27 April, 2013 — Joe Bageant
My family’s ancestral home on Shanghai Road, a great sagging clapboard thing perched on a hill with its many filigreed balconies and porches like heisted antebellum petticoats, sat perched on a hill at the base of Sleepy Creek Mountain. Gnawed by the elements on the outside and woodsmoked by a thousand griddlecake mornings on the inside, where children ran the stairways and mice ran the cellars, my grandparent’s house was stuffed and running over with life itself.
It was also a place where people died as well as lived. Died and were “laid out” in the parlor. My great-grandfather Old Jim was the last one to be laid out there. At the time I very young and was among the last in my family to see the embalmer dump the white enameled bucket of blood over the roots of the wavering red poppies that grew hard by the front yard. In those days and in those hollers the embalmer sometimes came to your house and laid out the body in the parlor. Low lamps burned all night and Old Jim was so still in that satin-lined box, like some ancient felled tree. Then that first realization of mortality struck, killing that innocence it kills in all of us. Maw leaned through the kerosene lantern glow and said, “Joey, be real still and you’ll hear the angels sing.” I did. No angels sang. Not a sound except the breathing of Old Jim’s great black dog whose green eyes flashed from under the bier. I also remember a strange chemical smell. They say Old Jim had already picked out his burying suit years before and he smelled like mothballs when he went into the coffin.
Years later I asked why the family laid people out like that. After all, there have been funeral homes around for a long time for godsake. “Well, there was funeral homes in Martinsburg and Berkeley Springs,” said Aunt Ony. “But they was too far away for everybody to get to in sometimes, then make two trips, one to come back with the body for buryin’. So the undertaker came to the house with the coffin in his truck.” Meanwhile the body had been washed and dressed and laid on a door placed across two sawhorses in the cellar to cool. By the time the embalmer arrived people had come from all around, the women with food, the men so quiet with fedora hats in their hands. A few had bottles under their coats to be shared out in the smokehouse during the “sittin’ up,” as they called a wake.
But the sight of those poppy blossoms leaning vulgarly forward in the sun, rooted in the blood of generations, it scared me to death. With that obvious literal connectivity of the child’s mind, I always associated the with the hymn that goes: There is a fountain filled with blood, Drawn from Emanuel’s veins. And sinners plunged beneath that flood Lose all their guilty stains. The summer sun spilled down and the garden dirt got hot, the katydids buzzed their atomic hymn to the void while the poppies nodded in silent agreement. I played in the barn. I played under the high cool front porch, but I never went near the poppy patch.
Except when Cousin Burt came. Not really a cousin, Burt lived up on Sleepy Creek Mountain and Burt was, to my young mind, evil. He was one of those oafish children born late in his parent’s life. His father Jake was a tall cadaverous man with the thin cruel Scots-Irish blood that shows up in so many here. He lived up on the mountain where he flogged an ancient flea bitten white plow horse by day and flailed a homemade banjo in the evenings, playing songs such as Gone Injun Blues and Georgie Buck. Old Jake’s heavy work shoe thumped the beat and he would bemoan in parched voice, “Mah naim is Georgie Buck, I ain’t niver had no luck, niver since the day that I was born.”
Anyway, Burt “got his meanness honest,” as they used to say. One time Burt burned some baby birds alive with lighter fluid under the porch. I think there were five of them. And he would get me down and give me Dutch rubs with his knuckles. Worst of all he would drag me into the poppy patch. After three or four draggings all Burt had to do was look at me and I’d do anything he wanted. “Fetch me a chunk of brown sugar from the pantry,” he’d order. Or “Git me one of yore pap’s cigarettes.” There was no arguing or it was into the poppies for me.
Maw, on the other hand, loved the poppies. A large woman with quiet gray eyes who always wore a faded blue sunbonnet in the garden, she would trim off the dead leaves in summer and fuss over them each spring. There she’d be with that old fashioned home made bonnet moving among them, appearing then disappearing in and out of the poppies as if she were communicating with them, drawing them up from the earth. They grew huge under her now long-passed hand.
Plowed under for lawn years ago, all signs of the poppies have disappeared. Cousin Burt, to my utter amazement, became a well respected Methodist minister. As one of my real cousins said a while back, “I reckon Burt got the call when he seen the mess of meanness he’s got to atone for.”
I was back there in August when it was so hot even the paper wasps had given up on fanning their nests. Cousin Ray lives there now, mows the vast lawn and steps over the snakes sunning on the rocks. Thus, like our own parents did in the old days, we ordered all the kids to stay close to the house, right here in front the yard, because of snakes lying perfectly still in the woods and fields. And all the aunts and female cousins, old women now, move silently through the house drawing the curtains, retiring to the coolest rooms. Try as I may, I can no longer see in my mind those poppies nodding through the heat. There is only the very real sight on my Cousin Ray’s four-year-old granddaughter rolling and laughing across that once-red spot of lawn. One day no doubt, she will be plunged beneath that flood of generations in order to lose all her guilty stains. But for now, innocence is too trite a word for her joy.