RUMINATIONS ON AN OLD ROCKING CHAIR
Virtually all of my paternal grandfather’s storytelling occurred in one of two settings.
The first was outdoors where we shared countless hours together fishing; piddling around making slingshots or whammydiddles; or hoeing corn, slopping hogs, and feeding chickens.
The second was from his two storytelling thrones. One was a wicker-bottomed rocker on the front porch where he could gaze at the nearby river and listen to its soothing whispers while calling back old long ago. His second story telling throne was a rocker – a more substantial piece of furniture – in the living room. On bitter winter days, or when he was dog tired from work, it was his place of rest and retreat.
That rocker rests two steps from where these words are being typed. I seldom sit in it, although its solid oak frame and cushioned seat are inviting. Instead, I just gaze on it and evoke memories of the old man who used it as a perch. It’s a comfort and a companion; an inspiration and a constant invitation to revisit yesteryear.
The rocker’s age is beyond the century mark. In its glory days there were accounts of the time when that monarch of the Appalachian forests, the American chestnut, reigned supreme. Grandpa would talk about trees so tall a shotgun load had no effect on squirrels feeding in their uppermost reaches.
Or, he would tell how chestnuts were a veritable staff of life in his prime. They furnished acid wood and mast for “cash money” in what was mostly a barter-based economy. They were the source for shingles, fence rails, and rough lumber for barns and corn cribs. They provided food directly in the form of oasted nuts and chestnut dressing and indirectly through fattening free-range hogs and attracting wild game.
The chair knew gladness as well as sadness, such as when he described the antics of a tow sack full of cottontails caught in a deep soft snow and released in a one-room shack or when he chuckled about how some innocent mischief raising Grandma Minnie’s ire.
There were moments of high adventure too, such as the tale of him killing a cougar as it leaped from the roof of a chicken coop or when the family moved by wagon over treacherous mountain terrain in the dead of winter.
Most of all. the chair offered comfort to an aging man of the mountains. In it, year after wonderful year, Grandpa showed me that dreaming is not the exclusive preserve of the young. You just had to be young at heart. That was one of his most enduring, endearing qualities.
Grandpa Joe never saw the ocean, but he fished pristine mountain streams and drank sweet spring water so icy it set your teeth on edge. He never drove a car, but he handled teams of horses and understood meaningful application of the words gee, haw, and whoa. He never left the state of North Carolina, but he lived in mountains so lovely they make the soul soar. He never once ate in a restaurant, but he dined on sumptuous fare — pot likker, backbones and ribs, fried squirrel with sweet potatoes, country ham from his hogs, cathead biscuits with sausage gravy, cracklin’ cornbread, and other fixin’s no high-profile chef could best.
Grandpa never drank a soda pop, but he sassered, sipped and savored pepper tea prepared from parched red pepper pods like a connoisseur of the finest wines. He never tasted seafood, but he dined on speckled trout wearing cornbread dinner jackets and fried so perfectly you could eat them bones and all. He never ate papayas or pomegranates, but he grew sticky sweet cannonball watermelons and raised muskmelons so juicy that when one was sliced you drooled despite yourself. He never had crepe suzettes, but he enjoyed buckwheat pancakes made from grain he had grown, adorned with butter his wife churned, and covered with molasses made from cane he raised. He never ate Eggs Benedict, but he dined daily on “cackleberries” from free-range chickens with yolks yellow as the summer sun.
Grandpa Joe was not an individual who garnered fame or fortune, accolades or notable achievements. His life was one of many limitations — geographical, technological, economical, in breadth of vision, and at least in the eyes of some, accomplishments.
In my opinion, he epitomized love; the magic of mentoring; liberal dispensation of that most precious gift, time; and sharing of down-to-earth lore redolent of the wisdom inherent in songwriter John Prine’s suggestion that “it don’t make much sense that common sense don’t make no sense no more.”
Grandpa Joe was, in my small world, the most unforgettable character I’ve ever known, and the chair that is now my daily sidekick forms the centerpiece of those cherished memories. For more than four decades now the rocker has primarily known the sounds of silence. But a mere glance at it lifts my spirits and stirs my innermost being. All things except monetary worth being duly considered, it is the finest thing I own.