Memorial Day Sunday is the annual Parker Family Reunion. It takes place in the Brushy Mountains. I would have attended this year but I didn’t have a way to get there. Diane was at the Crooked Road Mountain Dulcimer Festival at Ferrum College in Ferrum, Virginia. I believe she learned a lot and had a verygood time.
I missed seeing my cousins, uncles and aunts who gathered together for dinner and conversation, picture looking and all the other things that allow family to catch up with each other. I am usually the designated photographer of the big picture of the big family lined up on the church steps. Yep, I missed seeing my family. I really miss the ones who could not be there, who are no longer on this earth, who have passed on to the next life.
I am fortunate to be a member of of a family where folks live a long time, which means that almost all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins have been a big part of my life for a long, long, time and still are. Over the years I have had a good relationship with so many of them. I guess everyone has a favorite cousin, aunt, or uncle. I think I have one or two. When I was very young I spent part of a summer with my Aunt Agnes. She had seven children, Don, Jane, Patsy, Susan, Linda, Vickie and Ruth. I bet I didn’t get them in the right order and Vickie, if I spelled your name wrong, I apologize. I love all those girls. I watched Jane look after her sisters with such love and compassion, that there were times I wished she were my big sister instead of my cousin.
I moved to North Wilkesboro a couple of months before I got married in 1972. Aunt Agnes, Vickie, and Ruth looked after me. They fed me (because they knew I didn’t know how to cook a lick), washed my clothes, helped me find an apartment, which they helped clean, and after Diane moved in, they welcomed her with open arms. I know we could not have started out our married life as well without them.
When I was young My Uncle Jonah taught me about raising apples, tobacco, peaches, grooming horses and the danger of electric fences. He tried, unsuccessfully, to teach me how to milk a cow. He gave Diane and I our very first Christmas Tree. My aunt Helen, Jonah’s wife, and Diane like each other very much.
All the members of the Parker family are very special to me. Which brings me to my Aunt Hazel.
Aunt Hazel was the oldest of my dad’s siblings. Jonah, Johnny, Hessie, Agnes, and then Dad. I spent a few weeks one summer long, long ago with Aunt Hazel and Uncle Dennis, also known with much affection as Pap. Hazel and Pap, two very good and wonderful people. Their children are Ernie, Marie, and Carl. All three were a few years older than me so they were grown up and moved out the summer I stayed with Aunt Hazel and Pap in their big, three story, Victorian house in Martinsburg, West Virginia.
It was a grand old house, with porches all around, a big sweeping staircase in the living room, like something out of “Gone with the Wind”. The kitchen had a small squeaky staircase hidden behind a closet like door, you had to duck under the jam when heading upstairs. Part of the house had been turned into apartments and efficiencies. There were big brown wooden doors that led nowhere. The bathroom had a big antique tub and faucets. The living room had a big window. The house was built on a hill and if you were looking at the back door stoop, on the right was a concrete shuffleboard court, and to the right of that was a big red dirt vegetable garden, and then down at the bottom of the hill was a mobile home park. Hazel and Pap owned some homes down there and I used to go with Aunt Hazel to collect the rent. My cousin Ernie had a home down there at one time also. His yard was full of clover and we used to hunt for the four leaf variety but I was never lucky enough to find one.
I spent time sitting on the back steps of their big house. Behind me was the porch which was Aunt Hazel’s little green house. She grew all kinds of plants, some exotic types, orchids maybe? She grew herbs as well. She also stored Milk Bones in there, which I used to feed to her slightly rotund Cocker Spaniel named Suzy. I would take a bite of a Milk Bone and then give Suzy a bite. Aunt Hazel happened to see me sharing these crunchy dog cookies with Suzy one day.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that” she said.
“Oh, I’m sorry I guess I shouldn’t be eating her treats.” was my reply
“No, eat all you want, please don’t give Suzy many, she is fat enough already.”
I guess Aunt Hazel didn’t think I was too fat. She would have been right, we Parkers tend to be mostly bones, all elbows and knees and we hurt you if you hug us too hard. Aunt Hazel was not like that, she was short and very huggable. Just right in my opinion. She used to say “I’m the only Parker who feels good when you hug them.”
I think she might have been trying to fatten me up a bit, an impossible task, during my stay there. I woke up to the smell of bacon, eggs, biscuits and fresh brewing coffee most every morning. The flavors would leave the stove, carried by some magical air current that flowed up the back stair case, down the hall, then thru the door to my room and tapped me on the nose. I would wake, get dressed and charge down that narrow stair case at a dangerous pace, taking two steps at a time, almost crashing through the back door and out into the green house. Pap would tell me to be careful, Hazel would say that Mom and Dad would like me back in one piece.
