We gotta get out of this place
If it’s the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place
Girl, there’s a better life for me and you
Somewhere baby, somehow I know it
My Aunt Dolly seldom went to the movies, but my sisters and I sat down with her in 1978 to watch the TV mini-series “The Awakening Land,” a fictionalized account of a family who moved into the Ohio wilderness toward the end of the eighteenth century. We were all young adults but sat on the floor as though children again. We even set the timer on a camera and scurried to pose around Dolly. My sister Barbara had her hands over her mouth. Bevy had her fingers in her ears. I covered my eyes. We were once again Dolly’s three little monkeys who spoke no, heard no, and saw no evil. She repeated our names and then pointed a finger at each of us. You’re Monkey Number 1, you’re Number 2, and you’re Number 3. We all laughed when Sayward, the heroine of the show, explained how she named her children: “Give a child a name that demands something of him in life.”
Dolly always let out a soft sigh of relief when she reclined in her fake leather Lazy Boy chair and saw her feet rise. She would squirm around a bit almost as though she were making a nest in the overstuffed pillow. “I’m used to a straight-back chair most of the time, since that’s what I’ve sat in most of my life. But I’m slowly learning to enjoy having my feet up like this,” she murmured to us with a smile. She had not always enjoyed the comfort of an easy chair. She was born and raised in Adams County, Ohio, in 1905, part of this same “Awakening Land” wildness just a century later. The family place was about fifty miles east of Cincinnati, deep in the Appalachian south of the state close to the Ohio River. The home place sat on a section of flat land alongside the muddy Churn Creek and the sun-burned Sunshine Ridge. It was a hardscrabble footprint of a farm where too many tobacco crops had sucked every trace of nourishment out of the dusty earth. Women washed clothing in the creek, hoed the garden, kept the house; men hunted and dug graves on the ridge.
She liked the TV series and told us that Sayward Luckett Wheeler, played by Elizabeth Montgomery, reminded her of her mother, Emma Belle, who also helped carve a homestead from the forest and suffered more than her share of hardships and losses along the way. Dolly said she was proud that Emma Belle was a “woodsie,” a term one woman in the TV program used to denigrate Sayward. Emma Belle was illiterate and limped from an old double-bladed axe injury she’d suffered chopping wood. Some winters food in the cellar ran out in February. She also lost an infant to whooping cough. The weather stormed for over a week when the baby was only a couple of weeks old, and the country doctor’s horse never managed to pull the buggy through the muddy roads.
Emma Belle raised six children, four sons and two daughters. She was some years older than Dolly’s father, Walter, and had worn out before anyone else. One moment she was bent over hoeing a tobacco patch, the next she was lying in the dirt. Medical cause of death, at least the one listed on her death certificate, was cancer. No idea what kind, just death in the abstract. Her life had been anything but abstract, though. Most of the time she had her hands full of babies, dirty clothes, pots and pans, ladles for stew, pulled-up weeds. She smiled, Dolly told us, but only on occasion.
Dolly smiled, though, when she told us how Emma Belle always encouraged her and her younger sister Hazel not to get stuck on some farm all their lives. “You girls have to promise me you won’t end up like me trying to farm a worn-out strip of lowland while looking after a brood of young ’uns. You gotta get out of here and have a better life. If you do stay, find yourself a better man than I did.”
Dolly never missed an episode of “The Awakening.” She told us it reminded her a bit of her own childhood, except there were no Indians kidnapping young girls. She said there were enough ornery men, though, to make up for the lack of Indians. She laughed and laughed when Sayward beat up one of those ornery men. This guy ended up bloody and screaming after trying to grope her. “You just bit off my ear. What am I going to do without my ear?”
Everything was work and more work in both Sayward’s and Emma Belle’s worlds, except Sayward’s world seemed happier. Not much laughing or horsing around under Emma Belle’s domain. Everyone learned what Dolly called the work shuffle. You had to look busy even if you weren’t. Idleness ended up bringing on another chore. She laughed whenever I sat in the old family rocker. “No one but the very old ever had time to sit in one of those when I was growing up.” Bevy slipped off into the kitchen to make a batch of popcorn during the advertisements. Dolly called out to make two bags. She never had any alcohol in the house, so we ate our popcorn and washed it down with cold colas. “Bring me a glass with ice,” she quietly asked Bevy. “When I was the age of those kids in the show, I also had to drink out of a ladle gourd that everyone shared. Never liked drinking after someone else. I deserve my own glass now,” she chuckled.
