(EDITOR’S NOTE: Author Kathi Hill shares a chapter from her book, “Out on a Limb of the Family Tree.”
“Hot dog!” Missouri exclaimed as she looked out the window the second week of January. Her whole world was covered in white, and it was coming down hard. The snowflakes were large, lazy, and many. She grabbed the phone and called Mint. “Have y’all looked out?” she asked when Ben answered the phone.
Ben laughed. “Oh, yeah. Mint is hurrying breakfast so we can come to your house. I hear you have a great sled.” “That’s fact. My Papa made that sled when me and Kizzie was young’uns and it has served many generations well. However, I ain’t too sure about Mint gittin’ on a sled in her condition.”
“I won’t let her go down hills or anything like that, Missouri. I’m just gonna pull her around in the field. It’ll be fun.”
“You’ll break yur fool back, but go ahead. Sled’s stored in the barn, which is fallin’ down, so you’ll have to be real careful when you step in. It’s in the first stall, wrapped in a old quilt. I’m a-callin’ Kizzie and see if she wants y’all to pick her up. I got a streak o’lean to cook to season my soup beans with. I put the beans to soakin’ last night afore I went to bed. If you young’uns will stay, I’ll make a cake or pie fer dessert.”
“Sounds great. Tell Kizzie to call me if she wants me to pick her up. It will be about two hours.”
Missouri hung up and called Kizzie. “Mornin’, Sister. Want to come to my house and help me build a snowman?” “Well, they say they ain’t nothin’ worse’n a old fool. I guess you just proved it.” She snorted. “What’s this I hear about soup beans? And are they white or pintos?”
“They’s mixed. I didn’t have enough of either, so I decided to do both. And I’ll bake a big pone of cornbread. I’ll stew some taters too, and we’ll eat like kangs.”
“You know I ain’t gonner turn that down. All I eat fer breakfast was a cup of coffee and snow cream.”
“You foolin’ me?”
“Nope. I looked out and saw that stuff, and I dashed out, and got me a clean bowl full of snow, and eat the whole thang.”
“Lord, Sister. I wish I’d thought of that afore I eat my aiggs!”
They both laughed, excited about the day.
As soon as Missouri hung up, Wylene called, insisting on baking a pound cake, if Missouri would fix enough beans and bread. “Well, we ain’t gonner do this unless you invite Georgia and Sam. Thur feelin’s would be hurt if you don’t.”
“I’ll call and see if they want us to pick them up. We can build a snowman!” Wylene hung up, excited.
“I don’t reckon nobody grows up no more,” Missouri groused to herself, but she was grinning.
The family crowded in, beans simmered, Herb got out the playing cards, and promised Missouri nobody would stay out in the snow long, it was just too cold.
She watched out the window, Kizzie and Herb sitting with her, as Wylene, Georgia, Mint, and Ben built a snowman, threw snowballs at each other, and even played on the sled a little.
Ben was the only one to ride down the hill, (with Kizzie hollering through an open crack in the door “Blow the soot outta that thang!”) until he apparently coaxed Wylene to get on with him – zip! Down they went. You could hear Wylene screaming and laughing through the window. Sam slept through the whole thing in the recliner in the living room.
Shedding boots on the porch, the crew came in, shivering and wet. They all talked at once, laughing, and bringing the cold in with them. Mint allowed as the snow was so deep they might have seen an abominable snowman at the edge of the woods. Shaking her head, Missouri reminded Ben to wipe down the sled real good after dinner so the runners wouldn’t rust, and he promised he would.
Waking Sam up, they told him tall tales of their adventures while they dished out beans to pour on cornbread with stewed potatoes on the side. Kizzie had brought a big jug of freshly made sweet tea and every drop was drunk. Moaning, everyone swore they couldn’t have but a tiny piece of pound cake, but one bite did them in, and they all went back for seconds.
“This reminds me of the way I’d feel after dinner on the ground ever fifth Sunday,” Kizzie said. “Ever woman in the county tried to outdo the other with the best food you ever put in yur mouth.”
“That’s truth, Sister. Easter Mulky could make the best fried chicken I ever tasted before or since.”
“Her name was Easter?” Mint asked. She had become extremely interested in names since her pregnancy.
“T’was. Born Easter mornin’, just as the sun was comin’ up in the east. Reckon her Mama thought that was a sign.”
“And do you remember her firstborn was born on Easter too?” Kizzie asked.
“Did they name it Easter too?” Mint asked, giggling.
