From Linda Lee Greene, Author/Artist
In light of so many unspeakable tragedies in an out-of-control world, to put hopeful words of any kind to paper touches on the grotesque. However, life’s troubles concurrently remind us of our courageous ancestors who sacrificed so much to pave the way for us. They would roll over in their graves if we give into helplessness and are thus struck silent. To be human is to contend with disaster and the grief it leaves in its wake. We must express our grief even as we attempt to master our despair. We have learned through our everyday living that grief can be transformed as something bearable through acts of love. To honor our traditions is an act of love that celebrates and validates our forebears. It is also a comfort-seeking pursuit for us as we carry on in their absence. The following is a true story. It recounts such an act of love on the part of my family:
“My maternal ancestors were faithful to their generational commitment to express their respect and gratitude to their deceased relatives and friends by visiting their graves on every holiday and change of seasons. Each visit involved decorating and maintaining the graves.
Back when my mother and her siblings were youngsters, their old car of the day being too small to accommodate their large brood, their mighty team of broad-backed workhorses, Roger and Smoky by name, pulled the heavy, buckboard wagon on their visits to the various graveyards in the area. Mommaw and Poppaw, taking a rare break from the demanding duties of their farm, were at the helm of the wagon. Dean, the baby of the family, sat between his parents on the high seat of the buckboard, a vantage point that overlooked the ample rumps of the horses. In the back, the seven other children, my mother among them before she was my mother, sat on bound bundles of hay perched vicariously on the gaping floorboards that formed the flat bed of the conveyance. The group of them, in perfect harmony and at the top of their lungs, accompanied by Uncle Bob and Uncle Bussy on their mandolins, sang the old song, “On Top of Old Smoky,” while the groaning wagon appeared in danger of imploding from the weight of its human cargo and the strain of the rough terrain that suffered its challenged wheels and chassis. Years later and as the first grandchildren born to the family, my brother and I also rode on that wagon on similar excursions, singing that old song in unison with our aunts and uncles at the top of our voices. My brother and I then got to ride between Mommaw and Poppaw on the high seat that overlooked the broad backs of Roger and Smoky. I was a grown woman and married, with children of my own when suddenly one day it dawned on me for the first time that the song was about the Great Smoky Mountains rather than a horse named Smoky.
I still can see in my mind’s eye the wobbly wheels of the buckboard and the iron-shod hooves of the horses kicking up clouds of dust on the deeply rutted, mud-caked lanes that lead to the remote cemeteries. One of my prized possessions is the old, earthenware jug that contained the grease Poppaw used to lubricate the screeching wheels of the buckboard. The interior of the jug’s fissured walls are coated to this day with black and slick remnants of the grease. During those journeys, every once in a while, Poppaw yelled, “Whoa, Roger…Whoa Smoky,” and the buckboard came to a grating halt. While the horses snorted from their huge nostrils and pawed the ground with their heavy hooves, their hot bodies steaming and making auras of their perspiration all around them, down from the high seat on his long legs Poppaw jumped, pulling the jug from beneath the seat, a stick jutting from its open top. The working end of the stick was wrapped in a grease-blackened cloth, and he smeared the axles of the wheels with it.
At the entrance to the road that loops the community of Cedar Fork where my parents spent their formative years, although several new homesteads have sprung up over the years, still it feels to me as if I’m entering an evolutionary backwater, a safe haven cut off from the rest of the world. These days I come to call in my car rather than on a buckboard. I take the right turn in the loop that leads past “Greene Acres,” the location of the fallen log cabin where my father and his family lived back in those days. I pull my car into the area, park, and then walk to the edge of the property, its border high above Cedar Fork Creek.
In the canyon below, sunlight filters through the trees, winking gaily upon the rushing water of the creek. I stretch my eyes to get a glimpse of the footbridge by the ancient, mountain spring that was the source of drinking and cooking water for my father’s large family long ago, and a bright ray of sun, as if switched on for my benefit by the Hand of God, isolates it and sets it aglow. I take it as a “token” message, a greeting from the spirit of my paternal grandmother, and I smile and wave at her as if she is actually standing there. Satisfied that my presence has been acknowledged and welcomed, I return to my car. Over the decades, the markers of my deceased, maternal relatives have accumulated in the graveyard in Cedar Fork, and I am shocked, as always, at the increased number of them, as beneath the tires of my car the gravel on the lane to the small, country cemetery loudly pops and crunches. There exists a legend that birds shun other neighboring trees, preferring to gather en masse instead among the leaves of an ancient pipal tree in a shimmering land across the sea, the pipal that is said to be a direct descendant of the holy tree the Buddha sat beneath while attaining enlightenment during his days of contemplation there. It might be my prolific imagination at work, but I swear a similar phenomenon occurs in a venerable oak tree that arches above the burial plot of my family, where, among Civil War and other war veterans, upper-crust titans, and lower-caste farmers of the area, Mommaw and Poppaw, my mother and father, my sister and most of my nearest, deceased maternal kin now lie.
And as if in testimony to my childhood memories of such a phenomenon, while its abutting trees appear to be empty, huddled within the gnarled branches of the wizened, oak tree, the gathered birds are perched. As I approach the graves, my presence sets in motion the flight of the birds, their overlapped and snapping black wings, for those brief moments in time, blotting out the sun.
I have read that birds are manifest angels on earth, but I am less wise about such things than when a child. Knowing it will not be confirmed to me until I complete my own earthly journey, I leave it to the humming wheel of the universe, and to my elders, all of whom on my mother’s side of my family, are already there in Cedar Fork Cemetery, and where someday my remains will mingle with theirs.”
The above essay is an adaptation of an excerpt of Guardians and Other Angels, my novel of historical fiction and true family lore. It is available in eBook and paperback on Amazon.
Multi-award-winning author and artist Linda Lee Greene describes her life as a telescope that when trained on her past reveals how each piece of it, whether good or bad or in-between, was necessary in the unfoldment of her fine art and literary paths.
Greene moved from farm-girl to city-girl; dance instructor to wife, mother, and homemaker; divorcee to single-working-mom and adult-college-student; and interior designer to multi-award-winning artist and author, essayist, and blogger. It was decades of challenging life experiences and debilitating, chronic illness that gave birth to her dormant flair for art and writing. Greene was three days shy of her fifty-seventh birthday when her creative spirit took a hold of her.
She found her way to her lonely easel soon thereafter. Since then Greene has accepted commissions and displayed her artwork in shows and galleries in and around the USA. She is also a member of artist and writer associations.