Fairview of Marsha Taylor
Returning the Rake
Thanksgiving is Hog Killin'
Tough Ol' Birds
Preface & Reader Response
I drink in the familiar lines of his face and his well-known verbal expressions as if to burn them deeper into memory.
WITH NEIGHBORS LIKE THESE
by Jerry Murley
In some quarters having neighbors and family, particularly in-laws, in close proximity is highly problematic. Not is my world, for often my neighbors are my relatives. That's been a double benefit rather than a curse. Nevertheless, even here in the Tennessee hills there are neighbors who are not our kin who act with kindness and adaptability rather than with thoughtlessness, antagonism, and constant irritation.
* * *
When Joyce and I picked up stakes in Memphis in early July 1980, my cousin Chuck, my father and my mother helped pack the car and rental truck. When we arrived in Franklin on an extremely hot afternoon, Bob and Harlin met us to help us move into our new apartment, carrying furniture up a flight or two of stairs in the absence of an elevator. That August I helped Bob rebuild his bathroom and he helped me find used telephone poles for my new bridge. Harlin helped lay the cement blocks for the foundation of my bridge and helped manually fill each one with concrete. One Saturday morning as my new house was being built, Bob and Harlin joined me and Joyce to fill the foundation blocks with concrete. When we moved into our newly built house in December 1981, Bob and Harlin were there again to help us move out of the apartment and into the place where we would live for the next 31 years and counting.
Twenty years later, in 2002, Harlin volunteered to drive Joyce into Nashville for chemotherapy while I was at work. Three or four times, he drove the forty-mile round trip in his truck and waited in town for two hours until Joyce was ready to come home.
On May 11, 2003, early in the morning on Mother's Day, a tornado or two roared from the west end of the hollow across the road and clipped the corner of our house, downing many dozens of large trees. At daybreak, there was a media helicopter flying overhead and the county chain gang was busy cutting trees that blocked vehicular and foot passage on our road for three or four hundred yards. As the county crew passed our driveway, having cleared about a sixth of the road but opening traffic to the north, as far as our driveway was concerned, help began to arrive from neighbors. First to show up with his chainsaw was Harlin. He worked for much of the morning helping clear a huge oak tree blocking my bridge. For the week thereafter, Harlin and Carole's friends, Steve and David, who live some 30 miles away, showed up to clear a large tree or two with me on the weekend or on their own while I was away at work.
By lunchtime that Sunday, Susan and Marshall arrived from their home in Nashville. They are also neighbors, as they maintain land in the hollow across the road. Their property, particularly many trees on the south ridge, by the creek and along the pasture fence rows, was also damaged by the storm. They brought two large tarps and ties to cover our roof and the roof of one of the houses at Bob and Bobbie's. They and former neighbors, Mary Ruth and Sara, also brought food. We all sat out in the shade of the front yard, strewn with debris, and ate a picnic lunch. Afterward we cut a tree blocking Bob and Bobbie's driveway. Soon Susan's friend Bernie helped clear the remainder of Bob and Bobbie's long driveway. Meanwhile, I worked on top of my house, with Pat and Adam and Jacob and Mark and Harlin on the ground below, as we covered our damaged roof with a large, bright-blue tarp. Members of Bobbie's church in Grassland arrived mid-week to clear the debris in her yard.
Other than calling Susan to let her know that we were all unhurt and to ask for a stop at a supply store for tarps and ties, we did not ask for help. There was no need to ask. It came of its own accord.
It took a full year to clear the downed trees on our property. By November of that year, while I was at work, Paul had, as a volunteer, pulled a disc harrow over the dirt disheveled and denuded by the bulldozer that cleared that impossible tangle of vines and tree parts that we had been unable to manage manually or with a tractor and chain. It has taken ten years for the tree coverage to return to a middling but pleasant state. It will take ten or twenty years for the trees to begin to approach their former glory. It will take many years more for the gratitude that we have for these neighbors to even begin to fade.
