A while back, Mama, Louise, Rodney and I visited with some good friends of ours up in the mountains.
Their standard of living is simpler than you're liable to find in places far south of their mountains and that river that ambles lazily through the couple of hundred acres that is home to a family compound of sorts. That means that as the kids grew up, they didn't move away. They simply walked across the hill, the holler, the river or the pasture and set up housekeeping. Some are within hollering distance while a couple can be back at the family homestead in less than two minutes.
There are lots of trees that shelter this land that's been in their family for three or four generations. Blackberries grow wild, Polk salad is plentiful and honeysuckle and kudzu fight for the right of domain. Cattle graze and every summer, it's for certain there'll be the men, sweating, dirty and tired, getting up hay and silently cursing the deadly, sweltering heat. Time was, too, when they killed their own hogs and made their own sausage. One son recalls when all the family would get together and kill 10 or 12 at a time and spend three days doing it.
Hog killings, though, that takes a lot of hard work and time so that has kindly passed by the wayside. They still grow their own gardens, though, and every late summer, you'll find a few on them gathered on Mama's front porch, stringing beans in the waning light of day and talking about what was, what is and what could be. Then, the women will spend days canning and freezing vegetables. And in the language of these rural Southerners, one will surely say to another after church on Sunday morning, "We put up 50 quarts of green beans this week and fixed 60 messes of corn."
For these Southerners know that a "mess" is the perfect portion for a family dinner. Take a package of corn out of the freezer, dump it into the pot and there you'll have just enough for dinner. That's a mess.
Now, this isn't to say that their lives, less complicated that they are, are not without trouble. This family's seen plenty of it. Too much, really. Sickness and death has plopped itself right into the bosom of this close knit family and made itself an unwelcome extra member. But through it all, they have pulled together, loved mightily and never ceased to praise the good Lord for the hard times as well as the good ones.
In my first book, I included a story that sprang from the well of this family and its beloved matriarch. Stories still abound of how she clearly spoke her mind, pulled no punches and took no bull. Her life, though, had been hard. Her husband died way too young and left her to finish raising the kids and minding the farm. She was a tiny but fierce woman and though she lived into her 90s, she fought for survival almost every day of her life. I shall never forget what I heard her once when I was young.
"The good Lord never gives ye more than ye can bear." She paused thoughtfully then quietly continued. "But he shore kin bend 'cha double sometimes."
The values of this family, though, are to be admired. They haven't gotten caught up in chasing bigger houses or fancier cars. They want simple to be family and celebrate who they are.
After a country supper and all that entails, the evening was winding down when the eldest sister settled at the piano and called her siblings over. In perfect blood harmony, they beautifully sang a couple of old hymns.
"Daddy never liked for company to leave until we sang for them," a sister explained.
Simple joys are so nice, aren't they?
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should) and The Town That Came A-Courtin'.