the bud right now!
Thinkin’ quick, like I’m known to do, I settled on launching my curry comb hard, hittin’ the back wall with some acceleration. Little physical di-version. Felt it was necessary to ease the mood a mite and set the table for a dif’urnt conversation. Rafters rattled. The remaining few chinks of clay ‘tween the weathered wooden slats loosened their grip some. The horses even skittered jest a step ‘fore settlin’ back to muchin’ their oats and hay.
There. Well, I felt better. Satisfied we’d turned a corner, hoping maybe she’d changed her tune and would maybe like to put a line in the crick out beyond the holler, I turned my saucy self back ’round to Mary-France.
My tactic was less than successful. She was standin’ her ground, fierce now, fists clinched. She was not amused, nor deterred. Cain’t dwell on mistakes made, I forced my face into a stern glare. There we stood, like we was poised for the first round. Face to face, eyeball to eyeball, arms tensed, hangin’ stiff at our sides, legs shoulder width apart, at the ready.
This here was serious business. Time to let her say what she had to say. We was kin.
Plus. We swore.