* * *
Living in a stable rural community such as ours helps one focus on the present rather than dwell on could-have-beens and might-bes. Paradoxically, concentrating clearly on the now helps one place the past and future in a more comprehensible and productive perspective. In a rural neighborhood, it is difficult to distinguish between selfishness and self-interest, between work and education and entertainment, between relaxation and routine. Even as they had done in Memphis, my parents helped with house, yard, field, and bridge maintenance and improvement when they were here on visits. This may be peculiar to them and to our family, but these are the things that were done together in that moment in this little corner of the universe. Shared tasks are mutual points of reference; they are as key to relationships as our genome.
* * *
After the flood of 2010 – no actually between the two days of flooding and after – neighbors took to the road to assess the damage and to pitch in. Mike and I carried the heavy spring house back into position for Glen and Toni and picked up debris in their driveway. Mike and Karen and their daughters carried Reid and Brenda's mailbox back from our creek side. Deb stood guard on the road to warn walkers that huge oak and walnut trees were sliding down the hill and falling over the road, fence, and creek. She turned Joyce and me back a minute before a fine walnut crashed down behind us. Culverts were replaced and driveways repaired. Every time I got down by the creek to fill in the approaches to my bridge or to cut on the huge sycamore stump lodged under my bridge (it is still there but about 20% shorter) a neighbor would come by offering a tractor or a chainsaw. Glen came by offering a bigger chainsaw and the use of his steel bridge if needed. Mike, Jeff, and someone I don't even know each drove by with a tractor offering help with the stump.
* * *
The list of jobs that get done by neighbors for neighbors is continuous: produce sharing; dinner and meeting hosting; weekly grocery shopping, meal cooking, house cleaning, and garbage dumping; grass cutting; hay hauling; cow feeding; barn and horse-shed building; honey extracting; mailbox fixing; plumbing, roof, shed, window, and door repairing; flower-bed tending; brush clearing; downed-tree cleanup and sharing for firewood; firewood stacking and hauling; post-hole drilling; contractor management; baby-sitting; calf nutting; and emu wrestling are among the services that might crop up at any given time in our three-square-mile neighborhood of eighteen or so households. There are the heavier burdens, too, of attending to the injured, the ill, and the slowly perishing. There is the companionship; the grooming; the feeding; the book fetching, loaning, and reading; and other such expressions of care regarding the essentials of human frailty. Some of the combined functions that are both neighborly and familial are somehow made dearer and spread broader when there is also daily proximity.
In times of grave illness in my family, neighbors Bobbie, Jan, Carole, and Susan have arrived at the door with hearty meals or invitations to dine at their homes. Susan delivered made-to-order pimento cheese sandwiches to me in the ICU at Vanderbilt when I could eat nothing else. She sheltered our dog, Zach, from frightening thunderstorms. Carole, Bob, and Bobbie fed Zach periodically for 13 years when we were out of town. And Carole persists in sharing delicious sweets and other dishes, which she sometimes leaves by surprise for us in the mailbox in the mornings or late afternoons. Jan swapped her car with us so that we could drive our son to college his freshman year. For over thirty years Bob and Bobbie have loaned us tractors, trucks, chainsaws, tools, and barn space, and given hay, honey, garden produce, fish, pork, and beef – to say nothing of comfort and advice – to us and others. Adam, Lia, Mark, Jacob, Andrew, Grace, and Jackson pulled double duty as both grandchildren and neighbors of their grandparents. Tom and Mary Ruth loaned their tractor to till our garden for years. Tom tilled Bob's garden and helped Bob pull hay wagons in summer. Glen and Toni watch our house when we are gone and eagerly share their steel bridge when heavy trucks bring deliveries to our property. Reid and Brenda keep an eye out as well, and Reid did tractor work after the flood to clear a rock dam impeding water flow in the creek. Justin and Kathy share information about reliable and unreliable local contractors. They share our concern for the environment of the hollow and rally whenever there is a threat. Jim and Jean helped rescue a wounded owl on a cold Saturday afternoon one January. When I have a tractor problem I can count on Marshall to pitch in, and he can count on me. When I got stuck in the creek hauling gravel, he was quick to volunteer to pull me and the tractor out. Joyce cultivates, harvests, and packages garden produce for co-workers, neighbors, and family.