I have one very small faded black and white photo of Dolly and Hazel where they’re not dressed in their everyday clothes. They were in their late teens and about to make a rare excursion to Cincinnati with some friends and a teacher who was their chaperone. She laughed when she saw it in an album and told me she and Hazel had done extra chores to convince their parents to let them go. The rules were clear. No drinking and total obedience to whatever the chaperone said. They were all dressed up in low-cut dresses and fashionable hats, standing near Churn Creek. They sewed their own dresses, but saved the money to buy the hats off a peddler who traveled the back roads regularly. They are talking with Emma Belle, who is wearing a long-sleeved dress, buttoned to the neck, and a bonnet. They’re in the garden. Emma Belle has probably just gotten up from her hands and knees and has a dibble in her hand. I still ask myself, “What are they saying, what is the occasion, how will the day end?” They are all smiling and Emma Belle is in the shadows to block the sun. I never knew Dolly to wear any clothes that might be considered sexy. She never went out of the house without covering her skin or wearing some type of head protection. She didn’t want anything dangerous—men or a sun that turned skin to leather—to touch her.
Another picture shows the gateway to the house and a host of mophead hydrangeas full of large blue flowers. Emma Belle could make things grow, even tobacco, as could Dolly who always had islands of bright zinnias scattered about, some deep-colored geraniums along the walk, flashy yellow tickseed nestled by the steps, and sunflowers with blooms so big and heavy they drooped their faces by the back fence in the vegetable garden. Dolly was an earth goddess. All she had to do was to sprinkle collected seeds on freshly raked earth and they would pop up and be blooming in short order. But there are great gaps in the pictures of the homestead. It’s as though the film has broken and the splicing left out crucial links. I only have long-distance photos of the exterior of the house with no good peeks into what it was like to live there. One family setting has everyone standing or seated on the edge of the porch with their legs hanging over the side. The seated kids aggravated the hounds out of their sleep by nudging them with their feet. All the dogs wanted was to continue their nap under the cooling boards. Emma Belle’s mother Hannah is sitting in the same rocker I like. No one has his or her arms around anyone else. No one is smiling.
A much starker picture shows the entire family stretched out in a straight line looking at the camera, again everyone sober and without a trace of happiness. They leave space between each other. No shoulders touch. The picture includes the much older Dewey, the first son, who shot a man dead at a honkytonk. The groper reached out and smacked my uncle’s girlfriend on the bottom as the couple walked by. No one ever talked about the trial until my sister Barbara ran across old newspaper clippings of the proceedings Dolly had stashed away in a shoebox. The trial hung in suspense for over two weeks. The jury wrangled for three days, equal votes on each side to acquit or convict, before finally handing down their verdict. While everyone held their breath, the foreman read out the jury’s verdict of acquittal based on self-defense. The juror who tipped the scale and finally broke the tie confessed later that he was tired of all the hoopla and needed to get home and look after his chickens.
This was Dolly’s first and last encounter with violence and the criminal law system. If there were stories of domestic shootings and killings on the news, she bent over her knitting, without dropping a stitch, barely looking up at the TV.
Dolly’s father and brothers hunted squirrels and rabbits and flushed quail from briar patches to put food on the table. It was the Depression. She knew the daily presence of a pack of tracking hounds around the house. None were inside dogs. She liked dogs, but they should be functional, not pets. The animals on the farm all had jobs just as she did. Cows gave milk, cats killed rats, dogs hunted game, she washed and cooked. No one, woman or beast, expected a pat on the head or a thank-you hug.
