Tag Archives: relatives

A Window, Biscuits, a Butter Churn, and a Mule

It was an ordinary farmhouse, located outside Beattyville, Kentucky. But there was a secret inside that we kids loved. The kitchen, of course, was the best room to be in. But getting there was even more fun. The kitchen was obviously an add-on to the house, and the entry points to it included not just a door but a window, leading from one of the bedrooms to the kitchen. Of course, we never used the door like the grownups did.

The house belonged to our Cousins Addie and Jim Mainous. They were old even when we used to visit them during the summers. But every day, Cousin Addie hand-made biscuits and sawmill gravy. (Sawmill gravy is different from redeye gravy. Sawmill gravy uses milk. Redeye gravy uses coffee. But I digress.) The kitchen was painted black, but there was lots of sunshine coming in the windows and the back door. It wasn’t at all gloomy. It was warm and cozy and smelled like the biscuits that were rolled out with a drinking glass and cut to size using the mouth of the same glass.

Addie was a thin woman with a big laugh, who almost never wore her dentures. All I remember ever seeing her wear were dark cotton dresses and white aprons. Cousin Jim always seemed to be sitting at the kitchen table, not talking but drinking coffee and eating biscuits and gravy. We kids used to make butter in the authentic churn, which would now be an expensive antique.

In the living room, we found old paper or cardboard fans that were printed with the names of churches and funeral homes. The beds we slept in were much taller than those we were used to, which made climbing into them a workout. Just beside the house was a kitchen garden, which was endlessly diverting. We pulled up carrots and potatoes (which were usually not full-grown yet).

A little ways from the house was a barn, and it was the site of many adventures. There was a hayloft that contained bales of straw (not hay), but we were too young and timid to jump from it, as kids always do in the movies. There was also a fascinating old iron machine that took the kernels off the cobs of dried corn. We loved using it, though it turned out later that the corn cobs were meant to be left whole. There was also a mule, which I once got to ride bareback. Here’s some advice: Never ride a mule bareback. Their spines are very bony.

Across the road from the farmhouse was a hill that led to an ancient family cemetery. It made a nice walk to swing on the gate across the path and trek up there. I don’t know for sure, but I like to think of Addie and Jim being buried there and not in some huge cemetery far from their home.

Just a ways down the road, there was a drive-in theater, which we could see from the screened-in back porch. It was fun to watch the movies, especially the cartoons, even with no sound. Another nearby attraction was Natural Bridge State Park. There was an impressive lodge that we never stayed in, but where we could buy that sugary white candy that seems mostly made of air and dissolves in your mouth. We took pictures of each other standing under the bridge, though I don’t have them anymore.

If Beattyville had a town center, we never saw it. Down the road from the farm was a small gas station owned by Ollie Dooley, a more distant relative, but you couldn’t really say it was in a populated area. The areas we got to see were in the hill country of Kentucky, which we called “the mountains,” though they were nothing like the mountains they have out west. These were sometimes steep, rolling mountains, grassy and rocky, full of minerals.

Fracking didn’t exist back then, and I am glad. I’m sure the old farmhouse and barn are gone now. They were old when we visited them, and they can’t have survived or been rebuilt. And no one today would want a house with a black kitchen that you could enter through a window from the bedroom.

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.