Spring Time

(Note: In one of my delightful writing groups, we were challenged to write on the theme of spring. These prompts are much more wide open than they might appear at first glance. This was my offering. It’s a true story.)

Daddy grew up in the poorhouse.

It’s probably not what you think.

 

The former Johnston County (NC) poorhouse , aka County Farm and Home, is a private nursing home. The building stands as it did when it was first built in the early 1920s.

 

His father was hired to oversee the place during the years of the Great Depression, and the entire family of nine got to live and eat there, cost-free. Not that they weren’t owed that. Grampa’s salary was paltry to begin with and got cut as the Depression worsened. Not to mention that Gramma was expected to oversee the cooking, the laundry, the cleaning, and the nursing of the county home’s residents for no salary whatsoever.

Daddy said there was a lot of sickness at the poorhouse—and a lot of dying, too, what with the inmates, as they were called, being frail and elderly, developmentally disabled, or previously homeless—sometimes all of those things simultaneously.

Most people, Daddy said, when they came to live at the poorhouse, they also came to die there. And when that happened, unless a family member came to claim the body—and usually no one did, Grampa held a simple service, then the unembalmed body was placed in a plain pine casket and lowered into an unmarked grave which had been dug by Grampa, his sons, and the fittest of the inmates earlier in the day. It was a real potters’ field.

Well, with death always lurking around the corner, Grampa stored truckloads of pine boxes in a room of one of the old outbuildings on the property, where they sat waiting for the next person to die. Daddy and his brothers knew the darkened space as the coffin room.

It was one of their favorite play places.

It was where they hid when they thought a chore was about to be assigned, and it was a fine destination during a neighborhood game of hide and seek.

And Daddy, who once fancied he’d grow up to be a preacher, picked the coffin room to practice his oratory. For some reason, there was an old bed stored in the coffin room, too, and it was a springy thing. Daddy used the bed as his ‘pulpit.’

During his sermon sessions, he jumped up and down on that old bed. With its iron springs, it acted kind of like a pogo stick. Now, Daddy was a fiery orator, and as his fervor increased, so did his bouncing. He’d spring higher and higher until both he and his message finally fizzled out.

Well, Daddy never did get that call to be a minister. He reckoned the world just wasn’t ready for a preacher with so much spring in his step.

(P. S. You can find more stories about Daddy’s youth in my book, Boyhood Daze and Other Stories: Growing Up Happy During the Great Depression.)

 

Nova Scotia: Land of Kindness and Humor

If you’ve ever watched the TV series Due South, you know the running joke about the uber politeness of  Benton Fraser, the Canadian Mountie assigned to work in Chicago. (If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and watch.) The nice Canadian is such a tired stereotype that I’m a little embarrassed to acknowledge I found it to be true, at least as far as Nova Scotia is concerned—-New Brunswick, too, which we passed through on our way to and from.

Not just polite, but downright nice. Folks struck up conversations with us from the next table in a restaurant, on hiking trails, at roadside overlooks. It was more than politeness; there was a real genuineness to their overtures. The bonhomie was contagious—everyone seemed friendlier in Nova Scotia. We had long, delightful chats with folks from the Philippines, China, New Zealand, and Scotland. It’s hard to define, but the truth of it was amplified as soon as we returned to the States. After 2 1/2 weeks in Nova Scotia, a Maine “I’m sorry” uttered after an accidental brush sounded mechanical, almost brusque, by comparison.

Sorry to my Canadian friends if you’re sick of hearing this cliché, but there are far worse character traits to be had. After all, niceness is a moral virtue. And I thank you for it. You brought out my best self.

Speaking of niceness, I found it particularly touching that from the first Canadian we met to the last, as soon as someone knew we were from North Carolina, the first words out of their mouths were about Hurricane Florence. Almost to a person. They’d been following the news, they’d mourned the losses, they commiserated with us.  Even though the Gnome and I were virtually unaffected by the hurricane’s wrath, we were comforted by this display of concern and caring.

Kindness in Nova Scotia extends to the environment. A friend of mine once noted about our outdoor clothesline that she didn’t know anyone else who had one. Well, if she lived in Nova Scotia, she would! Every dry day in every part of the province, we saw laundry drying in the breeze. And I was impressed to see that almost every public trash receptacle in Nova Scotia was accompanied by not one but two, and usually three, recycling units, including one for food waste. Note how well-maintained they are.

