It would be my guess that most of us don’t take time to reflect. Perhaps at the end of a long day you think of things you said, did, or didn’t do. And the days turn into months; the months to years. You think, “where did the time go?”, or maybe you forgot who you actually WERE in your younger days~or worse, you can’t remember who you were yesterday.
This essay below poured out of me after years of tucking memories deep in my heart. You know the ones that you attempt to grasp for in the midst of a crazy busy life. And then, there was a time I couldn’t remember (that’s another blog for another day 🙂 If you don’t have one already, I’d suggest purchasing a journal. The mind-heart-memory connection with the physical act of using pen & paper is POWERFUL.
Many summers of simmering heat didn’t bother me as young girl. July and I were in love; despite the sizzling sunburns (luckily, my face was covered in thick white protecting ointment). Presents I might receive for my birthday that month from family or friends didn’t hold a candle to what that month gifted each year.
It wasn’t a long trek, but far enough for my giddiness to grow. Bumpy slow car rides, the sight of trees and cows, and the smell of gravel defined my perfect family outings. Tasting the dust and feeling the heat through the car window, I knew we were getting closer. Holding my breath, we’d cross the bridge. Possibly, the longest bridge-crossing known to man (or at least to me). Missouri had other one lane structures. But for me, this was the only bridge that mattered-Hawkins’ Bridge (the London Bridge could keep basking in its fog for all I cared). The timber boards creaked with each tire turn. The steel surrounded us with silence, yet protection, across this two-span pony truss fixture. And there was just enough open space between the rusty rails to see the water below as it cascaded across the Finley Creek rocks.
Creeping slowly, and this time with more noise from the family laughter and excitement, the family car would automatically turn right to the gate. Just like Hawkins’ did, this long piece of iron would welcome us with open arms. Not to sound conceited, but our family was the only one allowed at this time. The pavilion stood there in all its glory. This summerhouse floor was cemented, and a long slab of concrete was its table (it extended almost the entire length of the metal roof). A rock oven stood at the end. The fires in this oven created the perfect stove top to make, hands-down, the best biscuits in the world.
We were never the first ones there. Cars would be emptying cousins (young and old), aunts, uncles, coolers, tires (NOT spares for the vehicles-these were for floatin’), food galore, and the best memory of all: the retractable bubble strip lawn chairs (purely rubber and metal). In those days I considered anyone that had the fabric webbing design-and perhaps wooden arms-to be nothing short of wealthy; and our family was not. Remember the lawn chairs. And the food.
Grandma and Grandpa Wilson were always there. She’d be in her simple one-piece zippered dress, sporting her stockings, and her comfy black rubber-soled shoes. Her handkerchief would always be tucked gently beneath her slim metal stretch band watch. And she would always be laughing. Grandpa invariably wore a white polyester shirt with a cotton tank top undershirt (I know these well as I had a turn cleaning them during one of Grandma’s hospital stays). Scorching heat didn’t bother these ripe loved ones. They had grown up smack in the middle of the depression; heat and cold contained no extremes. Their kids and spouses also knew what it meant to live “without” at times. And in unfortunate circumstances. Their gratefulness sprinkled down to us, the grandkids, and we appreciated these tough folks.
The chiggers, ticks, spiders, and all kinds of other Ozark country critters didn’t mind the heat either. They’d be out in full force searching for prey. When I sniff my memories, there is a distinct odor of bug repellent with just a hint of sunscreen. To hear someone slapping their own skin to kill a ‘skeeter was just simply “applause” given to some summer fun.
There’d be a race to get down to the river. Those days I could traipse down the trail without ever having to worry about missing a step. The muddier the better. Of course, there’d be some slipping and sliding on the way. Immediately hitting the water, our skin would be cleansed, but our flips flops or old tennis shoes would be filled with small rocks. Sometimes I’d take off my shoes and hope not to step on some creature lurking under a Finley rock.
If one was crossing the bridge at any time during a Wilson weekend, he or she would certainly believe the population of a small town was having a party-an enormous raucous. You could hear approaching cars, even while in the river. Remember the gravel sound and how creaky the bridge was while crossing it? Imagine the sound down in the “holler” of the river. Sometimes, we’d all strap our tires (or any floatie for that matter) together so we could float like a Wilson Clan Cluster. I’m certain the older cousins didn’t much appreciate us young tikes around all the time. One time, as we drifted by the bridge pillars, there was a count of about 50 cottonmouths curled around the concreted slabs. Snakes were common here. At times a water snake might stick the tip of its head above the water. But the cottonmouths-they needed to keep their heads far off in the distance.
There would always be a time when I would sneak off with my uncles down the path so I could tag along to the fishing hole. Sadly, I would say goodbye to the worm; and then happily, punch its gut with a hook (it’s a worm). I had to learn to be quiet and watch. The little red and white bobber thing would do its dance. My fishing jig was a little dance too. Excitedly, I’d almost squeal when the fish was reeled to its new owner. Sometimes I got to take the fish off the hook (it didn’t take too many bloody fingers to appropriately learn that task). Lucky fish took a dive back into the water; the unlucky ones made good grub (be careful of bones). Fishing offered a front-row view of serenity and skill.
