Memory That Old Fool



Up in the mountains where I’m from

There’s a bald that old and round

And from its top you can see the world

Folks call it Naked Ground, yeah, folks call it Naked Ground


My grandpa Holloway loved to hunt coon, and he run beautiful black and tan hounds. Sometimes he would collect me from the little side-porch room I slept in, and loose the dogs, and we would roam the deep night together for hours, up-mountain and down-valley.


Grandma Etta was kind of a hill witch, all shy and wild. It was from her that most of the Cherokee come into the Holloways, and I have a secret cunning that was transmitted directly from her to me. She’s my reminder ghost that I come from a people, not just a circumstance.


What is memory? Memory is a stew placed over an open fire to percolate and bubble and make something of itself. Sometimes that fire is called the soul, but the stew is who we are.


I know about memory that it is not linear, like a road, but more like a vast boulder field of treasure and regret. I know that not even a photograph tells a tale but merely implies it-


for the tale includes the relationship between the teller and the seen or unseen listener, and the relationship between the listener and all the tales that construct who they are. That’s my Dad there, with his sister Ethel.


The photograph says 1955. That’s my sweet cousin Norma. We’re all of 3 years old and buck-naked and running off to explore some wild side-stream of White Oak Creek, surely.


Memory is an old fence row running off to a mysterious location, more landmark than destination, and never ever the same place twice, now matter how vigorously remembrance imitates itself.


Grandma and Grandpa Phillips were sharecroppers, one of the hardest ways to make a living in this world. She come from the Price’s out of South Carolina and her family was all over the color line and she was one of the great loves of my life. Lilly Price Phillips.


Here’s Grandma and Aunt Zillie coming in from the barn after milking, taken in the 1930s. Zillie was 13 at the time. When I showed my Dad this picture he got misty and said: “That cow raised me.”


This sweet strange creature may be Nell, a cotton mule who entered my father’s life when he was six years old and died after I left for college. He plowed a garden with her for over 30 years, beans, corn, okra, potatoes, molasses cane, turnip greens, cabbages, tomatoes and onions.


“Along the brittle treacherous bright streets of memory comes my heart, singing like an idiot, whispering like a drunken man . . .” (e.e. cummings) By the way, that’s me on the left, with my brother Carroll.


I don’t know where this is but it reminds me of the place we killed hogs every fall. People would come from all around to help in the slaughter and process the meat, bringing their own knives and tools. My aunt Eulala would cook up potloads of chitlins, and I would run from the smell of them.


Ah, memory. What happens when it flies, or scatters like a covey of quail? FDR was famous for saying “No man or force can abolish memory,” but we know him to be at least partly wrong. A thousand reasons-accident, dementia, fear-can wound memory and make it hide or adopt elaborate disguises.


That little girl is my mother. I know that much. Wendell Berry says that “ . . . our memory of ourselves, hard earned, is one of the lands seeds, as a seed is the memory of the life of its kind in its place, to pass on into life the knowledge of what has died.


*How often do we picture the way ahead and dream of it and plan? But the actual road is never the dreamed one, and the sights we set out to see are never the scenes that we remember. It is not the cathedral that lives. It is something else, the sudden and the unexpected.


Not the great framed thing, but a mist, an expression on a face, a whisper. and there is a dim glimmer of the distant lightening, and the good that one has done, and the evil.


It is regret that never dies. Like other Southerners I have known from the start that we would be obliged to find what it is we look for within ourselves.


This is a picture of my Uncle Junie and a friend sometime after World War II. A couple of naked men with dogs in their laps. I don’t know a thing about it or what the story is, but I’d love to find out.



* Ben Robertson, Red Hills and Cotton

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