A back porch. Rural Alabama. I’m with an elderly woman named Jenny. She’s sitting on a genuine rocking chair.
“Wish I were shelling peas,” says Miss Jenny. “I tell better stories when I’m shelling.”
This is how you know you’ve made it in life. When you find yourself on a porch—shelling, peeling, shucking, or listening to someone over eighty tell a story.
Miss Jenny has cotton-white hair, blue eyes. She lives in a house which her husband built after the Korean War.
Everyone loves her stories. Especially children. Those in her family recall sitting on this porch, listening to her gentle voice—like I’m doing. Here, they shucked corn, or shelled white acre peas. Field peas. An Alabamian pastime.
“Daddy was a part-time preacher,” she tells me. “He told stories, always had him a good one.”
Long ago, people visited her father for advice. Folks with drinking problems, people with marriages on the rocks.
Her father didn’t provide “help.” Instead, he took them fishing. On the water, he’d tell stories.
“Daddy used to say, ‘Going fishing can help a man more than a bellywash of cheap medicine.’”
Bellywash. God, I miss words like that.
Miss Jenny’s breathing is labored, her voice is frail. But she spins a fine yarn.
She’s the real thing. Her stories are about olden days, clapboard churches, and a childhood with skinned knees.
She even tells stories about her cat.
“Kitty Brown was chasing Blue Bird one day,” she begins. “Blue Bird lured Kitty high into a tree, then flew away. Poor Kitty was stuck up there for two days before anyone knew he was up there.”
She laughs to herself.
She goes on, “Moral of my cat story is: all kitties should be happy on the ground instead of chasing things they shouldn’t.”
And I’m five years old again. Someone get me a sucker.
Then there’s the tale of her grandfather and the escaped fugitive. Instead of searching for the fugitive, her grandfather gathered local men to go hunting in the woods. They hunted for pleasure, without even searching for an escaped prisoner.
That night, they all camped among the pines and barbecued. They had a famous time. They cooked so much meat over a pit you could smell the aroma of cooking fat in the next county.
One night, a young man wandered into their campsite, wearing leg irons.
“I can’t do this anymore,” the young man said. “That smell is killing me.”
They caught him, fed him, and they all lived happily ever after. Roll the credits.
The old woman’s punchline: “You catch more flies with barbecue than you do with a posse.”
Posse. I miss words like that, too.
She remembers a time when pencils were more useful than cellphones. When fishing boats were where pastors did their best work.
When communities were kept alive with stories, song, gossip, and white acre peas. Every new calendar day, her era drifts further into an internet age. We lose another one every few moments. They’re dying off in droves each day.
Miss Jenny and I are interrupted. Her daughter rolls an oxygen canister onto the porch. She fits tubes over Miss Jenny’s ears and adjusts the nosepiece.
“I hate getting old,” Miss Jenny says. “Sometimes I just can’t breathe. Sometimes…”
Anyway, that was a few years ago that we talked. I remember it well. It was a nice day. She spoke. I listened. I could’ve sat for hours, but COPD kept her from it.
But I still remember her porch. I remember her white hair. I remember her saying, “It’s just too bad there ain’t no potatoes to peel. I tell better stories when my hands are moving.”
Your stories couldn’t have gotten any better, Miss Jenny.
May you rest forever in peace.