To Sara and Virginia, Bob and Bobbie have always been beloved surrogate grandparents. Though attentive to Bob and Bobbie in childhood years, since their teens and into their twenties, they have been more so. They bear gifts, they visit, and they make phone calls on birthdays and anniversaries, and, especially Sara, on Veterans Day and Memorial Day, in part to further honor her own father's service. In similar measure, the mothers of Sara and Virginia, Mary Ruth and Rose Ann, held Bob and Bobbie as honored elders and privileged confidants on a par with filial kinship.
Out of obvious, long-time deference toward Bob and Bobbie, Randy is at the ready to crawl into wet and icy shallow crawl spaces at temperatures in the teens to repair broken water lines or to work in deep holes to replace water lines broken by tree roots – all for a charge that is extravagantly neighbor-friendly. And Robert, farthest up the road, provided vegetables on occasion for Bobbie. He maintains a ready supply of cheap oak and hickory firewood for whenever it is needed. When the church fish fry heats up each August, Bobbie remembers him, sending extra plates to Robert's home for him and his family members.
* * *
Diane and Deb, Jeff and Tammy, Leonard (Chief) and Ruby also contribute the three bluetick coonhounds that keep the raccoons and possums away from our garden cantaloupe patch. These free-range coon dogs delight us by getting into winning face-to-face barking matches with the fenced-in pack down at the curve in the road. With only inches from wet nose to wet nose, they face down that pack of barking neurotics and menacing escapees at the curve. The two Irish setters, three great Pyrenees, and two or three cowardly and obnoxious refugees from the pound, all penned less than five yards from the roadside, daily stalk and harass walkers, runners and bikers – and white vehicles – for two hundred yards around the bend. The resounding and persistent howls of the coon dogs easily bring the "guard dogs" behind the fence to heel in exhausted submission. It is no small consolation for us to imagine all of those dogs living in that small house with their owners.
The omnipresence and work of the coon dogs is not insignificant – it is emblematic of what is good and humorous in the neighborhood and what is derisible, if not downright pernicious, out in the world beyond paradise. The coon dogs are reminiscent of political extremists of all breeds: though they keep the howl of freedom fresh and echoing though our lives, not much is achieved for all the effort except for a temporary repulsion of whatever real or imagined vermin they are baying. On occasion the coon dogs remind us of their dark business when the early morning air carries the strong scent of skunk spread in the wake of the dogs' perpetual hunt.
* * *
Back a few years ago, the addition of a few more houses and drier weather put increasing strain on the shared, shallow water resources in the neighborhood. With the flood of 2010, several wells were tainted with unacceptable levels of unsavory and unhealthy organisms. Much of the well water, even before the flood, gave off a sulphuric smell and was occasionally blackened with limestone and silt. When Paul agreed to open his land for a water line to a wealthy neighbor up the next hollow, the newest neighbors up our hollow lobbied others to join in bringing the line up as far as their two-family household. A few of the neighbors were ambivalent about the immediate need to purchase individual taps. Those in between the main water line and the neighbors up the hollow could have bought a tap for half the price later, but perhaps with more difficulty reaching under the road to tie into the new line. Delay in a decision would have placed the burden for the line wholly on the neighbors most in need at the end of the line. At a meeting hosted by Neil and Lana, almost all the neighbors agreed to invest in order to share the expense and work in concert on the waterline extension. Everything did not proceed smoothly in every detail, but the line was completed successfully nonetheless and without significant discord. For a group containing determined defenders of our treasured environment, the enterprise was not entirely without drawbacks. The project had other costs, perhaps some hidden until another day. For some, those whose private lines had yet to cross a creek, there would be more costs. For others, who allowed their lawns and fields and ponds and creeks to be dug up and temporarily marred by mud and strewn rock so that the line could continue on for all of us, we owe a different kind of debt.
