My stepfather might as well have been Amish, if you consider how he lived. Of course, he wouldn’t have known what Amish meant, probably. He was too rooted in East Texas, and the Amish hadn’t made it this far. But his life did indeed embody many of their values.
He didn’t own an automobile, for example, didn’t know how to drive one, didn’t want to know. He walked everywhere, except when he needed to get into town, twenty miles away, and then he reluctantly found a ride with a friend or a relative. Most of the time, however, he was afoot.
By example, he taught me most of what I know about walking gently on this earth. A quiet man by nature, he was utterly silent in the woods. Me, a skinny little kid trailing in his footsteps, trying to mimic him, I stepped the way he did, avoiding twigs that snap or dry leaves that crackle, but I never achieved his soundlessness. He would walk a few steps, stop, look all around, listen. I learned from him to watch the ground as I walked, usually barefoot, alert for snakes, and then to stand still and look overhead and all around, waiting to see what would reveal itself to me. By looking at him first, I’d notice where to focus my eyes, so that I too could pick out the squirrel’s nest or see the wild mayhaws that were ready to be harvested and brought home so that my mother could make her delicious cobblers. I, who was also quiet by nature, had in my stepfather a wonderful teacher in the value of silence.
Many deer lived around our home in the deep woods, and they provided us often with glimpses of their graceful beauty and occasionally with a meal of venison. My stepfather’s hunting he called “still hunting.” He would go to places he knew, places where the deer habitually crossed, and he would “stand” there for hours, waiting for them. Sometimes they came, sometimes they didn’t. But he was content to wait, to be silent in that spot, soaking up, I imagine, the power and beauty of that particular place. I think of that often when I hear about busy corporate executives or bustling politicians. I wonder what would happen if they each had a quiet place to sit and wait contentedly for something that might or might not come, to be still for hours in such vibrant silence.
Often, with my stepfather, I sensed what I would now call a deep mysticism, his wordless communication with something transcendent and immanent all at once. For example, I think of the times when he would allow me to go with him onto the river. I would sit in the back of the wooden pirogue, the narrow flat-bottom boat he built himself for navigating the black swamps and the muddy shallows of the creeks that drain into the Sabine River that separates Texas and Louisiana. Gliding silently through the fog along the water, looking at the grey moss hanging from the trees or at the graceful willows trailing the tips of their slender branches into the water, I would shyly glance at my stepfather there ahead of me in the boat, paddling gently. He was brown from the sun, lean and muscular from hard work, and there was always a can of Prince Albert tobacco and a packet of roll-your-own cigarette papers in the bib pocket of his worn blue overalls. He would say never a word but his paddle would stop and his eyes sparkle when a great blue heron or a wood duck would lift off the river and disappear between the trees. Or he would smile and murmur something too soft for me to understand when a white perch took the hook he so generously baited; I could tell by the way he handled every fish we caught that his gratitude for the bounty of land and water was deep and sincere.
When my stepfather died, I was swallowed up in unspeakable grief. I was unable to communicate with anyone, really. Until, that is, the day of his funeral, when I heard his sister, who was a church-going, Bible-reading woman, saying to someone tearfully that she didn’t think he could possibly go to heaven because he’d never set foot in a church, except for the time he came with his hammer and his handsaw, along with all the rest of the men in the community, to build the little church house that everyone else used for services thereafter. He couldn’t, she said, be “saved.” For once in my life, I abandoned all that my mother had taught me about respect for my elders, and I told my aunt in no uncertain terms that my stepfather, her brother, was the most spiritual man I had ever known, church house or no church house, that I had never heard him say a harsh word about anyone, and, I said, if everyone else was as kind and gentle as he was, we’d have heaven right here on earth, which is where it ought to begin anyway! I still feel that way, I guess.
No, I never heard him say the word God or even love, nor any other verbal expression of kindness, tenderness or spirituality. In fact, I hardly ever heard him say anything, in words. But I did see him, year in and year out, come walking home with a double fist-full of tiny wood violets he had picked somewhere in the woods for my mother. They were her favorite flowers, and because her polio prevented her from walking, he gathered them for her every spring, wandering no telling how many miles through the dense forest to pick, one by one, such a large bunch of those fragile-stemmed flowers to present, wordless and off-handedly, to her.
I guess he was the very epitome of that saying, “Still waters run deep.” He wasn’t usually actually what I would call solemn, though. I remember well his carrying my little sister on his shoulders endlessly, bouncing her about, laughing with her, delighting in her delight, obviously full of love for her, even though he would never put it into words.
Only once did I ever saw him weep. That was when his dog, Skipper, was dying of old age, quivering, behind the barn, my stepfather seated cross-legged in the dirt nearby, keeping vigil, the tears quietly coursing down his weathered face.
He never ever wanted to go into the city (“Just too busy for me,” he’d say). But I was the first one in our family to graduate from college, and he was proud of me, so he put aside his overalls and got dressed up, for once, to attend my college graduation. He was concerned about me. I knew that instinctively without his saying so, aware from the look in his eyes that he was concerned that I might lose my way in the thickets of civilization (which, of course, I soon did). I knew he wanted me to stay safe from all harm, just as he had tried to keep me always.
He taught me, for example, to take no chances but to climb a tree when the wild and dangerous “piney-woods rooters,” the wild boars, showed up unexpectedly. And once, he put out a long, thick stick in front of a large snapping turtle half bogged in the mud of the slough, and when the turtle’s jaws snapped the big stick in two, he looked up at me quietly and said, “Remember, he’ll do that to your leg or arm if you get too close to him.”