She had to wait until she was an adult before she got her first pet. Penny was a parakeet that she doted on. A large window above her kitchen sink allowed Dolly to look into and watch over her gardens. The yard was wide so she could scan the area as she washed dishes. The flowers attracted a variety of nuthatches and titmice, not to mention hummingbirds and sparrows. We all loved to sit in a swing outside the kitchen door and try to identify the birds and the butterflies. Dolly trained Penny to light on her finger where its touch was always soft. One morning while Dolly was cleaning its cage in the sink, it flew out the window and never came back. It was the third and last time I ever saw her cry. I was beside her when she lunged for Penny just as the bird stepped off the window sill. There was no screen.
Aunt Dolly was a single woman all her life and never a talker unless you coaxed family lore out of her. When she was an adolescent, she went to her daddy Walter to ask if she could marry Elwood, the boy who lived with his folks on the next farm over the hill. She told Barbara how soft Elwood’s touch was, even though his hands were as calloused as hers from doing endless farm chores. Walter refused her request. Not because he thought the boy was unsuitable but because he knew if Dolly left, then he’d have one less cook and one less washerwoman. No one knows for sure what Dolly said. Perhaps it was no more than a simple plea, “But pa, I love him. Please, please. I ain’t done nothing wrong.” Or perhaps she threw a tantrum, tore into him, and let the demons rush out. “You’re a selfish and cruel old man and I hate you. You are evil.” Or perhaps she simply withdrew into herself, grew sullen, before having her last word. Family legend has it that she stared Walter down before saying, “If I can’t marry Elwood, I’m never marrying anyone.” And she never did.
Events turned out differently for Sayward. She married Portius, a lawyer from Massachusetts and one of the few people in the area who could read and write, over his reluctance. This was a time of short engagements. Men usually approached fathers and asked if a daughter was old enough to marry. Sayward had taken a fancy to the aloof Portius, played by Hal Holbrook, earlier and had another idea. Portius was a loner who quoted poetry and proclaimed his agnosticism, all traits that worked against him. When he got up one morning, he never expected to be married the same evening. Lots of celebrating some local event, too much to drink, and Portius ended up standing beside Sayward saying, “I do.” He never knew what happened. He just walked into a snare. Wily that he was, though, he then promptly bolted for the woods and had to be hauled back. The marriage was a good one for many years before Portius had an affair with the new school teacher. Dolly watched intently as Sawyard told him, “You haven’t been honest with me. That’s what grates my heart the most. There ain’t no pride in it and there ain’t no dignity, neither.”
Dolly didn’t watch much TV. She usually was too tired from her factory work at the Timpkin Roller Bearing company in Columbus to stay awake through any program that lasted more than thirty minutes. But she never missed “The Awakening Land” which came on every week. She hushed us so she could hear every word of dialog. Her dislike for Portius intensified throughout the episodes, especially when he tricked Sayward into moving into a fancy new home he had built on a hill. He was not paying the builder as promised, and she felt it her honor to make good on the bills. Late in the last program, she went to her secret hiding place in the fireplace where she took out her substantial stash. As she counted the money, she made Dolly laugh when she said, “Lawyers go to heaven … one at a time. I’ll pay his bills a little slow, like lawyers who go to heaven, one at a time.”
“That man should be horse whipped,” Dolly muttered. “Don’t bail the bastard out,” she mumbled to Sayward. Her own father was notorious for his philandering and for being a deadbeat when it suited him.
I only recently discovered that Walter died alone pulling his boots on in a run-down boarding house in Portsmouth, Ohio, during the Depression. He hadn’t seen any of his grown children in years. He went through a number of women, all of whom eventually tossed him out. Portsmouth was once a prosperous hub for river-borne commerce and the closest town to where Dolly grew up. It is now not much of anything, just a gathering of derelict buildings depleted of charm.
I can almost see my grandfather sitting on the side of the bed without companionship, in his rented room, still in his nightshirt, long since out of touch and estranged from everyone in his family. He has his work pants on but not fully buttoned to the top. He probably wants to stay in bed that January morning to escape the cold road work ahead of him. Barely sixty and no longer even close to good looking, his body is fighting his clothes. His thin coat doesn’t fully cover his paunch, and he is easily spotted shuffling through the neighborhood or leaning on a shovel in the work crew. He wears a stained hat that blocks most of his face save the drooping mustache that is always in need of a trim. In these last few years of his life, he is lost in a labor gang under the eye of the crew foreman, younger than he, who rides him hard.