 

Containers for almost all ready-to-serve beverages, not just soft drinks, are recycled. Got a half-gallon orange juice carton? An individual apple juice carton? Recyclable. They’ve been doing this for more than twenty years! (We didn’t realize until too late that we’d been paying deposits on all our containers and could have gotten refunds. Guess we’ll  file that info away till our next visit.)

Nova Scotians are serious about their recycling. Every Airbnb, every restaurant, every attraction we visited featured recycling bins. Good for them.

And what could be more hospitable than to discover a set of red Adirondack chairs waiting for you at random scenic spots? The red chair program was first put into place by Canada’s national park system. Now, it seems to be a ubiquitous trend. We found them at other public venues as well as in the backyards of several of our Airbnb hosts. We relaxed in them every chance we got. Is there a better way to invite your guests to stay a while?

Even the postal boxes are festive and welcoming.

There’s another side to the people of Nova Scotia: their sense of humor. We encountered it over and over. There was the sign at the entrance to the Telegraph House in Baddeck exhorting guests to avoid trying to close the screen door, stating that “he is lazy and will close in his own time.”

There were more examples. For instance . . .

This public sculpture on the Halifax Boardwalk, titled Got Drunk, Fell Down, features not only the ‘drunk’ lamp post but its friend whose head hangs in embarrassment and (a little further away but unseen in this photo) a less engaged post who’s trying to ignore the whole thing.) Poignant, yes, but also funny.

Granted, this Disney cruise ship isn’t from Nova Scotia, but that’s where we saw it. We couldn’t help smiling at this scene.

I have no idea why we happened to pull off the road at this particular spot, but when we did, we came upon this sign. I’m glad we stopped. It gave us a chance to . . .

DSCF5152

do our part to keep the sea serpents at bay.

Pitch perfect sign on the bathroom door of a Yarmouth restaurant

We’d gotten used to seeing Nova Scotia houses painted in happy reds, purples, greens, and yellows. But this is the only one we saw that actually IS a painting. Gotta love the whimsy of it.

And then we saw this ‘news’ notice in the North Shore Community Museum—a new take on fascinators that highlights the amount of snow likely to be found in that part of Cape Breton.

With that chuckle, I say a nostalgic goodbye to our Nova Scotia road trip and will return to my usual fare of Living on the Diagonal miscellany.

 

Canadian Road Signs

I’m sure Nova Scotia’s pictogram road signs are universally standard, but The Gnome and I had never seen the likes of some of them before. Maybe we live sheltered lives. Or maybe we’d just been alone together too long. Whatever the reason, the road signs we saw along our Canadian travels finally started to crack us up. We did struggle with some, and then we started making up our own messages. Here are some examples.

It was the exclamation point that first got our attention. What could this say, we wondered: Hey, Mom, watch this? Don’t dive from a pyramid? “Running down a vertical slope is exclamation-point-worthy?” The chain link fence separating us from a sheer cliff-drop into the ocean might have given us a clue. Good advice in any case.

DSCF4965

Don’t know why, but we found this odd–a private railroad crossing.

dump truck

Doesn’t this look like a warning that a dump truck is about to crash into a wall? Look again–it actually means construction equipment may be entering the highway somewhere nearby.

Wow, those Canadians and their speed limits! Oh, wait, that’s kilometers, not miles per hour. Quick, calculate!

This one? Maybe mountains ahead? Nope. It means the road’s about to get bumpy

After trying to interpret some of the more obtuse road signs, we decided this one meant “No tossing a tin can from your car window when the lid’s still attached.”

I loved the extensiveness of informational signage and was impressed by the wifi notice, but do you know what some of the other images mean?

DSCF3914You may have seen this on a previous post, but it fits here, too. It took us a while to figure it out. It looks like cuts of meat or something on top of two capital H’s. Soon enough we learned it means the pavement is about to end in favor of gravel–or worse.

The next one’s not a road sign, but we did find it in Canada.

Okay, I know it’s done differently in different places, but I’d simply never seen anything like this sign before. Sitting in my stall, I laughed out loud–mostly because I could never manage the first position!