I enjoyed the morning breakfasts, that had both good food and good conversation. I would listen to Uncle Pap talk a bit about work, current news events, and family gossip. He didn’t say a lot, he saved his words for something important to say. He was a soft spoken man, he would clear his throat just a bit before he said anything . He would take off his glasses and point the earpiece at you to drive his point home.
Both of them usually had some words of wisdom to share with me, some family history including stories about my Dad when he was the same age (one story was about a flat-sided chicken that my Dad had as a pet) or a story about my grandfather Belo, a man who I never had the privilege to know.
Uncle Dennis took me to work with him on occasion. He was a quality control manager for Armstrong Furniture. I would go with him to the factory and entertain myself on the ramps that connected the five or six floors of the building. The furniture making process would start on the top floor and as each stage was done such as framing, attaching springs, upholstery, what ever, the furniture would be pushed down the ramp to the next floor and by the time it hit the bottom it would ready to pack up and ship out. Some of these ramps were quite steep and long, and I would sled down them on a piece of cardboard. The furniture was quite good, as a matter of fact Mom and Dad’s living room was furnished with an Armstrong modern couch and chairs. Even now when I watch an episode of Mad Men, I can see the furniture that my Uncle used to make.
Uncle Pap and I would buy milk on the way back home from the factory or sometimes we might need to make a special trip to do the same thing. We would go to the center of town where there was this giant two story tall milk carton. It was a vending machine. Put your money in and a half gallon of ice cold milk would drop out. I had never seen anything like it before and have not seen anything like it since.
Aunt Hazel and I listened to music. You might think being that she lived in the mountains of West Virginia, and she came from the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, that bluegrass, or country or old time music would be what was in her vinyl collection. You would be part right. She had some of that but we listened to Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, The Beatles, and Johnny Rivers. I remember a specific record, Johnny Rivers live at the Whiskey A Go Go. The House of the Rising Sun was one of the numbers he performed and it was a great performance. Hazel and I had a discussion about what that song was about. I had no idea at the time, not sure that I do now. Johnny Rivers' Secret Agent Man is a song I can’t relate to either, but I like it.
We played Shuffleboard on a court with lights. Uncle Pap was a mean player. He showed no mercy and did not worry about anybody’s toes...wham! That puck on the ten spot is now off the court! Aunt Hazel told me it was my job to keep the course sandy, there was a sand pit at one end and the dry sand would make the pucks slide faster and straighter. We also used cornmeal, which I preferred, because I didn’t have to worry about the neighborhood cats using it as a you know what. Yes, I did throw some cat scat from the sand pit onto the court by accident which tickled Uncle Pap tremendously. We played for hours, day and night. I got pretty good at it and still play it well to this day. Just ask a lot of Florida folks who have had to take me on. I am so serious about it that I have my own four set of cues and pucks in the basement of the coach.
I loved history so Hazel and Pap made it a point to take me to Harper’s Ferry. It is a great civil war town, lots of things to see and do. We also drove to Antietam (some folks call it Sharpsburg) the site of the single deadliest day of the whole civil war. Martinsburg has its own history, it is the home of Belle Boyd a noted Confederate spy who shot and killed a Union Soldier for trying to hang the Stars and Stripes on her house. We visited her home and other interesting spots around town.
It was a very good time that I spent there with them. It was the start of a relationship that lasted for a very long time. We loved to talk to each other and we wrote letters as well. I would print my correspondence on my computer and send it to her in a special envelope with a shell in it or a pressed flower or a feather. She would write me back and give me words of wisdom, which were much appreciated especially when Diane and I or just me were having a tough time. She was there for me when my business partner Mike died, who was also my best friend. I called her once after getting a letter from her and somehow we started talking about my grandfather Parker. She told me that I was more like him than any one else in the family, that like him I see things that others don’t see. Aunt Hazel did not explain exactly what she meant by that, but I took it as a huge compliment. I really did.
We could depend on Aunt Hazel, she looked after my brother, my Dad and myself when we were sick with the Hong Kong Flu and my Mother was in the Hospital.
Aunt Hazel was a poet and writer. She could have been a great blogger. She self published stories about growing up in the mountains of North Carolina and she also wrote for the Mountain Laurel a published paper, a journal and history of Blue Ridge Mountain Life. Here is one of her short stories:
The Mountains Grew
As I continued standing there by that lonely old chimney, completely surrounded by the mountains - the same mountains I had climbed twice every sunny day as a child from early Spring to late Fall - it seemed to me the mountains had grown much taller and steeper and the valley had shrunk.