When I searched for this boarding house, I had to pass through neighborhoods not suited for my cautious disposition. Prostitutes and junkies on street corners, buildings with boarded up windows or with the glass broken out, wrecks of cars in yards. No children or dogs on the street. When I rounded the corner of the street where Walter died, the old houses were built so close together that people on adjoining porches could touch hands by reaching out far enough. But there were no people on the streets or on the porches. What I found was a gap, a lot where the house was supposed to be, probably had been, but I wasn’t sure. In the suspect space was a white-washed concrete block of a squatty one-story building with the facade shaped into a rough triangle. I assumed the builder had meant it to resemble the front of a church. A sign outside, in Spanish and English, said it was a food pantry and sanctuary for anyone seeking shelter from the street.
When my grandmother died in 1924, Dolly was just about to turn nineteen. Walter couldn’t make a go of life on the old farm without Emma Belle so he herded his feral kids over a couple of ridges about thirty miles from the Churn Creek homestead. He had only seen it once but had convinced himself he could make a new beginning there. But he had to keep everyone together. He couldn’t afford hired hands. The new place, like the old one, was still pretty much nineteenth century, maybe earlier, perhaps closer to the time of “The Awakening Land.” Dolly said she couldn’t understand when she first saw it at a distance why it appeared to rise up at an angle. When they got out of the wagons, they could see that the foundation of field stones had shifted at the corners. She laughed and said she always felt as though she were either walking uphill or down when going from room to room. One of the boys killed a copper head the first night that had crawled out from underneath the house. She said Sayward’s first house was much more substantial.
The dilapidated pile of rough-milled planks and logs was smaller than the home place on Churn Creek and had a leaky roof. They couldn’t all eat together since the kitchen was cramped. One or two of the boys would take their plates outside to eat on the porch. The girls shared one bedroom and the boys another. Everyone slept on the floor except Walter, who curled up downstairs on a cot. At night, sleep was interrupted by the sounds of animals close by. Best not to venture out after dark. The land was timeless and refused to be tamed.
My father Brooks and his brothers Stanley and Corbett worked the horses hard that year to get their first decent crop in the barn and a profit in their pockets for a change. Dolly and her sister Hazel continued to serve as semi-indentured servants, hauling water, cooking meals, and cleaning clothes, just on a different creek bank. And when the barn was full with the fall crop and the stock safely tethered inside, lightning hit, burning every thing to the ground, horses, hogs, a milk cow, chickens, tobacco, everything. The first time I saw Dolly cry was when she told me about “the burning,” as all of them referred to it. “The air was so hot and the stink of roasted animals so awful I wanted to run away.” Hazel retched when she was finally able to get close enough to see what had happened. She loved the horses and the milk cow she always looked after. She couldn’t eat for several weeks and lost over twenty pounds after the fire.
The sisters heard Emma Belle telling them they must leave this country if they were to have a good life. Nothing here could ever make them happy or give them comfort. With nothing left to box them in, they looked for separate ways out, not just out of this scorched landscape but away from this burned-out life.
Dolly and Hazel bolted. The lightning strike that destroyed the farm jolted the two of them out of their constricted and confining lives. I do not know how she and Hazel traveled, since neither drove. Perhaps someone ferried them over dusty country roads to a top coating of gravel at most until they juddered out onto what might have resembled solid pavement. Did they have second doubts, were jobs already awaiting them, did they think they had enough money, were scouts already there ahead to make their beds and feed them? Although they had only the most basic of educations, they found ways to get far from where they spent their days slopping hogs and scrubbing work clothes in the creek. They were following Emma Belle’s voice. Their initial stop was the old industrial city of Chillicothe, the first capital of Ohio. Portius is said to be in Chillicothe working as a lawyer when he disappears for extended periods in “The Awakening Land.” They both quickly found jobs there as shoemakers. A better opportunity and more money opened up later in Columbus where they again found jobs at the same place, the Timpken Roller Bearing Company, where they worked for many years.
