Saturday, March 12, 2011

Wildwood Flower

It is a cold Saturday night in the 1950s in Western Kentucky.  We are in Maw Maw Wilson’s warm kitchen where pork chops are sizzling in her big iron skillet, the scent of biscuits wafting from the oven.  An apple pie cools on the counter, and I am sneaking tiny pieces of the warm, tender crust when no one is looking.

Mary Ellen is doing her homework at the table.  "My goodness,” she says, dropping her pencil, “Abe Lincoln was born in 1809!”
“Good night, that's a long time ago," Terry says, "What year were you born, Maw Maw?"
Maw Maw lifts the last pork chop from the skillet and dusts her flour-covered hands on her bib apron.  "Eighteen eighty-two.”

I almost drop a piece of crust.  “What?  You were born in eighteen eighty-two?”

"Sure was," Maw Maw says, opening the oven door and pulling out the pan of biscuits, "Y'all come on and eat.  Now, whose turn is it to give the blessing?”

As we eat supper, I gaze into the living room where Maw Maw and Paw Paw’s wedding picture hangs.  They were young, expectant looks on their faces.  They had no grandchildren back then; Daddy wasn’t even around.  Now Paw Paw is gone.  And Maw Maw is old.   

“Maw Maw,” I say, “When did you and Paw Paw get married?”

“July 26, 1903.  We went over to Cairo and got married.”

“In a buggy?”

“Naw,” Terry laughs, “They drove a big ole Cadillac over there!”

I make a face at Terry and look at the picture again.  Paw Paw sports a thick handlebar mustache, his hair a startling black.   Maw Maw’s hair, arranged in the Gibson-Girl style of the time, is a deep auburn and very thick.  They both look happy.  And very young.

I gaze across the table at Maw Maw's snow-white hair, the patchwork of wrinkles crisscrossing her face, fogged-up glasses perched on her nose.  She doesn't look at all like the young bride in the picture. 

As soon as the dishes are done, Maw Maw hangs her apron on the nail beside the kitchen door and we head to the living room to listen to The Grand Ole Opry.  "We're just in time," she says, turning on the big radio, "It's just starting."  

Lonzo & Oscar are strumming their fiddle and guitar and telling jokes.  Suddenly they burst out singing I’m My Own Grandpa, and Maw Maw laughs so hard that she has to take her glasses off and wipe the tears from her cheeks.  Her eyes are blue and very pale, nothing like the bright eyes of her youth.  I wonder what happened.

While the commercial is on, Maw Maw tells us she once traveled all the way to Nashville in her Model-T and went to The Grand Old Opry.  “It was a long time ago,” she says, “There was no floor back then, just sawdust on the ground.”

“Sawdust?” Patsy says, “I never heard of such a thing!”

Maw Maw adds another stick of wood to the stove and the pipe turns red.  Warm, my stomach full, I am getting sleepy.  Terry and Patsy are fighting to stay awake, and Mary Ellen is curled up on the big Victorian settee already asleep.

When the king of country music, Roy Acuff, begins to sing, Maw Maw hums along with him to The Great Speckled Bird.  And her face lights up when the Carter Family comes on.  She tells us the story of A. P. and Ezra Carter, who married cousins, Sarah and Maybelle, and came all the way from the mountains of West Virginia to audition in response to an ad in the newspaper.

“I'm been listening to them since they first came on the radio,” she says, "Of all their songs,  Wildwood Flower is the one I like best." 

Wildwood Flower is my favorite, too.  The music is beautiful, haunting, causing me to long for something I cannot define.  I try to remember the first time I heard it, but I can't.  I have been listening to the Grand Ole Opry with Maw Maw on Saturday nights as long as I can remember.  

As they sing, Maw Maw tells us that A. P. plays the fiddle, Sarah, the autoharp, and Ezra the banjo and fiddle.  “But the best one of those Carters is Maybelle," she says, “She plays the autoharp, the banjo, the fiddle and the guitar, and she can sing Wildwood Flower like nobody I've ever heard."  

Tears gather in her eyes as we listen to Maybelle's mournful voice, and I drift off to sleep wondering if the song makes her think of Paw Paw.

I am pulled awake by fiddle and banjo music.  Maw Maw is standing by the radio and the volume is turned up even louder.  She sways from side to side in time with the music and then sashays to the center of the room and holds out her hand. 

“Come over here, Terry.”

He, too, has been asleep and looks startled.  But he rises to the occasion and takes her hand.

“Now, stand right there,” she says. 

She takes me by my shoulders and places me a few feet from Terry, and then she places Patsy across from us.  Still swaying, she glides over to Mary Ellen, places her next to Patsy and begins clapping her hands in time with the music, motioning for us to do the same:

Square your sets with a smile on your face; everybody dance, right in your place.

With a click of her heels, Maw Maw begins dancing in place.  “Come on, y’all,” she says with a grin.  She lifts her skirt above her knees, her feet moving faster:

Form a ring and make it go, when you get just right we’ll do-si-do.  On your heel and one your toe, you’ll ever get around if you go too slow.

We stare at each other in disbelief; we have never seen Maw Maw dance.  We all join hands and spin round and round, laughing so hard that we are stumbling.  But not Maw Maw.  The skirt of her dress swishes around her legs as she moves like lightening across the floor.  

Maw Maw Wilson 2Soon we are catching on, dancing and clapping and giggling.  But what is most fun is watching Maw Maw skim across the floor.  Cheeks pink, eyes sparkling, she is the young bride in the wedding picture.

By the time Mother and Daddy arrive to pick us up, we are exhausted.  But still giggling.  "Looks like y'all had a big time tonight," Daddy says.

“We did,” Maw Maw says, a twinkle in her eye, "We sure did." 

After we say our goodbyes and head down the road toward home, I watch Maw Maw waving from the porch, and I feel peaceful, comforted somehow, knowing that behind the snow-white hair, glasses, and patchwork of wrinkles, young Muriel still resides.

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All words and pictures © 2008 Brenda G. Wooley