Tag Archives: country living

More Kentucky Folks

Last week I wrote about Kentucky relatives on my father’s side of the family. This week’s reminiscences are of Kentucky folks on my mother’s side.

Our Uncle Sam (yes, I had an actual Uncle Sam, and an Aunt Jemima whom I never met) and Aunt June lived on a farm outside of Campton, Kentucky. We took the Bluegrass Parkway, which was then a toll road, to get there. Every summer, we vacationed there for a week or two, along with visiting other relatives in the area.

We often stayed a night in Campton, where my Aunt Thelma ran a small hotel (Roses’ Hotel) and general store right across from the town diner, which had much to recommend it, including jukebox access at every table, and a pinball machine. (Note: I have no idea whether Uncle Sam, Aunt June, and Aunt Thelma were actually my aunts and uncles. They could well have been second grand-uncles and great-grand-aunts twice removed, for all I know. The only titles we used for any relatives other than Granny (Coburn) and Grandma (Rose) were aunt, uncle, and cousin. But I digress.)

The general store was notable to us kids for having a wide assortment of penny candy where we could get root beer barrels, red hots, and Sugar Daddy pops. There were clothing and tools in the back, but we never made it farther than the candy counter.

Uncle Sam, down the road a ways, was a sharecropper. He owned the land where the house was, on one side of the road, and farmed the other side of the road for some other owner. He had cows and chickens and a horse. When I brought my then-fiance Dan to visit, he and Uncle Sam went off to bring in the cows. Dan, having no experience with cows, wandered along behind them with a stick, while Uncle Sam made polite conversation by pointing at various plants and asking, “Do they have those where you come from, Mr. Reily?”

Sam’s wife, Aunt June, was a round, comfy woman with bright, black eyes, who was at least part Native American. She was famous for her biscuits. Dan won her heart when, just before we left, he stuffed his pockets full of them.

We had, I would say, a strained relationship with the chickens. We would try to gather eggs for breakfast, but were never assertive enough to reach under the squawking and pecking fowl and collect the eggs. An adult had to be summoned for that. I was also mildly traumatized when I saw Aunt June wring a chicken’s neck for that night’s dinner, and I learned what the saying “like a chicken with its head cut off” really meant. I still ate the fried chicken, though.

The horse was another matter. We loved to ride it, but once when I was on its back, one of the farm dogs came yipping at its heels and the horse took off at what seemed to me great speed toward the barn door. The closed barn door. I bailed off sideways into the cornfield and the horse sensibly stopped when it got to the barn door. But for a moment, it was terrifying.

There was lots to do at Uncle Sam and Aunt June’s. There was a fishing pond. The path to the pond was lined with blackberry bushes and if we visited at the right time of year, we picked the berries on our way to the pond. I don’t remember catching any bluegills longer than about three inches, of which we enormously proud, but which were fed to the barn cats.

Another notable feature of the house was the plumbing, or the lack thereof. There was running water in the house for washing or cooking, but there was no inside toilet. Instead, we had to make do with the outhouse or, at night, with the “slop jar” under the bed. The bed was cozy with handmade quilts and it seemed a shame to leave their warmth to grab a flashlight to trudge to the outhouse.

Living along with Sam and June were our cousins, C.B. (Benny) and Betty Sue. C.B. was kind of a hellraiser and too old to be interested in young cousins, but Betty Sue, although among the shyest persons I’ve ever met, liked to hang around with us. Later in life, she became an attendant in a senior care facility.

The farm was a special place, with a traditional porch and rocking chairs. If it wasn’t too hot – and it often wasn’t, this being in the Kentucky hill country – we would sit and rock and drink lemonade from Mason jars.

Perhaps my memories of these idylls are why Dan and I choose to spend weekend getaways at a bed and breakfast called The Farm, where we get a small cabin with a porch and rocking chairs, beds with patchwork quilts, chickens and goats and rabbits that have the run of the barn and the yard, and huge country breakfasts. We’re going again this August, and I can’t wait.