Dolly often had to try any change on and wear it a while before finding its comfort. For the first time in her life she didn’t have to sleep on the floor. In her first real bed, she felt ill at ease, though, as if she were living above her station. At first she couldn’t get used to the soft touch of a mattress and sheets. Her sleep changed, her dreams grew more frightening, when she lay suspended in air feeling as though she were about to fall out of her “off the floor bed.” Sayward felt the same and refused to return to it after Portius wanted to reconcile: “I still can’t sleep with you in your bed and it ain’t got nothing to do with babies.” When we watched “The Awakening,” Dolly paid particular attention to the bed. She told my sisters and me that the show was real because everyone slept on the floor. “You see the girls don’t even have a pillow to rest their heads. I remember spiders and who knows what other bugs crawling on me at nights.” It was no way to live.”
Dolly hardly ever went back to the homestead along Churn Creek and never to the farm where the barn burned. She never learned to drive, so even if she had a yearning to see the old place she couldn’t just hop in her car and go. I do remember being with her in the meeting hall of Sunshine Ridge cemetery on one occasion. Someone important had died and she was in the kitchen where many of the funeral-goers had congregated. She was helping with the cooking when one of the men on the porch kidded her, “Who’s your boyfriend now, sister?” She turned quickly and without any sign of returning his jab, simply said, “He’s right there,” pointing to me, her eight-year old nephew. She didn’t say anything more. She told my mother later that she was through with men and didn’t want their attention.
On another visit we were all alongside the road where the original abandoned Churn Creek home place had been set afire by vandals with nothing better to do with their idle time. I saw Dolly weep for the second time in my life. My father, Dolly, and Hazel stepped away from one another as they stared at the charred wood and were quiet in themselves. Later that day, Barbara and Bevy and I were playing along Churn Creek where my aunts had washed clothes in another life. I was chasing butterflies and skipping rocks across the water. When I blurted out how much fun it would be to live there all the time, Dolly said, “No, it wouldn’t be and never was.”
When I sat watching “The Awakening Land” with Dolly and my sisters, those words about the farm never being fun in any way came back to me. Dolly said none of us would have been happy growing up where she did. Again, she nodded in agreement with Sayward when she was wearied and broken with the grief over her young daughter’s death, “It’ll take a long time for something precious to grow in me again.”
When Dolly left the country as a young woman she left the touch of everything familiar behind. We kids only got glimpses into her early life. She never spoke of her own grandparents, although her maternal grandmother Hannah Cooper was still alive during her childhood. My only picture of her is the one where she’s sitting in the rocker on the porch of the home place. She is crouched over with a blanket on her lap. On one of the rare times I was by Dolly’s side on Sunshine Ridge where so many of our family are buried, Dolly took my hand and showed me the graves of her parents and her grandmother Hannah. Hannah’s grave stone was a simple jagged slab of slate with the word “Dide” on it. I was puzzled who Dide was until Dolly figured out my confusion. She laughed and told me Dide meant died. When I got on my knees I could make out the date 1918. Hannah was the mother of my grandmother and only sixty-three when she died. In the picture she appears to be an elderly lady. Dolly lived much longer than Hannah and never looked like an elderly person.
As Dolly stood beside the graves of her parents, she suddenly looked down at me and made me promise to follow her wishes. “I want you and your sisters to make sure I am never buried here. Most of those people in the ground were mean to me when I was your age. They gave me no comfort in life. I want to be far from them. Now come with me and let’s get out of this place.” Even as a child I could not understand what preachers meant when they said the dead were just in a peaceful sleep awaiting the resurrection. I didn’t even want to think about dead people, let alone imagine them as decomposing bodies or skeletons that will hop up at the end of days and be swooped into heaven. Just too scary for a boy to think these souls were under that ground, just asleep but churning still, roiling away below the surface and still frightening Dolly. I was only to happy to get out of there with her.
I never saw mouthwash of any sort in Dolly’s house, but her breath lingers sweet in my memory despite her smoking. She looked after herself, kept trim and fastidiously clean. She did not tolerate dirty fingernails and always wore work gloves around the oily bearings she helped roll out at Timpken’s. She could never keep her garden gloves on, though. She said they prevented her from touching the life in the soil, digging deep into it, feeling its warmth. She like to hold my hand when we walked and occasionally ran her fingers through me hair, but I suspect she was just gauging if I needed a haircut. When I was a young man I wanted to ask her more about Elwood, the boy she yearned to marry. I know she told Barbara she liked holding his hand, even though he had thick calluses. I can see her running her hands though his hair, too, in the stolen moments that had together. I don’t think there were any other men she touched with such tenderness.