There are often tacit, reciprocal exchanges but no strict accounting for trading favors and aids for neighbors. The water project held real advantages for everyone, but the long and short of it is that the project was hastened because neighbors felt it was right to share the load and not leave it to the most desperate to shoulder the burden alone. After over fifty years for Bob and Bobbie, and longer for Paul, the finished project delivered a few fire hydrants to the neighborhood as added comfort. Even those who have not connected to the new water benefit from fewer households drawing from the same free but uncertain underground water supply.
* * *
A few weeks ago in the high heat of summer, Joe and Paul volunteered to drive more than forty miles into Nashville and back to haul used utility poles to my land in preparation for rebuilding my wooden bridge. I worried mightily about the responsibility of young Joe driving that 26-foot goose-neck trailer loaded with six one-thousand-pound, thirty-one-foot poles. But with calm, confident skill Joe undertook the balancing and securing of the awkward load. Until reaching my property a couple of hours later, he cautiously drove through evening rush-hour traffic with me trailing in my car, warning lights flashing. Then with his family's super-sized, green front-end loader, he delicately plucked poles from the trailer and placed them neatly to the side as if they were mere pick-up sticks. Joe has grown to be an excellent heavy-machine operator – and a helpful one, too.
At the dusty utility-pole yard, Paul stood in the full sun, refusing cold water from the utility men. He gave me advice about which poles to ask for. Paul had something to say about each one. To the utility foreman I referred to Paul as my advisor. That is not an overstatement, for Paul has long been a trusted advisor about practical matters: where to put a bridge, where to build a house, how to dress a hog, how to shape a driveway. And this was done a week before Paul was to go into the hospital for a heart evaluation. Despite some problems, his heart is still strong as it turns out. No news there: a man in his mid-eighties who works more than eight hours a day every single day of the year in rain, cold, and heat, and then volunteers to help a neighbor in such a task, has a leg up in from-the-heart strength and endurance.
In recent years, I have seen Paul carrying a twenty-five sack of feed over his shoulders, walking across an damp telephone-pole bridge with no side rails, just two poles with five board runners in width. If he fell in that creek, only neighbors chancing to walk or drive by would be near to help him. I frequently see him climbing over gates in his heavy rubber boots carrying galvanized buckets of feed for his cattle.
In his worn hat, overalls and boots, Paul holds court nearly every morning along the road. He leans through the rolled-down window of one of his old pick-up trucks while sitting inside or standing behind an open door. Or with one foot propped on the bottom wire, he holds fast to the top strand of a rusty barbed-wire fence or leans on a wooden post. I drink in the familiar lines of his face and his well-known verbal expressions as if to burn them deeper into memory. The earned creases in his skin, the posture, the voice, the clothing, the experienced eyes, the methods, and the ideas of this super-lean, bent-backed, hard-working octogenarian are a lesson about our culture, a study in history reaching far back to Europe. Essentially, it is a story retold about the condition of mankind in general.
Though closer to the one percent than he would admit and most might imagine, Paul speaks with such passion for "Barack-O" that one would think the current administration was led by FDR's clone. His morning conversation is a better recap and synthesis of the day's news, from a yellow-dog Democratic point of view, than any offered by bigwig editorialists in the media.
The characteristics common in these neighbors demonstrate abiding common decency and a sense of shared responsibly for community, albeit on a well-regulated and limited level, in a heartily individualistic environment. These neighbors are not all of the same political views. Most hardly speak of such things to one another. Certainly good neighbors seldom discuss potent politics when they suspect that a neighbor harbors an inflexible position in opposition to their own. That sort of debate doesn't seem to have much of a point or a future when neighbors are trying to get along. Even political road signs are a rarity. Neighbors are not generally best friends. But their shared involvement is a bulwark to the winds of accident and the inevitable consequences of human existence that buffet us periodically when institutions, best friends, and other dear family are not nearby.
This story has no end – we pray. It will not end as long as we are overcome by the steady kindness of neighbors. Look on world and witness what utopia looks like in real-life America. It is neighbors who wave and speak daily and who help in times of obvious trouble but who have sense enough to mind their own business most other times.