Once, too, when he and his four brothers had just finished building our house and before screens had been put onto the windows, I stood and watched, terrified, as he rushed into the room in response to my own sudden piercing scream. Without losing stride and without hesitation, he scooped with his bare hands a long, black, water moccasin snake out of the window frame right next to the bassinet where my little baby sister, only days old, lay, gurgling and blinking.
Even in small ways, he protected us. Many summer evenings, I saw him light the “smudge pot” that smoked the mosquitoes away from us as we sat on the front porch of our little un-air-conditioned house, watching the stars come out one by one, the owls hooting their pleasure, the fireflies dancing in the surrounding darkness.
He wasn’t over-protective though. He allowed and even encouraged me to wander alone in the woods, as he quieted my mother’s alarms.
And when I took an interest in picking cotton for pay in a neighbor’s fields, he made sure I was wearing a hat and a light-weight long-sleeved shirt. Then he sent me off with a knowing sort of grin and a few instructions about how to handle the sack the cotton balls went into and how to deal with the prickly husks. I lasted, as he no doubt knew I would, just one day, straggling ruefully home with red, sore hands and blisters on my feet.
He taught me early on to use a knife, not only for skinning and cleaning the game or the fish he brought home for our table, but in other ways as well. And though I never wanted to learn and never applied the lessons, he taught me how to handle the carefully oiled and loaded Remington shotgun that hung on the wall in his and my mother’s bedroom.
At other times, during violent thunderstorms, I would sit with him on our front porch, the rain pouring down all around us as the trees bent and shuddered in the whipping winds. When the sky darkened and the thunder rolled, my mother would come to the front door, fretting “you two are going to get struck by lightening out there, come inside…,” but he would just grin at me as we continued to sit, pushing back and forth in the creaking old porch swing, holding on to the chains in defiance of the lightening, enjoying the dramatic show the weather put on for us, while Skipper, the dog, huddled underfoot. Overall, I think he wanted me learn when to be appropriately afraid, when to take small risks or take some action, and when just to let things be.
He taught me so many things. My stepfather is the reason I love plants, no doubt about it.
Despite the fact that I hated having to roll out of bed early every summer morning, listening to my mother’s admonition that I needed to “get my work done before it got too hot,” I loved working in the field, helping my stepfather who was one of the best gardeners around. Even when I was little, I would walk behind him, dropping seeds into the holes he poked with a stick; then, circling around again, I would cover the seeds and he would water them with water he had brought, bucket by bucket, all the way from the hand pump on the back porch. Hard work, but rewarding. When the peas and corn and beans and potatoes and cucumbers and tomatoes and all the rest came popping up out of the ground, he worked endlessly, pushing the hand plow, weeding, fertilizing, and, I am sure, talking to those plants in some silent manner that I completely understood and respected. He would go off and borrow a mule to plow the potatoes when they were ready, and I would spend the day right down in the loosened dirt, hands digging out the fat brown potatoes from the rich earth, shaking the soil from them, tossing them with a resounding “thunk” into bushel baskets that my stepfather shouldered and carried away to the barn. When watermelons ripened in the hottest part of the summer, he would go out, in the cool of the evening, thump a melon here and there, and eventually pull off four good ones that had given off that special drum-like, hollow sound. He would bring a melon for each of us. He would put them side by side on the front porch where they would stay through the night and all the next morning, in the relatively cooler shade of the covered porch, until we all got through working in the hot garden. Then he and my mother, I and my little sister would sit down on the porch, legs dangling over the sides, each with our very own giant, sticky, yummy watermelon. To this day, I can taste the sweetness that came from those melons and from that experience of shared work and shared pleasure.
One day, when I was, oh, probably nine years old, my stepfather surprised me, calling me over to a corner of the yard where he had turned up a plot of ground about twelve feet by twelve feet. He said that since I had done such a good job selling those packets of flower seeds door to door for the school project, I should have some packets of my own and have a place for my own flower garden, and here it was, ready for planting. He handed me a fistful of packets of flower seeds. Then he turned away before I could think to say a word. I was the happiest child on earth that day, and I devotedly tended my flowers in that little bed for years. A mimosa tree that came up from those seeds got to be taller than our roof and bloomed faithfully for forty years or more, long after he was dead and I had moved away to the city.
I wonder if he can know, now, how I’ve moved back from the city, after all these years, back out into the forest, back to a place with a creek and deer and snakes and wild things all around me. If so, I hope he knows how grateful I am, though I never told him so in words. I seem to sense him beside me often these days, nudging me to notice a young coyote standing silently in the edge of the clearing. Or, sometimes, I feel him reminding me to talk to the seedling I just transplanted, offering it my respect and a promise of mutual benefit.
I hope he can know that I am trying to share, here at Earthsprings, with many other people from many places and walks of life, so much that he shared with me. Amish or not, his way of life, centered in quietness and calm, peacefulness and gratifying work, respect for nature and appreciation of her beauty, all these and much more were his gifts to me. I take it as my great privilege to pass them on to others. In such a way, neither he nor those who passed it all on to him will ever be forgotten.
Image Credit: Shoeing, Herbert Williams, OneAndAllWisdom, Ancestry, CC2.0;
Image Credit: Mandivilla, photo by Glenda Taylor, OneAndAllWisdom.com; CC 2.0
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