In 1975, the year we moved to the farm, my neighbor down the hill, asked me to take her around the mountain to see her friend Dessie who was laid up with a bad case of shingles.
"Dessie, now she's the workinest woman you ever saw," Louise said, as we pulled up to the little frame house, set at the bottom of a shady holler. (Around here, all the best and sunniest spots were reserved for growing crops; for the most part, houses were set in places too rocky or shady for planting. Dessie and Walter's house was in perpetual gloom -- just fine for hot July but pretty dank the rest of the year and probably truly miserable come winter.
Louise called out as we approached the porch and a woman's frail voice replied, "Come in the house!" So we did.The tiny living room was dark and crowded with worn furniture. On a plastic-covered sofa, a frail little woman was half reclining. She wore a loose house coat, white socks, and a radiant smile. Even with the lovely smile, the whole setting was an awful lot like Cold Comfort Farm, and I half-expected Dessie to tell me she'd seen something nasty in the woodshed
Louise asked Dessie if the shingles were still bad. "Law, they like to worry me to death," said Dessie, "they're right here beneath my breast and hit flops down on them and the itchin' is some thing turrible. . . But my boy give me this doo-hickey here" and she pulled open her housecoat to reveal a jock strap around her neck with one withered breast held aloft in the pouch, "and it's helpin' right much."
For me, it was one of those 'You're not in Kansas any more' moments.
I got to know Dessie a little during the next few months before she and her husband moved to somewhere in the middle of the state to live with their son. She was the one who told me how to wean a baby. "You get you some soot from the lamp chimbly and daub it all round the nipple. When the young un gets a sight of all that black, hit'll keep it from wantin' to nurse."
Dessie was a giver -- she gave me raspberry canes from her huge raspberry patch, "Them's tame berries, twicet as big as the wild ones," bags of lambs quarters from her freezer, sweet potato slips from her starter bed, and a little walnut sapling from under her big tree. I planted it back in '75, with irises from Dessie's house at its base; it grew and grew till finally it blocked the view from our bedroom window and in the late nineties we cut it down.
And now it's back -- whether from the old roots or from a slow germinating nut --and I think of Dessie.
Originally posted 6/25/08