The day started as usual for the Spencer clan. Biscuits (at least one jammed full of homemade butter), sausage and sausage gravy, homemade wild strawberry preserves, and peanut butter and syrup with yet another biscuit. We finished up, Mom left for Sears, and Dad dropped us off at Maw and Paw’s while he went on to do whatever it was he needed to do that day. We ran into the house to find Maw in the kitchen making chocolate pies for whatever company would inevitably arrive over the weekend, but Paw was nowhere to be found.
We inquired, and Maw answered a little nervously, “Well, he’s gone off to the stock market down the mountain.” I could sense her unease, and I thought I knew why the unrest. True, this wasn’t his regular stock day, but Paw went to the stock market every week, whether he bought, sold, or just went to see what the prices were. It was the going “down the mountain” part that had Maw worried because that could mean arriving back home late at night.
This had happened once before, and Maw had called our house about 10:00 that night in a frenzied panic. Sure that the man that Paw had riden with had run off the mountain and killed them both, Maw was inconsolable. Daddy couldn’t handle her when she got like this, but Mom could, so that meant we all got out of bed and headed down the hill. We walked in to find Maw pacing the floor and crying into a soaked Kleenex. Mom touched Maw’s arm lightly and then began to work her magic. Little by little, Mom’s soothing voice talked Maw’s nerves down enough to convince her to stop pacing and take a seat. In hardly any time, the tears had dried, and they were talking about what the neighbors were up to and what we would have for dinner when the family all came in on Sunday. Then, we saw lights coming through the picture window in the living room as the big cattle hauling truck pulled off the dirt road below the house. Paw had not been killed after all, and Daddy went out to help unload Paw’s share of the cattle.
That night was my only frame of reference for Maw’s behavior this morning, and I felt sure God would not allow Paw to die today, either, so Libby and I left Maw alone with her pies and went to the living room to play a game of Rummy. In no time, the sweet smell of chocolate found its way to us, and we could hear Maw scraping the pie filling out of the cast iron skillet and into the baked pie shells We threw our cards on the table and ran all over each other on the way to the kitchen, knowing full well that the first one there would get one more sop of that heavenly chocolate than would the other.
The morning wore on, the temperature rose, and the dew dried. We played outside a while, then ran in when Maw called us for dinner. We sat down to a table laden with pinto beans and cornbread, potato cakes, fresh peas in a sweet cream sauce, slaw, and all manner of pickled vegetables and relishes along with the ever present transparent apple sauce. My goodness, what a feast! We knew better than to ask for a piece of the weekend’s chocolate pies, so we finished off with a second glass of cornbread and milk with fresh onions dipped in salt. When our bellies wouldn’t hold another bite, Maw covered the table, food and all, with a large feedsack tablecloth. We knew supper was ready whatever time Paw came home.
Full as ticks, Libby and I both curled up on the couch and dropped off to sleep in a matter of minutes. I don’t know how long we had slept when some sort of loud racket reached into our unconsciousness, calling us to come back. At first, it was a gentle pull, but then suddenly, it ripped us back to keen alertness. That racket was Maw and Paw shouting. Now that, in and of itself, wasn’t cause for alarm. Maw would raise her voice at Paw for tracking in cow manure, and Paw would yell back, “Hush up, Ole Woman!”. Maw would eventually hush up and sweep up, and Paw would go on about his business. They just had that kind of relationship. But this was different. Almost hysterical, Maw, half angry and half scared, kept shouting, “Why do you have to do things like this?!?! I’ve told you and told you not to go down that mountain with those good for nothing men! But, no, you just have to show your colors. We’ll be the talk of the whole community!”
Paw was yelling even louder, but it was harder to understand him. His words were all mushing together, but the best I could tell, he came out with something like “Shu’ up, Ole Woman. Outta my way..” and.then he fell against the living room door frame. Libby and I pushed ourselves up, and so did Paw. Both Libby and I sat with our knees up into our chests as we tried to make ourselves as small and silent as we could. We had never heard Maw and Paw like this with each other, and we had certainly never seen Paw like he was then. In my confused state, I feared he was sick, but why was Maw being so mean to him?
Paw staggered all the way through the long living room, steadying himself on the armchairs, the cold oil stove, finally falling into his chair at the upper end of the room. As he sat there, his eyes closed, and a small stream of drool ran down his chin. His mouth fell open, and he started snoring.
