Monday, June 11, 2007

In the Gloaming

When the weather gets hot and dry, I like to be outside in the gloaming. For those of you old enough to have parents raised in the Depression, they may remember their parents singing “Roaming in the Gloaming”. The lyrics and a one-minute a cappella sample of this old folk tune are here.

I get nostalgic in the summer. Growing up in Virginia, we had a lot of summer. There was lots of hot summer weather in North Carolina, too, where we went to visit my mom’s side of the family. These vacations were never vacations in the sense of going somewhere to relax and pamper ourselves. These were working vacations, where we’d pitch in with the folks we stayed with and work alongside of them.

And we worked. I used to wear bandannas every day during the summer, and they were not a fashion statement. I’d have the front of the bandanna pulled about a third of the way down my forehead in front, and tied tight behind my ears, down at the back of my head. I’d have my hair in a ponytail once it was long enough, to keep it off my neck, and then I’d sometimes wear a baseball hat with a farm goods name on it over all of that. It sounds hot, but it did a bodacious job of keeping salty, stinging sweat from running into my eyes.

We’d start early in the day with whatever work was to be done, to get it underway before the heat of the day rose, so that we couldn’t abandon the chore that was already half-done. We’d have a light breakfast with biscuits and fatback or a piece of fried baloney, with coffee for the grownups and a slug of sweet tea for the kids. And, off we’d go, usually to pick something – snap peas, lima beans, berries, corn, butterbeans, field peas, or we’d go fishing, serious fishing, for food we’d eat that night.

Or we’d do some work in exchange for food – weed someone’s victory garden, and those were big gardens, and pull nasty horned caterpillars and other pests off the plants in exchange for a couple of brown grocery sacks of some crop that was in abundance. Sometimes we’d work in exchange for spicy, homemade breakfast sausage in fat rolls, which would get cut into short two-inch lengths and fried up the next morning. We’d fight off sand flies and mosquitoes, run from bees, get dirt under our fingernails, and usually find a pebble in our shoes by the time we got home, hot, sweaty, crabby, and stinky.

If we helped someone bring in a crop, like tobacco, then the adults got paid in cash. They’d give us a couple bucks for pocket money and keep the rest. My family didn’t need the money, but my mother’s side of the family needed the help. Too many generations of farming at the edge of subsistence, and too little education combined for long, hard lives for them. They were too proud to take the cash; they’d have been hurt or offended if my folks had offered it to them. Instead, we’d buy groceries for their freezers, or they’d let us take them out for treats like an ice cream cone or a lemonade and a relaxing drive on a Sunday afternoon. And we worked with them, to bring in bigger crops, process more food faster, and do what we could to help them through the lean months when there were no crops to pick and jobs were scarce and too far away to get to.

I caught my Dad one time, dropping a $20 bill under the edge of the bed as we were packing to leave. I started to point it out to him, and he shushed me. After we were underway and stopped for lunch, he quietly told me over the lunch table that he did that because he knew my aunt would find the money while she was putting fresh sheets on the bed, and she’d understand it was for something special and wouldn’t say anything about it, just put it to good use.

Anyway, by early evening, we’d have showered and changed into freshly laundered clothes that still smelled of sunshine from drying on the line. Dinner would have been a tasty farmer’s meal of, usually, chicken in some form – fried, boiled with dumplings, or stewed with vegetables, 5 or 6 side dishes – sliced beefsteak tomatoes, field peas and butterbeans flavored with bacon grease or fatback, hot water cornbread, cucumbers, which were still warm from the vine, pickles put up the preceding summer, maybe some hard-boiled eggs, fried okra, corn on the cob, or yellow crookneck squash fried with onions and bacon drippings. Then there’d be something fruity for dessert – homemade peach pie, apple pie, strawberry-rhubarb pie, or just fresh fruit – peaches, watermelon, cantaloupe, or cold berries. We’d eat ourselves stupid, somehow, in between lots of conversation and jokes and teasing each other, and wash it all down with sweet tea.

We would creakily haul ourselves outside to sit out on the porch swing or a glider in the gloaming, when the sun was barely set, the air temperature dropped significantly, and a cool breeze would spring up. The older ladies would stay inside to clean up the dishes, drink a little coffee and gossip. We kids would head out front with our dads and uncles. If there were a lot of family members around, someone would be sitting on the porch steps, leaning against the support post. Someone else would be perched on a footstool, leaning back against the front wall of the house. We’d each have a cold glass of sweet tea or, if we were feeling prosperous, a “Co-Coler” or a Dew.

It was quiet and peaceful, out in the blue of early evening, with the sounds of crickets and frogs waking up for the night. June bugs would crazily fly into things – the side of the house, a stump, a post, or a person, but there was always the same loud thunk, a noise too loud for something that small. After we’d gotten cooled down, someone would start telling jokes, or a story from their childhood, and the rest of us would ooh and ahh and chuckle. The moms and aunts would join us as the evening grew darker, sometimes still wiping their workworn hands on a dishtowel as they came, fussing slightly over something, through the creaky screen door. The men would get up so the ladies could sit, we kids would sit on the floor, and after a little desultory conversation and teasing, someone would start singing.

They were always simple songs, songs they had learned as children, maybe in church, maybe as lullabies, maybe as cadence songs to help them work long hours in the fields. Those of us who hadn’t heard them before would listen carefully, our eyes closed, feeling the cool night air tickling across our tired, browned limbs, and join in when we could remember enough of the just-heard chorus.

It was beautiful music, sung by a crowd of people I loved and who loved me back, just for being. It was a way to wind the day down, bringing peace within to match the peace of the evening, taking us away from our aching muscles, sunburnt noses and sore, torn fingers. Simple music, to be sung by any voice of any age; good words about things we knew or might like to know, to take us away from ourselves, just a little.

So, I like to go out in the gloaming, as the day turns to night. I can sit in a chair or on my glider, listen to the birds sing good-bye to the day and the crickets and frogs sing hello to the night. I hear music, very faint and far away some evenings, from the good, safe days of my childhood. The dew falls and the humidity rises, and I sometimes tap my foot or hum or even sing quietly to myself as the stars come out. Until someone comes looking for me, and I need to go back inside to my life in the present, I can relive those too-few days of hard work and summer nights in the South.

My family would have liked this song by Alison Krauss, beautiful footage and the song Down to The River to Pray.


Amber in Albuquerque said...

Wow! How evocative. Almost made me ache to be there...almost. I spent many a hot, humid summer in eastern Oklahoma and I'm not sure I want to go back. Beautifully written in any case.

I'm going to see Alison Kraus on the 25th...I'll probably post about it.

Stephanie said...

Jeez, BoS, you're wasting your sweetness on the desert air, as it were. Get that thing published. You have outgrown blogdom.


Brigitte said...

I don't think a long, exhausting day picking in the fields has ever sounded so beautiful.

BoS said...

Thank you all very, very much. I shed a few tears while writing it, too.