Monday, August 13, 2012

How a Wild Okie Got Her Name

I thought I would do a regular writing exercise today, something to keep my descriptive skills fresh and something that would also shed a little light on where my mother's people come from.

I remember my great grandparents.  Their names were Albert and Audrey Jennings. I think Great-Grandma Audrey's maiden name was Harsh.  Nobody called my Great-Grandpa "Albert".  Because of my own grandfather's stutter, my sisters and I thought for the longest time that his name was "Abbot".  I didn't find out until he died when I was 11 and I asked my mom to have the funeral home correct the name so they would have it right.  I knew even as a small child that it is a special thing to have your great grandparents in your life.  I remember even at the age of four, I treated Great Grandma as though she was fragile. She smelled like late fall leaves crunched tightly in the hand and thrown in the air and her eyes were once blue, washed by years of hard life to a light spring sky.

My Greats lived way out the Tucannon, a large wooded area somewhere folded into the hills and rocky terrain between Dayton, Washington and Pomeroy.  To get there as the crow flies would be to skim past the steep canyon walls and find the lowest part where the last glacier cut through on its way to becoming a lake.  The Tucannon river babbles forth, fed in the summer by melted snow from the mountains just to the South by the Umatilla National Forest.  In fall, rain and snow cut crags into the rimrock and encouraged the miles and miles of evergreens, whose needles kept us girls wearing flip flops when we would have otherwise foregone footwear altogether.  That's not entirely true.  There were always stickers- yellow star thistle, russian thistle (also known as tumbleweeds), and tiesel with heads so thick you could brush a horse tail with them.  There were also loads of tiny river snakes and the occasional rattler to worry about.  Mostly we tangled with the water snakes since we bathed, played in and cooled watermelon and soda in the crick.  There just wasn't any messing around with the rattlers, whose real or imagined tail shake would send ice through my veins and me scrambling in the opposite direction.

And it would get hot too, up into the 90s in the summer.  In the winter when we visited the Greats, we never took off our coats.  The wood stove would be roaring, filling the house with heat and the smell of creosote. What impressed me most was Grandma Audrey's age. She was old, older than a hundred years to my small eyes, and happily living without electricity in a little slat house.  In reality she must have been 70, but her paper-thin skin smoothed when she smiled and held my sisters and I to her.  She loved children and we loved her. I remember the little sideboard buffet table she had in the house too. It now sits in my own house, without the oil lamps and doilies that once adorned the piece.  It had been sold to her by a cousin, one of the Rose clan, and she treasured it.

In the early 1900s, Grandpa Abbot bought a little plot of land.  It was less than 50 acres but right by the road, which wound up past Camp Wooten and into the Pataha.  You could get there from both Pomeroy and Dayton- about 20 miles each direction.  If you went to Dayton, you'd take the Hartsock grade or the Panjab if you had horses to pull since it didn't have the same washboard gravel on it.  Somewhere in my memory is the way, the map, and I can find it once I am on my way.  You won't find these places on a gps, friends, as nobody has electricity or much of a paved road.  Taking those backroads will dump you off pretty close to the old homestead.  There sat a house close to the road, with old slats and a chimney out the top.  The outhouse sat behind, in various places every few years, and my grandmas (my grandma was one of identical twins) tended to the garden with their sisters and mom.

In the front stood some young evergreens.  My grandma, Verline, and her nine siblings, walked over those evergreens in the yard.  One of them kept growing, bent over like that and still lives to this day.  I played on that tree as a little girl too.  Grandma told me stories of growing up on the Tucannon, of being barefoot all summer and how Abbot was a hunting guide and that he traded with a few of the local tribe members who still lived up in the hills. I'll tell you more of these stories one day when it's raining and I can remember by the look and the feel of cold hard drops against the windowpane.  Abbot's stories, and my grandma's, are precious to me.  Since they don't need them anymore, those memories live in me and someday I will write them down for you.  They won't be the same way that my grandma wrote them for me; memory is like that and is sometimes more vivid than real life. There are stories of canning food and flour sack dresses; working and cooking for harvest crew and my grandma buying her own shoes for the first time ever and how proud she was to bake a chocolate cake as a young woman. Abbot told us stories too.  He lived at the end of days with my grandparents; Audrey had gone on before him and he patiently bided his time in front of their wood stove, watching boxing on television and telling me stories about the bachelor buttons and the wild flowers on the hillside.

That's how this blog got its name, you know.

Four Generations of Jennings

Grandma and the Walkover Tree

Earline and Verline

I think this is the way it happened:  One snowy evening, I was bored and ten years old.  Ten years old and bored didn't really go together in my mind but it was after supper and dark outside and nobody would be interested in turning the television to something I would like to watch.  The dishes were done and the washer was running; Grandma had had me dry with the old flour sack cloths that I also use to this day.  They soak up water better than anything.

And I asked Abbot what his favorite flower was. He thought for a moment, and I watched the wrinkles around his eyes becoming deeper.  He had age spots, liver spots as my grandma called them, on his head, pushed right through the thinning hair.  Time had hunched his shoulder so that his suspenders appeared to bow him forward under the weight.

"Well", he said finally, "I think it's the wildflowers".
"Which ones?"
"The yellow and red rose bushes that grow small close to the canyon wall.  They are the sweetest, just like you and your sisters."

No, that's not quite right. Maybe it was something like this:  It was summer and the hot air had settled down towards evening.  Camp was made, with Aunts Zelma, Earline, Sis and Teddy right nearby.  Great Grandpa Abbot and I were playing cards against Grandma and Zellie.  Abbot "shot the moon", meaning that he won the game by taking every trick in the deal in a game of pinochle.  Aunties swore.  They would never do that in town, but around a campfire with the smoke and pitch crackling high off the ground and the other children playing Snipe, it was alright to let their hair down.  I looked up at the moon, buzzing off of the sugar from s'mores and Hershey's chocolate, Twizzlers and little half cans of Sprite.  And I asked him the question about his favorite flower. And he told me the same thing.  Then Aunt Sis, who had once owned the local bar in Dayton with her husband Wayne, said that he was full of shit.  But I didn't care at all.

Yeah, it's one of those two stories.

Either way, I am a wild flower and so are my sisters and so are those grandparents before us and those who will come after.  It's in our blood.  We are expressions of the same rose bush, bright and reaching for the sun, pushing past the canyon walls and inhaling deeply of the heated summer breeze.


  1. I just finished your essay and I am weeping huge tears of joy for the happiness and love that surrounded you at such a young age and your opportunity to speak at such great lengths with the most genuine treasures any family will ever possess. Thank you for this beautiful and intimate story. I have few writers whom I truly admire and you, young lady, are among the very few.
    (I confess a tinge of bittersweet envy, but this is not the time or place. One day, perhaps over a nice informal luncheon or a glass of wine with you and your wonderful husband.)

    I wish you continued joy and happiness throughout your lifetime and I thank you for sharing your memories with us.

    Jon Miller (aka "Doc Spender")

  2. You will have to take many starts of the wild yellow rosebush in my yard. I transplanted it from the old home place before it was sold. And FYI, the owners of the Last Resort don't take kindly to the lands' great grandchild looking for periwinkles ("penny winkles") in their crick anymore. Just so you know!