“No. Fer it was a boy. They named him after his Pa, but all I can recall is Hoss. He was the biggest thang, and to his dyin’ day, that’s what he was called.”
Georgia rose and began stacking dishes in the sink. “Mama, your cats are looking for supper.” She gazed at the feral cats, sitting at the edge of the wood, watching.
“Don’t you know they’s cold. I put a cardboard box with some towels in it on the porch, but if they use it, it’s after all’s quiet. Ben, will you throw them some cat food? Thur’s a pan or two out thar. They’ll run, but if yur real still, and don’t skeer them none, they’ll come right back and eat.”
“Should I take water, too? I’m sure everything’s frozen.”
“Reach up under the cabinet thar and git that old saucepan. I don’t use it no more no how.”
So Ben trekked out with a box of cat food under his arm and a pan of lukewarm water in both hands. He tread carefully so he would not fall and bust his rear end, and slowly, so as not to alarm the feline population.
Georgia glancing back out the window said softly, “Well, will you look at that?”
Everyone got up to peer out windows and doors. Ben had squatted down to feed and water the cats, and one of the cats had come to him and was rubbing up against his knee cap as he stroked its fur. They could see he was talking to it, and cautiously the other three cats approached and began eating. When the cat got its fill of petting, it too began eating. Ben slowly stood up, turned around, and walked back to the house.
When he opened the door, everyone stared at him. He blushed. “I’ve always had a way with animals, especially cats. Mint and I hope to get a kitten soon.”
“Well, I ain’t never seen nuthin’ like it.” Missouri declared. “Them cats are traitors! I been feedin’ them fer nigh on a year, and not oncet has any one of them let me even come close.” She puffed up all mad like and glared at Ben. “You ort not to steal folk’s pets.”
Ben looked alarmed until he saw the twinkle in Missouri’s eye. “Sorry Missouri. I guess I’m just a smooth operator. Want me to teach you a thing or two?”
“That’ll be the day, boy. That’ll be the day,” Herb told him.
“I’m thankin’ on gittin’ me a pet, myself,” Kizzie announced.
Missouri looked at her in surprise. “A pet? Now, just what kinda pet are you thankin’ on?”
“A bird. I seen one at Elsie Simmon’s house that talked up a storm. Now wouldn’t that be a fine thang to have?”
Missouri shook her head. “They’s a lot of trouble. Messy and all. We had one years ago. Do you remember it, Georgia?”
“I do. And we got it because of the one you saw Mrs. Weeks owned.”
“That’s truth.” Missouri nodded, warming to the story. “Miz Weeks, well she was a fine lady. Always looked like she’d just stepped out of a hat box. Her house looked like that too. Ever time I went home after visitin’ with her, I’d thank I needed to lick my calf over at my house cleanin’. But she loved animals, and she had this little old bird that talked. She’d larned him to say ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ and when her husband got home, it’d say ‘Ralph’s home, here he comes!’ and ‘Is that you, honey?’ and ‘I’m a Georgia cracker.’ Now, Miz Weeks, she talked real slow like. I know all us folks do here abouts, but hers was more deliberate than most. And this here bird sounded just like her. I swannie, I never heared nothin’ like it in all my days. Anyhow, that bird got all mixed up one day. He puffed his little chest out and announced, ‘The Lord is a Georgia cracker.’” Everyone laughed. “Well, sir, I made Preacher go out the next day and buy me one.”
Georgia clapped her hands. “I remember that like it was yesterday. And as I recall, our bird never said a blasted word.”
“You mean thar ain’t no garun-tee on them a’talkin’?” Kizzie asked indignantly.
“Well, ‘course not, Kizzie. Why on earth would you thank that?”
Kizzie looked mad. “Cain’t trust nuthin’ nowadays. I may just git me a goldfish instead.”
* When Missouri went to bed that night, she felt pleasantly at peace with the world. Today had been a beautiful surprise from the moment she’d opened her eyes until she closed them.
Blessin’s from God, that’s what it was. “Lord, thank Ye so much! My family comin’ and us sharin’ dinner and conversation and such. And them cats! My, my! What a gift. Ben won’t never fergit that. I know I won’t. And Lord, last of all I thank Ye fer the snow. I know it’s an aggravation fer some, but I’ve always loved it. Ever time I felt like You was doin’ it just fer me. Amen.”
She rolled over and slept the best she’d slept in years.