It’s good to laugh. We did plenty on our trip.

Bear Sighting

Have I told you about our late night bear visits? That’s right. We’ve had a bear in our front yard, on our wooded hillside, even on our deck. We named her Shadow. I tried to capture the tale in a rhyming story for the grandkids.

Okay, not the greatest shot, but hey, I was staring at a bear!

SHADOW

It was late, late one night—
I woke up to a crash!
A Kapow! And a Bang!
I jumped up in a dash!

I wandered outside
and what did I see?
A great big black bear
staring at me!

That bear was so black,
that bear was so big
with her cinnamon nose,
I just flipped my wig!

But why was she there
in my yard late at night?
She was eating my birdseed—
every single last bite!

What could she think
of seeing me now
peeking out in the dark
and watching her chow?

I thought she might run,
but I found that instead
she sat on her haunches
slowly turning her head

To give me a stare.
So I stared right back
till I suddenly thought
I ought to backtrack

Or she’ll give me a whack
with her giant bear paws,
or carry me off
in her great big bear jaws.

I tiptoed inside
and called Grampa Ron.
“Come here to the window!”
But the big bear was gone.

And so was the birdseed,
and the bird feeder, too!
We found it next day
at the edge of the wood.

Can you picture that bear,
feeder swinging from mouth
like a big picnic basket,
traveling south?

The next night and the next
she did not come back,
but the following night
what a thwack, whack, and crack!

A tree limb she broke.
Another bird feeder gone!
And where do you think
we picked up this one?

Right! Right you are—
at the edge of the woods
just where she left
the first of her goods!

She was so clever,
that great big old bear;
She gobbled her food
with nary a care.

She hasn’t returned.
I do not know why.
Maybe she’s patiently
waiting for pie!

Here’s to What We Don’t Know

Another quick assignment in my Wednesday writing group—you’ll find the prompt in the last nine words of this post. (Unh-uh! No skipping to the end!)

Living in a tent on ten acres of land in a strange place with no water, no electricity, no phone access, no knowledge of local weather conditions—like that severe thunderstorms could and would pop up daily with no warning, no jobs, and no money but with two elementary-aged children, two neurotic cats, and a notion we could live this way for as long as it took to design our own house, get planning approval, and build the entire thing with nothing more than our own four hands and a few hand tools . . . well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Just Wondering

 

My grandfather, Joseph Bezzel Coates, b. 05/21/1895

My grampa was a fiend for learning.
Immediately he knew
radio’s potential
for education,
calling his boys
from their play
when “Music Appreciation Hour” aired.

Grampa was a fiend for hard work, too.
Too little of it
and the devil might
set up his workshop—
that’s the way Grampa saw it. Besides,
too much work needed doing
to trifle with idleness.

Hard work was like play for him
so he was known to say,
during an afternoon break from working in tobacco
or cotton or corn and the heat from the sun
blew the top off thermometers,
“Boys, while you’re resting,
let’s go shuck some corn.”

So, I wonder how Grampa would handle
the age of social media.
Surely he’d see the potential for good,
the opportunity for learning.
But day after day, hour upon hour
playing games on smartphones, scouring Facebook, or texting friends?
Would Grampa put up with that?

WWGD?
(What would Grampa do?)

Yes, It Snows In North Carolina

Yes, It Snows in North Carolina   

(On the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Blizzard of ’93)

When the Michigander I’d just met learned that our family lives in North Carolina, he said, “Well then, you don’t have to worry about snow.” It’s a comment I frequently hear from people who “aren’t from around here,” as if they think all Tar Heels live at the beach. Little do they know. In a state that stretches 600 miles inland, my home is on the same longitudinal plane as Cleveland, Ohio. The meridian actually skims Michigan’s mitten thumb and lines up with eastern Ontario. Pretty far inland.

At more than 4,000 feet in elevation, we’re also a bit higher than coastal areas. So, yes, we have some weather, and it’s not usually fit for swimsuits. Our thermometer has read as low as -32º. Our most wintry weather has a tendency to come after many folks have long since said goodbye to winter. During our first year here, we were surprised by several inches of snow on Memorial Day. Just a few years later, four-foot drifts covered our gravel road in the middle of April.

