Yesterday was the last day of May—the final day of the last full month of spring, and the birthday of my maternal grandfather, Fred R. Williams, born in 1879. When I was growing up, Grandpa and Grandma lived just up street, having moved there from their farm in the hills of eastern Kentucky at the start of World War II.
When Grandpa and Grandma first got married, they lived in a log cabin in a remote and rugged holler called Bear Branch, so named because not too many years earlier, a very large black bear had been killed nearby. That's the way they name things thereabouts—either after the first family to settle the spot, a distinctive natural feature, or some noteworthy event. Thus you have such places as Oil Springs, Split-Rock Gap, Copperhead Ridge, Paw Paw Bottom, Panther Steep, Rockhouse, Sassafras Creek, Elk Creek, Paint Creek, Salt Branch, Indian Holler, Pound Mill Branch. Wonderful names—vivid, descriptive, historical, indigenous.
My Uncle Don was born in that hewn log cabin—though he was preceded by a boy, and a year later, a girl, both either stillborn or living only a few hours. Grandpa, a carpenter, built their caskets. Later, Grandpa and Grandma bought a rugged and only partially cleared tract of land a mile or so away, which they—along with their growing family—sustenance farmed for the next four decades. Grandpa also kept up his carpentry, building all sorts of things for himself and his neighbors, from wagons and barns, to houses and caskets.
He could do finer work, too—making toolboxes, cases for clocks, and wooden spoons. I've watched him split a length of hickory, rough out a blank for an axe handle with a drawknife, pocket knife, and spokeshave, finish silky smooth with pieces of broken glass and scouring reeds instead of sandpaper, ending with a rubbed-in coat of linseed oil. The whole business took less than an hour and looked as good as anything sold in a hardware store.
Grandpa Williams was sturdy-but-lean, tall, and stood ramrod straight. His hair was thick and coal black, though in his last years it changed to a silver-white. In the old black and white photos, Grandpa often looks stern, serious, but in truth he was neither—though he wasn't a noisy laugh-a-minute, practical-joking cut-up like everyone on Grandma's side of the family…and I suspect he was sorely tried on more than one occasion seeing as how every one of his offspring, at least to some degree, inherited Grandma's fun-loving, laugh-at-anything disposition. But Grandpa had his moments, too, and wasn't above joining in on the teasing and tomfoolery. He was always coming up with some new name to annoy me with, usually a two-parter—Jim-Tom, Dick-Ike, Rosco-John, Bill-Peter—though it never much worked, because I loved him too dearly and answered cheerfully to whatever he invented.
I never knew my paternal grandparents. But I got to be around Grandma and Grandpa Williams for nearly twenty years—and I treasure that time as one of the most wonderful blessings of my life. They both taught me many things. Most of all, they gave me a sense of roots, of heritage, of being born into a world with personal, blood-bought history.
Grandpa's stories weren't just tales…they were my stories. I thought about some of them yesterday as I ambled around an old field making photos—including the one of the bumble-bee on the clover. Family stories of those who fought in the Civil War, and Revolutionary War; of coming down the Wilderness Road with Daniel Boone; stories of specters and haints; of big snakes, bear hunts, panthers, wildcats, wolves and elk and buffalo; of hills and cliffs and caves, rock-houses and bubbling springs; of murder and bloodshed; of a lost silver mine; of Jenny Wiley, who lived near an ancestor, and how she was infamously kidnapped by the Shawnee, though later escaped.
I wish I could hear them all again. Alas, I can only replay them in my head, though in Grandpa's slow, rich voice, with his hand gestures and facial expressions, and the gleaming intensity of his brown eyes…my mother's eyes, my eyes.
Happy Birthday, Grandpa. I love you and miss you, but I'll never forget.