Points of Reference
There are lines on a ruler, tabs in a notebook and dog eared pages in a book. Points of reference that allow us to return to places of significance. There are numbers on the calendar, in the check book, on the radio dial, the clock, the oven and the odometer. Our lives are full of points of reference that free our conscious minds to deal with the present, without fear of losing all track of things past.
My mother’s father, Warren Winfield Haught was born on September 28, 1886, in Sistersville, West Virginia. He attended West Virginia State College, where he was the catcher on his baseball team. After graduation he taught seven grades in a one room West Virginia Normal School. Warren worked for the telephone and power companies, hauling cable across the mountains with mule drawn wagons. He was a conductor for the railroad until he lost his big toe in an accident and attended barber school during his recuperation. Warren’s sister, Vashta, was the Brandy Post Mistress but when the needs of her four small children jeopardized her employment, Warren moved to Virginia. He filled in for her at the Post Office, and purchased a small farm at Elkwood, working it as he could.
Olive Maddox used to walk to the Post Office to pick up the mail. That’s where she met Warren. She was twenty-four and he was forty-three. They married and raised nine children on the “Old Place”, at Elkwood, walking the youngest down the aisle when he was seventy-two.
Warren Winfield Haught passed away in February, 1970, at the age of eighty-four.
Points of reference. Marks on the ruler. Facts that hold the spot so we can find our place in time.
When I came along my Paw Paw was already old, but what memories I have of him are clear. When I think of him, I smell tobacco and corn field sun and a good kind of sweat, the kind that comes from hard honest work and long days. As children, my brother and sister and I, had to have blankets and pillows on the back seat of the maroon and white Dodge, so that we could nap on the long journey to the farm. The reality is, like most childhood memories, things have gotten smaller with time, including the eleven short miles to the farm. Left off of Berry Hill Road, the long dusty driveway meandered past the persimmon tree, past the corn fields, past the milking barn and the corn house up to the woven wire fence that supposedly kept the children in and the animals out. There were large walnut trees in the yard that had a pungent, earthy smell, especially after they fell to the ground and the hard green fruit that surrounded the nut, blackened and got soft.
The garden was off to the right, and in the summer there were always beans to string, peas to shell and corn to shuck. Behind the garden, there were stinky, noisy pigs and a hen house. A well worn dirt path led to a creek that usually had enough water for little kids to fish. My uncle took us fishing in the tiny creek. He put the worm on the hook and all I had to do was hold the pole until I saw the red bobber disappear under the water’s surface. I didn’t pull quite soon enough and the tiny fish swallowed the hook. Digging the hook out, didn’t leave enough to take home and my uncle tossed the bits back into the creek. Overwhelmed with guilt, I decided that afternoon, never to fish again.
You had to take great care in gathering eggs, especially if the hen was on the nest. One hot afternoon, preparing to feed her own gathering brood, my grandmother took a hatchet to the neck of one of her roosters. It’s hard for today’s me to imagine the little me watching the frantic chase that ensued but I vividly remember the headless rooster and the bushel basket that ultimately put an end to the chaos.
My Paw Paw was tall and tan and had coal black hair. I always imagined him to be a cross between Elvis Presley and Abraham Lincoln. He chewed tobacco and spit into a coffee can, and there was always a tiny bit of brown residue in the corners of his mouth. I remember bib overalls and flannel shirts and a frayed railroad cap. His skin was leathery and wrinkled from years in the sun and he had a glass eye that he occasionally removed, to our delight.
Some Sunday afternoons after church, lots of us would visit my Mammy and Paw Paw. There was always a pot of fresh coffee and gossip for the sisters to catch up on, while we wandered the farm. The corn house was a magical place. Dried corn stacked high in every corner, with a corn sheller in the middle of the floor. The aging boards allowed light to filter through the walls, spotlighting the dancing particles of crushed corn and disturbed dust. Occasionally we would get to watch Paw Paw feed calves from a bucket with an udder on one side. They pushed their pink noses and furry foreheads against the side of the bucket, as if it were their Mom. Their breath was sweet as they slurped, noisily churning frothy suds that dripped from their chins.
The kitchen at the farm was always warmed by a big wood stove, and a well worn rocker with a cushion made from feed sacks, soothed generations of crying babies. From the rocker you could see my Paw Paw’s corner in the adjoining dining room. His leather chair, a small table with a radio and a lamp so that he could see to read the paper. Somewhere there is an old black and white photograph of Paw Paw in that chair, holding me and my cousin Phillip. His lap was wide and his large hands seemed safe and sure.
My Mother’s brothers, Warren and Jacob, grew into men much like my Paw Paw, honorable and kind. Both are farmers, and my Uncle Jacob is a Veterinarian. My Aunt Ruth served time in the military after college and then returned to the farm. She was an administrator for the hospital, an avid reader and had a cow as a pet. She had red hair and freckles and wore makeshift sunbonnets that she fashioned out of newspaper. Ruth the oldest and Pat the youngest, along with Frances and Catherine in the middle, died of cancer, like my Paw Paw. As my grandmother aged, she was feisty and often slipped back in time, reliving moments both real and imagined from her personal points of reference. My Mom is now the matriarch of Warren Winfield’s family. When she talks about him is not hard to see how much she loved him. He could be harsh, but always fair. He worked hard to provide for his family and my Mom says that anyone who met him, considered my Paw Paw to be the finest man they had ever known.
After several minor scuffles with cancer and the decline that naturally comes with age, my grandparents sold the “Old Place” and moved to a sixteen acre farm at Brandy Station. Paw Paw still had his leather chair by the window, his Maxwell House spittoon and Sunday afternoon football on T.V. My grandmother baked and we continued to gather around the kitchen table for cake and coffee.
My Paw Paw died when I was fifteen. I wish that he had stayed long enough for me to really know him, to talk with him about life and hope and fear. My Mom remembers that I took my brother and sister with me to the funeral home to sit with Paw Paw. I wish I could remember. I would love to know what we talked about, what memories we shared in those private moments, and those few shared points of reference.
My Aunt Sarah and my Mom still bake fruit cakes for “the boys”, and my cousin bought the Brandy Farm when my grandmother passed away. Today she has camels and llamas, rabbits, guinea hens and a Zeedonk or two. The grass is thick and green, bordered by flowers reflecting every color of the rainbow. The “come to dinner” bell still stands in the side yard, a reminder of times past, and our family continues to gather on those special occasions to celebrate weddings and births and holidays.
In days that often drag us kicking and screaming into an electrically bound future, there is comfort in slowing long enough to secure our points of reference.
Dog ear the page.
Mark the line.
Capture the moment.
Points of Reference.