And Missouri dreamed:
Missouri and Kizzie were 8 and 7, respectively. Lila Dover was spending the night with them, and they had experienced an exciting night. Lila was 6, missing both front teeth and as feisty as they came. She bounced when she sat in a chair; she hopped when she was standing “still.” She was never quiet, unless it was in church, and that was only under threat of a switching. She was tiny, freckled, and impulsive, with blazing red hair that put Missouri’s own fiery copper color to shame. In a word, Missouri and Kizzie adored her. They had whispered and laughed far into the night, until, after Mama had come in twice, Papa had appeared. It had been hard to keep a straight face as he admonished them, because his hair was standing straight up and he was in his nightshirt. But worse than that, both of them could feel Lila’s body shaking from barely controlled hilarity throughout the whole speech. Missouri had truly thought she was going to wet the bed.
When they had finally fallen asleep, exhausted from all the antics their guest had provided, it seemed only moments before Mama was making them wake up. She talked in a stern voice and made them get out of bed and go to the window. As soon as they staggered and looked outside, Lila started squealing, jumping up and down, and clapping her hands. Missouri and Kizzie looked outside and then at Lila, both with wonder.
There was more snow on the ground than any of them had ever seen, and Mama said that was true for her and Papa, too.
They dressed hurriedly and got downstairs in record time for breakfast. All they could talk about was getting outside.
Papa came in as they sat down to eat, and after the blessing, looked at each girl. Then he said in his most serious tone. “Now girls, I know you cain’t wait to git outside, and I don’t blame you.”(Lila bounced in her seat and made little high pitched noises, which Papa was trying to ignore).
“BUT, you may not go out the back. The snow is at least three feet deep and it’s too dangerous behind the house. The barbed wire fence (which he pronounced “bobware”) is under snow, as well as a stump with a axe nearby. You may play out in the front yard, where it is farly flat. Yur mama will watch you and you will come in the minute she tells you to. It’s very cold and you cain’t stay out long.”
Mama put her hand on Lila’s tiny shoulder. “You must wait until we’ve finished eating, Lila. Then I will see that you are all dressed warmly.”
After much squirming from all three children, Mama looked for things to wrap them up in so they wouldn’t freeze. She found a few things from years past she was able to dress Lila in, and went from there.
Finally they were able to go out on the front porch. The snow was up level with their porch floor, which was at least three feet off the ground, if not more. This amazed Missouri and Kizzie. The steps and yard had just disappeared. The porch floor was also covered with snow, so it looked like the snow came right up to the walls of the house.
“Oh, this is fantastic!” Lila cried. “This is wonderful!” she jumped up and down, twirled around and – poof! – suddenly was gone.
Missouri, Kizzie, and their mama simply stared open mouthed for a moment. After all, it’s not often you see someone vanish in front of your eyes.
Then Mama gasped and ran to where Lila had been twirling around. She barely got herself stopped at the edge of the porch, or she would have taken a dive too. “Lila! Are you all right?” she cried.
Mama was answered by a faint giggle, then slowly Lila stood, her hat and hair, face and shoulders, covered in snow. When she was upright, she was neck deep in the snow. “That was fun! I’ve never done anything like this before!”
As soon as they realized she was fine, Missouri and Kizzie immediately began to beg to do the same. At first Mama was adamant, but then, with a twinkle in her eye, said yes!
And off the porch they went! Missouri would never forget the shock to her system of landing and sinking into the snow, the exhilaration of the cold, nor the additional shock of seeing Mama leap into the air and landing in the snow, just like them! Mama warned them not to tell Papa, but at the supper table that night, seeing his bone tired body and weary face, she looked each girl in the eye, shrugged and told him the tale from beginning to end. Papa laughed till he cried.
The next morning Missouri recalled the memory to Kizzie and they both enjoyed it thoroughly. Missouri pondered on whatever became of Lila. Kizzie replied, “Last time I saw her was about 70 years ago. I’d rode to town with Papa when he was pickin’ up supplies. She was with her Mama and Papa, about to head back to home. They’d just bought lots of new material to make Lila a weddin’ dress and a travelin’ dress, fer she was gittin’ married to some gent from Alabama way. I watched the wagon leave out, with Lila turned back lookin’ at me. She was hoppin’ up n down on the wagon seat, wavin’ to beat the band, and grinnin’ from ear to ear,” Kizzie laughed. “I hope that Alabama feller had lots of energy to spare, fer he was in fer a tiresome life if he didn’t.”