Whoa!

It’s remarkable how much a horse is like a pair of cross country skis. At least in my experience.

Let’s start with the horse.

A number of my relatives have lived on farms, and one of the great delights of my childhood was visiting Uncle Sam’s farm on vacations.(1) We went fishing, picked blackberries on the way to the pond, gathered fresh eggs, used an outhouse (2), milked cows, played in haylofts, churned butter.

And occasionally rode horses. (3)

Mostly we rode them from the house to the barn, on a well-worn path alongside the cornfield. It wasn’t a long journey, or, truthfully, a very exciting one, but at the time, it was a longed-for thrill.

On one memorable occasion, it was even more thrilling.

Just as I was departing the front porch, which served as a mounting block, the horse took it into his head to start running. Galloping, technically. I don’t know why it took such a notion. Later we suspected a little dog had been nipping at its heels. Whatever the reason, it took off like a large, jouncing rocket.

Headed straight for the barn door.

Which was closed.

I could see doom impending, in the form of a horrible, splintering crash into a nearly solid structure of nearly impenetrable wood.

I had a few scant moments to make a decision.

I bailed.

Gracelessly, I flung myself sideways off the horse, landing in the cornfield.

The damn horse, of course, reached the barn door and quite sensibly stopped. I should have trusted it to be smarter than I was at that age.

I escaped with some minor scrapes and bruises, and was resilient enough that this episode did not end my attempts at riding horses. Luckily, none ever did anything remotely threatening to me again.(4)

Now we come to skis.

Much later in life, I was living in upstate New York in a log house on top of a hill. It was scenic as all get-out, with smoke curling up from chimneys, a few distant neighbors to wave to, trees which could be cut for firewood, and a winding road leading from bottom to top.(5) The road wound lazily through a few small towns. If you went far enough along, you encountered a fairly major lake, also very scenic.

Although the general area had several downhill skiing facilities, I was not then – nor am I now – known for my athletic prowess, so that was not an option for me.

Someone, however, convinced me that cross-country skiing was just like hiking, really. I had hiked in the Adirondacks a few years earlier, so that didn’t seem entirely out of the question.

I borrowed some skis and the expertise of the person lending them and went down the driveway to where it met the road. There I was strapped into (or technically, I suppose, onto) the skis and handed poles. Then like a bird being shoved out of the nest or a child learning how to ride a bicycle, I was released into the wild to make my way on my own. All I had to do, my instructor said, was begin moving forward.

Unfortunately, however, although I was facing forward, the road behind me went downhill. And so of course did I. It was one of the many times I noted that gravity is not, and never will be, my friend.

As I began sliding backwards, visions of swooping all the way down the hill, through the towns, and into the lake flashed before my eyes.(6) I did the sensible thing and panicked. Then my instincts took over. Just as I had when riding the runaway horse, I bailed.

Sideways.

Mostly I just fell over, landing on the snow-covered road, which was better than a non-snow-covered road or a cornfield (7), and waited for someone to come hoist me up.

Although you often hear people say that you should get back on the horse that threw you, no one ever says anything about getting back on the skis that dumped you on the road.

So I haven’t. And my life has been richer for it. Not to mention longer.

 

(1) Yes, really. I had an Uncle Sam. On the other side of the family I actually had a real Aunt Jemima.

(2) Okay, I can’t say that was actually one of the great delights.

(3) Once I rode a mule instead. My mule-riding tip: Don’t, unless you have a mule-saddle. Mules’ backbones are exceedingly, well, bony. I had no mule-saddle.

(4) Once one bucked, but by then I had acquired enough sense to hang on.

(5) Or the other way around, if that’s the way you were going. This becomes important later.

(6) I know you’re supposed to see your past, but I envisioned the future. I never seem to get these things right.

(7) Or a possibly-frozen lake.