Another random post of my writing--this one a retelling of a story my beloved Alzheimer's-stricken grandfather tells me every time I get him on the phone.
Somehow, despite his raising, my grandfather got the notion that life had more to offer than a house with crumpled newspaper for insulation and a cookstove for heat. The idea tore at him, ate at him, from the time he was a small boy pushing a plow behind a mule.
The mule, really, was part of the problem, he would explain later to me. Poppy, Papaw’s father, had bought the mule some years back. She was past her prime then, and the man selling her warned Poppy that she had little left to give. Poppy scoffed, more interested in the low selling price than the return on his dollar.
“I’ve got a houseful of boys that can work,” Poppy reminded the owner of the mule, “All I need is somethin’ for ‘em to hitch the plow to.”
The boys knew when they saw Poppy riding the skinny, slightly swaybacked mule into the holler what had happened. He had left that morning with the promise of a new mule to replace the one that had been worked to death in the field. Nanny had tried to make him promise that he’d some back with a young mule—she didn’t care if it was so coltish that the boys had to break it—that would be worth their hard-earned money. The boys knew better, even as they watched their mother beg over a bowl of thin gravy. Even though none of them was over twelve, they knew. Poppy would come back with whatever suited him. And, apparently, the old gray mule with the two dollar price tag was what suited him.
My Papaw--known then as Mick-- and three of his brothers met their father at the barn lot gate. The mule was winded from bearing the load of her new owner all of three miles up the rough holler road.
“Whatcha’ got there, Poppy?” one of the boys asked, straining in to catch the scent of liquor when the older man spoke.
“New mule,” Poppy answered, swinging his lanky legs off the animal’s side and landing beside her. He was two full heads taller than the mule—not, Mick remembers thinking, a good sign in a work animal.
“You gonna’ plow with her?” Mick asked then, opening the gate so the mule could be led into the thin-planked walls of their collapsing barn.
Poppy stuck his finger in his son’s chest and shouted in his thickly accented voice, “I ain’t gonna’ do ought with it, boy. That’s why the good Lord above sent you.”
Poppy was true to his word. The next morning saw all seven children crowded around the breakfast table and the old man sprawled drunk next to it on his mattress. By mid morning, the boys were in the fields and the girls had followed their mother down to the stream wash clothes. It took three boys to guide the plow through the field that first morning. By the next day, they had a rhythm and it only took two of them to keep the old mule in line. They took turns behind the plow. Whoever’s turn it was to sit out could run down to the stream for a drink or sit under one of the tall trees at the side of the field until it was his turn again. By nightfall the second day, the work was done.
“And it’s a dang good thing.” Mick remembers, “Or we would have buried another mule had we had to plow with her a third day.”
Note: Since it feels rather self-indulgent to keep posting these little memoirs, I'll only keep going if people ask.