All my life, I wanted to live in the country.
I was the child of streets, sidewalks, bridges, overpasses, a city that set its watch by military bases and the shipyard.
I am now the sound of roosters crowing before daybreak, geese honking and flying in their “V” against an egg-colored sky, glassy ponds with their rising morning mist, cotton fields, tobacco barns, donkeys, goats, horses, and the occasional peacock.
To be precise: I live on a tiny neighborhood cul-de-sac, not a farm, although fields and rural life surround me.
Just beyond the woods in front of my home is a pasture, and in that pasture live two mules.
The first time I drove down that road and saw them, I nearly wept.
I halfway expected my grandfather as a young man to walk out of the weathered, tin-roofed barn and hitch them to a plow.
See, I am also the child of stories about the old days and the old ways. In the summers I left the bustling city behind for a few weeks to stay with my grandparents in their rural community, where generations of my ancestors lived and died. Every word that Granddaddy and Grandma spoke, every memory they relived in response to my thousand questions, still lives in my soul.
Because of the stories I sometimes recognize a thing as familiar when I haven’t it seen before.
So it was that my first sight of these mules took me to a time long before my own. For just a minute, I felt like I was there.
And, in a way, I was.
He was up with the dawn, at the back of the field plowing with those mules. I stood on the porch and waved my apron at him, but he wasn’t looking.
I was alone in the house—a two-story house painted white, we didn’t own it, we were tenant farmers—because his mama had gotten mad with us and moved out. My sisters and my own mama thought there’d be plenty of time before the baby came. I guess I thought so, too.
I shivered in the chilly morning, the beginning of October, but the days still got pretty warm. Such a beautiful time of year, everything so crisp and bright, the sky so blue. We’d only been married for ten months. I had a lot to learn, being just twenty-one, but I was proud of what we had and I kept everything looking so nice. I didn’t think of what we didn’t have because no one had much of anything . . . .
All I could think about in that moment on that morning is that I suddenly needed help and no one knew.
“Lump!” I yelled, as hard as I could, to get his attention.
He was fighting those mules—I don’t know how he always managed to find the orneriest mules on Earth!—and he couldn’t hear me.
Right about then is when my water broke. The warm fluid ran down my legs, past the hem of my dress, into my shoes. I’ve never been so frightened; I sat down on the porch steps and started to pray:
Help me, God. I don’t know what to do! Please send help, somehow.
That’s when Belle, our little bluetick hound, came out from under the porch and sat beside me. She started licking the fluid off my legs like she knew what was happening and I am sure she did. Animals know things. I put my arms around her and cried and cried.
“Bless you, old Belle, for trying to help me,” I told her.
Of course my grandfather looked up from the mules to see her there. He went for the doctor, who arrived in plenty of time.
That is how my father came into the world.
Grandma said Granddaddy was so, so proud of his boy: “Never saw his face shine quite like that before, when the doctor called him in from the front room and put his son in his arms. Your newborn Daddy looked exactly like him.”
Made up for those ornery mules, I suppose. I don’t know of any other part they played in this story, but it is enough. For me, mules are forever icons of my young grandfather and his farmer-sharecropper life.
Standing like silent sentinels in the background as one generation passes to another.
Oh yes, I’ve loved the country all my life, and maybe even before.
Living here means that long ago is never far away.
Note: Everyone “down home” called my grandfather by his nickname, Lump, short for Columbus. When my father saw me for the first time, he said, with more than a little concern: “My land—she looks just like Daddy.”