She lived all her life with her sister Hazel, even after Hazel married Ed. She was fussy about where things were kept and knew what was in various drawers and where to find what hung on hooks on walls. When one of my sisters asked if she had a pair of scissors, Dolly quickly said yes, she did, and she knew where they were, too. This remark was a harsh reminder about the chaos that reigned at our house where my father’s tools were always going missing, where screws and nuts and bolts lay spilled on a table in the cellar, where my mother’s kitchen drawers were always places of mystery and confusion.
When Hazel died, some people were surprised that Dolly and Ed continued to live together. The arrangement really was understandable on a practical basis, although she bridled once when my mother awkwardly referred to the new household arrangement. The three of them had been living a celibate ménage à trois arrangement for many years and had not given it a second thought. I never saw any of them exchange a kiss or show any physical affection to one another. Like the old photographs taken at the Churn Creek home place, there were always gaps of white space between them. When Hazel was alive, I wish I could say the household arrangement was a happy one. Much to our dread, we often arrived to find someone “bulling,” as we called a period when conversation stopped and sullenness hung in the air. Some minor disturbance would upset one of them. Then a wordlessness would set in, a dumbness that was angry, one that frightened us into not asking details. Once Ed, who was a brick mason, came in covered in mortar dust. I thought Dolly and Hazel were about to flay him. After the shouting was over, a deep silence settled in. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and Dolly shouted at me as I went up the stairs to the bathroom, “Keep your dirty hands off the walls.”
Dolly was so obsessed with cleanliness and picked up any piece of clothing you took off and immediately put it in the wash. When my sister lived with her during her college days, Barbara complained that Dolly was prematurely aging her blouses by washing them too much. When Dolly felt compelled to wash clothes there was no stopping her. But washing clothes was different now. The turgid waters of Churn Creek could never compare with the clear, clean water that ran through her shiny new automatic washer. “It’s such a joy to do laundry now!” I remembered early on in childhood when she only ran an inch or two of hot water into the sink to wash her dishes. She frowned when I asked her why. “I used to have to build big fires to heat water in heavy pots and then carry them over to the wash tubs. Nothing was wasted.”
Dolly and I talked on the phone at Christmas 1981 when I was overseas. I was in my late thirties and working in Vienna, Austria, as a foreign service officer. Dolly was at a family gathering and she was last as everyone passed the phone around. “I’m here at your parents and just enjoyed a second piece of pie. Wish you could have shared it with me. When are you coming home so we can cook up a special meal and have some laughs? I’ll be watching out the window for you.” She laughed when I told her it was a date, and I wanted meat loaf and mashed potatoes and some of her cherry pie. She started to laugh again, much more than she usually did. I didn’t think she was going to stop. When she regained her composure, she said something brought “The Awakening Land” to mind. She was laughing over what Sayward said in jest to one of her daughters to break some tension. “The more you cry, the less you have to pee.” A few weeks later, she went to bed on a cold night in January and simply drifted off into the great mystery. Uncle Ed found her the next morning.
My sisters and I knew that country customs called for open caskets to allow people to view the deceased and pay their last respects. We hated the spectacle and overrode the objections of others. Barbara simply declared, “I’m Dolly’s executor and this is what she wanted.” Barbara’s bluff was fine with me, since I wanted to remember her smiling and laughing and smoking, rather than see her shrunken into something she wasn’t. At the service, though, I felt conflicted over my decision. I wanted to touch her, to make my own last contact. If the casket had been open, I’m sure I would have leaned in and kissed her forehead. For a woman who didn’t trust or like most men, I think she would have welcomed my touch. I wanted her to be back in her own yard with her small tote kit where she kept her pruners, garden trowel, and weeder. I wanted to see her kneeling on the pad I bought her to give her knees some comfort. I wanted to see her puttering about, pulling weeds, deadheading some spent blossoms, reaching deep into the rich, loamy soil she always loved.