Sometimes the moms and aunts would sneak to the water. But mostly, they would be preparing our food. There wasn’t a diner in the state that could prepare food tastier than my family crew. They could concoct the yummiest of yumminess. And why was it that opening a simple bag of chips was like eating a steak at a five-star restaurant? It was soul food laid out like a smorgasbord.
Naturally, after swimming and fishing a while, I would need to relieve myself. When you have this many people gathered in nature, there was another spot we all shared. Unlike a one room wooden outhouse, this certainly a potty castle. It was concreted and more modern with two holes. Yes, there were times it was shared. Yes, the smell remains in my memories. Miraculously all of us survived those moments without hand sanitizer, a sink, or antibacterial soap. One year, Grandma received quite a scare on the concrete throne. Her laughter was carried by the hot breeze through the trees and down the river. It can still be heard today.
Certainly, my love for nature, exploring, and the outdoors all ruminated at this outdoor sanctuary. Spelunking was a foreign word not known to me…. yet; but I experienced it when some of us crossed the gravel road, navigated the ups and downs of a rocky, stick-covered path, and gazed upon its entrance. It was eerie and exhilarating. Everything is a story to me; and if it is mysterious, such as this cave, the more goosebumps I’d experience.
As the sun lowered, the smells and sounds seemed heightened. The older cousins would be shooting off fireworks on the bridge. Poor Hawkins-it withstood many blasts and booms from our crew. Mixed with sulfur, the potluck chow’s scents drifted through the air. Nature had never smelled as good. Our fine china was paper plates. Our gathering noise would be interrupted by silence at least 3 times a day. For about 15 minutes anyway. Silence was golden while we all smiled enjoying the feast as if it were our last meal on earth. An after-buffet fire was sometimes built. To this day, fires mesmerize me. My soul aches to sit near them; to hear and see the crackling sparks. The glow of the faces around it are like the calm of the night. And I can still see all the family faces. One of my uncles interrupted the silence-it was a sound only our clan could appreciate. Most might not even call it music. But us kids-we couldn’t wait for this homemade instrument to make its appearance. The pew organ, so he called it, gave us songs for a lifetime. There were certain songs in which we knew probably shouldn’t be shared outside the family fire. For many years, thereafter, there were many family times by a fire at least once a year (and music that I’m certain will not copyrighted).
As darkness approached and our china burned, us full-bellied family members would saunter around the makeshift concrete condo to choose our perfect spot to bunk for the night. It was important to me that my chaise was just right. If the head section was too high or too low, it would have to be bent all the way to the ground to adjust it again. Adjustable mattresses today don’t compare! Luckily, my sweat and the marks left on my skin from a hot day’s use on it had disappeared by nightfall (does anyone else recall the stickiness of these chairs?). There were times the metal legs folded in on innocent victims-and obviously, there was laughter. My chair wasn’t just for sleeping. An awesome tent could be erected when I folded up both sides. Some of the older adults slept in cars. Some had sleeping bags, others just a towel on their chairs. Rarely were blankets needed. Pillows were always a plus. And then, the sounds of the night, combined with the instant drain of adrenaline, would allow me to dream. All of us laid under one roof. Family by blood; together by love with a choice. I knew what was going to happen when light would appear. I could smell it coming.
As the morning was glowing through the trees, there’d be a trickle of a line headed to the two-hole castle the next morning. “Good morning!”, could be heard in all directions. And of course, laughter. The aroma of the day greeted us with love; just like we did with one another. My favorite portion of breakfast, excluding meat and eggs, was biscuits. Whoever heard of a fried biscuit? My eyes could not believe that the biscuits sat in a skillet. There was no oven door? How would they rise? I had such little faith in the works of the heat, good cast iron, and our amazing women.
Each day at the river, from year to year, began with a hearty breakfast and a biscuit. “Who brought the honey?”, could be heard ringing through the pavilion. Laughter would abrupt. Originated by one of my fun-loving uncles, this question would be asked at every tribe gathering. Who in their right mind could eat a biscuit without honey? And “sure as shootin’”, there’d be honey for your biscuit. Similar questions would be asked in another Wilson gathering place-the back room. But that’s another story.
The waters have since became even more spectacular. To me, honey on a biscuit is like family to the river. Sometimes my memories are as flaky as a biscuit. But when I can recall clearly, memories ooze down my cheeks and my heart smiles. Two years ago, a tiny puppy rescued me. Meeting her was like being home. And home to me was, and always will be, a river. My 4lb companion, Finley River, joined me in over 8,000 miles of adventures these last two years. And we crossed many, many bridges.
“Who brought the honey?”, I ask myself. The river still winds with love and loss, injury and healing, and sadness and laughter. Wisdom is cradled between the rocks, and the sound of family and laughter still rings in my ears.