Snowfall near our house, 2010: everything is covered.

Then, there was that other time . . .

In mid-March, 1993, I had a business meeting a couple hours from here. I decided to add a quick overnight visit with my parents, who lived nearby. Snow was again in the forecast, but it wasn’t expected to begin falling until sometime the following day. I’d surely return home ahead of any significant precipitation.

Even so, I parked my little Geo Metro at the bottom of the mountain road that led to their home. Just in case. If the snow came earlier and/or heavier than expected, it would have been treacherous trying to drive out from my parents’ mountainside perch.

The next morning, we woke to a world of white outside and darkness indoors. The snow was deep and heavy. Power lines had snapped for miles around. Snow poured down for three days. Hundred-mile-an- hour winds created monstrous drifts. The governor issued a two-day long, twenty-four-hour curfew. Even wwhen the curfew was lifted, it was clear I wasn’t going anywhere.

Not only could I not retrieve my little car from the snowbank created by a snow plow—I couldn’t even see it under its huge snow mountain. My seventy-something-year-old father, who had suffered a massive heart attack several months prior, was in no shape to shovel snow. And I wasn’t willing to risk the same fate myself.

Back at home, the Gnome and our college-aged son who was getting ready to return to school after spring break were confronted by drifts up to four feet deep once the snow finally stopped falling. They were trapped, too. We usually hire someone to plow out our gravel road when it’s impassable, but no one could get up there. With school beckoning, they felt compelled to begin the daunting task of digging themselves out by hand.

Worried about not one but two potential heart attacks, I insisted on sworn promises that they’d take breaks a minimum of every two hours and call me on the nose at each break. I couldn’t get to them, but if I didn’t hear from them on time, I’d be calling 911 stat!

There was nothing more I could do except wait it out. My parents and I got by with a roaring fire in the fireplace and a lot of canned soups heated on a camp stove. We entertained ourselves with conversation and reading.

Enjoying my snow exile in a hammock

My mother had recently acquired a book published by the genealogical society of her home county. Residents had been invited to send in family stories and histories. Some were straightforward with lots of begats. Some people heaped praises on themselves—in the third person, clearly not realizing their own name would appear as author of their submission. Some were pious, some irreverent, some lavishly embellished.

Other entries were laugh-out-loud funny. Like the one about the grandpa who never cut his toenails and walked around his log cabin barefoot, his nails clicking loudly on the wood floor with each step. Or the one about the family whose children decided to outfit their mother with a football helmet and hang her upside down in a homemade traction device to cure her aching back. Or the story about the man who kept a skull in his closet. Then again, maybe we were just punch drunk. It was good medicine to read and share those stories while we were cooped up.

The book presented another opportunity, one to learn about my own family history. When I’d previously asked Mother how long her family had lived in her home county, she couldn’t tell me. She knew nothing about her family beyond her grandparents. Even then, the information was sometimes scanty.

Each article, it seemed, provided a clue about yet another previously unknown branch in my family tree, which in turn led me to still another and another. My paternal grandfather died years before my grandparents met. Mother knew hardly anything about him. With the help of the heritage book, I discovered that he had been in the Civil War, that my great-grandmother was thirty years his junior and was his second wife. I learned that my grandfather’s ancestors were some of the first European settlers in the area. My grandmother had deep local roots, too. I discovered that while most of my ancestors hailed from the British Isles, some came from Germany. It was fascinating stuff, even if not quite all of it was verifiable.

I was stuck in place for almost a week, much of it with my nose buried in the heritage book. By the time I finally left for home, I had a sheaf of papers summarizing family stories and diagramming potential genealogical connections for further research.

That week was the beginning of an enduring passion for family history, one that’s even led to a couple of books. All because of the Blizzard of ’93, otherwise known all along the East Coast as the Storm of the Century. On this occasion of the storm’s twenty-fifth anniversary, we’re in the midst of another great snowstorm. It’s not expected to be as big an event as the Blizzard of ’93, but then that one caught us off guard, too. 

Taking a bite out of snow

For a recap of the Blizzard of 1993, click here:   https://www.wataugademocrat.com/watauga/the-blizzard-of/article_13899f70-3c38-5153-8e92-10c2da17e884.html