As quietly as two little mice, Libby and I slipped down off the couch and made a silent beeline for the door. We eased it open and eased it back closed. We decided we had better go feed the chickens and bring in the eggs. Milking time was coming, and by the look of things, Paw and Maw were going to need all the help they could get. Truth be known, though, we were too scared to play and just needed some way to release our own anxious energy.
We had just gotten to the barn when we heard Daddy’s truck hit the gravel on the parking spot above the house. He had come to take us home, and we were more than ready to go. The door slammed shut, and I knew he would be bounding down the stone steps he had buried into the steep bank himself. We ran to meet him, immediately spilling out the words that we thought Paw was sick.
A worried look came over Daddy’s face, and we followed behind as he rushed on into the house. When he saw Paw slumped in his chair and heard his snoring and snorting, however, that worry turned into anger in a flash. He strode right up to Paw, shook him awake, and seethed in a voice much quieter than his face betrayed, “Dad, what have you done! You’re drunk! How dare you come home like this with the kids here! Get up from there, get up, I said.”
Daddy pulled Paw up, none too gently, took hold of his arm, and started walking him toward the kitchen. For his age, Paw was still a very strong man, and before Daddy realized it, Paw had pulled away from him. Staggering to the left, and growling, “Leave me alone, Boy. I’m all right!”. Paw made it the short distance to the path between the big ruby colored velveteen couch and glass covered coffee table before he went down, falling right onto the coffee table.
His right hand hit hard, and I heard the glass crack. Then, as his full weight came down on the table, one of the legs broke off. Paw lay sprawled on the floor among several large pieces of glass and the broken table. Daddy bent down, took hold of him, and blurted out, “Are you hurt anywhere, Dad!?” Paw mumbled the same thing he had before, “Leave me alone, Boy! I’m all right!” Still, he let Daddy help him up.
Maw was glad to be in the kitchen putting the coffee on to perk, but when she heard the commotion in the living room, she ran in, her face full of anxiety. That changed in an instant when she saw her broken coffee table. She covered the length of the living room faster than I had ever seen her move. She did take Paw’s other arm to help Daddy, but that didn’t stop her from letting Paw know exactly what she thought of him all the way to the kitchen. Daddy ordered us to turn on the TV, find something to watch, and stay put in the living room. He really didn’t need to order us. We were more than glad to stay put.
A little while later, Paw reappeared at the living room door with Daddy firmly ahold of his arm. He walked better now. Maw was still giving him “what for” over her broken coffee table as they walked all the way through the living room and disappeared into Maw and Paw’s bedroom. Daddy came back in shortly thereafter and walked over to us. As we walked to the truck, he reassured us that Paw would be fine. I had never been happier to head up the hill to our house than I was right then.
We went back down the hill the next morning with Daddy. We arrived to see Paw sitting on the porch feeding the birds, and Maw was in the kitchen, humming “Farther Along.” Nothing was said about the prior day’s commotion, and the only evidence that any of it had ever happened was the absence of the coffee table.
Not too many more days passed before the coffee table found its way back to the place it had set all my life. The leg had been repaired, and a new piece of glass set on top. The only thing that was out of place was Maw’s Bible. Instead of setting in its normal spot on the shelf beneath the tabletop, it was setting on top of the glass. Maw never changed anything in the house, so I wondered why the Bible had found a new home. I didn’t want her to get upset again, so I thought I would just slip it back where it belonged. I reached down, and being careful not to leave fingerprints on the glass, I picked it up. I started to slip it on the shelf when I caught something out of the corner of my eye. I immediately put the Bible right back on top of the coffee table. I knew exactly why it was there.
From that day until the day Maw died, her bible set on that very same spot where it effectively covered the long scratch where the broken glass had cut into it. Paw’s drunken episode was never mentioned again, but for the next 25 years or so, all we had to do to know what had really happened was peep under Maw’s bible.
Paw wasn’t really a drinking man, or at least not later in his life, and this was the only time I ever saw him drunk. Once was more than enough. I think Paw lived a little on the wild side as a young man, but age and responsibility settled him down considerably. It was just that every decade or so, he got the itch to revisit his youth, and the trip down the mountain out of dry Ashe County presented him with an opportunity he couldn’t resist. I seriously doubt he was the only old coot in Ashe County who got a little too carried away revisiting his youth.
I’m not sure how my family would react to my telling of this story. My guess is that they would consider it to be airing our dirty laundry. They would all be deeply embarrassed, that is, except for Paw. I expect Paw would have a big unapologetic grin on his face.