My story started in 1919. Sixty years ago a house stood here where I was standing, and we thought it was a large house. Just a few steps down the yard was a rock wall and a few steps farther was the two room log cabin we lived in before Daddy built the new one.
The new house had a living room, dinning room, kitchen, three bedrooms (one downstairs and two upstairs) and two porches. There were no rugs on the floor, curtains to the windows, not even any insulation or ceiling, but it did have rooms and a window in each room. We thought it was grand.
In the front yard grew a huge black walnut tree, it was our shade in the summer and a great part of our livelihood in winter. If you had dropped in most any evening between Thanksgiving and Christmas, you would have found every one that could use a hammer (without smashing a finger) sitting around the hearth cracking walnuts. We never let a walnut go to waste. I didn't know at the time that some of those walnuts bought our Santa Claus.
Just beyond that big tree was the corncrib with a shed on each side. One shed was for plows and other farm tools, the other was the wagon shed, and back of the crib was a wooden nail keg fastened to the wall. It had some straw and a white doorknob for a nest egg in it. The hens liked to lay their eggs and hatch their chicks there.
Between there and the barn was the old buggy shed, back of it grew the Buckingham apple tree. Its fruit was yellow and so large one apple would almost make a pie. Just beyond there was the barn, it had three stalls and a loft for hay. It was not a very large loft, packed full of hay it would not have fed the cow and mule all winter.
Up the hill above the walnut tree was a small building with a root cellar under it. In that cellar we had to keep our canned and pickled food to keep it from freezing. In the Fall it was used to "case" the tobacco so Mama could grade it. Cured tobacco is dry and crumbly and can not be handled until it is put in a damp place to come in "case."
Just a few steps beyond that building was the hen house, where the chickens all went to roost at night. If we didn't close them up at night some wild animal would kill or carry them off. There were more nests on the backside of the hen house. We tried to have enough nests so the hens would not have to stand in line to lay their eggs each day.
Behind the hen house was a pretty little mountain stream bouncing over the rocks. Just beyond the stream was the little brooder house Daddy built for Mama to keep the baby chicks warm in winter, and just beyond that was the packhouse, where we stored the tobacco until it was ready to go to market. Beyond that was a little place we called "the flower pit." Daddy dug a hole in the road bank, put a roof over it, made some shelves that looked like stair steps and used a window for the door, so I could keep my geraniums and begonias all winter. They did keep and bloom beautifully until I forgot to close the door one night.
Beyond that was the hog pen, the tobacco barn and the pig lot. When I was a child here, running from building to building and place to place doing my chores, I thought this hollow was a huge place, but now it didn't seem possible all those buildings could have been in this little valley.
I wondered, do mountains grow taller and wilder? And do valleys shrink as time goes by? Will this little valley where a family lived, felt safe and secure and protected by these mountains, someday be no more? Would some day the feet of these mountains just come together, with nothing but the creek to separate them?
These mountains were talking to me this day as surely as if they were a living, breathing person. I could hear them laughing, singing and asking me questions, "remember when you fell to your knees coming down me and your Mama washed the dirt off your skinned knees with turpentine and it burned so bad you screamed for an hour? Remember when you picked dewberries in your straw hat, for Mama to bake a cobbler for supper, and you fell and spilled ever berry before you got to the house? Remember raking bags and bags of leaves off my sunny side, to put in the pigs and calf's pen?"
On and On, I could hear those mountains asking me, "Remember? Remember? Remember? Remember when you and John Henry would go with Daddy to the big mountain to peel tan-bark and you two would walk on the skinned logs barefoot, and go home with your feet dyed dark brown? Remember helping Daddy pile sprouts and getting a thorn in your foot, and how it hurt when Daddy picked it out with his pocket knife?"
There was no end to the memories those mountains and I could share; some pleasing and fun, others not so much fun. I had to say good-bye to those mountains which were once my security, but were now just a forest full of buried memories, waiting to be dug up and relived.
Hazel Parker Hedrick
I loved my Aunt Hazel. I love her memory still. I like to think that maybe I got part of my desire to be a writer, a storyteller from her, also from my Dad and maybe from my Grand Dad as well. I don’t know for sure, but I do know that my life is better for knowing and having Hazel Parker Hedrick as my favorite Aunt.
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