Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Mountain Wife

Joyce Billingsby


"Oh, Mama, rub my poor tired feet," he had moaned wearily the day before he suddenly died. And she, bone tired, having worked shoulder to shoulder beside him in the hot searing sun, gathering corn on the hillside to feed their livestock this winter, had flounced impatiently to his side, massaging his aching, calloused feet begrudgingly.

Now standing beside his coffin, she prayed he hadn't felt her anger and resentment. His sun-reddened face was still. The pale forehead, protected from the sun by his old straw hat, was free from the furrows and creases of life's daily burdens. His worn hands were folded serenely across the new blue serge suit. He had found peace at last. She had never seen him so dressed; she would have preferred him wearing a new pair of overalls, his daily wardrobe, but the children had argued it wouldn't be proper, and had pitched in and bought the suit. She fought a moment of panic and anger. How dare he leave her alone in the world to face the same weary problems with no one to turn to? The children had long since fled the harshness of their mountain farm, and the corn was standing in the field and the mortgage due at the bank. He had always been there to solve these problems. Or create them.

Where would she go? How would she live the rest of her life? Live here alone in this aging mountain shack, waking at dawn when the rooster crowed, boil coffee and make biscuits—without him sitting there, fussing and criticizing? Should she move down in the valley in one of those government housing projects, filled with widows whose lives had suddenly ended—where a body couldn't spit out the door without a dozen prying eyes staring out behind lace curtains? Or perhaps, move in with some of the children, and which one?

They gathered around him now with frozen faces, almost fearfully, as if he would arise from his pine coffin and again control their lives. They stared silently at the man who had raised them—surely he had loved them, but harshly, as he had also cared for her. Had not his constant presence, his back-breaking labor in providing sustenance for his family not acknowledged his unspoken love?

Her children—she had nursed and cared for them, protecting them from his wrath, and they had left home one by one, quickly, and the passing years had turned them into aging strangers, some of them with grandchildren of their own. Many of them bore the unmistakable appearance of the one lying before them now, so quiet and so still.

It seemed they had looked at her accusingly back then when they were young, as if to say, how dare you marry this miserable man and bring us, unasked, into his cruel, angry world? And it seemed they accused her now—for as much as they had despised their father—he had been a permanent rock, unyielding, undying, a perpetual monument, and now, he was gone, leaving them to their own bitter memories.

"I did the best I could for you," she told her children. Her cold fingers touched his colder brow. "And so did he," she added softly, looking at each of them. "He did the best he knew how."

When all the children had finally left home, it had seemed easier for him, free from the burdens and worries of feeding and clothing his ever-growing family. At last, it was just her and him, like back in the far away beginning. Children themselves when they had married, fleeing from their barren, coarse impoverished lives, they had searched for a better life. But the roots were too deep, and he had stubbornly clung to the way he was raised—spare the rod and spoil the child, while she prayed the harsh lessons the children learned would somehow further them in their new lives.

In latter years, he had mellowed like a frost-bitten persimmon, and the seasons came and went until last year seemed as only yesterday, and all the yesterdays flowed haphazardly like the tumbling white waters roaring through the mountain rocks, plunging forever onward.
She thought again of his aching feet, and remembered with another stab of pain how just a few days ago she had stubbornly refused to laugh at one of his numerous stories, still vexed by the sharp way he had spoken to her when a fattening hog had slipped past her in the barn lot. Crestfallen, as if she had thrown a dishpan of cold water on his face, rebuffing his awkward apology, he had stumbled from the room with his shoulders bowed.

Sometime, you just had to love a body in spite of himself, fighting against his demons that raged inside, threatening to engulf him completely. Perhaps she had helped hold those demons in check, simply by just being present, although she knew others saw her as weak and him as strong. She had not even flinched the one time he had struck her in a drunken rage. He had dropped instantly to his knees, wrapping his arms around her faded skirt, weeping and despising his weakness and the whiskey that drove him wild. Wonderingly, her hands had fallen on his tousled unkempt hair while tears slipped silently down her stinging cheeks. In her own weary strength, she had endured, and through the years had found hidden energies that enabled her to rub his aching feet while her own had throbbed with pain.

"Mama, you'll have stars in your crown," one of the children said. "You never turned your back on him."

"I never turned my back on any of you," she said, wondering if they had forgotten all the times she had come to their aid. "And he never turned his back on me."

A shamed silence stole across their flushing faces. It was as though by escaping, they had simply obliterated their existence on this mountain farm. The memories were still too painful to contemplate.

Always, when the children were young, it had been her with them—against him. Her crippled fingers reverently traced his cold face. Now always, it would be her with him—against them. She saw the face of a young bright-eyed boy with his cowlick slicked wetly against his head, standing before her holding a bouquet of wild mountain flowers in his hand. "I"ll take care of you the best I know how," he had said humbly. And he had. The best he knew how.

What she wouldn't give to be able to rub his tired calloused feet just one more time!

***

Joyce Billingsby is a Weakley County, Tennessee, farmwife and poet. Her novel Wildwood: Confessions of a Moon Wife has recently been released and is available online through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Books-A-Million. Her poetry has been published in perodicals including Windmills (UTM), The Jackson Purchase Historical Society, Lyrical Fiesta, The Family Farm, and Down Home.


© Joyce Billingsby

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012