Sporting Life

The Mist of Memories

Family never strays far from the home place

By Tom Bryant

“Tommy, I think I’m going to get a couple of cows. Tom, did you hear me?”

“Ma’am?”

“I said I’m going to buy two cows.”

“What?”

“Two cows. Buy. Put in yonder pasture.”

“Mama, that’s crazy. You know nothing about cows. That could be a
real disaster.”

“Son, I was milking cows when you were just a figment of my imagination.”

“Yeah, Mom, but you were a lot younger, and Grandaddy took care of the cows.”

“Makes no difference. Next time you come to visit, I’ll have two cows in the pasture beside the house, keeping me company.”

And that’s the way it was that early February so many years ago. Somehow, that month had snuck in a couple of spring-like days to lull us into thinking winter was about over. Two or three mild days and then BAM, winter slapped us in the jaw just to let us know that there was more to Mother Nature than was predicted on the Weather Channel.

Mom and I were enjoying the warmth on the front porch of the old house. I was in a rocker soaking up the rays, and Mom was in the swing, holding forth, talking nonstop about her plans for the home place and its surrounding fields, including pastures on both sides and behind the venerable, ancient plantation house.

The farm has been in our family for generations, going back to 1830. Built ostensibly as a wedding present for a young couple, it evolved into a working farm after the Civil War.

Mom had seven siblings, and after my grandparents passed away and during the hiatus while the lawyers figured out who would inherit what, the old house fell into disrepair. None of the children, except Mom, wanted to take on the responsibility and the expense of bringing the antiquated dwelling into the 20th century.

She took on the challenge. It was her history. Too many family occasions had taken place in the old house and the land surrounding it to, as she put it, let it rot away. It was a chore, but as she often did when facing a real difficult task, she made it work.

My dad passed away at a young age but not before he helped Mom pull together all the intricacies required to restore the farm. First came the general contractor, a gentleman builder who also wanted to see the historical house survive. It was a fact that he actually lost money on the project but was proud of the outcome, and often boasted to his friends that the job was a pleasure as he uncovered the amazing handiwork performed so many years ago.

The old house finally was comfortably livable, serving the family as it had so many years in the past. Mom reveled in family occasions and had as many events, which also included neighbors, as she possibly could; and most times it seemed as if I was in the middle of it all.

Family was more than important to her, it was almost a religion.

For example, there was the time when my cousin Faye had a series of small strokes and was recovering at home in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. Mom found out that I was going to be in Charleston on a business trip and gave me a call one evening right before I headed south.

“Tommy, when are you going to Charleston?”

“I’m leaving Monday. I’m gonna stop by the farm on the way home.”

“Make sure you see Faye while you’re there.”

“Mom, Faye’s sick. She can hardly talk. I don’t want to bother her.”

“You won’t bother her. She’s family. You can talk, she can listen.”

It turned out Faye and I had a good visit, and on the way home, I stopped by the farm and told Mom all about it.

“Now, didn’t it make you feel good to see your oldest cousin?” she said as I was walking out the door to head home.

“Actually, Mom, it did. Faye looked good and hopes to be up and around soon. She wants to make the family reunion in August.”

Family reunions! Mom lived for them. It seemed to me in those days as soon as a reunion was over, the plans for the next one would start. They were old-time events during the heat of summer. Relatives I hadn’t seen in years would arrive and feel right at home. Most of the time, my Uncle Tom would barbecue a hog all night before the day of the major event. Aunts, uncles, cousins and cousins twice removed would arrive full of stories about long-dead relatives. In my family, ghosts were always close. It’s said that a person never dies as long as there’s a memory. If that’s true, most of my family, as far back as I can think, is still around in the halls of the old house or hovering in the branches of the live oaks along with the Spanish moss. It’s a Southern thing. As my friend Lewis Grizzard said, “In a way, we’re a lot like the Japanese inasmuch as we revere our ancestors and eat a lot of rice.”

Mom’s two “cows” blossomed into about 20 great big black Angus beef cattle. The 1,000-pound bull would follow her around the pasture like a puppy dog. She talked a lot about the freezing late-March morning when a new calf was born behind the barn in brambles and briars close to the iced-over pond. It was still dark when Mom went down there in the middle of a sleet storm to make sure the calf and the bawling heifer were OK.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my many years as a Southerner, it’s that nothing stays the same, good things as well as bad. That was also true with Mom’s cattle and her ranching experience. The cows became too much to handle, and she had to sell them. She cried like a baby when the big cattle truck loaded the cows and took them away. The old farm seemed empty after they were gone.

Mom went to her glory a couple of years ago after a long, wonderful life. Her ghost, I’m sure, resides with the rest of the family’s long-departed spirits in the halls of the old house.

My sister, Bonnie, inherited the home place along with the surrounding properties, including the grasslands. Next time I’m down there, I’m gonna try to convince her she needs to put a few cows in the pastures. It would make the old farm look natural, and Mom would be proud.  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.

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